Roland Chambers talks to ReadingZone about his new children's book, The Rage of the Sea Witch. Roland is an author and illustrator who lives on a tumbledown farm with his family and plenty of pigs near Dartmoor. He is the prize-winning writer of The Last Englishman, a biography of Arthur Ransome (Faber 2009) for adults. Roland is Writer in Residence for First Story, England's leading creative writing charity for young people.
The Rage of the Sea Witch (The Adventures of Billy Shaman) (Zephyr)
Roland Chambers' new children's book, The Rage of the Sea Witch (The Adventures of Billy Shaman), brings the past to life in unexpected ways, giving us a glimpse into historic explorers and their discoveries, while also encouraging the reader to question what we have learned about the past, and the artifacts in our museums.
As well as a great adventure story, The Rage of the Sea Witch would be a good choice for a class read, encouraging children to see the world from a different perspective, and generating discussions around traditions and exploration.
In this Q&A, Roland Chambers tells us more about Charles Darwin and ancient explorers, a legendary sea witch and shamanism, and tells us what to expect in The Rage of the Sea Witch.
Reviews: "I absolutely loved this intriguing, quirky and stylishly written adventure story."
Q&A with Roland Chambers
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your life as an author?
A couple of years ago I moved with my family from London to Dartmoor in Devon. We live on a small farm with cattle and pigs and sheep and chickens and we're very happy here.
When I was unpacking, I found the notebook I wrote my first proper story in (I was about ten), with a picture of the hero on the front cover. He was an elf called Thaddeus Leaf who was also the character I played in Dungeons and Dragons. I was a super-nerd.
Like most people, I started drawing before I started writing. My first published book was The Rooftop Rocket Party, a picture book which I wrote and illustrated over twenty years ago. I've written several books since and I've done lots of drawings, but Billy Shaman is the first time I've written and drawn a book since, and I mean to carry on. It's so much fun.
2. What is Billy Shaman: The Rage of the Sea Witch, about?
Billy Shaman is a young boy with selfish parents who leave him in a museum for the summer holidays. Once the home of Charles Darwin the famous scientist, the museum is still brimming with Darwin's collections of bugs and birds and fossils.
In the garden, much to Billy's surprise and delight, is a 200 year-old giant tortoise that Darwin brought back from the Galapagos Islands, very much alive and full of friendly, but not always reliable, advice. Billy makes friends with the tortoise (whose name is also Charles Darwin) and discovers that the house is full of ghosts. The specimens come alive and one - an Arctic fox - leads him on an adventure inside the museum to return a valuable walrus ivory necklace to its rightful owner: an Inuit girl called Ahnah who lived over two thousand years ago.
Ahnah's grandmother is a powerful shaman, and Billy learns he is a shaman too. That's why the specimens can speak to him. That's why he can help their spirits find their way home. The museum is full of stolen things, and it's Billy's job to return them.
3. What inspired the story, a time-slip adventure about returning museum items to their rightful homes?
Billy Shaman's adventures started out with no Billy at all. I wanted to write a series of non fiction books about the great explorers, but I soon realised that I didn't know how. Which explorers should I choose? Who, in any case, had discovered who? The history of the discovery of the world is full of horrors as well as wonders and many people are rightly angry about the way the story has been told. But the story has to be told somehow, because it's the greatest story there is. The story of stories!
So I began to think about it from a completely different angle. I would write a series of illustrated novels. I would make my narrator a giant Galapagos tortoise who knew Charles Darwin personally. I would choose as my hero a boy called Billy Shaman who really is a shaman, and show how Billy's adventure is not the end of the story but the beginning. Because history is not fixed. It is a mysterious force that is changing the way we think and feel all the time.
4. What kinds of research have you done into the artifacts mentioned in your novel? Why did you decide to start with this object, an Innuit necklace?
I decided to start with an Inuit necklace, so that Billy can find out who he is from an Inuit shaman of immense power - a super-shaman! - and at the same time witness one of the first documented 'voyages of discovery'. Over two thousand years ago, a Greek explorer called Pytheas sailed up into the Arctic Circle and landed on a place he called Thule.
There is no Inuit necklace in Charles Darwin's collection. Not to my knowledge. It's an invention, just as Billy's story is an invention, but necklaces of the kind do exist. The Inuit made amulets to protect them from the spirits of the creatures they had hunted and killed for their meat or fur. I put on a fox on the necklace and turned that fox into Billy's spirit guide, so the necklace becomes a way of joining the material world to the spirit world.
5. What do you mean when you say that Billy is a shaman, and why did you decide to introduce this idea?
A shaman is a person who can talk to animals and take their shape, travel in time and visit the dead. There is no shamanic church or religion. A shaman is not a priest. He or she usually becomes a shaman through some sort of traumatic event; in Billy's case, being abandoned by his parents in a spooky museum.
As Billy discovers his own powers he begins to understand how the shamanic view of the world, in which everything is alive and present all the time, differs from the historic view, in which one thing happens after another. It's a collision between the spiritual and material world that Darwin himself felt very strongly and never managed to resolve.
6. The blurring of the past and present, real and dreamlike, makes this a very atmospheric read, but why did you decide to do this and how hard was it to write these sections?
There's a danger, if a story becomes too whimsical, that nothing matters. Things appear. They disappear. A wand is waved and everything changes. Nothing has consequences. And yet things do change all the time and that's why they matter in the first place.
A shaman is a soul doctor who can tell the difference between whimsy and the spirit world, in which things have their true nature. I think that's a story teller's job too, and Billy's adventures reflect this. He's trying to navigate a spirit history in the same way another explorer might navigate the ocean, and I love doing it with him. It's difficult when it's difficult and it's easy when it's easy, but it's the only way to get where I'm going.
7. How much research did you need to do into Innuit lives and beliefs? Did you draw on Innuit mythology in creating the Sea Witch?
I did a lot of research. I always do. I don't even think of it as research, although it is. The danger is that I do so much reading I drown in it and can't recover a simple story.
Yes, I drew on Inuit mythology, although there are many, many different stories and groups of stories told by the various Inuit tribes. The Inuit have inhabited the whole of the Arctic Circle from North America to the Eastern tip of Eurasia. To talk about Inuit mythology makes it sound too much like a nice tidy arrangement. It isn't.
Sedna (the sea witch in my story) is an Inuit sea goddess whose story has been told in many ways, most of them very sad. When she's angry, and she often has good reason to be, a shaman has to swim down to visit her and comb her hair, which she can't do because she has no fingers.
8. What other kinds of objects will Billy be returning in future adventures and how do you choose which ones to send back in time?
In Billy's next adventure he will return the hollowed out hoof of a horse to the moment when its owner took a tumble. This isn't just any horse, mind you. It's one of the Heavenly Horses at the heart of a battle which opened a highway between East and West we now call the Silk Roads. Billy will meet the son of one of China's greatest explorers and the Emperor Wu himself, who wants the horses so badly he is prepared to cut just about anybody's head off.
I choose objects that help me imagine a story: the necklace, the hoof. They could be any old thing so long as they take me somewhere interesting. I'm also thinking of a trip to Egypt with a mummified cat.
9. What would you like your readers to take from Billy's experiences?
I'd like them to feel that the past isn't done with. We're all living in it all the time. And that a shaman's real gift is to understand how other people feel. When a shaman becomes a tiger, they really feel like a tiger. Same with a mouse or an armadillo. Wisdom isn't passive. It's immersive and transformative. That's how a shaman heals - through a dynamic empathy.
10. Where do you prefer to write, and what are you writing currently?
I write in a barn on my farm in Dartmoor. It used to be a stable; now it's a studio. It's built out of breeze blocks and clad in tin. When it's raining, the whole thing rattles as if somebody's throwing gravel at it, but it's cosy and very bright and I can see the high moor through the window. I love it.
My current project is the next Billy Shaman book: The War of the Heavenly Horses. I'd better get on with it!