Interview with Kathryn Aalto about her “amiable field guide” to the 100 Acre Wood

Landscape designer and historian, Kathryn Aalto, created an “amiable field guide” to the Hundred Acre Wood, where Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet once wandered with Christopher Robin. She talked to me aboutThe Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood” for Words & Pictures, the SCBWI’s online magazine.

Rowena: Helen Macdonald said when she received the Costa Award this year that her memoir, H is for Hawk, is intended as a “love letter to the English countryside and all that we’re losing and have lost”. Does nostalgia play a part in your love affair with English landscapes?

Kathryn: My love affair with the English landscape is a torrid one, that’s for sure. It’s a mix of nostalgia as well as discovery. As an expat from California now living in Devon, I didn’t grow up with an ancient network of footpaths as we have here. They’re a revelation. A couple years ago, my family and I walked the Coast to Coast Path from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. The kids had direct exposure to nature: they navigated guidebooks, read maps and searched the landscape for trails. It was a pivotal experience, like A. A. Milne experienced in the 1880s, one he recaptured with Christopher Robin wandering in the Hundred Acre Wood. But in terms of nostalgia, childhood has changed so much since the first Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926. Since then, there’s been a decline in native English meadows by 90%, and children can no longer wander freely like their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did. Milne had tremendous freedom to explore and indulge his imagination. Few children enjoy that today. I’m also nostalgic for childhoods before electronic diversions were so prevalent. With so many footpaths in England, there’s always a place for us to walk and explore.

Read the full interview here:



Interview with Sally Nicholls for SCBWI writing retreat

Award-winning author Sally Nicholls led the SCBWI-BI Writer’s Retreat on 8th May – 11th May 2015. In anticipation of this event, I caught up with Sally for Words & Pictures, the society’ online magazine. Here’s a quick excerpt.

ROWENA: One thing that really struck me when I was reading your books for this interview was the authenticity of your young narrators’ voices. In Ways to Live Forever and Close Your Pretty Eyes, for example, you bounce us straight into the heads of your 11-year-old narrators even though they’re dealing with some dark and sophisticated psychological issues. How do you achieve that balance between a difficult subject matter and a young voice?

SALLY: Mostly it’s just remembering. When I wrote Ways to Live Forever, which is the one I wrote on the (Bath Spa University) MA, about a little boy with leukaemia, a lot my fellow students were quite frightened of dying. I remember thinking: Well, I don’t think I would have been frightened of dying if I’d had a terminal illness when I was eleven. I wouldn’t have wanted it, of course, but I just couldn’t image that I would have been frightened because you have quite a simplistic view of death as a child. So I talked to some nurses at a local hospital and they said, No, you’re not frightened at eleven. The parents are frightened, but the kids aren’t.

Read the full interview here:

Interview with David Almond: The Freedom of Knowing your Limitations

David Almond, the multi-award winning author of Skellig, A Song for Ella Gray, and many other beautiful adult & children’s stories, became a creative writing Professor at Bath Spa University the year I began their MA in Writing for Young People. His talks quickly became highlights of this fantastic course. Here’s an excerpt is from an interview he gave me for Words & Pictures, the online magazine for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, published in May 2013. 

Q1. What I’d like to talk about mostly is the ‘how’ of writing, but I am very aware that it’s arbitrary to disassociate the ‘how’ from the ‘what’. So can we start with a very interesting comment you made at a recent seminar at Bath Spa University. You said, ‘You only discover how to free your imagination by knowing its limitations. Discover your boundaries and then you are free to explore this world.’ Could you expand on that idea a little?

David Almond: For me it was a matter of accepting certain things about myself that were going to be the things that gave me my true voice and my true subject. It was to do with discovering the way I write, the way I speak which is kind of dictated by the language I grew up with. There were certain things about me that I couldn’t change like the fact that I had been brought up as a Catholic; that I had been brought up living in the North East. I spent a long time trying to struggle against those things and cast them out from my work. It was only when I got to the point of realising that that wasn’t working, and just sighing and saying, ‘Oh yes, that’s what I am’ and accepting those things, that they actually brought a great deal of richness and imagery to my work, and a language and rhythm which I had been kind of denying myself. But I don’t think I could have used them properly without first denying them. It’s a paradoxical thing. (US author) Flannery O’Connor was a big mentor for me. She said that thing about the imagination not being free.

Read the full interview here:

‘Place’ in stories: where reality and our characters collide

Years ago, I was lucky enough to interview David Almond for the SCBWI’s Words & Pictures online magazine, and asked him about the philosophical themes in his books. His answer gave me a great insight into the importance of the concrete realities of place.

He said, “The danger of talking about transcendence or spirituality is that they can’t exist without reality. The important thing about my work is the realism in it … The language that I use is very ordinary. It isn’t abstract. It’s very solid, I think. There are lots of nouns and verbs. You can’t write abstractions. You have to write reality. You have to write stories about dust and dirt.”

Dust and dirt: the stuff of place.

His words were a great relief to me as place is pretty much where I have to start a story. In the intervening years I’ve built up a body of notes as to why this might be so, the gist of which I’ll share with you here.

  • Realism (even in fantasy) makes characters believable;
  • Realistic characters exist in time and space;
  • Place therefore grounds characters.
  • Also, every scene needs a setting. Physical, sensory descriptions ease us into thinking about the most important story questions: why is my character here (motivation) and what is s/he going to do next (intent)?

Whatever the genre, place is never accidental. It is the unique setting that shapes how our characters experience the events of this story, and where they create its outcomes.

Place also establishes genre. If we’re on a space ship, we’re likely to be in SciFi territory, a battlefield denotes action, a wizard’s castle fantasy etc.

But place as a writing tool is more than a rounded description of the physical setting: the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes etc. It includes the fluidity of things, their states of flux in time and space, foreshadowing or echoing the changes and conflicts of the story.

If our word choices create a particular tone and mood, then we’re talking about ‘voice’ as well, which instantly moulds reader expectations. No one who’s read Thomas Hardy’s opening description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native could possibly expect a romantic comedy to follow.

When I began writing, I allowed place to dictate my stories. Travelling the world as a journalist, then on a gap year, I let places inspire me, and followed ideas wherever they led. I’d love to have the luxury of time (and money!) to travel in this way again, and write ‘found’ stories. Instead, I’ve consciously adopted a character-centred approach to place.

By this I mean that I try my hardest to forget that I’m telling a story. Once I’ve researched a place, I live it through my main character. It exists exclusively as their subjective experience of it. I see it only through their eyes and feel it through their skin. This approach helps no end when deciding what details a character would notice about this place at this particular point in time. They certainly won’t notice or describe anything familiar, for example.

It also forces me to decide early on how a character’s perceptions are coloured by their state of mind. Are they in some kind of emotion turmoil or struggling with inner conflicts, repressed or acknowledged? Are they grieving or in shock, guilt-ridden or in denial, facing a complex life decision or experiencing a sense of foreboding. How does their physical wellbeing or lack of it impact on the way they interact with this setting at this point in the story? A cocky young policeman won’t see a dark alleyway in the same way as the wily old criminal he’s chasing, or in the same way as a wealthy bond trader with cocaine in his pocket, or the terrified trafficked girl with a gang master hot on her heels – and the battery signal on her phone flashing empty.

Whatever the viewpoint character’s state of mind, if they react to a significant setting with apt and original language, the depth and realism of their stories will inevitably be enriched.

A year or so after that interview with David Almond, I discussed using place at the openings of stories with a local adult writing group I occasionally teach, using these contrasting examples:

Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies


Wiltshire, September 1535

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air.”

Annie Enright’s The Gathering

“You cannot libel the dead, I think, you can only console them. So I offer Liam this picture: my two daughters running on the sandy rim of a stony beach, under a slow, turbulent sky, the shoulders of their coats shrugging behind them. Then I erase it.”

Lee Child’s The Affair

“The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three street doors, each one of them opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby. I chose the south east option, the main concourse entrance, the one nearest the metro and the bus station, because I wanted plenty of civilian workers around, preferably a whole long unending stream of them, for insurance purposes, mostly against getting shot on sight. Arrests go bad all the time, some accidentally, sometimes on purpose, so I wanted witnesses.”

Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair

“On the day contracts were exchanged on the house, Alice Jordan put all three children in the car and went to visit it. Natasha made her usual seven-year-old fuss about her seat-belt, and James was crying because he had lost the toy man who rode his toy stunt motorbike, but the baby lay peaceably in his carrycot and was pleased to be joggling gently along while a fascinating pattern of bare branches flickered through the slanting back window of the car onto his round upturned face.”


Mantel’s is at once vividly English yet also deeply anti-religious, with the airiness and movement shot through with that visceral ‘blood-filled gaze’ of the falcons, who are also Cromwell’s dead children. With intense economy, Mantel creates an overwhelming mental landscape that is, at the same time, utterly in the moment and also symbolic and poignant. We are inside a mind transcending loss by a conscious act of will: he is freeing the souls of his dead women-folk, not just from human existence but from God. No purgatory for them; no judgement or guilt, just lightness and air and the hunt. And by freeing them, he frees himself. Perhaps.

Movement is also inherent in Enright’s running, turbulent sky. The ground is roughly textured (sandy, stony) but her narrator’s mental landscape is detached: this place is a picture offered to a dead man. ‘Then I erase it.’

Lee Child’s narrator, Jack Reacher, has purpose behind his words. He explains as well as observes. Here the movement – the “unending stream of witnesses” – is part of the plan; nothing will be left to chance. This is an analytical description of place by a dangerous man with a tactical point-of-view.

How different from Trollope’s mother, boxed in with her noisy children, with only the baby enviably free to experience the flickering images outside. The make and model of the car don’t matter to her, whereas Child’s Jack Reacher would have noted them both.

In each case the author has, by marrying the simple, observable realities of place – David Almond’s dust and dirt – with their character’s subjective perceptions and purposes, drawn the reader into that mysterious state where imagined stories are both believable and meaningful. For me, each opening ‘place’ is extraordinarily rich, beautifully setting the tone for the novel that follows.