An Audience With… Geraldine McCaughrean

            An invitation to an event such as this cannot fail to send a thrill of excitement straight to the minds of any kind of writer. The chance to hear the wisdoms of such a high profile children’s writer, the prospect of meeting with people from some of the leading names in the publishing and writing world, and the ability to share this amazing experience with the world were among some of the incentives that made me leap at the opportunity of attending.

            Geraldine McCaughrean is the award-winning author of more than 160 books, of which includes Peter Pan in Scarlet (2004), the official sequel to Peter Pan commissioned by Great Ormond Street Hospital, and The Middle of Nowhere (2013), a tale of family and dreams in the backwaters of Australia. Her work has also been translated into 45 languages worldwide, and with her latest title Where the World Ends, her writing world doesn’t seem to be coming to an end any time soon.

            Where the World Ends is based upon a true story set in the summer of 1727, where a group of men and boys are left on a remote sea stac to harvest birds for food and fuel. When no one returned to collect them, they are forced to endure storms, starvation, and madness with no way of knowing if they would ever be rescued. Their story of survival in such a formidable place of sea and stone reaches to the hearts of the readers in so many ways, from the cast of amazing characters, the characterisation of the location, and the writer’s desire to have the reader inhabit the same place and feel the characters emotions in such a place means that the story grips from beginning to end.

            Nikki Gamble, Director of Just Imagine…, hosted the event and led an in-depth discussion with Geraldine McCaughrean about her critically acclaimed novel, and together they took the audience on the literary journey of Where the World Ends. This journey highlighted the inspirations of the story, the development of the scenery as being as much of a character in the story as the characters themselves, and the thought that went into each of the characters walking the path of the story that Geraldine McCaughrean has written.

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The inspirations lay not only in the historical details of the story, but in the influences that another classic tale, Lord of the Flies, had in the writing of the book. Geraldine McCaughrean admits that she set out to make her book an opposite tale to that told in the Lord of the Flies, but it did not entirely succeed, as people still assert the similarities between both titles. The difference, it seems, lies in the details of the stories. The Lord of the Flies is predominantly a tribal based way of living that the characters undertake, whereas there is a more familial feel to the events that unfold in Where the World End. The mix of genders and ages in Geraldine McCaughrean’s book is also divergent to William Golding’s young male based community.

A closer comparison to Geraldine McCaughrean’s work can be made for one of her previously mentioned stories, Peter Pan in Scarlet, following the return of Wendy, John and the erstwhile Lost Boys to Neverland. While Geraldine has never realised the similarities between these two different worlds, the relationship between her characters in both titles leads a closer knit family community, than the characters in Lord of the Flies ever achieved.

Character development seems to be an underlying theme to Geraldine McCaughrean’s stories. In her latest work, the journey’s undertaken, while undeniably similar and familial, place a unique character in a unique circumstance that must be overcome, and all the while must remain believable within the author’s, and to a certain extent, the readers expectations of the characters personal outlook to life and how they would react. This sense of an ‘interior life’, as in the thoughts and feelings understood by the reader to simulate those of our own, allow for the progression of the detailed circumstances, and the thought that ‘if you have an interior life, you can survive anything’.

Geraldine McCaughrean read out part of her book to the assembled audience, which allowed us to experience the world inhabited by her characters as she had intended it to be depicted. Hearing the story aloud, and also directly from the writer, allows for an added dimension to the story to evolve within the purview of the reader, helping you see the written word and the written world in an entirely different and more emotive light.

The floor was then opened up to the audience, for questions and intrigues for Geraldine to answer. These ranged from asking about the relationship between religion and the story, which sparked a semi-confessional response that admitted that religion was not foremost in the eyes of the characters in the story, and that the characters emotional states were not conducive to a particular outlook on any religious grounds, although this was not an intentional effect that was being pursued. Another question professed that Geraldine McCaughrean’s book was an emotional read, and that it could only be read in short stages. Her question to Geraldine was how she managed to sustain herself during the writing of the story, knowing about the crises that would befall her characters. Geraldine’s answer was that of keeping the ending in her mind at all times. Despite the disasters that happen along the way, the ending is that of a positive and optimistic world that inspires hopefulness to the reader. As a moral for any children’s writer, ‘You have to leave young readers in a universe that contains hope’.

It is Open Doors’ Bob Cox’s question on writing tips for strong characters that seems apt to bring events to a close. Geraldine McCaughrean’s answer perfectly sums up the main reasons for any form of fiction writing. A strong character stems from the writers ability to make the characters:

  • Differ from each other without being implausible
  • Communicate with genuine ability
  • Use their senses of the world around them, and the emotions they evoke
  • Allow us to see through their eyes to the world around them
  • Have their own time on the stage

Geraldine makes that valid point that most times, it is the characters that make their own mind up as to what they are going to say and do. The character becomes real in the writers head, and makes decisions based upon the characters own outlook on life. The ideal thing is to let them do what they want in order to create a strong character. The mark of a writer is having no idea how you do what you do. Just keep the end in sight and let the characters make their own way there.

            Just Imagine…’s ‘An Audience With’ seems to be an instant hit with writers, readers, and publishers alike. An entertaining, enthralling, and enlightening experience to be had by all. This is the first in what I am sure will be a long line of amazing events laid on by the Just Imagine… team, and I hope to be there to see them.

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Thank you.

01/04/18

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