A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I am extremely delighted to be interviewing Liz de Jager on publication day. As most of you readers probably know, Vowed is the sequel to Banished. But before we do anything else, shall we just drink in the cover a little? It’s insanely irresistible – a bit like the fae. Let’s have another little look. Cor. It’s so lovely. How could anyone not pick up this book?
First of all, huge congratulations on the publication of VOWED, Liz – it really is an absolute tour-de-force, an epic combination of a gripping, thriller-style plot with traditional folklore brought kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. But what I love most of all are the central four characters, Kit, Thorn, Dante and Aiden. A true action heroine with identity issues, a hot fae prince, a confused and gorgeous boy with a mysterious tattoo and a werewolf – it’s an explosive combination of hotness, magic and fighting. Lots of fighting. And pancakes. What could possibly go wrong?
Katy: I made the mistake of starting to read Vowed at night and I found the disappearance of the children on the estate genuinely frightening and unsettling – to the point when I got up to check on my own sleeping children. The link between fae and missing children has become well established in folklore over the centuries, and your interpretation of it is chilling. Why do you think missing children and changelings became such a part of our storytelling culture?
Liz: Oh wow, I’m really sorry about making you worry about your kids and the things that lurk in the dark! The thing is, as a small child, I was always worried about being stolen away. I know. I grew up in South Africa and we’ve got the legend of the tokoloshe there (a small dwarf like being who steals women and children) and I was convinced he would come for me, to the extent where I was, until much later as an adult, unable to sleep with an open window. I still can’t let any part of my anatomy hang off the bed for fear that the tokoloshe would get me. So creating the lore behind the Child Thief in Vowed came a bit from that, but also the legends of the nursery demon so well written up in Diane Purkiss’ TROUBLESOME THINGS: A HISTORY OF FAIRIES AND FAIRY TALES.
I think our interest in missing children and changelings stems from genuine fear and helplessness; there are these elements of complete vulnerability here which we are loathe to face. I don’t think there is anything, apart from debilitating illness, that makes us feel as helpless as facing the thought of having a child stolen. We are creatures who like being in control of ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in so facing this wall of darkness when it comes to the fae or other creatures stealing our young, it’s just a horrendous thought.
Katy: (You are hereby forgiven for terrifying me :-D) I was hooked by your take on urban fantasy in Vowed: a London that is recognisably our own, but overlaid with a richly imagined magical otherworld. Do you think that the gritty, modern urban fantasy could tempt readers who might have been put off Lord of the Rings-style high fantasy in the past and who might otherwise only read contemporary?
Liz: I don’t know. I hope so. When people ask me what I write I make the distinction of pointing out that I’m writing contemporary (thereby current) fantasy set in modern times (to make it even more clear) and that it is cross-over fiction. I also think people are surprised when they realise that the stuff they’re reading is actually genre fiction…or that the stuff that they’re watching is actually science fiction / fantasy / post-apocalyptic etc.
Katy: I loved your treatment of club culture, with Milton’s inhabited by fallen angels and denizens of the Unseelie Court – those places can seem pretty otherworldly in real life. Did you have any particular experiences that inspired you to make that imaginative leap?
Liz: Well. *insert guilty face here* There used to be a club I frequented in my late teens called The White Horse. This place…there was something other about it. It felt edgier than it was, quite possibly, and the owner of the place fascinated me. She was this fierce redhead and she never went anywhere without two of the most scariest guys as bodyguards. They had members-only rooms and a VIP area so fiercely protected you basically had to sign over your first born and your mortgage to get in there. TWH and a few other places I hung out growing up really formed the basis of Milton’s. And I love the idea of the principalities hanging out with the monkeys without the monkeys knowing. (And if you get that reference you’ve made me and Christopher Walken very happy indeed).
Katy: The world you build in Banished and Vowed is so fantastical but so completely convincing, and it must have taken a huge amount of research – and yet that research never intrudes on the plot. With a full-time job and deadlines, how did you find time to undertake all this research? Do you enjoy it or do you share Kit’s ambivalent attitude towards libraries?
Liz: I think it helps when creating an extra layer to a place like London not to be a native? Immigrating here in 2000 we found London very intimidating. But we soon got over it by getting to know the city as cohesively as we could. I love maps and facts and I love research and folklore. So we’ve combined these interest by creating actual itineraries and read up about the areas we’re going to visit and then we take ourselves off on walking tours of London.
I’ll never forget the first time we visited Athens. In our hotel room was this note from the hotel saying: visit our beautiful city, and walk the streets at all times of day, because like a beautiful woman, she changes what she shows people who take the effort to get to know her. And that’s what I think makes London so very fantastical because London changes her face as the day stretches into night; all you have to do is be brave enough to follow her. Also, the fact that London is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the all the isles, just makes my imagination go into overdrive. It makes complete sense that there’s another layer to London, possibly several, that we only glimpse from the corners of our eyes. So, apart from doing walks the other research I do is reading books about folklore and urban legends. I have books on occult London and historical accounts of suburbs and areas. It really is very easy for me to have brownies working in coffee shops in touristy areas and for the magicians and street performers you see in Covent Garden and Leicester Square be fae keen on tricking us out of our money and dreams. Or for trolls to live below the river in mystical caves that lead to different times in London’s history.
And no, Kit is definitely so far removed from me when it comes to libraries. If I could, I’d never leave when I visit libraries! Maybe I’m more like her aunt in that respect? The hoarder of books and knowledge and the family secrets!
Katy: Following on from my question above – were there ideas that came out of your research into folklore that you had to leave out? How did you decide what to include?
Liz: Yes. I’ve got such a massive world that contains all this stuff that it’s really hard to rein back. Talking to my editor about the Blackhart world and the pertinent mythologies and folklore I could see her starting to worry that I was going to throw the readers dead with too much info. I try not to do that. I try to respect the reader enough that if I’ve mentioned once before that the trolls in my world are gossip mongers, they’ll remember this fact for later on. As for stuff that I decide to include: it depends on the story. In Vowed we deal with changelings and stolen children, but not in the way you’d suspect. So I have to give you the thing you understand, the Child Thief, and then hopefully pull the rug from under you. This is where it’s important to have good beta readers too and an editor who will stop you from writing All the Things into your book.
Katy: In the world beyond books, YA readers are faced with so many unhealthy attitudes to food and unrealistic examples of body-image. I think it’s brilliant the way Kit loves her food but also loves the endorphin rush of a good run and is physically very fit, and it’s something I really noticed in both Banished and Vowed. The same is true of Aiden, but it’s a trait I generally notice less in female characters in YA. Was this healthy attitude something you consciously incorporated into Kit’s character, or was it one of those things that grew naturally as you developed her?
Liz: If Kit had her way she’d be lazing by the pool, listening to music, kissing Thorn and reading the latest best-seller and order pizza all the time because pizza fixes all ills. Kit’s isn’t consciously thinking of the fact that she’s fit or healthy, for that matter. She eats because she has to but she also does enjoy it. Also, she needs the energy and fuel to keep fighting against things trying to eat her face off. Kit’s Uncle Jamie is constantly worrying at her to work and train harder because he knows how fragile the Blackharts are in real life when it comes to fighting against the supernatural, be they fae, werewolf, shapeshifter, angel or demon, so fitness and athletic ability is paramount. Kit has to train for hours to keep her skill levels up as, compared to her cousins, she’s started on a deficit of martial arts know-how. And really, I can’t have my kick-ass main character trip over her feet and run into a wall so that she can get saved by the prince, now can I? *grins*
I come from a large family and our one uniting thing, across all ages, was the sit-down to a shared meal several times during the year. I consciously set out making a thing about eating and enjoying food in both Banished and Vowed (and Judged) because I wanted to show how important it is for friends and family to sit together and eat and hash out things.
But, as a reader of a lot of YA, I too became tired of seeing an emotionally distraught teen girl walk away from food because she was depressed or upset about something. I couldn’t relate to this because when I became upset as a teen, I’d head into the kitchen and bake and then eat what I’d made. I think the not-eating-because-of-media pressure really is incredibly damaging to all of us, not just young women (and older women) but to everyone regardless of chosen gender. It’s something I think so many of us are working on fighting against and I hope Kit’s kick-ass attitude towards food and exercise will help it along!
KM: Music is pretty important to your writing process, isn’t it? Is there one particular song that you associate with Vowed? If so, why.
Liz: Music is so important in my writing process. I have playlists for my characters and for the books overall. Kit’s song across all three books is Bjork’s Army of Me. Thorn’s song is Run Boy Run by Woodkid for all three books for obvious reasons but also I think Castle of Glass by Linkin Park is very pertinent to him. The overall feel of Vowed is summed up by Gary Numan’s Love Hurt Bleed. And for fun, I think the Garrett’s (my London werewolf pack) sort of relate to Bad Moon Rising but the cover done by Mourning Ritual featuring Peter Dreimanis. It is very ominous and dark and awesome.
KM: The sibling relationships in Banished and Vowed are done so well, and you mention that you are part of a big family. Did this inspire you to create the large and rambling Blackhart clan?
Liz: Yes, about the sprawling family! I love huge crazy families. I’m the youngest of six kids. My dad was one of twelve. All my sisters and my brother have kids and so I’m used to being surrounded by lots of noise and chaos and voices. I also find the trope of orphan kids in children’s books fun to play with, as I’ve done here, but you know, I sort of pull the rug from under Kit and throw loads of new people at her in the shape of her actual extended family. I have a thing about being part of a clan that I can’t escape and so I thought that, although Kit is technically an orphan, having both her parents die when she is very little, then her Nan when she is older…she then gets drawn into the folds of the larger Blackhart clan, almost against her will, and suddenly everyone around her is family and setting themselves up to protect her and guide her and it’s stifling because basically she’s used to it being just her and her Nan. And let’s not forget Aiden who decides she needs looking after!
KM: Thank you so much, Liz, for these wonderful insights into the world of Banished and Vowed! I would strongly advise all readers to venture forth into Blackhart territory without delay. You will never see London in quite the same way again. But take care – there is danger around every corner…