By Olivia Williams
(St Edmund Hall, 2006)
Frances Hardinge spent her formative years in a Gothic-looking, mouse-infested hilltop house in Kent - a fact that will not surprise readers of her atmospheric children's novels. As a teenager she became determined to get into Oxford to read English, and she fell in love with the city's archaic beauty when she arrived at Somerville (below). She started her first novel Fly by Night while working full-time for a software company, and was with difficulty persuaded by a good friend to submit the manuscript to Macmillan.
This year she became the first children's author to win the overall Costa Book Award since Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass back in 2001 with her compelling Victorian murder mystery The Lie Tree (Macmillan, 2015).
Did you write any fiction while you were at Oxford - or earlier?
I completed a novella-length spy story when I was thirteen, but didn't show it to anyone (probably just as well, since it wasn't very good). I only started submitting stories to magazines when I was about sixteen. When I was an undergraduate I didn't have much time to write during term, but kept producing short stories during the holidays. I also kept a (very intermittent) diary for a fictional and fantastical character.
What did you do between graduating and publishing your first novel?
I worked briefly as an editorial assistant, and then studied for a Master of Studies in English. After that, I spent about seven years working as a technical author and graphic designer for a software company.
Where do you usually write?
I usually write in my study. It doubles as a store room, so there are quite a few boxes, rolls of wrapping paper and stacks of assorted junk, but it has a nice view down into a small neighbouring park.
What's your favourite childhood book?
I don't really have a single favourite, but one of the books I read repeatedly was Watership Down. It was certainly my favourite when I was ten.
Which book has had the greatest influence on your life?
That's an impossible question, since a lot of books have deeply affected me in different ways. However, Alice in Wonderland (above) had a powerful effect on me when I was young, and has haunted my imagination ever since.
What is your guiltiest (reading) pleasure?
Well, I have a fondness for Victorian melodramas and novels of sensation, but I don't really feel guilty about it! I don't think one should have to feel apologetic about getting joy from a book.
Which books from the last few years would you most recommend?
A year ago, I helped judge the novel and debut categories for the Kitschies Awards, and I would recommend all the books we put on the shortlists. (Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor, The Peripheral, by William Gibson, The Way Inn, by Will Wiles, The Race, by Nina Allan, Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre, The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne, Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers, The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara.
The book that probably made me laugh most was a children's book, Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall.
Do you have a focus group of children?
Not really, but my god-daughter has just started reading my books. So far the jury's verdict has been favourable...
How unsettling can you make prose when writing for children?
I think that younger readers often cope really rather well with 'unsettling'. Most of my books have a bodycount, Gullstruck Island touches on themes of genocide, and Cuckoo Song was shortlisted for the James Herbert horror award.
How did you celebrate your Costa Book Award win?
Well, things became so hectic that it was a little while before my feet actually touched the ground! I've had some quiet celebratory drinks with friends and family since, though. The win did sound the death knell of my 'dry January'...
Frances Hardinge is appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival. Her Costa-winning novel The Lie Tree is out now with Macmillan Children's Books.
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Images © Bloomsbury, David Levenson