Cliff McNish interviewed by Nikki Gamble

As Halloween approaches we are reproducing Nikki Gamble's interview with Cliff McNish, whose ghost story, 'Breathe' was earlier this year voted  by librarians as one of the top 100 children's books of all time.

‘Jack stifled a shriek. It was her –definitely the ghost womanagain.She rose rapidly up, driftingtowards the ceiling, and it tookall of Jack’s self-control not torun. Drawing closer, she glidedacross the ceiling until sheloomed, hovering, directly overhim. Then she rotated and lowered herself as slowly as a moteof dust towards the bed.Jack pulled in his legs, and shealighted next to him. If the ghosthad made any threatening gesture,Jack would have screamed. Butshe did not threaten him in any way. Her movements wereserene, not hasty, the air currents in the room making her body flutter like a sheet in a languid breeze. Watching closely, Jacksaw that she had to seize the mattress to keep herself from being blown away, she was so light.’

Breathe (2006) Orion pp33-4

Breathe is a truly chilling traditional ghost story in the vein of M. R. James; where did the idea for writing a ghost story come from?

The story came about for two reasons. First of all, my wifeCiara, said “You’re always writing these really dark, horrible, fantasy novels, why don’t you write a proper scary story? Why don’t you write a ghost story?” That set off a chain of thought. When I was visiting schools I started asking the children if they wanted to write a ghost story. And every time I suggested it their eyes lit up. They loved the idea of a dead spirit, haunting somebody. When I asked what good ghost stories they knew, they couldn’t think of one. Tt the turn of the twentieth century there were writers like M R James who wrote ghost stories for adults. And there has been a tradition since Leon Garfield and Robert Westall in the 70’s of ghost stories for children. But today, while I have found plenty of funny ghosts, the Scooby Doo type of ghost, there are not many traditional ghost stories for children. I realised that there was an appetite and market for that type of story.

Around the same time, I read Coraline by Neil Gaiman, which made me realise that his Other Mother character is really scary because she is potentially your mother. The most frightening thing we can imagine is not a three-headed dragon monster from Venus, because you could always run away from that, but a dark version of your mother. It’s psychologically frightening. There’s always a very fine line between genuine love and obsessional love. My ghost mother is entering this murky territory because of what has happened to her in her past - and her guilt.

 In the forward to Dread and Delight, Philippa Pearce says that the ghost story for children is a relatively new genre. What is the essence of the ghost story for you?

I think a dead person who is close to the main hero or heroine is probably the essence of it. They are a living presence but don’t have to talk unless they are going to become a character. They have to have influence and action. Ghost stories often gravitate towards the Victorian house setting. The English ghost story is steeped in Dickensian England, with backstreets and dark places. It doesn’t quite work in the modern apartment building, although I’ve read a few Japanese ghost stories where modern settings work.

Yes, but traditonal ghost stories are often about more than sensation and suspense. They usually bring about some sort of change….

I suppose that’s true of most stories that deeply appeal to us -the characters are transformed in some way. The agent of change in the ghost story is usually the ghost. I think one of the reasons ghost stories can be very powerful is because the influence of the past is often devastatingly powerful without people realising it. Dead relatives are always in the background, and the parents’hidden lives means that children are not always aware of their past. One of the things that I’ve realised about most great stories is that there is a sense of loss in them, the loss of something important, not necessarily a life, it could just be loss of dignity. The story is often about the consequences of the loss and the search to find it again.

The book Your ghost story is called Breathe, and breathing is a metaphor that permeates the book. Was that idea in the first draft or did you consciously work it up afterwards?

In the final draft I strengthened a few of the breathing elements such as the idea of the breath on the windowpane. I was trying to think of a mechanism by which an almost weightless ghost can make an impression.They can’t write on a piece of paper, and you can’t hear them but you need to understand what they’re saying. Then I had the idea of using condensation. One breathes and the other writes. When I had finished writing, I realised that all of my ideas were centred on breathing which is when I suggested that we call it Breathe.

Can you tell us about the code that the ghosts use to communicate?

I liked the idea of a mysterious format. I knew that they had to find a way of communicating with Jack without the ghost mother knowing, and what other better way than by a code? One of the ways to keep the reader interested in a story is  to change their way of thinking and this is a new way of thinking about a story. 

Breathe is very suspenseful.Was it difficult to sustain that through a full length novel?

I have a theory that there aren’t many ghost stories of novel length, because ghost stories, are about suspense, noises and things that are half seen. You can sustain that easily enough in a short story. But when you get to novel length, the stakes have to become higher and it has to become an action adventure at some point. If you don’t change the mode of writing from suspense it becomes boring.

There has to be a counterpoint of suspense too - the surprise. And you do have surprises in Breathe. For instance, when Jack first meets the ghost mother she is sitting on his bed. The scene is quite cosy and she’s apparently benign. Then she screams and suddenly things change. That scream took me aback, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

You have to have lots of surprises and twists and turns, especially because the setting is so static

There is a very gradual r evelation of the back stories of the ghost mother and the ghost children. So there is scope for surprise there…

I liked creating the character of Oliver, he’s quite a feisty boy. I had to have somebody who stands up to the ghost mother, even though it gets him into trouble. The good thing about that is that he puts himself in threatening positions. Hopefully all the way through you think I was going to set up the ghost mother – that he was
going to defeat her. But then out of nowhere she just grabs him and just takes him. I think that would shock a lot of kids.

Some of the imagery in Breathe is overtly Christian. Were you conscious of using Christian symbolism?

You’re probably reading it from a background similar to mine - western civilisation. Whether or not an Egyptian would read it in the same way is another matter; they’d probably see something else in it. The idea for the nightmare passage came from a book by Algernon Blackwood. He was writing ghost stories at the same time as M R James. Most of the stories aren’t very goodbut he wrote one story where a child is sitting in bed and there is a corridor that links his bedroom and to his uncle’s bedroom. He calls it the nightmare passage and in his imagination it is
filled with all kinds of horrors. It stuck in my mind. I’m not thinking of it in a Christian sense but it’s the antithesis of
the other side. I never say there’s a God and you don’t know what’s on the other side– but it’s a warm place. You’d
be treated decently there. 

But, they do go to the nightmare passage when their souls have been taken away…

They do. But I also make it clear that they’re not dragged there because they’re guilty and for some terrible sin.
They’re just unlucky.

Do you think children prefer closed endings, or are they just enculturated into preferringthem because of the types ofstories they are told? 

Well, that is a really interesting and deep question, but I haven’t got an answer. I suspect that children’s minds are,irrespective of cultural influence, wired a bit differently from adults. I think they see the world more in black and white. If you ask children what is right and wrong, they nearly always give you direct answers. They don’t see grey
areas like adults. I think they prefer to see stories which reflect that. Authors often talk about the importance of making sure that if you create a villain to give them a nicer side, and justify their behaviour in some way. That’s something you hear from adults but I’ve realised from talking to kids that they like to know where they stand with the characters.
You know, one of the reasons children like the Harry Potter books is because Draco Malfoyis an out and out villain. He hasn’t got any redeeming qualities. Children know that they can dislike him, and they don’t have to think about his poor background or his difficult childhood. Remember the bit in Prisoner ofAzkaban, where Hermione punches Draco Malfoy? When I saw the film, that was the bit the entire audience erupted in laughter, it got the biggest reaction from the audience.They couldn’t have enjoye that unless Draco Malfoy was an out and out villain, you were allowed to hate so you could enjoy the punch. They love to hate the character.

But Snape is an ambiguous character….

Well, from an adult perspective, Snape is the most interesting character in the Harry Potter novels. But if you ask kids
about Snape they’re always unsure, the younger kids in particular. They are not taken with his ambiguity.

But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to write characters ambiguous and complex characters in books for children….

It doesn’t, and I’m glad Rowling has done that because you can’t just have out and out villains all the way through, especially if you’re creating six or seven baddies.

That unequivocal  delineation of good and evil come from traditional storytelling, the archetypes,that help us develop shared values ….

I guess that’s true. I think kids like to have those archetypes, and it’s not bad writing to quote archetypes. And it’s not
bad writing to create out and out villains, just as it’s not bad writing to create villains that also have almost seamless complex edges.

Thank you Cliff McNish for sharing your thoughts about ghost stories with us.


Just Imagine's Top 10 Ghost stories for 9 - 14 years

1. Cliff McNish Breathe

2. Gareth P Jones Constable and Toop

3. Cornelia Funke Ghost Knight

4. Neil Gaiman The Graveyard Book

5. Jonathan Stroud Lockwood and Co

6. Penelope Lively The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

7. Joseph Delaney The Ghost Prison

8. Emma Carroll Frost Hollow Hall

9. Andrew Matthews The Shadow Garden

10. Berlie Doherty The Company of Ghosts


 Ghost stories book pack for UKS2/Ks3  9 - 14 years

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