I first met Ellen when we were both nervous newbies attending the Scattered Authors' Society summer retreat at Charney Manor, pictured above. Ellen was on the cusp of publication of her debut novel, Castle of Shadows, and I was anxiously working through my latest manuscript, prior to sending it to Jenny Savill as an exclusive first approach. Since then, Ellen has enjoyed a warm reception to her novel and Jenny agreed to take me on. We've both been working hard and, impressed by all the lovely people at Charney, we're going back there for a second retreat very soon.
Having heard Ellen read out an extract from Castle of Shadows, I was keen to get my hands on a copy when it was published in January 2010. Ellen is an impressive reader - I found myself charmed by her soft, lyrical voice and hanging on every word of the rich story she told. It felt only right, therefore, that after reading Ellen's novel I asked if she would kindly do an interview with me. She agreed!
Clothes are an important part of Castle of Shadows, from the housekeeper's whale bone and bombazine to Moleglass's dove grey gloves and the evil Prime Minister with his 'black cutaway frock coat, pale grey trousers and a silver and blue-figured silk waistcoat'. Our main character, Charlie, is liberated from petticoats and crinoline when she gets to dress up as a boy for the climax of the book. Which came first - the characters or what they wore!
In the Victorian period clothes defined you; they were incredibly important as a statement of social status. Also, women's clothes were diabolical - imprisoning body, mind and soul. No wonder Charlie hates her dresses! Men's top hats - with their long black crowns - were a symbol of the industrial revolution: think of all those factory chimneys.
The characters came first, of course, but the clothes were tools begging to be used for characterisation. Also, unlike Charlie, I do love clothes. If I had to choose one of my characters to dress up as, it would be Windlass. But then, who would want to wear black bombazine and a whalebone corset?
I happen to know you like fencing, Ellen. Dare I suggest that your sport influenced your fight scenes? In chapter 23 there's a moment when Windlass attacks with a sword and 'lunged until he was almost kneeling in the snow'. Did your fencing experiences help you describe the physical details of a good fight scene (something I struggle with as a writer)?
I confess to adding that scene in order to get some sword play in there somewhere. Although it is true that in the early Victorian period men did carry sword sticks as a transitional weapon of self-defence in between the eras of the short sword and the pistol. After all, one could be seen in polite society sporting a cane, whereas few men (outside the wild west) would actually carry a gun. I do like writing fight scenes; fencing is a martial art as well as a sport.
I was very impressed by how ambitious and original Castle of Shadows is. There is a significant amount of politics in this novel and even one very ripe swear word. Was your publisher always happy to push the boundaries with you, or did you have to persuade them?
Thank you for that! You're right in that it doesn't fit into an obvious niche. People have mentioned similarities to Gormenghast (which I don't know) and Joan Aiken's Dido Twite books (which I know very well). I'm flattered by these comparisons, but it is true that the books don't follow a trend: there's no magic, co-opted fairy tales or myths, no supernatural elements at all. The only fantasy element is the setting: an alternative Victorian world.
I didn't want to write a standard fantasy. Instead of a supernatural villain, I wanted my children to confront real evils: power and politics, bad parenting, powerlessness and not knowing whom to trust. My main villain is a politician. He does bad things for what he considers to be good reasons. Obviously, I needed to explore these themes within the context of a page-turning adventure. I wrote the book with levels in the hope that different people and age groups would get different things out of it. I'm very pleased that adults seem to be enjoying it too.
As for 'that word' (which is a term of abuse rather than a profanity), I did worry about it. I know kids hear much worse in the playground, but I would never use strong language casually. I felt it was necessary to the story at that point. Orchard never queried it.
The language of your debut novel feels as though it comes from a past time and there's quite a lot of vocabulary that will challenge contemporary readers. Hurrah! Do you feel that you are instinctively drawn to an era in the past?
This book was intended for 9+ readers, not beginners. I remember being that age very clearly. I loved finding new words in a book and figuring out what they meant from the context. Finding a new word didn't upset me, make me feel like a failure or make me stop reading! If you only print words children already know, how will they learn new ones?
The young readers I meet are loving the book. The adventure and characterisation are strong enough to pull them through. And again, each of the characters talks differently. Windlass has the most formal and challenging vocabulary. Tobias and Charlie's dialogue is much simpler.
As for being drawn to a particular era, no, I don't think so, although I have enjoyed researching the 1830s and 40s. It was a time of rapid social, political and technological change, with lots of parallels to our own time.
In chapter two there is a beautiful scene where the king adds the 37th tower to his house of cards. 'He glided from one scaffold pole to another, twisting between towers, skimming over crenellations.' This is such a vivid set piece - did it pop into your head well before the rest of the novel was written?
Yes it did. One day I was busy writing something else when the image of the king, hanging from scaffolding, about to place the last card on his enormous card castle, popped into my head from nowhere. Everything else followed. I love the king. He represents the failures we all feel ourselves to be sometimes as parents and adults. The image is so central to the book, in so many ways, that I still wish I been able to call the book Castle of Cards, although I understand the reasons behind the title change.
I was very impressed with your descriptions of a pneumatic railway in chapter 11 and other sections about a pneumatic messenger system! Did you have to research these and if so, what research resources can you recommend for other writers?
I heard something on Radio 4 some years ago about pneumatic and atmospheric railways and logged it away for future use. Brunel built the only atmospheric railway in Britain in the 1830s. It was in Devon between Teignmouth and Star Cross. Parts of it are in the Teignmouth museum. The railway only ran for a year. They couldn't get the seals airtight enough. They used leather and fat to seal the slot in the pneumatic tube, and rats kept eating the seals! If they had been able to use vulcanised rubber, which was invented ten years later, we might still be riding on pneumatic railways. In my world they did have vulcanised rubber.
Pneumatic messenger systems were widely used and are still in use in many places. I grew up with them: in the States you had drive in banks and put your deposits, etc, into capsules to send to the cashiers standing in their kiosks. Drive through MacBanks!
The internet was my main research resource. I researched enough of the politics, history, science and technology for my own purposes and let my imagination do the rest. That's the joy of alternative worlds.
Wow, Ellen, thank you so much! We've been given a fascinating glimpse of how originality, creativity, research and the mysterious - pop! - of an idea can come together to make challenging fiction that never talks down to the reader, creating a vivid world quite unlike any other I've read. I think Castle of Shadows is a great example of what happens when a brave writer is given a platform by a publisher prepared to think outside of the box.
It doesn't stop there. Ellen's follow-up novel, City of Thieves, is published in August 2010. I feel certain that Ellen already has a dedicated readership who will be queueing up to see what she does next. Good luck, Ellen, and see you at Charney!