Tuesday 22 November 2011

"Midnight Blue"

Today I'm celebrating the re-release, as an E-book, of a strange and wonderful YA novel: Pauline Fisk's ‘Midnight Blue', which won the Smarties Book Prize in 1990.  It's the story of a young girl, Bonnie, who is about to begin a new life with her mother away from the influence of her controlling and malevolent grandmother.  But the grandmother finds them and Bonnie runs away, finding refuge in a mid-city oasis, a walled garden in which a mysterious man called Michael is building a hot air balloon with the help of a strange shadowy boy.  Michael’s aim is to fly to the land  'beyond the sky.  Not ‘in outer space’ or ‘in another galaxy’, but beyond the sky… as though it were possible to peel away the edge of the blue and pass straight through.'

Bonnie and the shadow-boy fly without him, '... racing for the top of the sky.  Its warmth welcomed them, turned the dark skin of the fiery balloon midnight blue...  Then the smooth sky puckered into cloth-of-blue and drew aside for them, like curtains parting.'  On 'the other side of the sky' Bonnie wakes in a farmhouse on Highholly Hill, a place of legends where Wild Edric and his fairy wife Godda are said to emerge from the caverns and ride by night.  She is welcomed by a warm-hearted but strangely incurious family, whose daughter Arabella is Bonnie's living image: herself as she might have been in a different, secure life.  But Bonnie struggles with jealousy and hatred. And then her grandmother reappears, a sinister, knowing figure with the power to suck away the essence of a person and leave a simulacrum behind...

If you want to see Highholly Hill, here it is, crowned with 'Wild Edric's Throne' - and it's also in the photo at the head of this blog!  It is in fact the magnificent and brooding hill called Stiperstones, in Shropshire on the Welsh border, and I used it in my own book ‘Dark Angels’ and called it ‘Devil’s Edge.

All the things I love in a book are to be found in 'Midnight Blue' - mystery and magic, a strong sense of place, deep emotional feeling and beautiful writing.  I highly recommend it, and I'm delighted to be able to welcome Pauline herself to the blog, as part of her 'Midnight Blue' tour.

Pauline, can you remember what impulse triggered the writing of this, your first book? What was the kernel, the seed of the idea that became Midnight Blue?

Writing a book has something of the snowball-making process about it. You start with a tiny handful of something scrunched up tight in your brain, then you roll it round and it starts to grow. You roll and roll and finally it becomes so big that it takes on a life of its own and starts rolling away from you. That’s when the writing has to begin.

The heart of my snowball came down to three things. Firstly, I’d long wanted to write a children’s novel featuring balloon-flight, maybe with sky-gypsies or something like that, but the paraphernalia of modern ballooning didn’t sit easily with what I envisaged. Secondly, when I came to live in Shropshire, I discovered a folklorist called Charlotte Burne whose ‘Shropshire Folk-lore’, published in the mid nineteenth century, included the story of a sleeping knight called Wild Edric. Thirdly, whilst our own house had builders in, my family and I were privileged to spend one autumn living in a remote hilltop farmhouse overlooking the Stiperstones and Wild Edric’s haunt, the Devil’s Chair. In the book it became Highholly House. I wanted to honour it as something magnificent which had stood through the centuries, enduring the elements and the passage of time. I was aware, when we moved out, that it would probably never be lived in again.

Many writers, wanting to send their characters into another world, would use some kind of magical talisman or spell. I’m fascinated by your use of the hot air balloon to send your character Bonnie away…it’s physical travel to a physical place, High Holly Hill - yet in some sense unreal too. Where did the image of the hot air balloon and the parting of the sky come from?

The idea of ballooning as a means of escape really came alive for me when I read Jim Woodman’s ‘Flight of Condor I’, describing how he and Julian Nott built, launched and flew a balloon over the desert at Nazca, Peru, powered only by smoke and flames. As soon as I read about their amazing dawn launch, I knew what shape I wanted my novel to take. Yes, a physical trip and, yes, to a physical place. But powered through the air by fire – how magical was that?

As to the sky parting – I suppose I’ve always seen the sky as a sort of stage putting on a show, so to imagine the blue as a set of curtains doesn’t seem that far fetched. There’s more to the sky than space, just as there’s more to life than science - and it’s this ‘more’ that’s always really interested me in my writing life. In ‘Flying for Frankie’ - which also features a balloon flight - my heroine says, ‘We peeled back the edges of our world and found out there was more.’ For her, the ‘more’ is understanding who she is and what her place is in the scheme of things. But for Bonnie, the heroine of ‘Midnight Blue’, ‘more’ is literally more. More Maybelle. More Michael. More Highholly House. More of herself. And more of the dreaded Grandbag too.

One of the things I love about this book is that you don’t seem to feel the need to provide rationales for everything. Much is left unexplained – yet it all feels natural, as if we understand the story on a deep, symbolic level. Did you write the book this way instinctively, or was it consciously planned?

This is something I feel so strongly about that it’s hard to know where to start - or how to keep it short. Yes, instinctively I shy away from explanations. Perhaps, even in struggling to answer you now, I’m doing that. But how many books have been ruined by explanations? Oh, those terrible last chapters where the pieces are put together and the ends are tied up and all the author’s hard work creating a believable alternate reality is suddenly undone!

After all, real life isn’t like that. It very often doesn’t have explanations - at least not ones that are handed on a plate. Especially for children – and it’s children I’m writing for – life just happens. It’s a mystery functioning on a level that goes deeper than mere words.

Take what happens to Bonnie when she arrives in Highholly House. From the adult perspective, the people who’ve taken her in should ask who she is, where she’s from and whom they can phone. But from Bonnie’s perspective, it might be unsettling that they don’t, but she accepts it. Things are happening all the time in her child’s life for which there are no words or explanations. That’s just life.

It would be nice to say that I’ve taken a stand here, refusing to bow to adult requirements for what a story should be. But to be honest it’s happened more naturally than that. I’ve simply put in what I felt Bonnie’s story needed, and left out what I felt might ruin it, hoping that, as she learns to see the world anew, my readers would go through that experience seeing with her eyes.

Bonnie runs away from herself as well as from an intolerable situation, and finds, at the farm on Highholly Hill, the ideal family she might have had in a parallel universe. But she doesn’t belong there. Would you say that Midnight Blue is very much a story about identity?

Who is Bonnie? Nobody knows, least of all herself. Who’s Arabella? She’s not the ‘Arabella-thing’ that steps out of the magic mirror. Who is the shadowboy? Only when he takes on flesh and blood, giving up his magic past, can he begin to feel. Yes, indeed, ‘Midnight Blue’ is a book about identity. What is it that makes us human? When characters in Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ are separated from their daemons, the most awful thing in the world becomes reality – they are no longer truly human. Again, in Ray Bradbury’s wonderful ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, people stumble home from the fair stripped of their years, their memories and all their experiences. And similarly, in ‘Midnight Blue, when Jake and Arabella stumble into the magic mirror, they emerge with the shape of their humanity still intact, but devoid of life.

The truly terrible thing about Grandbag isn’t her possessiveness. It’s what she wants to possess. And what she wants is just that - life. She’s drained it out of grey, limp Doreen, moved onto Maybelle, tried with Bonnie and now she’s started on Bonnie’s friends on Highholly Hill. And, it’s in fighting for Highholly Hill, at the ultimate cost to herself, that Bonnie finds her place in the world and discovers who she really is.

Though ‘Midnight Blue’ is so mysterious and mystical, it feels real and grounded because of its strong sense of place. First the city which Bonnie flees, and then the dramatic landscape and legends of Shropshire, are essential ingredients of this book and many of your others since. What is it about the Shropshire hills that speaks to you?

Oh, there’s a question! In a sense I’m Bonnie, fleeing the city and finding another, better world among the Shropshire hills. I grew up in London. In fact the flats from which Bonnie flees were ones I used to pass sometimes on the bus. I never felt rooted there, though. Maybe it was because my mother came to England as a refugee from the Channel Islands, fleeing Hitler’s invasion during the Second World War, I don’t know. Certainly she did her best to fit in, but her sense of belonging somewhere else was always there, and perhaps it rubbed off on me.

But why Shropshire? The first time I visited the county, I was driving through on my way to North Wales. The mountains were beautiful, but the horizon enclosed me and made me feel claustrophobic, and the rolling, open greenness of the Shropshire hills felt so much more open and liberating.

I moved here to live in 1972 and have been here ever since. I suppose I was a rootless person looking for roots, and the roots came in family [husband, five children, a series of dogs], and the enjoyment of the Shropshire hills became part of our shared experience.

But it’s my own personal experience too. There’s a great joy that comes from being alone out in the hills. I love the sense of space. I love being able to walk and rarely cross a road or see a soul all day, or see a thing that isn’t beautiful or hear a sound that isn’t made by birds or wind or sheep. And I’ve done this so often that the land feels like my second skin. I know where the finches nest; where the white violets come up in spring; where I just might see otters if I’m lucky, or wild orchids. What speaks to me about the Shropshire hills? It’s the voice of home.

What, for you, is the purpose of fantasy fiction?

Purpose. Hmm. In order to attempt to answer this, I’m going to quote from another of my novels, ‘The Beast of Whixall Moss’. My hero has found, and lost, a fabuous six-headed beast, and he’s in mourning. Then one morning he wakes up and the garden is full of beasts, and they’re all fabulous and this is what he thinks: ‘This was what it meant to have vision. He knew at last. Not striving for things, hoping until hope had gone, as Mum had done, nor grasping for things in a frenzy of desire as he had done. But, amid the ordinary things of life, unasked for and unheralded, this act of sight.’

The key here, more even than those words ‘act of sight’, is the phrase ‘ordinary things of life’. I think that the purpose of fantasy isn’t so much to escape ordinary life as to shine light upon it. Being taken to the edge of human experience allows us to look both ways – out into the unknown and back into what we think we know all too well, but maybe don’t. Tolkien talks about the realm of fairy-story being ‘ wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow sharp as swords.’ But you could say the same things about the world we live in. It’s just that fantasy casts things in a heightened light.

It’s back to what I was saying earlier about the sky as a stage. Fantasy’s like a spotlight which illuminates life. It takes us out of ourselves and brings us back, changed yet scarcely knowing we’ve been away

Thankyou Pauline! 

PRICE: £2.99

Or READ A FREE SAMPLE at the author's lovely new website

For a recent review of Midnight Blue, visit The Bookbag
Read Pauline's account of living in the ancient farmhouse on Stiperstones at Reclusive Muse
Discover how she came to be a writer at Book Angel Booktopia
Visit Authors Electric for an account of how Midnight Blue became an E-book


  1. This is a really fascinating interview! I loved the book when I read it first and this adds so much to it. Good luck to Pauline with the ebooking.

  2. Thank you for the introduction (for me) to this fascinating story. I'm totally into ebooks now, having received a high quality ereader as a gift, which at first I snubbed (privately). Now I can't live without it.