Houses built out of air

Julia LeeJulia Lee tells us about her love of atmospheric houses that feature in books she has enjoyed throughout her life, and which have helped inspire one of the key locations in her debut children’s novel, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth.

It was one of the great disappointments of my childhood that I didn’t live in a house like Green Knowe. (Other disappointments were that I couldn’t fly, or talk to animals—at least, not so that they took any notice.)
But back to Green Knowe—an ancient house and garden by a river, full of history, magic, tame birds and friendly ghosts. When I found out that Lucy Boston, the author of The Children of Green Knowe, was describing the house where she actually lived, I couldn’t get over her luck—or my envy.

Green KnoweIllustrations of Green Knowe by Peter Boston.

I grew up in a modern semi, in a road of identical houses, on the outskirts of London. So disappointing when it came to exploration, although we tried! No secret passages, cobwebby cellars, or attics stuffed with generations of junk and the odd piece of hidden treasure. No ghosts, or time-warps back to previous eras, either— our home was brand-new when my family moved in. Whenever we went on a trip I’d gaze longingly out of car and train windows, and make up stories about what it would be like to live in the places we passed. Country cottages, mansions, follies, farms: they all fed my hungry imagination.

I think this was why I’ve always loved books that centre around a house. Old favourites include The Secret Garden’s Misselthwaite Manor, with its long corridors and haunting night-time crying. Or Helen Cresswell’s Moondial, where heroine Minty slips through time when she visits an old manor-house. Another time-shift story, Penelope Lively’s A Stitch In Time, features a Victorian house which has become a rather unloved seaside holiday-let—but I longed to stay there!

As I got older I enjoyed the spoof-spookiness of Northanger Abbey, and the wonderfully haunting Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, amongst many others. I still get excited when I discover another “house” novel I’ve missed, or a new one is published. They always set me wondering about the places that inspired their authors.

MenabillyMenabilly in Cornwall, one of the houses that went into Daphne Du Maurier’s creation of Manderley

Clemency WrigglesworthHardly surprising, then, that when it comes to my own writing, I really love being able to create a house—any house I want, anywhere I want—out of thin air. The Great Hall at the heart of The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wigglesworth looks “as if a child had tipped everything out of a brick-box, determined to build a house, however strange the result.” I wanted it to be rambling in the extreme, a hotch-potch of eras and architecture, with plenty of scope for secrets and hiding places.

I like touring old houses, and now I can call it research. Give me a guide-book that includes a floor-plan and I’m in heaven! But there are always areas that are off-limits. When I make up a house I can go into every room, and poke around the stairwells and cupboards and corners to my heart’s content.

West DeanThe walled kitchen garden at West Dean, with cottage and glass-houses.

Image: Jim Buckland.

As I worked out what my heroine Clemency got up to, first below stairs and then venturing beyond the servants’ quarters, I had no trouble picturing her surroundings. A pink drawing-room and a blue-drawing room; stuffed tigers and stuffed birds; a round tower full of trophies; a Victorian kitchen garden laid out with elaborate neatness. I may have overdone the double double staircase in the hall, though, as I can’t find anything quite so complicated in real life.

Winter PalaceHere’s a modest example: the Winter Palace, St Petersburg.

But then the Great Hall isn’t based on any real place. I enjoy making things up too much to limit myself to that. I’m sure that houses I’ve visited and read about and seen on screen have gone into the mix, with ideas and images stored somewhere in the back of my brain. Gosford Park and Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, though not Downton Abbey, as my book was completed before that ever came to our televisions.

I must say that the working parts of a big house—nurseries, kitchens, pantries, passages—fascinate me far more than the grand public rooms. Because I strongly suspect that had I lived in Victorian times, like Clemency, I would have been toiling away below-stairs, rather than lounging about above.

Julia LeeJulia Lee has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. She wrote her first book aged 5, mainly so that she could do all the illustrations with a brand-new 4-colour pen, and her mum stitched the pages together on her sewing machine. As a child she was ill quite a bit, which meant she spent lots of time lying in bed and reading (bliss!).

Julia grew up in London, but moved to the seaside to study English at university, and has stayed there ever since. Her career has been a series of accidents, discovering lots of jobs she didn’t want to do, because secretly she always wanted to be a writer.

 Julia is married, has two sons, and lives in Sussex.

 Find out more about Julia on Twitter.

The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth is out now. Clemency Wrigglesworth

NOTES ON IMAGE SOURCES

• Peter Boston illustrations: www.polymathperspective.com/?=175

• Photo of Menabilly: www.dumaurier.org/memories.html

• Winter Palace staircase: www.saint-petersberg.com/palaces/winter-palace

• The walled garden at West Dean College – image taken by Jim Buckland the Head Hardener at West Dean College, West Sussex

A brand new chapter for Frozen in Time!

FIT

Ali-Sparkes-001

It’s hard to believe that four and a half years have shot by since Frozen in Time was first published in January 2009. For its launch I dressed up in a 50s style frock and convinced my family to clothe themselves similarly (the menfolk objected but the frocks didn’t look bad), hired a Wurlitzer jukebox and got some dancers to jive around outside Waterstones in Southampton’s West Quay.

I had a really strong feeling about the book – that it would prove to be my bestseller to date. And I wasn’t wrong. It went into a second edition in its first week.

I’d spent a lot of time researching the story of Freddy and Polly, a brother and sister who are frozen in time, cryonically, by their genius scientist father—and then discovered in the 21st century by Ben and Rachel. Although the story is not set in the 1950s, Polly and Freddy have just stepped out of that time into now. For them, as they’re woken up, June 1956 was just yesterday.Polly

In the months spent writing it, I went onto BBC local radio and put a letter in the local paper, asking people to send me their memories of growing up in the 1950s. I believe the essence of all the letters and emails I received really added to the authenticity of Polly and Freddy.

But I had an even better ace up my sleeve. My mum and dad. Polly and Freddy are actually my mum and dad, you see. Kind of. Pauline and Frederick Sparkes (now aged 69 and 70) were aged 12 and 13 in 1956. What better source?

Here’s little Polly—actually somewhat younger than 13—around nine, I would guess. Like Polly in the story, my mum, by this stage, was growing up without a mum of her own. Hers died when she was nine and she was brought up, in part, by her older sisters, Rita and Pat. She felt that lack of maternal guidance very keenly and turned to a well-loved weekly paper for girls entitled GIRL for advice—which offered the ‘Mother Tells You How’ column. GIRL

Polly in Frozen in Time also reads GIRL and knows a great deal about how to run a household as a result. The chapter where she teaches Rachel how to wash up properly was such a joy to write. I felt for Rachel, with her slapdash attempts at housework, as Polly put her to rights. But I cheered for Polly. She’s completely right, you know. You DO need a long handled mop and some really hot soapy water!

with dogFreddy, also, is such a boy! Like my dad (pictured here in the open shirt when he was about 11 or 12), he is an ace rollerskater. Dad told me all about racing around the streets of Millbrook in Southampton on skates—just metal soles and wheels which you attached to your shoes with leather straps and buckles. The gaps between the flagstones would play merry heck with your axles over time, leading to metal fatigue until they occasionally snapped (often at high speed).

In the story one of my favourite bits is the rollerskating chase scene where Freddy and Ben must outskate Roly and the Pincer twins in their modern in-line rollerblades—using just flimsy 1950s strap ons. I know just how brilliantly Freddy can skate because I’ve seen my dad do it, many times, over the years. There was a time in the late 80s when local kids used to come round to the house to ask if my dad would come out skating!

But where my parents differ from Polly and Freddy is the poshness. Polly and Freddy are only partly based on them—the more real part, I like to think. The slightly less real but just as entertaining part is inspired by Julian and Anne out of The Famous Five. Enid Blyton had a huge influence on me as I grew up. Her adventure, Five Go To Smuggler’s Top, was what turned me into a bookworm after a difficult start with reading and writing.

Reading some Enid Blyton to our sons a few years back, we found the stories were still great—but sometimes hilarious in ways that Enid had never intended. The language and the style were very firmly stuck in the 1950s and some of it was pant-wettingly funny. I got to thinking about those characters—Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and Timmy the Dog. How would they cope if they were suddenly fast-forwarded in time to the 21st century? It would blow their minds!

And how would the 21st century cope with them? Kids who went around with neatly parted hair, saying things like ‘Gosh!’ and ‘I say!’ and ‘Never fear, Aunt Fanny—I’m going to call a constable!’

From this Frozen in Time grew. It had all the ingredients of a good Famous Five story. Four children, underground passages, spies, bike rides, a puppy—even a missing scientist. But it also had Pot Noodle, tattoos and piercings, junk food, and some very sinister events (one or two of which, I’m wickedly proud to say, made some readers really scared!)

I had a good feeling about it from the off, but even I couldn’t have known it would up and win the Blue Peter Book Of The Year Award in 2010. That elevated it from my personal bestseller to a full on bestseller, hanging around at the top of the book sales charts for months. It didn’t hurt that it was featured on national telly—and I got to go on Blue Peter twice! Since then it’s spread all over the world and been translated into several different languages. It’s the one that every nods and goes ‘Aaaah yes!’ about whenever it’s mentioned.

jolly good showIt’s even spawned a theatre show. I’m just about to start touring this… Check out www.alisparkes.com for more information in the coming months.

And to top it all, OUP has given it this gorgeous makeover for summer 2013. I loved the original cover by David Frankland but I also adore this new one, from James Frazer…

fit old lookFITIt’s very NOW and yet still THEN, if you know what I mean.Truly, though—GOSH!

Ali-Sparkes-001Ali Sparkes grew up in Southampton and despite some exciting months in London and even more exciting months in Lowestoft (where she really experienced life on the edge), still lives in Southampton today, with her husband and two sons.

She has worked as a singer, journalist, broadcaster, magazine editor and the spangle-clad assistant to a juggling unicyclist (frighteningly, there is photographic proof).

Ali has many children’s fiction titles published by Oxford University Press including her SWITCH series, her award-winning novel Frozen in Time, and her heart-stopping adventure series about a group of teenagers with special powers, Unleashed.

Visit Ali’s website

Follow Ali Sparkes on Twitter

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