Lee Battersby is the author of the stunning junior fiction Magrit. Check out the teacher notes.
What is your elevator pitch for Magrit?
10 year old Magrit has lived her whole life in a cemetery with no entrance and no exit. When the stork accidentally drops a baby into the cemetery grounds, Magrit decides to raise him as her own, despite the warnings of her skeletal best friend and adviser Master Puppet, and the ghostly voice that starts to taunt her from the area of the graveyard where Magrit never dares to go.
You’ve written science fiction, fantasy and horror for adults. Was it a conscious decision to write for children? Or did this story just call for it?
I had the central idea for the novel kicking around for quite a while, but it simply didn’t work as an adult story. Thematically, the novel is about the loss of innocence, and the acceptance of that loss. As a narrative, that resonates so much better as a children’s story: once I had the character of Magrit in place, everything else fell together really nicely. Ultimately, it’s about what works best for the story.
How did you find the experience of writing for children different to writing for adults?
It’s much more freeing, particularly in the early drafts. Kids are fearless, and much less constrained by emotional and cultural taboos than adults. You can push a scenario a little further with kids and maintain their sense of intrigue longer, because they have no preconceived value system when it comes to new ideas. Where an adult will say “That’s silly/stupid/nonsensical/off-putting,” a kid will say “Okay, let’s see where this goes.”
And kids have a much more accepting sense of the absurd: they’re far less interested than adults in the perceptions of others. So if a fart’s funny, it’s just funny. If a talking, invisible skeleton falls of a chapel and gets angry at you because he’s all broken and needs to be put back together again with sticks and tin cans, well, that’s just how the story is rolling. So while I was writing the first draft I could lay out the narrative and simply enjoy it from moment to moment without worrying about the internal construction. Of course, drafts two-to-infinity were some seriously hard work, because it’s one thing to create these wonderful, spiralling updrafts of absurdity and profundity, but you still have to go back and underpin them with something logical and meaningful.
But that sense of play, and of touching upon inner meanings and emotions in an unfettered, raw way: that’s quite wonderful.
Magrit’s memory of her mother is vague but unpleasant and Master Puppet for the most part is quick to scold Magrit. Why did you decide to give Magrit such cold and unkind parental figures?
I’m sure there’s some deep, dark psychological reason based around hidden childhood traumas that will resurface as part of a hidden-camera investigation one night when there’s no fad diet for the current affairs programs to shill.
The rather simple reason, I’m afraid, is that I needed forces for Magrit to react against, and apart from a tiny baby that doesn’t talk, there were no other characters in the book. Your protagonist has to be in conflict with the environment (got that), herself (definitely got that), and external stimulus, usually in the form of another character – she needed someone to bounce off. And that separation of personality from those who shelter you is an important milestone in the assumption of adult responsibilities, which is a big part of the narrative. I certainly don’t think of Master Puppet as cold and unkind, particularly as it turns out he’s redacted. It’s part of Magrit’s growth, and acceptance of otherness.
Do you think it’s important for young readers to be exposed to issues such as abandonment, loneliness and death?
Kids love to experience a wide range of emotions: there’s no value judgement in ‘sad’ or ‘scared’ or happy’, so much as it’s the appropriateness of that emotional response. I don’t think we should force children to be sad, or scared, but if they choose to do so, and you’re there with your arm out, providing that safety, then they can do so in the best possible way. Not everything has to be painted with a Disney three-colour palette to be good for you: if it was, kids would never climb trees. Art should be a stalking horse for the wider culture.
Magrit is also quite humorous, beautiful and ultimately hopeful. Was it difficult to strike a balance between the darker and lighter aspects while writing the novel?
I always had the final image of the novel in mind, so knowing that it was going to end on what I thought was quite a beautiful, positive moment made it easier to write some of the sadder sections along the way. Like any entertainment, if the novel was unremittingly bleak and dark, there’d be no pleasure in reading it. Magrit has to have moment of success, and of happiness, to keep us travelling with her. Hopefully, the kids who read Magrit will identify with her, and want her to come out of it all okay. I’m hoping that ending will give them a moment of great uplift.
What do you hope young readers will take away from reading Magrit?
I hope they come away having walked side by side with Magrit as she goes through her journey; that they come to identify with her and share her sadness, and happiness, and losses and victories. And I hope that the book resonates with them, and becomes something they want to experience again and again, and each time come away with some new understanding, or sense of light and shade within the world. Most of all, I hope the book’s fun: it’s creepy, and funny, and sad, and icky, and profound and engaging and unusual and strange and sometimes all of them at once. Because that’s what turned me on as a kid, and as an adult, and I hope it changes the shape of someone’s brain.
Also, I want one of them to design a Master Puppet action figure. Seriously, that would be the coolest.