Siobhan Dowd interviewed by Nikki Gamble

Siobhan Dowd was an extraordinary author giving us four fantastic and award winning novels before The Ransom of Dond - A Swift Pure Cry 2006, The London Eye Mystery 2007, Bog Child 2008 and Solace of the Road 2009– each recognised for their greatness. Sadly, Siobhan died in August 2007, aged 47. In her final days Siobhan set up The Siobhan Dowd Trust, which works to give young people the opportunity to read and enjoy literature.

This interview was first published on the Write Away website in 2007.

'The London Eye Mystery' was written before 'A Swift Pure Cry' but that was published as your debut novel, why was that?

Yes, it was in the main. I started writing it in 2003 and got as far as halfway through the first draft when Mark Haddon’s 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time' exploded on the scene. I was absolutely gutted, because my book is about an Asperger Syndrome boy who solves a mystery. It was a long time before I could face reading Mark’s book.

I can understand why you would feel that, though they are very different books.

They are. Hilary, my agent advised me to keep going. So I went through a second draft, and at that point we showed it to a couple of publishers. In fact, Mark’s book had become stratospheric at that point, so although they liked it, they didn’t think it was a book to launch my career. I put it to one side and wrote 'A Swift Pure Cry'. After that I wrote 'Solace of the Road' and during the revisions for that book, I returned to 'The London Eye Mystery', and revised it. Originally it was a slightly older read but I brought it down an age range, shortened the chapters, things like that.

Yes, on the one hand it could be read by children as young as nine, but there are some darker passages. Did you have an idea of audience in mind when you wrote it?

When I was working on the Readers and Writers Programme, we identified Year 6, Year 7, the transition years between primary and secondary, as years in which children were often lost to reading. I remember my own transition being quite hard, so it is a time of life that I’m drawn to as a writer. If I have managed to create a readable book that helps children at that period to stay focused on the joys of reading, then I’ll be a really happy woman. It’s true that there is that little dark moment in the book, but then I think stories need the darkness for the light to shine through.

I was interested in the episode when the family go to view the dead boy at the mortuary and you mention layers of knowledge. Ted realises that it is possible to know about death on the surface level, but he is conscious of acquiring a deeper kind of knowing… insight through experience.

Yes. I actually remember when I first realised I was going to die. I’d known this in one way, but the day when it finally penetrated, I was extremely troubled, I remember. I was about eight when I had that epiphany. So, I think that children are, at this age starting to grapple with their own mortality. Ted is reflecting that.

In a way it’s a knowledge that’s ever present for adults.

Yes and I think there is an innocence of youth, it’s a time when we think we are immortal. But as you grow older you hear about people dying and you gather from stories that immortality’s something that people dream of, but it’s unobtainable. You see animals dead on the road and eventually, one day, you finally realise that you, too, will die. And what does that mean? And that’s an unanswerable. There is this fear all the way through the book that Salim might be dead. I hope that I capture that, but it’s hard through Ted’s eyes, because he’s a limited observer of just how very distressed the family are about this. 

Now the idea of some- body going up on the London Eye and not coming down again is such a fantastic premise for a story. How did it begin?

Well, I was a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes when I was a youngster. I loved stories like 'The Sealed Room' in which somebody is murdered in a sealed room by a snake which comes down a bell rope. In Sherlock Holmes there was one sentence that always beguiled me, which was Watson saying, “Oh, shall I tell you about this case? No, it’s too sensitive,” or, “Shall I tell you…?” He passes over these cases. He never tells you the story. And in one of these colourful interludes, he says, “I could tell you about the case of Arthur Ranimore who, on returning into his house to fetch an umbrella, was never more seen in this world.”

I was thinking about that wonderful way in which he just disappeared. What would have happened to that man that went into his house and never came out again? It made me think about disappearances in odd situations. At the time, I was living in Kennington, about a 20 minute walk from the London Eye. I used to walk up and down the South Bank with my husband regularly. One day, the Sherlock Holmes quote came into my mind, and there in front of me was the London Eye, so the two things fused together. I could see that you really liked the architecture of the London Eye from the admiring description. Of course in the book we’re seeing it through Ted’s eyes, but I have a sense that it is your appreciation of the structures is coming through too. Yes. What I like about it is the silence. It wasn’t silent last night! We were all partying and popping champagne, and everyone was talking so much that we hardly saw all the wonders of London around us. But when you go up on your own with strangers, which is the normal experience, it’s a very meditative experience, and you have a feeling of get- ting out a little bit lighter than you were at the beginning, because you’ have seen London from a different perspective. It’s a perspective that changes as you go round. And the light is so important too; you can do it in different kinds of light. One occasion I went up as it was turning dark, and I could see the lights of London. It was just magical. I love it up there.

It’s not only observing the scene around you, but observing the wheel itself.

Yes, the wheel itself is a very interesting structure. I’d be dismayed if they took it down. 

The narrator’s voice is totally engaging. Even before we know that he has Asperger’s syndrome we sense that he is  different from the way he observes his world and describes it. When did you know that this was going to be the voice for the narration?

I went to my literary agent, Hilary, with some ideas for books, with Asperger Syndrome being in there somewhere in the mix, based on the fact that I have a close relative who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in about 1994. At that time I hadn’t heard of it. I had to learn about it from reading. So watching that relative learn how to cope with the world, and seeing it from a very different perspective, was inspiring. That’s what drew me to write about it. And then it occurred to me that this was the sort of book that would carry that voice. Normally I find writing in the third person a little easier than the first. And it took me a while to get Ted’s deadpan voice.

It’s very hard to maintain that first per- son narrative, unless the character whose voice you’re speaking in is exactly like you. And it’s always tricky when you’re writing children’s books because you have to enter the voice of the child.

Ted is obsessed with the weather and you use that as a device for structuring the narrative. For instance, the chapter after the police have made their first visit is called the ‘Eye of the Hurricane’, perfect description for this period before the anxiety cranks up a notch, it has that sense of expectation that the worst is yet to come. Did you decide early on that you would use this metaphor, or did it come through the writing?

Yes, through the writing. 

When you are writing a mystery, I assume you know right from the beginning how things are going to unravel?

I did have a plan.

Obviously you want to reveal things gradually to the reader, so they don’t work it out too quickly. How does that work, the holding back and dropping in clues?

'The London Eye Mystery' is a plot driven book. I did have a plan, and the first draft stuck to the plan. But I am not a very good planner and I kept finding that I had to change things in subsequent drafts. Things that look all right in a plan don’t really seem credible when they are in the story, so you have to modify it all the time. When I got to the end, I had to go back to the beginning again. I had a change of heart about a redundant character who was left out of the final draft. I hope it reads like it was straightforward, but it was not.

I know names are very important to you, even when those names are quite ordinary, they still seem to have been chosen with care and are apposite for the characters. Gloria for the aunt, and Faith for the mother, and Ted is a very down-to- earth name. Do the names just pop into your head or do you sit down with a baby book with the intention of choosing something appropriate? 

I don’t really know where Ted’s name came from, but I like simplicity in names. Spark seemed right because he’s obviously very sparky, and they’re a bright, sparky family all round. I get names sometimes by asking my nieces and nephews who are of the age that I am writing for, to give me lists of names of the children in their classes. I find that very helpful. 

One of your characters has the surname Flood which fits with the weather theme.

I did know an Irish-American person with the surname Flood. It just seemed perfect, because it’s a clue to the fact that the strange man is related to Marcus. We’re told Marcus’ name by the police officer when she’s going through the names of the people they havecontacted, so Ted knows it. And then when the person in charge of the security guards says it never rains but it pours, just like his name, it allows me to have a bit of fun.

I enjoyed the word games that are played in the book. Do you enjoy word games?

Oh, I love crosswords. I only do them in the winter, actually. With the puzzle about the names on the T-shirt, I tried those out on my nieces, to make sure that they were solvable It took them a while. … ‘Ont’ was difficult because they were thinking phonetically ont not unt. And there’s the double problem of two missing letters, not one, and also front, not ont, you know. But they got there in the end.

Memory also seems to be quite important to you. Early on we see Aunt Gloria’s letter recalled by Cat and Ted in very different ways.

We all remember things differently from different perspectives. And I think that probably Aunt Gloria’s actual letter, if we could ever find a copy of it, might be somewhere between the two. A bit more on the Cat end of things, perhaps, but I think Cat’s probably embroidered it. 

It’s a nice relationship between Ted and Cat, I think. They tolerate each other, but actually there’s something deeper underneath… ….

Yes, quite an odd, solid undertone. And I hope their relationship improves as the book goes on. I think Ted comes to accept some of Cat’s normality. He learns how to lie, for instance

Would he be able to do that?

Oh, definitely. But it would be something that he would learn. It wouldn’t come naturally. My own personal knowledge of the Asperger’s syndrome indicates that children can tell jokes and they can occasionally tell a little untruth, but that’s something that they learn  through the course of learning about social interaction in the way that they do, which is an intellectual process, rather than an emotional body, sort of, peer group thing that we all, most of us pick up just through relating to people normally. 

You seem to be drawn to the teen years, though I know that you have written other things as well.

Well, Tony Bradman has a theory about this, that writers are drawn to the age range where perhaps they suffered some sort of trauma. And my teens were quite troubled. I wasn’t ever a rebel, in fact, I was very well behaved. But my father was an old Dad, he was 50 when I was born and he returned to Ireland for a while so there was a separation, although my mother did eventually rejoin him. He was very, very strict and I think there was a strange atmosphere in the house. I think that’s why I’m compelled by the teenage years.

Thank you Siobhan Dowd for talking to us.

 

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