Mad Professors and Mystery on Scottish Shores: Author Interview and Book Review
Melinda T. Falgoust
North Berwick. A quaint, quiet seaside town - home to those things you've come to expect in a seaside town. Beaches. A seabird center. Mad professors.
When twins Tom and Beth move into an old, dilapidated fisherman's cottage near North Berwick Harbour in Scotland, the eleven-year olds are desperate for adventure...or, at least brief escape from their remodeling mother and her dreaded "Notebook". The most excitement they are able to muster, however, is chasing after their recalcitrant dog, Toby. Not a herald for a promising summer.
When a sudden shower drives them into the tourist information office, a bright pink post-it affixed to a P.O.P. (People Against Pollution) poster hints at something at least a tad more interesting than droning weather reports. Little do the children know the real excitement that's about to "P.O.P." into their lives.
The children arrive at the imposing Jubilee Hall, with its creaky, menacing door, clandestine gatherings and strange inhabitants, only to be shuttled off to an even more mysterious basement laboratory. At least, that's what the jumbled, dusty assortment of odds and ends seems to be. The wild-haired old man in the tweed cap confirms it when he introduces his genetically-altered super mussels and their super glue. But, there's much more than sticky shellfish to Professor Angus MacBlain and when strange men in suits and a stern-faced old woman in a red bobble hat start chasing the Professor, the children are determined to find out what.
Before they can crack into the mystery, tragedy strikes in the Firth of Forth. An oil tanker is tossed by unfriendly seas into the jutting hulk that is Bass Rock. Tons of crude oil threaten to cause environmental disaster, but the children learn that the dotty professor has a mad plan. Can they dodge the authorities, an inquisitive five-foot puffin, AND their mother long enough to help the Professor and their new home?To find out, I highly recommend an exciting read with Royal Mail short listed author, Annemarie Allan, and her middle-grade adventure, "Breaker".
I first encountered Annemarie Allan's writing with her award-winning novel "Hox". Winner of the 2007 Kelpies Award from Floris Books and reviewed here, "Hox" is an exciting tale of a young boy's harrowing adventure through a Scottish highland winter to save something he believes in. It has an intriguing plot and relatable characters that middle-grade readers will find themselves rooting for. "Breaker" follows in that tradition, and, in fact, improves upon it, offering characters humanized by humor and drawing on a plot whose kernel sprouted from international headlines and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Once again, Ms. Allan has cleverly woven fact with fiction and delivers a briskly-paced, knuckle-biting adventure with an environmental conscience. As our young heroes, Tom and Beth, come to realize, responsibility begins with our own decisions.
Ms. Allan also breathes life into her story through setting. The story is much like one of the brochures Tom and Beth pick up at the tourist center at the beginning of the story - a picture postcard of North Berwick, its harbor and surroundings. She even scatters delicious crumbs of history throughout the story...the kind that make you want to read more:
"The people who lived here were wreckers. They used lights to make the ships think there was safe harbor here. And when they ended up on the rocks..." He let his voice die away suggestively.
Like Professor MacBlain, every author is an inventor and I am always curious how the inner workings of a writer's mind spin. I caught up with the author online, and she was gracious enough to agree to an interview. To learn a little more about Annemarie Allan and how she creates such fantastic fiction, read on for the interview.
1. Most children’s writers remain children at heart. It’s sort of in the job description. If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be when you grow up?
I think I’d probably like to work in a sweet shop - or maybe not work...maybe I’d rather be locked in by accident overnight. But I think I’d still rather be a writer. I’ve done many things, but that was the one thing I truly wanted. When I won the Kelpie’s Prize and ‘Hox’ was published, it was a dream come true.
2. What inspired you to write your first book?
I wrote several books before ‘Hox’ was published. My first one was based on the Scottish Witch Hunts, a truly terrible period in Scottish history, especially for women. My inspiration for ‘Hox’ came from a fascination with the concept of hox genes, which are genes that control body development – it is the action of the hox gene in humans that produces a hand, rather than a flipper or a wing. I began to wonder what might happen if two different species of mammal, human and lynx, shared the same genes. And, of course, Scotland became a part of the story because I am interested in how human beings interact with the natural landscape.
3. In 30 words or less, give us the genre and tagline for your book, Breaker.
Part science-fiction, part fantasy, part environmental thriller. A race to save one small part of the planet before time runs out.
4. How did you come up with the title?
I had a great title - before I discovered that someone else had got there before me! The title ‘Breaker’ came from the publishers. Thank you, Floris!
5. Who is your intended audience and why do you feel they should read your book?
Like many other writers, I suppose I am writing the books that I would have wanted to read when I was young and I like to write about people who are at a point in their lives where they are forced to make decisions that will affect their entire future.I think people should read my books because I am asking interesting questions (I hope!) although I don’t give answers. I don’t want to tell people what to think, I want them to think for themselves.
6. How did you choose your genre?
I don’t think I chose it. I think it chose me. I have always been an avid consumer of science-fiction and fantasy so it was probably natural that I felt comfortable with that kind of book. At the same time, I suppose I want to discuss issues that matter to me such as the natural world, our relationship with the environment and the myths and legends that are embedded in the landscapes we inhabit.
7. You were born in Edinburgh, which is, of course, a UNESCO City of Literature. The list of famous authors with connections to the city is tremendous. Do you feel that the city’s unique literary heritage has had an influence on your work?
There are stories everywhere in Edinburgh, both real and imaginary. Every day, my bus to school passed the street where Robert Louis Stevenson grew up. Stevenson’s inspiration for his gruesome tale ‘The Body Snatchers’ came not only from the true story of a pair of murderers who supplied Edinburgh doctors with bodies for dissection, but also from the old town streets and alleys of Edinburgh itself. The city is a place where dreams and nightmares feel as though they might easily come true, especially on a dark night with the mist swirling through the streets...
The main person I have to thank for introducing me to the world of books is Andrew Carnegie, who gifted public libraries to many of Scotland’s towns and cities. When I was growing up, there was very little money for books, but I didn’t need to buy them - the library was just round the corner (well, round two corners - and over a bridge).
8. What books, in general, have most influenced your life?
[Probably] Charles Dickens...because he is so good at atmosphere and making you care about (most) of his characters. Other writers I admire and strive to follow are Diana Wynne Jones (sadly no longer here), Ursula Le Guin, Jane Yolen, Anne Tyler, Walter Mosely, Stephen King (the shorter novels, not the giant doorstops) Alice Munro (winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, yay!) Peter Dickinson...I think I’d better stop. This list could go on and on.
9. Given a choice, which writer would you consider a mentor, or at least someone you admire and try to emulate?
If I could manage to write even a little bit like any of the above, I would be utterly happy.
10. What books are you reading now?
I only read one book at a time. Right now, that’s Stephen King, ‘Joyland’. Before that, it was Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder, ‘Except the Queen’.
11. While you were writing, which of your characters did you relate to most?
My books always have one or two main characters at the core of the story but at the same time there are always other characters who draw me in - and they are not always the good guys. In my third novel, ‘Ushig’, the shapeshifting kelpie whose intentions are shrouded in darkness, fascinated me just as much as Ellen, the main character, probably because she forced me to think about what it means to be human.
12. Do you have any unique talents or hobbies?
I spend almost all of my free time writing, either a novel, or short stories. Don’t know if it counts as a skill, but I can dive into water backwards - haven’t tried it for a while though.
13. What do you do when you are not writing?
I spend time with the grandkids, with friends, try to look after my hundred and twenty year old house etc. I walk a lot. It’s one of the best ways to develop story ideas. I live near the shore and it’s a real joy to spend time there, especially when the wind is up! The town I live in has a long history (over a thousand years) of industry and a lot of the debris from the old potteries, glassworks, brickwork, etc. ended up on the shore so it’s a bit of an outdoor archaeological treasure house. I had a couple of American friends visit a few years ago. They loved it, but I did wonder how they managed to get the brick they found on the shore through the US customs!
14. In your opinion, are there any occupational hazards in being a novelist?
When you’re outdoors, there’s always the risk of being run over when an idea strikes you. I have also walked into lampposts. Plus, I have been told my posture is terrible, which is presumably the result of hunching over the keyboard!
15. Animals feature in all of your novels. I have to ask, as a writer, has the dog ever eaten your “homework”?
Interesting that you should ask me that because the answer is yes! It wasn’t a dog though. When I was a kid, I worked on a project with some other people in my class. When it was my turn to bring it home, I left it on the kitchen table and went off to find my mother. When we came back, there was a very happy budgie on the table surrounded by a snowstorm of shredded paper. My teacher that year was a deeply scary woman. I spent the next couple of weeks in a state of utter terror. Luckily, the end of term arrived before she managed to work out exactly who had last taken it home. So in my case, it was the budgie that ate my homework.
16. If a film were made of your life, who do you see playing the part of you?
I have absolutely no idea! Somebody medium-tall, skinny, rather old...?
17. How much impact has your childhood had on your writing?
I expect it did, though it’s impossible to be very specific about that. I was a voracious reader from early on and all those books no doubt influenced me in many ways. Also, the community I grew up in was quite an introverted Irish immigrant community and my father was an outsider in that community, so I was always a bit of an outsider too and it seems to me that most stories are about people who find themselves on the outside in one way or another, so perhaps that influenced me.
18. What do you feel the most important attributes are to remaining sane as an author?
Having people around to keep you grounded - as long as they give you at least some space to write!
19. Finally, is there anything you would like to share with your readers?
Keep on reading!
To learn more about Annemarie Allan and works, you can connect with the author online on Twitter, on Facebook, or visit her author page. Read on for a hair-raising excerpt of her latest work, The Orphan from the Storm.
The Orphan from the Storm
“Hey there. Where are you going, sweetheart?”
The child was walking along the verge of an unlit road, wearing nothing except what looked like fleecy pyjamas and a pair of mud-stained bunny slippers, their bedraggled ears trailing in the dirt. She was five, maybe six years old. It was past midnight on a cold winter’s night.
The child stopped. She turned to look at the girl in the car.
“I’m going to the green world. The real one. Not like this.”
She flapped a grubby hand in the direction of the roadside, at the rows of tiny trees, each one neatly encased in a green plastic tube. The girl in the car exchanged a meaningful glance with the driver. He sighed and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“Sophie,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be here, remember? Your folks think you’re spending the night at Rosanna’s house.”
“Come on, Nick,” Sophie raised an eyebrow. “What do you want to do? Just drive off and pretend we never saw her?”
She turned away from him and leaned further out of the window. “The green world? Where’s that then?”
“I don’t know, but my friend does.”
Sophie looked around. As far as she could tell, the child was all alone. “What friend?”
The child cocked her head, as if listening to something only she could hear. When she spoke, it was with a faint air of surprise, as though she had been told something she didn’t know before.
“She says her name is Brid.”
“And what about you? What’s your name?”
“I’m Ebba, of course.” The little girl seemed to think that was something that everybody ought to know.
Ignoring an impatient sigh from her companion, Sophie tried for a friendly smile. It seemed important to give the impression that there was nothing out of the ordinary about a small child walking along a deserted road in the middle of the night.
“So where is she, then? Your friend Brid?”
Ebba thought for a moment, and then she tapped her chest. “In here.” She raised a hand to her temple and stared hard at Sophie. “She’s here too. Everywhere, really. It’s Brid that tells me where to go.”
There was something in the little girl’s eyes that made the hair prickle on the back of Sophie’s neck. She looked so sweet and innocent, with her mop of curls surrounding a heart-shaped face, but for a moment she could almost believe that this wasn’t really a child at all.’
© Annemarie Allan 2013