Abi Elphinstone grew up in Scotland where she spent most of her childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens. She is the author of The Dreamsnatcher, The Shadow Keeper and The Night Spinner, and curator of anthology Winter Magic. When she’s not writing, Abi volunteers for Beanstalk charity, speaks in schools and travels the world looking for her next story.
In Sky Song we follow Eska and Flint in their adventures across the snowy kingdom of Erkenwald, a place where ‘whales glide between icebergs, wolves hunt on the tundra and polar bears roam the glaciers’. It is a gripping and magical story, currently the Waterstones children’s book of the month. We spoke to Abi about her awe-inspiring adventures across Arctic fjords and among Mongolian eagle hunters, also delving into the allure of icy villains and hammocks made of moonlight…
Since we have just begun a new year, do you have a favourite children’s book from 2017?
Oooh, I have two. Lauren St John’s The Snow Angel and Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer. The Snow Angel is a hymn to mountains, lost children and kind hearts while The Explorer is a brilliantly bold adventure complete with jungle vines, forgotten temples and tarantulas.
Was it difficult to end your Dreamsnatcher trilogy? How did you adjust to a new world, that of Sky Song and its protagonists?
I was sad to leave Moll (the protagonist in The Dreamsnatcher trilogy) behind – she was such a natural character for me to write as we’re very similar: both fiercely adventurous and fiercely impatient… When I handed my first draft of the last book in that trilogy, The Night Spinner, to my editor I felt as if I hadn’t finished Moll’s story properly. So, I went back to the manuscript and wrote in a feast scene in the penultimate chapter and suddenly seeing the characters from all three books united felt a more fitting closing tribute to their adventures. I knew that I wanted a quiet epilogue to say goodbye to Moll and Gryff though – and by having them huddled up a tree together I felt like I’d taken them home – but it wasn’t until my editor suggested rewriting the scene in the present tense that I felt ready to move on to a new book. Somehow the immediacy of the present tense made it feel like Moll and Gryff would still get up to their usual mischief even if I wasn’t there to right their escapades down.
Initially, I found it hard to get into Flint and Eska’s heads. I’d never written a male protagonist before so I was stepping out of my comfort zone there. And with Eska, I kept trying to write another Moll character. It wasn’t until I stepped back from the story and walked over the moors in Scotland one day that I thought about both characters properly, about their emotional and practical needs and how they might go about achieving them.
What traits do you think the characters you have written share?
Although Eska has no recollection of who she is, and little understanding of why the Ice Queen is after her, she has an open heart. She is quick to trust strangers and wild animals and slow to get angry. Flint, on the other hand, has a closed heart – to begin with, anyway. He thinks he knows all there is to know about Erkenwald’s animals and tribes and is slow to trust and quick to let his temper get the better of him. But both Eska and Flint are brave. Courage is a quality I admire deeply and I wanted to write a book with a fairytale feel that would encourage children to know that they are braver than they realise. Cue G.K. Chesterton’s words: ‘Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.’
Can you tell us a little about the research you did for Sky Song? How long did it take?
In 2016 I journeyed to the Arctic – to the frozen fjords off the northern coast of Norway – where I watched orcas dive for herring, steered a dog-sled through snowy valleys and glimpsed the aurora borealis rippling across the sky. This was a land shrouded in silence and locked in darkness – the sun doesn’t rise at all in the winter months – but if I really listened, I could hear the place whispering: the crack and pop of sea ice, the underwater clicks of the orcas and the whir of ptarmigan wings over mountain peaks. And into this remote stillness, I started to write a story about a kingdom ruled by an Ice Queen’s enchanted anthem.
My heroine, Eska, grew out of the time I spent living with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia and in particular, with twelve-year-old, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, who is challenging an ancient tradition upheld almost exclusively by men to become the first eagle huntress. I ate yak cheese in a Mongolian ger (tent), I brushed my teeth under the biggest and brightest canvas of stars I’ve ever seen and I rode up into the highest mountains to see golden eagles diving for foxes and wolves. And all those experiences found their way into my book: the gers became the Fur Tribe’s treehouses, the stars became my Sky Gods, the eagle I watched soar above the peaks became Balapan and the girl I saw ride alongside men five times her age became Eska.
I also read countless non-fiction on Inuits and the Arctic landscape and its animals so that my kingdom, Erkenwald, might feel believable. So I probably spent about a year researching and planning the book – then I began to type.
Which is more fun, the research or the writing?
I go on book research adventures because, as John Muir said, ‘The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark’ but I write because there is something exciting, daring and endlessly rewarding about inventing something that wasn’t there before you started thinking about it. And because stories are brave and hopeful and they help us navigate this baffling world. I have as much fun gallivanting up mountains as I do in my writing hut scribbling about thunderghosts; it’s just that the former requires fewer deadlines…
Of all the amazing adventures you have had– abseiling 72 metres into Abismo de Anhumas, kayaking through the Norwegian fjords and so on– which would you do again?
Watching orcas dive for herring in the Arctic.
When you began Sky Song, did you know where it was going, and what the ending would be?
I’m dyslexic and when I come up with a vague story idea I then find it very, very hard to structure my thoughts into a coherent plot. I don’t think my books would ever happen if I just sat down and wrote sadly. I have to plan – especially because my stories often have lots of twists – so I knew, from the countless maps I’d drawn of Erkenwald and the plot bullet points I’d scribbled down – where my story was going from the start. Scenes shuffled around as I wrote and felt my way into the rhythm of the story but the ending was always the same. Because with almost every story I write I see my endings first. Sometimes it’s just a feeling or a single image that I know I want to work towards but with Sky Song there was a whole scene hovering in my mind.
Why did you decide that Eska’s voice and voices in general were going to be so central to the story?
This book began with a fairytale. With Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen to be precise. After finishing the story, my mind was whirling with images of an icy villain, and when, moments later, I picked up another Hans Christian Andersen favourite – The Little Mermaid – I started imagining a new tale fusing the possibility of a snow queen and stolen voices. Moments later, I was thinking about an organ made of icicles. I started scribbling in my notebook shortly afterwards.
How do you go about writing the really tense scenes (like the one on the Devil’s Dancefloor)?
I owe almost everything I know about writing tense action scenes from reading Michelle Paver’s The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. Her writing is so exact, and powerful, and because I read English at university and was an English teacher in a secondary school for many years, I’m used to analysing language. So, I spent months pouring over Paver’s craft – her sentence structures, word choices, imagery and chapter endings. Eventually I felt confident enough to write my own books and when I came to the action scenes I thought of Paver’s craft and tried to write as boldly as I could. I love writing dramatic scenes and often find myself thumping down on my laptop keys as I try to get my fingers to keep up with my story.
Your Ice Queen follows in the footsteps of several snow queens throughout the history of children’s books. What makes the figure so entrancing?
The first snow queen I came across was Hans Christian Andersen’s. I re-read it last year and it carried me back to childhood days spent watching snow fall beyond my bedroom window in Scotland and wondering whether the Snow Queen was going to steal me away. There was something deeply terrifying but also rather exciting about the prospect. Because icy villains like the Snow Queen in Andersen’s fairytale and the White Witch in Narnia are both terrifying and seductive. Their lavish furs, their magnificent sleighs, their icy promises – they lure readers (and writers) in. I loved creating my icy villain with her crown of snowflakes, wolverine pet and gown made from the frozen tears of prisoners.
Which animal would you most like to have a sacred bond with?
A snow leopard.
What are you up to next?
I’m starting work on a brand new series. The first book involves a miniature dragon who is scared of heights, a Storm Ogre who can only say one word (‘chomp’) and three Drizzle Hags called Hortensia Quibble, Sylvara Buckweed and Gertie Swamp.
Sky Song is published by Simon & Schuster.