Tangled Landscapes: Steve Augarde talks about the Various

Winter Wood jacketSteve Augarde has recently published Winter Wood (Amazon) which completes his wonderful pastoral trilogy set in England. He is also known as children’s illustrator, paper engineer and a semi-pro Jazz musician. He was kind enough to chat to me about the trilogy, the English landscape and the joys of not knowing how long tasks can take.
It has been a few years since the first book. How conscious were you of the audience, I found that you referenced things and you linked back if you remembered but it didn’t matter to much.

It seems to be getting a good reception. It is difficult in that is been along time since the first one came out and trying to rekindle that original interest isn’t an easy task. I’m aware of the fact that the readers of the first book, if they’d been twelve when they read the first book would be eighteen or so by now. There’s a lot of that original audience that’s moved on. It is certainly important to me to regenerate as much interest as we can.

You don’t want to keep recovering old ground because those readers who are aware of what’s happened will get bored. As with any trilogy, each book needs to stand by itself so that anybody coming to Winter Wood, as Nick Tucker did recently, and reading it is going to have to work out what’s gone on before. Hopefully they will go back to the earlier books, if they haven’t read them, and read them but you can’t let the whole thing hang on prior knowledge. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, to make a book stand alone yet be a part of a longer story. So yes, I was aware of the fact that I would have to do that. Having said that, I don’t think that the readership has disappeared altogether by any means. There seem to be a lot of people, certainly I’ve lot of queries saying when is the third book coming out, I think that there is a core audience out there who are enjoying it but we’re hoping that by repackaging them as a trilogy in the summer that we’ll get a new and younger audience coming in.

What was the original inspiration for the series?

It’s set in the West Country which is where the first book was written. We moved down from Birmingham when I was a baby so I consider myself to be a West Country man. So the territory, the actual landscape, is familiar to me and the Various and most of Celandine were written in Somerset. We moved to Yorkshire a few years ago but I was continuing to write with the knowledge of that area. The original inspiration was from that area but it was something that wasn’t very carefully planned or pre-planned.

I wanted to move into an older age group: I’d been working in much younger children’s picture books as an illustrator and a paper-engineer for pop-up books for years and years. I wanted to see if I could move up a couple of age groups and write for young adults. I just started to write a story based on just one little image that I had of a girl in a barn finding something extraordinary. I wrote, I think, about thirty pages and sent it onto David Fickling whom I knew socially (we’d met a couple of times) really just to see if he thought I was wasting my time in trying to write for this age group or whether he thought it was worth persevering. I had no notion at that point of actually trying to sell anything; I just wanted a good professional opinion which is invaluable and very difficult for writers to get. There are so many writers who would like to get their work in front of a good publisher, a good editor that it’s a hard thing to do. Because I had a track record in publishing it was likely that he would take a look at it and he did and brought it as it was without having a clue what was going to happen next which terrified the life out of me. I thought “oh God, I’ve got to write this thing now”.

So once I started to work on it some more and got to perhaps a third of the way through the first book, I thought “this isn’t going to be one book, its going to have to be extended because of the back story”. It seemed to me it was going to need a back story so it gradually turned into three books. So I went back to David and told him that and he was fine which gave me permission I guess to say yes, it’s going to be three books. It was a huge leap of faith on his part to take on something that was very much in a formative stage and neither he nor I had much a clue as to what was gong to happen. I said in an interview the other day, “If I’d known what was involved, I might not have started”.

It was something that was part of the background noise as a kid. My dad built his own house. When I say built it, he bought the bricks and cement and went down at the weekend, dug the trenches and mixed the cement by hand. It took him five or six years to build this house which became a home for his family. He often said the same thing, if he’d been less ignorant, he’d have never started. So not knowing too much in advance can be a good thing sometimes because it helps you to achieve something that you may not have attempted if you’d had more knowledge.

I was struck by the way that you described the natural world around you. Its like a painting but its very aural as well. Does that come from your work as an illustrator?

I think it does. A number of people have pointed that out and it’s not something that you’re particularly conscious at the time, or at least your not conscious that you think of things in a different way to anybody else. I suppose being used to visualising – working as an illustrator – means that you need to be able to picture things unless you’re using photographic reference or whatever. Having a visual awareness of the world around you and being able to put that down on paper as a drawing or in words is something that, if it doesn’t come naturally is something that I’m capable of doing and aurally, perhaps being a musician, having been semi-pro for donkey’s years, as well. You do get an inbuilt feeling for how sentences should sound an how words sound together regardless of the actual meaning, just the phonics and rhythms of sentences and words. Again a sentence sounds right to me or it doesn’t sound right, it’s not just the intrinsic meaning, its just the way that it would read and the way that it would sound. I think, as I’ve become conscious of that, I’ve made more effort to make sure that is the case to make sure that the words sound good together as well either inner or visual meaning.

What was the impetus in illustrating the book?

I’m really aware, also, of how things look on the page. I’d be careful, for instance, not to start a book with a great big, dense paragraph of text. It looks too daunting so I try to keep the look of the page as inviting so that the reader is not daunted by too much dense text or yards and yards of dialogue. Either can be visually off putting and breaking up the pages with illustrations makes the book look inviting. Certainly with Winter Wood, I think I’ve got better.

I wanted to make it something that you want to hold, something that you want to look at. It seemed natural from the word go that I’ve do little black and white chapter heading illustrations. It didn’t quite work out that way but there is a little motif at the heading of each chapter. It seemed normal that I would put some illustrations in there as well. I was careful not to draw the characters. I didn’t want to do little portraits as it seemed to spoil the inner vision of the reader. You have to leave some things to their imagination so you’ll notice that it’s mostly artifacts that the books are illustrated with rather than characters.

At the time the covers were a bit of a bone of contention because I had no track record for that kind of age group. If you’re involved with publishing at all, you’ll know how carefully covers are brought into being. It’s the first thing that the reader sees and they have to be invited in. I was by no means a shoe in as the illustrator for the covers. In fact they had somebody else pretty strongly lined up for the job and I had to pitch quite hard to be allowed to do the covers. In fact the first attempts that I made were turned down, simple as that, and they went with the illustrator that they were going to use but said carry on in the meantime with the interior illustrations. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I got that call saying that they’d received the cover illustrations and were so embarrassed that they weren’t even going to show them to me so would I do something in the vein of the interior. So that’s how the covers came about. I did them in scraper board, the technique I used for the inside black and white.

Reading it I was conscious of a pre-Victorian England or a sense of the loss of it with the Wood and the dialect. Was that something that you were conscious of?

Yes, I was very conscious of it. Its something I’ve been conscious of for a long time, I was brought up in Somerset as a child, in the 1950s, but the world around me probably hadn’t changed all that much since the 1930s. I felt that. I feel know that I was probably on the tail end of a long era in agricultural history and the environment around me was very much agriculturally based, it was all little farms and orchards and small holdings as it had been for many, many decades before and it was only really in the 60s that bigger scale mechanisation started to come in and the farms were amalgamated and the orchards grubbed up. The machinery became bigger and more efficient and the bulk of people around are no longer worked on the land. There was no need for that volume of labour and it’s been the same in cities with the mills and Wales with the mining towns; that kind of feeling of people working en masse and doing pretty much the same job has gone. So yes, I was very much on the tail end of a way of life disappearing and I suppose inside the woods, these little people (who are quite ancient, they’re of another era, of a disappearing world. So there is something slightly elegiac about the whole thing.

How conscious were you of mixing past and present?

It was so much a matter of trying to tie up the ends. I was aware when I was writing the Various “Oh god there’s a lot of stuff to tie up here” and then with writing Celandine I was thinking exactly the same thing. Come writing Winter Wood, I thought “Well here we are, there’s the rainy day where you go to pull all the loose ends together now and make it work”. Its extraordinary how stories take on a life of their own – all writers say this, I know – but sometimes it feels like your trying to find what feels like you’re trying to find what already exists, its lie wondering around with one of those minesweepers metal detector things. You know that the stuff is down there somewhere, it exists but you’re trying to find it. Stories can be like that. Sometimes you can go an awfully long way down a particular path and then stop and think “Hang on, you’re not going the right way here, this isn’t the story”. You go back and rewrite and the story reveals itself to you. That can be quite an extraordinary thing because even though you’re the inventor, you’re discovering something that pre-exists in some sort of way.

I was aware of trying to tie up the past and present and also the constant struggle of moving in and out of the forest. Most fantasy writers create their world and for the most part their characters will remain in that world so once you’ve made a convincing world and you’ve managed to convince the reader to suspend disbelief, there are in this created world. What I’ve had to do is to keep moving in and out of a recognisable here and now world and this enclosed other world. To make that constant transition convincing so that every time you move into the forest and you’re amongst these little people, you have to suspend your disbelief again is asking quite a lot of myself and asking quite a lot of the reader as well. I’m not any great fan of fantasy writing. I don’t read other people’s fantasy novels. It’s something that I never imagined that I would ever find myself doing. So I come at it almost as a skeptic. If I can convince myself that this sounds possible and real then the chances are that I can convince an audience as well.

That intrigues me

I’ve read Tolkien but I haven’t read any of Philip Pullman’s books, haven’t read any of Terry Pratchett’s books. I just don’t go for fantasy writing really but without wanting to be cold about it, having found myself apparently writing a fantasy series of books, it almost becomes an exercise in how do I do this? Here I am in this rather unlooked for genre: how is it done, how is it managed? All I can is that I’ve had to convince myself before I convince anybody else that this is worth while and believable.

Who or what are the influences on you?

I don’t really know. I wrote this piece in the Independent a couple of weeks back, asking the same question. What book had influenced you the most? I wrote in that piece that when I was at Art College I was deeply into the pantheon of modern American literature – Salinger, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Kerouac – and they were the writers who made me actually want to write. They were the writers who inspired me to try and express myself in writing but because they are so American and what they write about is American, it is very difficult to find a voice when you’re English and from the West Country.

You can’t write those kinds of stories and I think that in this piece it was H. E. Bates who made me think that you don’t need to be looking across the Atlantic to find a voice. There’s something in your own kind of pastoral background that is worth talking about and so I think it is probably the countryside itself I found inspiring and in H.E. Bates I found a voice that I recognised. I’ve never tried to write like Bates, never wanted to be him in the same way that I might have wanted to be Kerouac. Alison Uttley is another writer who I found really inspiring. Alison Uttley wrote the Little Grey Rabbit stories for very young children but she wrote an autobiographical book called a country horde which is about her own childhood in the countryside and that is a fantastically inspiring piece of writing. Its a bit like Cider with Rosie but I think that Alison Uttley is actually better. So people writing about their environment and what it means to them I found more of an inspiration than novelists as such. These are people managing to convey emotion and tell stories at the same time but they are not novels in the way that I would see them.

I suppose its writers who convey atmosphere, writers who are able to convey a sense of their own being and their own environment. I’ve tried to do that in this trilogy. I think that people pick up on that and there is a sense of being transported to that place, if you’ve never been there you can still see it. There’s an orthodoxy in modern writing that advises you against having too much in way of descriptive passages and I would go along with that in that yards and yards of descriptive writing is usually a bore unless it has any kind of bearing on the story. By the same token, unless you can take the reader with you and convince them that they are with you in this place then the narrative becomes weak. I think that’s especially so of fantasy that if you’re going to write a book about something that’s unbelievable then you have to ground it as strongly as you can in reality. That’s something that I’ve tried to do in these books, to make the environment convincing.

The world is out of kilter with itself in the trilogy. At the moment there are narratives of Englishness and the big question for our time: the environment. Should children’s literature concern itself with larger issues?

That’s a big question and in the book that I’m currently writing (I’m 9/10ths of the way through), I’m describing a very different environment, a ruined, post apocalyptic world with a very multiracial, multicultural bunch of kids trying to survive within it so its obviously an issue that I do try and address in some kind of way. I’m aware of the deeply middle class nature of young readers and how the majority of younger readers who I do meet seem to be middle class. So faced with the question are you trying to sell your work to a ready made audience or trying to reach out to a new audience. That’s a very difficult question to answer because you should ideally be trying to reach out to as broad an audience as possible.

If you take that as you’re starting point, than it can make what you’re writing contrived in a way. I’ve written about an environment which I know and I understand and peopled it with characters who I know and I understand. To try and broaden that could be contrivance if it doesn’t fit in with the story. Its like the writing itself, I don’t just give children what they know. If you couch your sentences in vocabulary that you know your readers and going to understand, then you’re not stretching them in any way so you have to keep pushing kids a little bit, trying to get them to understand concepts just slightly beyond their grasp and in language which is just slightly pushing them a little bit. That’s one of the arguments for fantasy in a way and one of the pleasures of books is being transported. I don’t know that I’d want to be writing grittily realistic books in an inner city comprehensive because I don’t know that that’s necessarily what kids want. Its perhaps portraying the world as it should be rather than how it is. Its something that interests me. I’m not very interested in holding up a mirror to the world, I am slightly idealistic when it comes to morals and ethics and that kind of thing. That’s something that I’m trying to explore in this new book but what I’ve also said that I’m still relatively new to this side of creativity.

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