We are five today! Well, Bookwitch is. Her alter ego needs more fives for a full description. Michelle Lovric, on the other hand, is young and beautiful, although slightly older than five. I’m very grateful to have her call in here today to chat about her new book. What Michelle is about to tell us will help in the appreciation of Talina in the Tower.
Here she is, ready to enlighten us about things connected to underwear, making my day extra special.
“Sometimes writing a novel is all about changing your mind – or someone else’s mind. It’s a traditional device of romantic novels to have the heroine desperate for the wrong man (generally a handsome but shallow bounder). So the happy ending consists of her losing him, but finding what – or more usually whom – she really needed and wanted all along, and could have had, if she’d not been blinded by the one fault in her own character that the story arc requires her to overcome. Think of Emma and her Mr Knightley, to whose husbandly attractions she remains resolutely immune until she’s been humbled and has learned to desist from meddling disastrously in the lives of others. She then proceeds to ‘earn’ him through the pain of personal transformation.
In writing for children, the whole solution cannot be found in the familiar Austen trope of humiliation, revelation, emotional rescue and marriage. So instead we put our children through hoops that will lead them into temptation, aggravation, desperation and any number of other ‘ations’.
The solution, generally more interesting than marriage, lies in their overcoming a weakness, a blindness or an adversity imposed from the outside.
In Talina in the Tower, I set my young heroine just such a conundrum. Talina is a keen cook and amateur magician. But she’s also a fiery girl, easily distracted, who rarely thinks before she speaks. A mishap in the kitchen, arising from precisely this combination of traits, puts her under a shape-shifting spell. Her dilemma is that she starts to assume the physical characteristics of whomever or whatever is making her lose her temper.
You’d think, ‘Simple. She must just keep calm, then.’ But Talina is the most impudent girl in Venice, famous for her campaigns and her pranks. Keeping serene and reasonable is a formidable challenge for her. At the beginning of the book, she fails every time.
And so a rat who annoys her soon points out that she’s grown a hairless pink tail. Captured by a hungry vulture, Talina grows a pair of wings, and so on.
Not only must Talina save Venice from the Ravageurs, ferocious hyena-like creatures, but she must also save herself from turning into a Ravageur. This is especially hard because the Lord of the Ravageurs is, to paraphrase a BBC reporter, ‘like Jeremy Clarkson, but without the crippling self-doubt’. Grignan is a bully and a sneerer – two of the qualities that Talina can least tolerate in a human, let alone in a creature with terrible table manners who has kidnapped her parents and is terrorizing the city she loves.
I suppose that the lesson Talina learns in the book is to save her anger for the things that justify it. She learns to focus her emotions on worthier things, to brush aside casual insults and to rise above what is irritating but essentially unimportant
In a sense, she learns to be ‘grown up’. But as a writer, this posed another dilemma. Did I want my Talina turned into a prim and priggish little Stepford heroine? No. So I had to leave her still with a sting in her tail, and a lot to say. She had to change her mind about things, and change in some ways, but she had to remain true to the girl who captures the readers’ interest early in the book with her entertainingly extreme behaviour. I refuse to use the ‘journey’ word, but I needed Talina’s character to have its own story arc, parallel to but separate from the plot. The problem (almost geometrical in construction) was that the point where the character arc finished had to be a high point too.
I think I found a solution. But I imagine this is something faced by many writers for children. How do we refine our characters without flattening them? How do we choreograph their emotional progress across the stage of our book? In exciting but confusing leaps or carefully measured steps?
One book I’ve read recently is a masterclass in this issue of accelerating maturity in child protagonists: Penny Dolan’s A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. Mouse undergoes a series of picturesque and picaresque Victorian trials. Each experience changes him. But none of his reactions are stereotypical. His ‘inappropriate’ outbursts bring his character into the present – he is a child modern children can understand. He finishes the book as himself, but with dignity and agency he’s earned himself along the way. He’s done this by changing his mind – by letting slip misbegotten certainties, by reassuring himself about groundless doubts, by stabilizing his ideas in the quicksand of experience.
So when my rat Altopone reproaches Talina, saying, ‘Hope you change your underwear as often as you change your mind’, he means it as a compliment. It is only by changing our minds that we grow up.”
I’ll have to think about this. Underwear. Minds. I like to believe I know exactly who I am, and what’s right. Mr Knightley, here I come! (But first some birthday cake, courtesy of Talina. Spell-free.)