Ella Risbridger is a journalist, anthologist and cookery writer. In a former life she was a beauty columnist for the i, a cancer columnist for the Pool, a sometime journalist for lots of places (Guardian, Observer, Prospect, Grazia, Stylist), a poet and a carer.
She now lives and works in south-east London, where she has too many books and a cat. You can find her on Instagram @ellarisbridger.
The Secret Detectives (Nosy Crow Books)
When two children believe they have seen a murder - and no one believes it happened - they set out to prove that a crime has been committed. Author Ella Risbridger tells us about her debut mystery for children, and how The Secret Garden helped inspire it.
1. The Secret Detectives is your first book for children but you also write poetry and cookery books, so what does your "working day" look like?
My working day starts with a cup of tea, sometimes in bed but sometimes on the balcony. I check my emails and my calendar, look at my word-counts on various projects, notice various chores that have accumulated around the house, and write out a to-do list. Then I grab a stack of post-its and write a task on each one: test X recipe, change sheets, 2000 words on Y, yoga class, figure out the pictures for an anthology, answer ReadingZone Q&A. Then I shuffle the post-its into an order, and go through like that.
I try to go for a long walk every day to make sure I'm getting enough exercise and fresh air - otherwise it's a LOT of staring at my computer screen. That's another reason I like to mix it up a bit, by including household chores and exercise and different kinds of writing - it means I don't get stuck just at my laptop on one project all day. I have a really short attention span! I would get so bored otherwise - and my back would hurt.
2. What brought you into writing for children? Can you tell us a little about The Secret Detectives?
I think about writing for children exactly the same way I think about writing for adults, in that I had a story to tell, and I told it. I don't think I really change the way I write very much when I'm talking to people who are, say, ten years old or 40 years old or 70 years old. So I came into writing for children sort of by accident, the way I came into writing everything else: I wanted to tell this story, and this story happens to be one about people who are ten (and also 11 and 12), and so it seemed sensible to publish it with people who knew how to make books for ten and 11 and 12 year olds.
The Secret Detectives is an idea I had when I myself was about ten: it's about three children on a ship, who happen to witness someone being thrown overboard. The only problem is, nobody believes them. Nobody is missing from the ship. Nobody is missing from the passenger list. So what happened? What did they see? Who was murdered - and who did the murder?
3. Did you enjoy writing it? Is there one part of the book that stands out for you?
I loved writing it. I loved sitting down with a map to figure out how long the ship would take to get from place to place; and I loved getting to go to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to look at model ships and real actual stuff that the characters would have seen and held and touched. I loved getting to use real details - that I would never have known about before - as clues and hints and setting. For instance, the code that the detectives use to communicate secretly is based on a kind of semaphore (that is, a flag code) that I read about in the actual handbooks I saw at the Museum.
4. The main character Isobel, and her background story, draw on Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden - why did you decide to write about another child like Mary, and with the same journey to travel?
Basically, because I've been thinking about her every day since I myself was a child, and I couldn't not. The journey in The Secret Garden is dismissed in basically two lines of dialogue, but I couldn't stop thinking about how weird it must have been for her - if your parents die, and everyone you've ever known has died, and you have to leave the only home you've ever known - plus you have to do it with total strangers who don't really care about you - what would that feel like?
5. How hard was it to write about a character who is initially quite hard to like?
Easy peasy. When I was a kid I didn't feel very easy to like; I felt spiky and difficult and like I didn't quite fit. Like Isobel, I didn't like making eye contact (still don't!) and I was never 100% sure how other kids managed. I didn't really get a lot of the social stuff that other people at school did without thinking. I remember shutting myself in a cupboard at one party just to get some space. So it was easy for me, really, to write about someone spiky and weird and interesting.
6. This is a crime story - did you take any inspiration from other crime writers of the time? Are you an avid reader of detective mysteries, or historical fiction?
I have read approximately one million detective stories. I love Agatha Christie and DL Sayers and the murder mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s, and I read a lot of them when I was probably too young for them - about Isobel's age. So they all sort of sunk in, and helped form the bones of this story.
I only realised recently that part of the plot has been heavily influenced by a GK Chesterton short story, about a priest called Father Brown who solves crimes - I won't say which one in case it gives away the solution, but if you want to know you can email me and I'll tell you.
7. Was it difficult it to plot the story and to plan the murder in a confined space, the ship? Did you have a map to help you plan the story?
I had two maps! One of the ship itself, so I could know where everyone was in the cabin, and then I had a big Google Map of the journey. I printed out a LOT of maps to plan the journey itself, because I needed to know where a storm might happen, or where the murderer might be able to escape, or where things might get tricky. Sometimes this was difficult to work out how to jam real geography into my made-up story, and other times it was weirdly magic.
8. Did you need to do much research into ships and also the period in which it is set?
Yes! I really wanted to spend some time travelling before this book was published, but of course, we've all spent most of the last year-and-a-bit at home. So I had to use the internet, and libraries, and to talk to a lot of very kind historians. As I say, I spent a lot of time in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but the British Library also has masses of archives online that you can access from home. I read lots of books from that time and place, particularly practical books - like manuals, guides, and handbooks. I felt like if I got the bones of how society functioned at that time, I'd be better placed to conjure up the feeling by myself.
I read a lot of stuff, too, about the way society was structured then - and the ways our society is still shaped by that now. These are mostly serious political theory books for adults, and quite dry, but they were still really important, so I wanted to mention them- and if you email me separately I can give some good recommendations.
9. How did you decide to approach a difficult issue in the story, the racism of the era?
This is really related to the last question. There was never, ever any question that this book wouldn't be about racism. One of the reasons I wrote this book was because I love the book The Secret Garden, but even as a kid I felt there was stuff that was weird and difficult and not in a good way - Mary has a screaming fit because someone says they thought she might have been Black, for instance. Mary Lennox (and lots of other beloved characters from that time) have some really racist ideas and thoughts - and so did a lot of authors of the time period. So did a lot of people. The manuals and guidebooks and handbooks I read made that even more clear. It wasn't like, oh, one or two people were evil racists. It was much more like: these were racist, unfair systems that caused a great deal of structural harm that's still making problems today.
And those systems were put in place by (mostly) white, British people; and in some very real ways, those white British people and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren are still benefitting today. I'm one of them. Even though I don't personally have any ties to British imperialism (that I know of!), everyone in Britain today gets to live in a country made richer by taking stuff from other places (like India). Everyone in Britain today gets to live in a country that got where it is through these unfair, racist systems. So I wanted to write about how that happened. I felt like it was my job to write about that.
I wanted to write about the kind of racism that maybe is harder to think about - the ways that the people around us and the systems we live in can make us have secret, inbuilt ideas about who matters, and how they matter. These maybe seem like big ideas for a kids' book, but I feel like most kids can handle big ideas. Most kids understand unfairness, and racism - especially structural racism - is (very simply) unfairness.
10. What have you got planned next for Isobel and her new friends?
I'm working on lots of different projects at the moment! I really hope we'll get to see Isobel and Lettie and Sam again. After all, Isobel is going off to a big old house in Yorkshire full of shut-up rooms and cold old mysterious objects and strange noises in the night - I reckon there's a mystery there, don't you?
11. Where and when do you do your best writing?
In cafes and on trains! Obviously that's been impossible this year, so what I do is, I set up a YouTube video of a train journey somewhere exciting (Scandinavia is good because it's often snowy) and then I turn the volume up so I can pretend I'm on a train. Embarrassing but true. And useful.
12. If you could make a journey the old fashioned way - on a ship - where would you want to travel to and from?
Great question! I would love to do the journey Isobel makes in the book, but I would also love to just go around the world on a container ship. Some of my books get printed in China, and I am always amazed that they have travelled so far in the containers to get to me. When I was a teenager my family moved from Europe to the Middle East, and it was amazing to me that things like our old farmhouse dresser had sailed across the ocean to come with us.
13. As you write cookery books, is that also one of your favourite ways to relax? What else do you like to do in your downtime?
It used to be, but I've got a bit sick of it over the last year! I love cooking for my friends, so maybe I'll get back into it in a while. I love reading, I love drawing, I love my garden and growing vegetables. I like learning stuff, too - I took some language classes this year, and studied Hindi online. I'm not very good, but I love being able to sound out words in a different alphabet. Also I love small weird computer games, eating toast and hanging out with the cat.
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