From Africa to Wimbledon & Beyond…
“As soon as I realised that, everything fell into place…”‘In fact, though, I’d had the basic idea back at University, in the early 80s. I’d even written it: a story about an orphaned boy struggling to survive with his beloved wolf-cub. But I’d set the story in the ninth century, and the historical context kept getting in the way. So I put the manuscript in a box-file and shoved it to the back of a cupboard. For twenty years the idea of the boy and the wolf simmered away in my subconscious. It nagged me. I really wanted to write it. But I knew I hadn’t found the right context. Then, I unearthed the box-file and took another look at my twenty-year-old notes. The answer just leapt out at me. This isn’t a story about history. It’s about prehistory. As soon as I realised that, everything fell into place.’
‘I’d always read quite a bit of anthropology: The Golden Bough, The White Goddess, Boyer’s Religion Explained. And also archaeology: David Lewis-Williams on prehistoric cave art; Grahame Clark on Mesolithic hunter-gatherers; Steven Mithen’s Prehistory of the Mind and After the Ice Age. But now it had a focus: Torak’s world.’
‘To learn what the Clans of Torak’s world use for weapons, clothes, food and shelter, I studied the Mesolithic peoples of Northern Scandinavia, including the Maglemosians, and the Ertebølle and Kongemose cultures. I also borrowed from the more recent past: from the survival strategies of traditional Inuit and Native American peoples, and many others.’
‘Similarly, in trying to understand how my hunter-gatherers actually think, I’ve been guided by anthropology: not only that of the Inuit and the Native American peoples, but also the Ainu of Japan and the Sami of Lappland; the San and the Eboe of Africa, and the Aborigines of Australia.’
“Torak’s story would probably still be just a pipe-dream if I hadn’t met the bear…”‘And yet – despite all of this, Torak’s story would probably still be just a pipe-dream, if I hadn’t met the bear.’
‘It was a few years ago, in the Sierra Nevada of southern California, and I was hiking alone on a deserted mountain trail. Suddenly, on the opposite side of the stream I was following, a large female black bear and her two cubs appeared out of nowhere. One moment I was in the twentieth century; the next, I was back in the prehistoric forest.’
‘An old rancher in Wyoming had warned me that a female bear with cubs is at her most dangerous. He’d also told me that as bears can’t see too well, and hate surprises, it’s vital to make a noise to let them know you’re there: his tip was to sing! The mother bear and her cubs was only thirty feet away from me, on the other side of the stream – but she clearly hadn’t spotted me yet; and my way home led right past her. I couldn’t hope to creep by unnoticed; I had to tell her I was there. So I took a deep breath and launched into Danny Boy.’
“If I made a wrong move, she might attack…”‘To my horror, instead of just watching me go, she pricked up her ears and started purposefully across the stream – towards me. That’s when the fear really kicked in. If I made a wrong move, she might attack. And I had no defences. All I could do was try to persuade her that I wasn’t a threat. I stopped. She stopped in mid-stream. We looked at each other. She rocked slowly from side to side, as if considering whether to rear up on her hind legs and go for me. For what seemed like a lifetime I side-stepped slowly past her. She watched me all the way. Then, finally, my path dipped out of sight – and I ran like hell.’
It was the most terrifying and exhilarating experience of my life. It also felt weirdly as if I’d been back in time. In those brief moments when I was facing the bear, thousands of years of civilisation were suddenly irrelevant; I knew what it was to be prey. I’d been in Torak’s world.’
CHRONICLES OF ANCIENT DARKNESS has now been sold into every major publishing market worldwide, setting records in many of them.
So what will Michelle write after CHRONICLES?
‘I didn’t plan it”, she says, ‘but I ended up writing a ghost story.’
Here’s how it came about.
‘A few years ago, while I was deep in Torak’s story, I’d taken a holiday to the High Arctic, travelling by ship around the Spitsbergen archipelago (or Svalbard, to give it its official name). It was summer, so there was this endless, rather eerie light, and the whole place was teeming with wildlife: seabirds, Arctic foxes, reindeer, seals, walrus, polar bears.’
“I realized that the Arctic would be my setting: DARK MATTER would be a polar ghost story…”‘That was overwhelming in itself, but we also put in at several abandoned mines and derelict trappers’ camps. I remember standing at the edge of one of these, looking out over this desolate, windswept bay, trying to imagine what it would be like to be here on your own. I think what most impressed me most was the peculiar, unnerving stillness of the place, which one could sense even behind the noise of the wind and the seabirds. It was as if the land was watching all these tiny living creatures busily going about their lives.’
‘I knew that at some stage, I would write a story set in Spitsbergen, but I didn’t know what it would be about, because at the time I was deep into writing CHRONICLES. So I just took loads of notes, and put Spitsbergen to the back of mind. It was while I was writing GHOST HUNTER that I began thinking seriously about writing a ghost story. It was winter, there wasn’t any snow in Wimbledon, and I was missing the Arctic. This was when I realized that the Arctic would be my setting: DARK MATTER would be a polar ghost story. It was incredibly exciting, because I immediately realized the significance of the polar night. I saw my protagonist overwintering alone in his haunted camp. How would he cope in the polar night, which lasts for months?’
And after DARK MATTER?
‘Since then, I’ve been hard at work on another series for children. Like CHRONICLES OF ANCIENT DARKNESS, it will be set in prehistory, albeit at a somewhat later time than Torak, and in a different part of the world, further to the south. There will be five books in the series, and the main characters have already come alive in my head; but I think I’d better say no more about it just yet.’