Lucy Hawking interviewed by Nikki Gamble

Lucy Hawking read French and Russian at the University of Oxford before becoming a journalist and novelist. Her adult novels are Jaded (2004) and Run for Your Life (2005) and The Accidental Marathon (2006)
Lucy has written three children's books in collaboration her father, Profesor Stephen Hawking, with a fourth book to be published later this year.
George’s Secret Key to the Universe (2007)
George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2010)
George and the Big Bang (2012)
George and the Unbreakable Code 

 ‘But we haven’t got that much time to wait, and you need to get home for your supper,’ said Eric, going over to Cosmos and pressing a few more keys. ‘So let me speed it up a bit. Here we go!’

In the blink of an eye, the tens of millions of years Eric was talking about had passed. The gas from the explosion of dozens of stars had gathered into an immense cloud. Within this cloud, new stars were appearing everywhere, until one formed just in front of the window. That star’s brightness made all the other stars very diffcult to spot. Some distance away from this new star, the gas left over from the cloud was becoming very cold and had started to gather into small icy rocks. George saw that one of these rocks was heading straight for the window. He opened his mouth to warn Eric, but the rock was travelling far too quickly. Before George could say anything, it smashed into the glass with a shattering, splintering roar, seeming to shake the whole house.’

George’s Secret Key to the Universe (2007, Doubleday, p.54)

 

Lucy, you wrote George's Secret Key to the Universe in collaboration with your father but it isn’t the first book that you have had published,  can you tell us a bit about your background?

That’s right; I’m a creative writer, a journalist and an author with an arts background. Even as a small child I was really interested in drama, theatre, performance art and ballet, dancing and singing and music. I did a degree in Languages,

So was George’s Secret Key to the Universe  first and foremost an idea for a story,  or was it consciously a vehicle for making accessible the complex ideas in cosmology?

Well, it was a bit of both really. I thought it would be really nice to work with my father in order to write a book that would explain some of his work for my son and my nephew.   There is nothing quite like George’s Secret Key to the Universe. There is a huge wealth of science fiction available for kids; it’s very creative, very clever, but ultimately it’s fantasy.

I was watching an episode of a science fiction programme on television and it just struck me, that writers don’t make use of this ever-expanding fount of knowledge about the universe. Artists are starting to use some of the images from the Hubble Space Telescope as the inspiration for paintings and certain composers have been inspired by space and cosmic music. I thought it my father and I would be a good combination to reflect that interest in children’s literature.

Your story does have fantasy elements. The Portal – Cosmos is very much fantasy.

Yes, Cosmos is a bit of a liberty. I can’t claim it’s all factually accurate, although I can tell you there are a lot of people who wish they had a Cosmos.  I think there are a lot of adults who really wish that they had a computer that could draw a doorway onto the universe for them. Well, it would be handy, wouldn’t it?  You wouldn’t need expensive space travel

 The story is rooted in science fact with a fantastic element. Did you have any discussions with your father about how children would perceive those boundaries?

 Oh, totally.  And that is a very good point.  You could look at Cosmos as a metaphor for the knowledge that we currently have about the universe.  In classic children’s literature there’s an established convention in which a child living in the world as we know it often passes into another dimension. This is true from Alice through the Looking Glass right up to, you Harry Potter. So I thought the idea of an amazingly clever computer who can just draw this doorway was a beautiful idea that fitted that tradition. But Cosmos can’t go beyond the known universe so in that respect it’s rooted in reality. In that sense it represents knowledge but we also wanted to show not to tell. We wanted to send George on his adventures and have him things to happen to him so he could have arguments with Annie on the comet but in order for that to happen, he needed to be there to see, to touch and to feel.

The observation of scientific principles is there right at the outset, for instance in the way water behaves as a result of static electricity. Children will find these observations amazing. In many ways science has a lot in common with magic.

 Well, they are, except, obviously, we would say that it’s a scientific reality that we’re showing.  And that reality IS very exciting. At the moment we’re finding out more and more about the universe that we inhabit and I think it is important to try and convey that knowledge to children, so that they have some sense of where they are and what’s around us.

The teacher in your book is something of a baddie...

That’s an interesting point because he’s not really a teacher. The person who is a true teacher is Eric, though that isn’t his profession. He loves explaining things.  He’s the educator who loves knowledge and gaining knowledge in order to benefit humanity, either by the application of the science or the sharing of this knowledge with other people. Reeper is only posing as a teacher - biding his time.

You said, you wanted to show not tell in this story, was that a challenge?

In some ways. There was an experimental aspect to the writing of this book. I’ve never written a children’s book before and I’ve never worked with my dad.  My dad also worked with a former PhD student of his, Christopher Galfard, who helped interpret the science. And so there was a lot to learn actually in order to get the project going.  Inevitably there was a lot of rewriting, which fortunately I enjoy.

 It’s also interesting to think back through the different versions the book went through. For instance, Cosmos couldn’t always draw a doorway.  At first it wasn’t really explained how George could travel in space.

 Did you have your own son in mind as the reader of the book

William is my son and George is my nephew. I thought George was a perfect name for my character as it works in lots of different languages around the world. And it’s not a name that places you in a particular social stratum, so I thought it wouldn’t alienate anyone.

As well as introducing science theories and concepts, George's Secret Key is also concerned with the ethics of applying science. Science can be used for good or for evil.

Well, exactly.  There’s the micro battle between Eric and Reeper on a personal level.  Although Eric doesn’t really engage with it because he doesn’t really know it’s happening.  He’s not that, sort of, person and he doesn’t bear any malice. And the there’s the macro battle: the idea that science is neutral but the application of knowledge can be used for good or evil ends.

The book is laid out with factual textboxes which add more scientific information. Why did you decide to present  it like this?

 I’m not quite sure when that idea appeared, but I do really like it because it gives a certain flexibility to the way of reading the book. You could either read the whole story and then the textboxes, read the story and each textbox as you go, or you could just read the textboxes if you wanted, or you could just flip back if you wanted to look later. It’s an easy way to reference the material. The storyline would get very bogged down if we tried to include all of that information in the narrative.

When you are out and about in schools do you find that children know who your father is?

 Yes, they do.  I did start off by showing The Simpsons picture of him but they seem to know of him from a variety of sources. Some know he’s a genius others know him as a disabled man, so I try to bring those different images together for them.

The book is future oriented as well. George is left to decide whether we can make the earth a better place to live or search for other planets to inhabit. You deliberately throw the question back to George rather than leave it for the scientists to make the decisions.

Children are tomorrow’s world, so it was important that a child made that decision.

Were you introduced to scientific ideas and theories when you were a child?

I was introduced to the ideas because I knew my dad was a physicist and a great mathematician, but I was really the family entertainer. I must have been an awful child, I was forever organising my family into an audience and making them sit in rows in the sitting room.

How easy did you find the transition from writing for adults to writing for children?

 I found it very, very refreshing to be writing for children. I loved having the children as the main characters. They have a freshness and wonder and vigour, not being, in any sense, cynical.

 What sorts of questions do children ask when you talk to them about your books?

 I am usally very impressed by children's questions. On one school visit the children asked me,  “What it is the fourth dimension in time?” another one asked me “What’s the end of a black hole?” and another “What’s a pulsar?”  These are not naïve in any way, but I’ve also had some really sweet questions which are endearing in their simplicity.

One girl in the first year asked “What’s the biggest star in the sky?” Of course from where we are, it’s the sun.  She hadn’t realised that the sun is the same as the stars.

That is an interesting question. One of the early things we learn in the book, is about Galileo and that people believed that the whole universe revolved around the earth.  It was part of a belief that man must be at the centre of the universe because of this relationship with God, and obviously Galileo came along and said, “Oh, I’m afraid it’s not the case though.”  And that was utterly revolutionary, but now I think we can actually set that as a fact..

And that's what these books are about, encouraging children to develop a fascination for our universe, to ask questions and to find the answers.

Thank you Lucy Hawking for talking to Just Imagine

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