One unusual thing about conducting an interview at home is the vaguely soporific ticktocking of my clock in the background. That’s when it doesn’t decide to chime twelve o’clock, which is somewhat noisier. Katherine Langrish watches her husband David set off to walk their Dalmatian Polly, and then comes and sits where my photographer ‘orders’ her to sit.
While the photographer snaps, Katherine starts off by listing the authors and bloggers who have offered to help with her blog tour for the ‘new’ book, and she mentions her admiration for writer Katherine Roberts. This is one thing I notice all the time with authors; you talk to them and they immediately burst out in praise for someone else. Katherine reckons the other Katherine ‘is going to get better and better,’ and she is ‘a great fan of Katherine’s fantasy trilogy.’
From there she moves to her own pressing question of the pronunciation of the name Arne, the character she has edited specially for me. (Well, maybe she hasn’t, but I will take the credit, regardless.) Katherine doesn’t want to try it herself in case she embarrasses herself. We move on to talk about the name Hilde, before Katherine admits she knows Peer ‘is all wrong, but because everyone in England is so used to Peer Gynt, I always said it Peer, but I kind of wish now.., if I did it again I would probably not.’
‘At least you’ve avoided “purr” which would have been worse.’
‘And it’s a version of Peter anyway. The thing about Troll Fell was it was definitely a fairy tale, and it wasn’t tremendously serious, any of it. In fact, one of the best laughs I had was one of my amazon reviews, a two star review, and it went “Troll Fell; a depressing book”, and then it went on to say how depressing it was, and I thought it was quite funny.’ She laughs.
‘Did you consciously write it as a retelling of the traditional Nordic story? I found it to be very much the “standard tale” of going into the mountain, and finding the troll, whereas in books two and three your plots go in a totally different direction. Was it like a Greek myth retelling?’
‘Not exactly no, but because there were a lot of different elements going in there, it was so long in the writing. I started it when I was about 25 and I came out with twenty handwritten pages on foolscap, in pencil, about a boy who lives in a fjord and, obviously not in a fjord, and his name was Bjørn and not Peer. Then there was a sister called Hilde and I’d got Ralf and Gudrun and the boy went on the mountain and he started meeting the Norse gods, and I got stuck. Completely stuck and I just put it in a drawer, and I got married and had children and went to live in France and I went to live in America and every now and then I’d turn out this bit of writing, and think “actually, it’s reasonably good”, but I was completely stuck.
When we were living in France the church had a book sale and I always pick up the books with the tatty covers, and I picked this one up and it was the 1850 edition of Thomas Keightley’s Fairy Mythology. I got it for two francs and I was thrilled to bits because it wasn’t in print at the time, and started reading it and it literally was a collection of folk legends, and folklore, from all over the world. One of the first sections was Scandinavia, with lots of Swedish and Norwegian fairy stories and lots about trolls and nisses and I just thought “wow, these are wonderful, wonderful stories and what a shame that children don’t know them,” and I thought hang on a minute, I could have trolls in the book. I could get rid of the gods…’
‘… I don’t need to have them any more and anyway, Hilde was always more interesting to me. By this time I’d realised that my main character, the boy, was really boring.’ We laugh at this. ‘But the girl was interesting, because she was bright and confident and sassy. I knew I did need a boy as well, but he’d better not be bright and confident and sassy. So I needed a boy who was the opposite; who was a worrier. But I definitely wanted lots of folklore and fairy tales.
So I borrowed some from this book, some of the anecdotes, and I’ve been reading a lot of Hans Christian Andersen. There’s one, depending on which translation you read, it gets translated as the Troll Hill or the Elf Hill or the Fairy Hill, and I believe it’s actually a satire about Norwegian independence from Denmark. Are you familiar with it?’
‘Only by reading it as a child.’
‘They’ve lifted the top off the mountain on pillars and there’s going to be a wedding. The King of Norway and his two sons are coming, to marry one of the troll King’s daughters under the hill, and there’s a lot of fun about the Norwegians being all sort of rustic, and being proud that everything they’ve got on was brought with them from Norway. There’s a bit about them getting the hall ready and they’ve got to invite the nisses but they’re not sure they’ve got enough chairs, and they say “well can’t they sit on wet stones?” and I put that into Troll Fell but nobody’s ever noticed.’ Katherine laughs. ‘I was having fun really, and it’s been nice to go back over Troll Fell and cut out quite a lot of what I think was overwriting.’
‘I might have been a little bit too vicious. I won’t know until I see the book because I can’t quite remember what I did with it now. It did need cutting, but it was my first book, so it was as good as I could do it at the time. It wasn’t going to be a trilogy, and I had no idea for a sequel. I didn’t even know if it was going to get published. I put it down and started something completely different, and then got Catherine Clarke as my agent and she was wonderful. She got me this big deal and mentioned a sequel and I thought, actually I could write another book about Peer and Hilde. Clearly Peer would fall in love with Hilde and she wasn’t going to be particularly keen on him. I wanted to jump forward three years because I didn’t want to write about children any more.’
‘Just to see what happens three years on. It’s not really historical fiction, it’s fantasy. I tried my best in Troll Fell to be authentic but I think it got more authentic as I went on. The other night I was thinking about talking about the books and suddenly remembered Tolkien. I think it might be the introduction to Lord of the Rings; “this tale grew in the telling,” and I kind of feel that’s what happens with the troll books, they got more serious as they went on. Writing the book about the fisherman who finds a seal wife who goes back to the sea, I thought how would it be if that happens? I wanted to talk about the fisherman and his story, and I suddenly discovered halfway through that I was writing about mothers…’
We laugh. ‘Yeah.’
‘And the whole book is about mothers because I’ve got three babies in it. There’s the seal baby and Hilde’s little brother and then there’s the troll baby.’
‘And there are three different mothers. There’s the mother who’s really got some kind of postnatal depression, and there’s Gudrun who’s very practical and manages, and then there is the troll mother who’s the mother from hell.
Tell me if I’m talking too much!’
‘No, not at all.’
‘Trying to do research on that, I didn’t know if they had cradles in the Viking era, so I phoned up Jorvik museum and got talking to an archaeologist. He said “we’ve never found one, but they certainly had the technology, so if you want to have a cradle you can have a cradle.” The mill in Troll Fell and Troll Mill is anachronistic, because it wouldn’t have been like that. I spent ages and ages researching, because the mill wheel is horizontal but mills at that time would have had a vertical wheel, a horizontal wheel with a long chute coming down to it and you didn’t have to have any gears.’
Katherine explains and seems to know all about different kinds of mill wheels, and something else would apparently have been much simpler. ‘But I thought to try and explain in the book what a mill would really have looked like at that time would just take me way off course. And it’s not really important. I was talking to Jan Mark about this once and said there are anachronisms in there, but at least I know they’re there. I don’t like to get things wrong by accident. I prefer to get things wrong on purpose.
Then they gave me a contract for two more books, and I’d got Peer and Hilde to a point where quite clearly there was a romance going to happen and I wanted to see what. There was this whole thing about Ralf going off to America in the first book, which to me was one of the problems. Way back before I even got the trolls in, I had absolutely no idea what Ralf was doing, so I got rid of him. I quite liked him, but you had to get rid of him, because you have to get rid of the parents.’
‘I’d no idea what he was doing. Then I thought, well obviously he’s just gone off on a raid or something, or trading. So why is he away so long? And then I thought he’s obviously been blown off to America, and then there was this promise that we’d go back there. I’d been reading lots and lots of the Sagas and thoroughly enjoying them, but Egil in particular interested me, because they still say he’s one of Iceland’s greatest poets, and he was a bloodthirsty murderer.’
‘The thing about fantasy is when it’s not done well it annoys me. It’s like hero worship and you get these heroes with swords. Even Tolkien does it – I don’t mind Aragorn. I was in love with him myself as a child, though I prefer it when he’s Strider – and you have this hero with a wonderful named sword. Actually Egil was good with a sword and he was charismatic and he could write wonderful poetry, but you really wouldn’t want to have him live next door to you.
My hero Peer is basically a peasant boy, he’s good at carpentry, and that’s all he can do. He can’t read, he probably can’t make up poetry, he’s not particularly good looking, not bad but not wonderful. And I thought, I want an anti-hero who looks like a hero, so that’s where Harald Silkenhair came in, because he looks amazing, he’s totally charismatic, everybody admires him, he has a named sword and he’s an absolute psychopath. And I wanted to see what Peer would do and how he would handle it.
A sword is no different from a gun. It might look more romantic but that’s because we romanticise the past. What do you do when you’re powerless and you haven’t got a sword, you’re not good at fighting?
Going back to putting the three books in one cover – because they were never conceived as a trilogy – all I did was cut out some redundant bits. I obviously cut the bits where you have to explain who the characters are and what they were doing before, trim it down and then maybe just strengthen some of the story arc. In a way I hope it will come over as very much Peer’s coming of age.’
Here David turns up with Polly, and we start on the tea and sandwiches. David politely enthuses about the “combination of Scandinavian elegance and lovely Manchester Victoriana”, which sounds like someone else’s home altogether. Katherine asks if she is ruining my questions, but I say that she’s covering most of them beautifully, without me even having to ask her anything.
‘Actually, I know what I was thinking. I looked at my review of Troll Blood and I said I wouldn’t mind a sequel to the Native American side of the book.’
‘Mmm,’ she sounds doubtful.
‘Could you be tempted?’
‘Well, I could, if someone would pay me to write it. What would be nice is if someone asked me for one of those little World Book Day books. I could do a short story about them. It would have been quite nice to have written more about their life in North America that summer, for instance. On the other hand I was quite lucky to get away unscathed, writing about Native American legends and mythology.
I took enormous care over that. I must have spent six months doing nothing but research. You can’t just look it up, and believe what you read. None of the retellings will do, unless you can find out where they sourced it from. There’s a blacklist of books on the Native American websites. The Indian in the Cupboard is one of them, and so are the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I wrote a piece for my blog last year about cultural appropriation.
On the other hand, the Vikings went to North America and they met people there, because the Sagas and archaeological evidence show they went there. Because my book was fantasy, and because I’d already used Scandinavian folklore I wanted to use Native American folklore. Where Leif Eriksson went, the last Native American (of that tribe) died in 1850 or so, and almost nothing is known about their mythology or legends because it wasn’t written down or recorded. Most of what is written down is from the 19th century, and only information about some of the tribes.’
Katherine mentions someone whose opinion was that these stories were too superior to have originated from Native Americans. ‘You can’t go near that with a bargepole! So a lot of effort went into that, and for the American edition we’ve got an entire bibliography at the back, and every mythical creature, every folkloric creature was linked to a source so you could go and find where it was, and many of the sources were quite old. Someone complained about this, but that’s the point of primary sources! It’s the best I can do. You can’t know what they thought or believed in the 10th century, but I did my best. So, in a way to go back and do another piece set in the Native American world… maybe I’ve been lucky enough already.’
‘It just sounded very interesting.’
‘I think it’s important actually, that we should be able to tell each other stories.’
‘Your blogging, did you start because you were pushed to or because you really wanted to?’
‘I was dithering about it. I think I just thought I should, partly to get a better profile in America, and also last year was a washout as far as my writing was concerned. I’ve been spending most of it helping my mother, and it was just not possible to write. The blog has been an unequivocally good thing, I must say. Initially I tried to blog on my website and felt I didn’t have the freedom. I thought if it doesn’t work I can stop, and there have been times when I’ve felt sort of stretched. It’s become like a daily paper and you’ve got to keep feeding it… Though there always seems to be something you can say about fairy tales and children’s writing in general.
Then I got this idea of inviting different people to write about fairy tales, which has been fantastic! And I’ve met such a lot of lovely people through it. Got my first boost when Kate Forsyth emailed me this time last year, asking would I like to be on her blog tour. I did an interview and I really liked her book. Kate came over from Australia in the summer and we met and that was nice. Cassandra Golds is another friend in that internet sense. It’s odd, but they are real friends.’
Katherine talks about some authors getting their history and their centuries wrong, ‘but you have to sort of forgive that.’ She mentions the Californian sci-fi/fantasy author who wrote about oranges growing in 16th century Britain, and the characters having them for breakfast straight from the garden. ‘It’s that you don’t know what you don’t know, that trips you up.’
‘Yes, I’m always going on about that.’
‘But it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book.’
‘Were you able to imagine what life would be like once you became an author?’
‘I had no idea. I don’t think anyone had any idea, what it would be like. I didn’t even realise how long it takes for them to actually get turned into a book. I’ve learned from bitter experience how long it can take to find an agent, or to find a publisher. I’ve done lots and lots of that, like everyone does sending their manuscripts out. Also it didn’t happen to me in the regular way, because Catherine is a remarkably good agent. At the time there were probably half a dozen of us, Ellie Updale, Liz Kessler, Julie Hearn, me, and a couple more.
Catherine got John McLay to read my book and get a quote, and she sent it out and there were eight publishers interested so it went to auction, and it was quite bizarre. In the end they bought it for, I think £100,000 for two books. I remember my mother was round and the auction was going live and I kept getting phone calls. We didn’t even think HarperCollins were interested because they hadn’t said anything, and everyone was down with flu, so they jumped on the bandwagon quite late. This phone call came through with HarperCollins’s amount,’ and here Katherine makes a funny little sound, ‘and I was shaken to the core. My mother – my mother is my mother – she said “at last Katherine is getting her due,” (David laughs at this) and my 13-year-old daughter came to the top of the stairs and said “bloody hell,” knowing she wasn’t going to get told off.
I went to see Catherine and I remember sitting there in the office in Oxford, shaking like a jelly, and asking what I should do, because I hadn’t even met anyone from HarperCollins. They’ve been absolutely lovely, very supportive, I’ve had lovely editors, and they got me a second contract. It was at the time when everyone was still looking for the next Harry Potter, and Troll Fell sort of fitted the mould if you like, and it did quite well. I was zoomed around and talked to librarians, and I didn’t know what was normal, but I did feel very, very nervous about meeting other authors, who had been around a hell of a lot longer than me.’
‘Yes, I can understand that.’
‘The first time I went to Charney Bassett I was creeping about like a mouse,’ her husband laughs at this, ‘because I hadn’t even got a book out, you know, and I knew I was this kind of interloper. I felt a total fraud, having had money piled on me and nobody knew quite how much, and it was embarrassing, really. But we needed the money so..,’ she laughs.
‘So you had to say yes.’
‘So we took it, and ran.’ Katherine has a nice laugh. ‘What has struck me is that people can be quite grumpy about their publishers, saying that they ought to do more, but I think you just have to get real and hence the blogging. It’s terrible if you’re shy.’
‘Yes, it would be.’
‘I know some shy writers and they suffer terribly. Anyway, I’m enjoying it, enjoying the blogging, partly because I’m meeting so many really interesting, lovely people.’
‘Yes, it’s the same for me, it’s fantastic.’
‘I’ve got a short story actually, coming out in America in an anthology next year, or possibly this year.’ This happened through Katherine’s younger daughter who has a friend who has a stepmother, who happens to be a well known American fantasy anthologist.’
David starts stacking plates and tidying up.
‘It’s a prequel to the new book, young adult, set in the future and very different.’
‘Have you finished writing it?’
‘The short story, yes. The book hasn’t even been begun. But I sort of know what I’m doing with it.’ Katherine’s new anthology friends have written on her blog. ‘It’s great fun and I’m having a whale of a time, I really am.’
They both help tidy up, after which David and Katherine take water out for Polly to drink, before getting into their car for the drive home to Oxfordshire. And I’m left feeling that Katherine and her troll books really deserve their good fortune. It’s been great witnessing Katherine’s progress over the years, and she has no reason to feel a fraud.
(All photos, except for dog photos, by Helen Giles)