I am very fortunate in that I have spent pretty much my whole life being a writer, and before I was a writer, I was a storyteller.
By that, I mean I told stories to my seven younger brothers and sisters. My dad had died in a car crash when I was fourteen and my mum worked in the evenings, so I was left to look after all of these wild children for whose antics I would be ultimately responsible. I had no particular means of entertaining them because my family did not buy books and we had neither television nor radio. So I made up stories and the main point of the stories was to rivet my audience so that they would not even think of getting up to mischief. Naturally the stories always had a thrilling scary thread, as well as delving into some sort of moral or ethical question. I have never forgotten the almost mystical power over an audience a storyteller has, when the story is deep and links you.
I wrote my first full book when I was fourteen and that was Obernewtyn. It was also the first book I had published. It was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to and it was short listed for Children’s Book of the Year in the older readers category in Australia. It is set in the future when most of the world is radioactive black wastelands, and the main character is a prickly young woman who is a loner with forbidden powers. I wrote that book not because I wanted to escape the real world, but because I wanted to think about certain aspects of the real world that troubled me.
If you look at the body of any writers’ work, you can figure out the questions that animate them. I think that is what real writers do. They don’t tell people how to live or what to think. They write in order to try to answer their own deepest questions. The question at the heart of all my books and stories, from Obernewtyn onward, is: Why do people do the things they do–the terrible things and the wonderful things? What makes a person grow up to be Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa instead of Hitler or Lizzie Borden?
That huge question is as much at the core of Little Fur: The Legend Begins as it was, over twenty books ago, at the core of Obernewtyn. In Little Fur, we see humanity from the outside, through the eyes of a little elf troll who lives in a forest hidden in the heart of a great sprawling, decadent human city. Little Fur is also a delicious revisiting of my storyteller past because it began as a told story.
I even remember the moment that story began to be told.
I was living in Prague, as I do part of the time, and there had been a terrible hundred-year flood. It was summer and the floodwaters were receding and the whole city had this pervasive spicy, rotten-upholstery reek. Most of the old town with its tiny labyrinthine cobbled streets and beautiful battered old buildings had been evacuated and was still blacked out. Water was being pumped from deep basements that had once been ground floor rooms, but which over the centuries had ended up being lower than the ever-rising street level. Immense piles of rubbish and hundred-year-old junk was piled head height outside most buildings, and when you passed through the dense spicy darkness at night, you would be aware of street people picking over the piles. The city was like an egg that had been cracked open to reveal what lay behind and under it, and I was fascinated. One day I was walking with my little girl, and she saw a glimmer of dark greasy water through a ground-level window. “What lives down there, Mama?” she asked in that delicious half fearful, half thrilled voice. And the slumbering fourteen-year-old storyteller roused and said in a sepulchral voice, “Trolls. Trolls live in the cracks and crannies of the city, and they only come out at night. . . .”
That was literally the beginning of Little Fur. It had been one of the sheerest pleasures of my life to write her story and illustrate it.