NewnhamWrites … Never ever underestimate a child
‘What a pity,’ Griselda Heppel (NC ) remarked to her husband one day, ‘that no one has ever created a children’s version of Dante’s Inferno.’
‘You do it,’ came the reply. And so began Griselda’s writing career. Despite what the publishers said, Ante’s Inferno set children’s imaginations on fire (pardon the pun), going onto win the Children’s People’s Book Prize in 2012/13 and a Silver Wishing Shelf Award in 2013. Never underestimate a child, she says. They lap up anything and everything when it comes to a feast of good versus evil, of demons and angels and the grey matter in-between. With a toupee-wearing Mephistopheles poised to enter the White House, perhaps more than ever, her stories provide an escape into a fantastical world – for grown ups as well as kids.
Grieslda grew up in Germany, the land of black forests, red and white toadstools, gingerbread houses and lonely castles bristling with turrets. Surrounded by Grimms’ Fairy Tales it was no wonder that magic and stories became a firm part of her make-up. She studied English at Cambridge and after graduating, she worked in publishing, got married, had four children and was somewhat distracted for a few years. But in the back of her mind stories grew and in 2012 she brought out Ante’s Inferno. A fairy tale take of Faust’s pact with the devil followed in 2015 – The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst.
How did you get into writing?
I’ve always loved reading (I’m not sure you can study English at university if books aren’t part of you), but I never thought I had it in me to write books myself. After Newnham I worked in publishing, editing non-fiction books (which I also loved) but I found impossible to keep up, what with small children zooming around the place, so I stopped working for some years.
At what age did you write your very first story? What was it about?
I wrote a lot of bad poetry as a child and teenager. I also began a few stories but they petered out. The only thing I can remember completing is a play in rhyming couplets I wrote with my best friend when we were eight years old. It was about a poor archer (Robin Hood being our hero at the time) who falls in love with a princess and runs off with her to the neighbouring kingdom. It ended badly: the couple throw themselves on the mercy of the king of that land who takes no small delight in killing them both – at the request of the princess’s father. I don’t know why we made it so gruesome – it may have had something to do with the fact that we performed it in front of our parents and I got to play the part of the bloodthirsty king.
What triggered the idea for Ante’s Inferno?
Ante’s Inferno sprang from a challenge posed to me by my husband, when my youngest son was 11. ‘What a pity,’ I remarked, ‘that no one has ever created a children’s version of Dante’s Inferno.’ ‘You do it,’ came the reply. So I started to think about what a 12 year-old Dante figure would be like and what would send them on a journey through Hell and the character of Ante (Antonia) came to me, together with her arch-enemy, Florence, and a mysterious boy called Gil who happened to have died 100 years ago, on the eve of the First World War.
What was the next challenge?
It was to write a children’s version of the Faust legend, made famous by Marlowe in Doctor Faustus, where an ambitious man sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge and power – another great framework for a story: demons, magic, dangerous bargains and the abuse of power – how could that not make a great children’s book? So The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst was born, in which 13 year-old Henry, desperate to solve his problems, finds in the school library instructions on how someone in ‘grete perplexitie’ may summon an ‘Angellick Spirit’ to his aid. What can possibly go wrong? Well, the Spirit who answers Henry’s summons might just turn out to be a slippery character called Mephistopheles …
What age group are your books targeted at?
9 – 12 years (or a little older).
What’s the best thing anyone has said about your stories … And the worst?
The best thing is hearing a mother complaining her child is exhausted because she found them reading my book by torchlight under the bedclothes at midnight! When children come up to me, faces glowing and stumbling over their words because they’ve loved my books so much – yes, that does happen! – it gives me a HUGE thrill.
The worst … well, rejection letters can be scathing. Several publishers told me that Dante was ’too difficult’ for children, and that I couldn’t put both mythological creatures and a World War 1 battle scene in Hell (Ante’s Inferno), children wouldn’t be able to cope – which is pretty patronising to children and quite untrue. It’s sad how often children are underestimated! One publisher took issue with my giving Ante and her companions a golden bough to guide them through Hell, thinking I’d nicked the idea from Sir James Frazer’s book. That man had clearly never read Virgil. As long as the story is exciting, well-paced and clearly told, young readers can easily take on board complex themes and enjoy the richness of the background. Ante’s Inferno had to be reprinted within eight months of publication and I’m about to reprint it again, a special print run to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele.
What do your family think about your work?
Never believe that stuff about your mother loving everything you do – in my case, she’s my harshest critic! My husband and children are very supportive. When I started to write, the latter were still quite young (teenagers down to 11) and I think they were so astonished that their mum had managed to write a decent story – me too, actually – they were full of enthusiasm. Now grown up, they’re still enthusiastic but read far more critically, which is very useful.
What are you writing now?
My current work in progress is called The Fall of a Sparrow and tells the story of 11 year-old Ellie, sent away to school in a creepy Jacobean manor house, complete with dark corridors, creaking floorboards and not particularly friendly girls who pretend not to see a strange, gawky little boy who follows her everywhere. At least, Ellie thinks they’re pretending.
Would you ever consider writing for adults? Or have you already and is the draft(s) tucked away in a drawer?
I’ve written a couple of short stories for adults but when I start thinking of a full-length novel, it’s always for children. I write the kinds of books I loved at age 12 and somewhere inside I am still that age. It’s such an exciting moment in your reading life; you are old enough to grasp complex stories (whatever some people in the book trade say), in which the hero faces difficult choices with deep emotional repercussions, but still young enough to enjoy fantasy, magic, myth, battles etc. This is why the best books for this age range – Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia Chronicles, The Phantom Tollbooth, Harry Potter – become classics loved by people of all ages. One day a story may come to me that’s clearly for adults. You never know!
You worked in publishing a while ago, how do you feel about the way the industry has changed?
Publishing is an exciting, creative and risky business. Sales have always been the bottom line but I have the impression that nowadays in some of the big firms, the marketing department is so powerful that editors have less freedom to take a punt on an unknown author. The abolition of the net book agreement (which prevented big chains and supermarkets discounting books) makes it harder for publishing companies to achieve a solid profit margin, rendering them less likely to take risks. All this means it’s extremely hard for a new author to land a publishing contract.
On the other hand, thanks to new technology and the internet, authors have options now they never had before. Self-publishing, whether as an ebook, Print On Demand, or a traditional print run, is at last coming into its own, its authors taken seriously rather than being dismissed as the vanity press. Having self-published Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst with Matador (the self-publishing wing of trade publishers, Troubador), I’m delighted to have been able to take control of my books and get them out there to my readers.
What made you decided to apply to Newnham – or were you pooled?
In my day there wasn’t a lot of choice – Newnham, Girton, New Hall, King’s, Clare or Churchill. Being one of 11 sixth-form girls among 450 boys at my school, I was quite happy at the time not to try for a mixed college, and of the 3 women-only colleges, Newnham had (I thought) the loveliest buildings and the best position. I was thrilled to get in!
What’s your most defining memory of Newnham?
Lying on the lawn in the summer, reading War and Peace, and every so often gazing at the buildings through the dappling of leaves. Less poetically, bracing the icy draughts walking the long corridor down to Clough and Peile.
What word springs to mind when you think of the following:
Newnham: clever women.
Career Woman: do we still need to spell out something so normal? Haven’t noticed the term Career Man much.
Where else can we find you?
You can find out more about me here. When not writing I love doing school visits, talking to children about the inspiration behind my books and discussing the craft of writing, how to create characters and plot a story.