FRANCES Hardinge loves to walk. It was on “a trek through Thames Park, halfway across Richmond”, in London, that she happened upon “the key seed idea” for her award-winning novel, The Lie Tree.
“Rather frustratingly, I can’t actually remember the build-up to it,” says the 43-year-old, “but I can remember the moment itself. I remember thinking, ‘I really can use this. I don’t know what sort of emotional resonance I can get with it, but I know that something will fit with this idea of a tree that feeds on lies and bears fruit containing secrets.”
I meet Frances in Dublin, a city she is visiting for the first time, as part of the International Literature Festival. She is wearing her trademark, broad-brimmed hat.
There is something of the foppish hippy about her, but her beautiful manners, upright posture, and her accent seem Victorian. She is softly spoken, but impeccably articulate. She is a person of conviction.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an author,” she says. “I know I was producing some full-length work, short, full-length work, when I was thirteen, hand-written, never showed it to anybody. Just as well, because it’s not very good.”
Thankfully, neither was her critical eye and she remained doggedly determined to write, either “until published or until [she] dropped dead”. At sixteen, she began sending stories to publishers. Mostly, she would hear nothing back, but, “on occasion, there would be some feedback”.
“I remember one, in particular, which went along the lines of ‘we loved your story, we just didn’t know what it was about’,” says Frances. “Most writers face rejection, but they carry on, mainly because they’re quite stubborn, really.”
At the heart of that stubbornness is what the author calls an “intellectual hunger”, something that she shares with Faith, the main character of her latest novel.
“There is a point of similarity there,” says Frances. “But I was a hell of a lot luckier than Faith. She was living in the middle of the 19th century, fourteen-years-old, an aspiring scientist, keenly intelligent, and that hunger of the intellect is being starved at every turn. I was lucky, in that my parents were actually very encouraging, so I didn’t get blocked in that way.”
Frances was born in Kent. As a child, she lived in several homes across southern England and Wales. She tells me that “there were various different reasons” for these upheavals, but assures me, rather deftly avoiding the question, that her family “weren’t on the run”; though she does seem to like the idea that they might have been. There are parts of Frances Hardinge that she keeps a little enigmatic, and in that she sees a link with her writing.
“I want people to guess, but I don’t always want people to be right,” she says.
“I like to play with readers’ expectations and assumptions about characters, about plot, about what’s going on. There are always surprises.” Do the characters surprise her?
“Usually, I have a clear idea of the character and how aspects of them will develop over the course of the book,” she says.
“But that’s not to say that characters won’t sometimes develop a whole level of depth that I wasn’t expecting, or they’ll take a whole right turn. Occasionally, they even have the rudeness to write part of my plots for me, but that’s the whole thrill of it.”
Frances’s career has had many twists and turns. For much of her early career, she wrote adult fiction, her staple being highly-regarded short stories.
It was not until a friend pointed out to her that her “weird, bizarre, dark fairytales” and “complicated style were much better-suited to younger readers” that she decided to write for them.
Since the publication of her first novel, Fly By Night, in 2005, that audience has grown considerably, though she likes to think that it hasn’t changed. The reason for that is ingeniously simple.
“I always write for a younger version of me,” she says. “I don’t really know another way to write. I’m the person I know best. I have the same tastes as me, so it’s altogether more convenient. I was lucky, in that when I wrote my first children’s novel there was no pressure, because I wasn’t expecting to get published,” she says.
“So that first book was an experiment that I wrote for myself, putting in all sorts of weird, quirky stuff that maybe I found funny. So there was no pressure. Then, of course, I got a book contract.”
Eleven years and six novels later, it’s hard to tell if that has meant more pressure.
She assures me it has, but you wouldn’t think so by her demeanour.
When we finish our conversation, and, of course, our tea, she checks her schedule and sees she has two more book signings to attend, before she can do what she loves most. Go for a walk.