Lucy Coats about ... Hootcat Hill
Books by this Author:
interviewed May 2008 by Sarah Rudd
I like the idea of the Guardians, but why is there a badger when all the others are either magical creatures or humans with special powers? (I realise the badger can talk, but still...)
The simple answer is that I just like badgers. Badgers have an honourable place in children’s literature, and two of my favourite characters of all time are Badger in the Wind in the Willows (how I love the way he pretends that he’s ‘in his office’, when really he’s taking an afternoon nap - I can so relate to that!) and Brock the Badger in Alison Uttley’s ‘Sam Pig’ stories. Badgers are earthy creatures, solid and real, and yet they have a mystery and wisdom about them which fascinates me. Watching the way they move - so clumsily lumbering and yet so graceful - is a wonder and an all too rare privilege. They may not be traditionally mythical per se - but when I started writing Hootcat Hill and thought about who the Guardians might be, Sunstar simply appeared in my head and told me, ‘I’m one. Deal with it.’ So I did. His down-to-earthness and grumpiness made me laugh while I was writing it. Actually, it was more like I was taking dictation - from a badger. Now you know us writers are a weird lot!
Linnet is wonderfully human, going through age-old problems such as bullies at school and awful homework - was it important to you to make sure she was ‘real’ to your readers?
I am so glad you asked that, because it was one of the most important things for me to get right. I wanted readers to care about Linnet - to empathise with what she was going through. Sometimes I got really angry when I was writing the bullying sequences, because I remembered what it was like to feel powerless to stop it, and that comes out on the page. I dug deep into my own memories of growing up - and I talked to a lot of teenagers including my daughter about what it felt like now (not so different, it seems). I asked myself a lot of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions about how Linnet was feeling at any one moment. There is such a lot going on, and it is all pretty overwhelming for her, so I had to remember that every minute I was writing and take it into account. Her situation (of finding out that she is The Maiden) is unique - but growing up is, of course, common to us all. I had to find a way of melding the two together to make a coherent whole. I think Linnet is a believable character - I hope she’s a sympathetic and loveable one too, with all the flaws that make us each irreplaceably who we are. It’s key to the book that she is.
Where did the idea of ‘Techno’ magic come from?
Linnet lives in a world which I describe as ‘next-door but one’. It’s the same as ours in lots of ways but there are crucial differences. I didn’t want to make a huge song and dance about it being another world - I rely on the intelligence of my readers to work that out for themselves. However, I needed to indicate that old magic (the magic of Fey/Guardian/Hulda/Dwarf etc) was not the same as the casual everyday ‘magic’ modern humans rely on. That may sound odd, but if you put someone from 300 years ago down in a normal town of today, they would see all our gadgets as some kind of magic - so would today’s tribesman from an undiscovered part of the Amazonian rainforest. Things we use so casually everyday - like electricity, cars, i-pods, computers, even digital watches - would be totally alien to our ancestors. I chose the world ‘techno’ to reinforce that - if you like, it is a sort of verbal alert, a stating of the obvious maybe, but nonetheless an important marker. When I decided to use it in this way, I also made the choice to try and be consistent - hence technowatch, technotonic plates. Possibly annoying, but I felt it was necessary.
Linnet is a modern girl, living in a modern world. Every Maiden before her has managed to put the worldwyrm back to sleep - just. But it has always re-emerged. Underlying Linnet’s story is the fact that the old magic is failing, weakening - humans and their technological meddling, building and roadmaking have drained the energy out of it. So what is Linnet to use instead? Her magic is a totally new construct. It consists of human technomagic - which is defined at the beginning of Chapter 3 as "(1) ...used by the non-scientific community to describe the workings of such technological machinery as...Medipods, where the techno-scientific explanation is not readily understood... (2) Slang term used to explain odd physical effects caused by consumption of some man-made foods and drinks (esp beers). (3) Events caused by humans that are not explicable by normal scientific rules. (Unscientific, unproven)" - and old magic. Linnet has a genetic talent for the former from her father, and the latter is part of her inheritance as the Maiden. Because she needs a totally new way to defeat the wyrm and send it back to sleep for once and all, out of necessity she breeds a mongrel magic made out of old and new. I suppose it could be called technomagic mark 2.
This is a long answer to a short question - in brief, I wanted to explore the conflict between shamanic nature magic, and modern technology. Technomagic came out of that questioning.
We know that the Fey Queen has it in for all Maidens, but we didn’t really get why she is so anti-humans in the first place?
Think of Morgan le Fay, Snow White’s stepmother, Tam Linn’s Fairy Queen captor, even Shakespeare’s Titania, think of every story you ever heard of the conflict between human and fairy. There are a lot of them. Who can tell why the Fey Queen (or any Fairy Queen in any culture) began to hate humans? Maybe it’s because humans are stubborn and refuse to lie down and do what they are told. Maybe it’s because they question the (to the Fey) self-evident right of any fairy to be better and more powerful than any mortal. Maybe it’s because the Fey are scared of the naturally quixotic human tendency to wade in when the odds are so obviously against them. I think it’s a mixture of all these things - and more. Who can argue with the weight of mythic literary evidence that lies behind this position. Not me, that’s for sure. It’s an age-old, bone-deep sense of insecurity about what those tricksy humans might get up to next that makes the Fey hate us - we’re just too unpredictable for them.
What is the significance of the Hootcat Owls?
A hootcat owl is where the whole book started. I was helping my son do some research for a school project on owls, with which he was obsessed at the time. We found a lot of dialect words for owls. Hootcat was one of them. It roiled and boiled around in my head for ages, and then a picture of a hill, crowned by a stone circle carved with owls popped up in my imagination. I knew immediately that this was Hootcat Hill, and that the owls in this particular place were called hootcats. Eventually this led me to the Owlman - the Guardian of this particular and seminal place in the book, where all the important action starts and finishes. I took another dialect owl word - Hullart - as his surname, and used ‘Tyto’ - the latin genus of barn owl - for his forename. Altogether, it’s a pretty owly book. I hear owls hooting around me every night where I live. I think they approve.
I couldn’t help laughing about the ‘Monster Brew’ and its side effects on those that drink it! What made you think up these concoctions and why is it that only Linnet’s dad can make them?
When I was growing up, one of my dad’s friends was this guy who never stopped brewing wine and beer out of everything. And I mean everything! Trust me on this one, if anyone offers you swede wine, or broad bean beer, refuse politely. Roy, spent a good deal of his spare time in the cellar, mixing and tasting, and sometimes there were Explosions. I never forgot him, and, looking back, he was batty, but kind of cool too. In writing Merrilin Perry, I just exaggerated him a bit, and threw in some magic. Merrilin comes from a long and ancient line of magic users - but he’s not really interested in that per se - it’s just the way his particular talent has emerged. What is really important is that he’s fanatical about his hobby. The side effects make him and everyone else laugh, but all he really cares about is creating the perfect Brew - an elusive and tricky creation, which he will spend his whole life working towards.
Which part of Hootcat Hill was the most difficult to write and why?
It has to be the Avvallon chapters. I knew where I was going in the end, but not necessarily how I was going to get there. Every day started with me not knowing the path forward and ended with me being a little further down the track. It was like being on a rollercoaster - exciting but scary - sometimes there were bits where I was hanging on by my toes upside down. And yes, I did feel sick quite frequently.
When you say that Linnet’s character "had a strong voice", what do you mean?
Some characters let you write them, quite meekly, without complaining. Linnet was not like that. When I say she ‘had a strong voice’, I mean simply that she was sometimes pretty argumentative in my head. Writing is an odd business at the best of times - but when your character starts to take on a life of their own and talk back at you, it’s a sure sign that things are going right. Linnet is a teenager, with her own very definite ideas about things, and there were days when there was quite a lot of foot-stamping going on. As a mother myself, I know there are times to make a stand and times to give in. We worked it out in the end!
Is there more to being a Maiden than just making sure the Wyrme stays asleep - and if so, what?
For the original Maidens, that was the job. Once the worldwyrm was back asleep, that was it. They went back to ordinary life with the rest of the Guardians, and when they died, there was one less active Guardian in the world until the next Maiden was needed. One was always waiting in the wings - like Linnet - but many generations lived and died not having to know what they were. As for Linnet - well, she’s got different magic, hasn’t she? Who knows what she will do with it? Not me...yet.
Finally, is there going to be a sequel? I ask because there have been lots of people asking us!
It’s not something I am planning at the moment - I have 2 other novels to write. But if a flash of brilliant inspiration comes along I don’t see why not - eventually. Don’t hold your breath though, it might take a while!
Many thanks!!Read our full review of Hootcat Hill by Lucy Coats