Jessica Townsend is the mind behind the record-breaking middle grade fantasy series The Chronicles of Morrigan Crow. Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow kicked off the series, followed by Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow and Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow.
This is projected to be a nine-book series, and honestly, this is a magical series of inclusivity, adventure and excellent reader pay offs.
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow was the biggest-selling Australian children's debut since records began. It received the 2018 ABIA for Book of the Year, Book of the Year for Younger Readers and Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year; the 2018 Indie Book Awards Book of the Year and Children's Category; the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Children's Fiction and the 2018 Waterstones Children's Book Prize for Younger Fiction.
Jessica has previously appeared on The Garret, and you can listen to her previous interview here.
ASTRID: Jessica Townsend, welcome to The Garret at Home.
JESSICA: Thank you very much. I'm very, very happy to be here again.
ASTRID: Now, I have something to admit. I sat down with the first two books in the middle grade fantasy series that you've written followed by advance reader copy of Hollowpox – and that's about 1400 pages. You have me captivated. I've interviewed you and read the first two before, and I’m a 30-something-year-old woman who really, really appreciates the world you've built. It is wondrous. It is inclusive. It is exciting. And this morning, and I kid you not, on the day that we are recording I actually read the first chapter with my nine-year-old niece over the phone. I am in Melbourne and she's in Sydney. She's old enough to not think I'm her daggy old auntie anymore, so I'm really excited. Thank you.
JESSICA: That's amazing. Thank you. That's so lovely. That's the nicest way I think hearing about the books are being shared between different generations and aunties and nieces. That's delightful.
ASTRID: The praise is most definitely earned, Jessica. Now I'm fully a fan but for those listeners of The Garret who are writers and who may not have read your work but really want to know how you do this so well, can you introduce us to the world of Nevermoor?
JESSICA: Nevermoor is projected in my mind to be a nine-book series, and the first three are out now. Nevermoor is about a little girl called Morrigan Crow. At the beginning of the first book, she's just turned 11 and she is cursed. It's set in a completely different world and being cursed means that basically she was born on the unluckiest day of all. Because of that, she is on a Cursed Children's Register, and is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the place where she's from. But also, the flip side of it is that she is supposedly destined to die at a certain time. But, small spoiler, it happens in the first couple of chapters so it's okay, she does not die. Instead, she gets swept away by a very interesting gentleman to this secret magical city that she had no idea existed. It's like Dorothy coming to Oz. Everything's magical and bright and new. She suddenly has friends that she's never had in her life and she has family who care about her in this new world that she's living in.
Book One is all about her. She's been invited to compete against hundreds of other children for a place in the Wundrous Society, which is an elite organisation of exceptional people with extraordinary talent. But she's very confused about this because as far as she's aware she does not have an extraordinary talent, and she needs one if she's going to be allowed to stay in Nevermoor. Book One is all about her reaching for the thing. And stop listening if you haven't read Book Two. But Book One, she gets the thing, and then Book Two is her grappling with the fact that the thing is not what she hoped it would be. She's in the Wundrous Society, but she's realising that these powers that she didn't know that she had, they might not be a good thing and people might not be happy for her having them.
Then Book Three is Hollowpox, and Hollowpox is all about much more external forces coming to Nevermoor and making things dangerous for her. There's a disease called the Hollowpox which is affecting Wunimals, who are the intelligent sentient animal people. Yeah, Morrigan figures out that it might actually be up to her to figure it out and fix everything in Nevermoor.
ASTRID: Of course, we should say the protagonist of this series is Morrigan Crow. Morrigan Crow is our heroine, and there's much to be said about strong female leads but I really appreciate – I think half the people on this planet appreciate – that in this fantasy series, we have a female lead.
I know you're going to get asked this question a lot, but 2020 obviously has a plague. We have a coronavirus that has changed our world, and you have written a middle grade book that has a plague. Two questions from that. Firstly, how did you deal with that as a writer? Did you change stuff? Did you re-evaluate? Did you think ‘Oh, my god! I can't publish this?’ Secondly, how do you think the kids will interpret it? What will they learn from it?
JESSICA: Yeah, it's an interesting one. I mean, back in the beginning of the year when we were all flailing – there's no other word for it, we're all just flailing – I was dealing with two things at the same time.
One was that I had written this book already and that there was suddenly this spooky parallel in real life. I just worried about the sensitivities around that. There was a point where I remember I was in London at the time. I was out to dinner with my publishers, and I remember asking almost half jokingly because at that point, we really didn't know. I mean we were still out for dinner in Common Garden. That should give you some... That's the point that we were at, but having said that, the restaurant was starting to be quite empty. That's the place that we were in. I remember asking her like, ‘Am I going to have to can this book? Are we going to trash this? Am I going to have to write a new book?’ And do you know what? I would have. If it had come to that, I would much rather scrap an entire book and write a new one than hurt anyone or be insensitive in any way. At that point, we had no idea how this was... I mean, we still have no idea how this is all going to play out, but we have a much better feel for it now. But we really didn't know where it was going, and things were starting to feel really dangerous. I was just so worried that I was going to have written something that would turn out to be deeply insensitive. My editor was much more confident about it. She was like, ‘No, it's fine because it's sensitively dealt with’. I mean, to be honest with you. When I look back on Hollowpox, it's almost more of a zombie novel than a disease novel in some ways. Do you know? That's the kind of disease I'm talking about. But, yeah, I was worried about that and I was starting to see all of these bizarre parallels. Sometimes, really specific ones.
But then, the other thing that I was dealing with is that I was in the UK at the time and my sister and my niece and nephew were living in Manchester. We were trying to figure out what do we do? Do we stay? Do we go? Then the DFAT warning came out for all Australians overseas saying, ‘Everyone get home’. We were suddenly terrified. So I go, ‘What's going to happen? Are they going to close the borders? Are we not going to be able to get a flight home?’ Just in the midst of that, I almost couldn't think about the book because I was too busy like everyone else, worrying about real life and what was going to happen and worrying about my family. By the time that we could have been able to do anything anyway, it was all done.
It's such a strange thing. I'm still coming to grips with it. It's so bizarre because this book was plotted literally years ago. Morrigan Crow has been a character in my head since I was 18. I'm now 35. That is 17 years of my life. When you sign with a publisher – you will know but maybe some listeners won't know – if you're signing a series, they want general series outline from you. They want some kind of document that says, ‘Hey, I pretty much know what is going to happen maybe in Book Two and Three’.
Book Three at that point was called ‘Nothingpox’. It was about a disease. It's been about that for years, and I changed the title because I think that ‘Nothingpox’ does not trip off the tongue very nicely. When I actually started saying the word out loud when I started writing Book Three, I was like, ‘Ugh! That's not going to work’. It's so strange to have had this... I have promised my readers that Book Four, there's going to be absolutely no conflict. Nothing bad will happen to anyone. It will be tea parties. It will be picnics. Morrigan's going to get a puppy. We're going to have a good 2021, 2022.
As far as what kids will get from it, I just find it impossible to answer that. What I hope that they will get for it is the same thing that I hope that they have gotten or taken from the first two books, which is that this is a world for them. They own it. It belongs to them. They belong in it. I want my readers to feel the way that Morrigan feels when she comes to Nevermoor. I want them to feel like, ‘Oh, somebody made this world just for me’. The same goes in the time of Hollowpox/COVID. I honestly just hope it's a nice little cosy escape from what's going on because things are bad out here as you well know.
ASTRID: Well, the world is not a happy place in 2020. I don't believe you because I think some bad things are going to happen in Book Four because that's what the narrative and plot tension requires. But, aside from that little lie, Jessica, I thought, ‘Okay, what are the parallels that a kid will see?’ In the narrative, there are businesses being shut and lockdowns and curfews, which will resonate with any kid who happens to be in Melbourne and some other places around the world. I thought, ‘Well, they're not going to be scared of this book. They're going to probably draw the parallels from their own life but also see how you fix it and see how you work together and see what it takes to make the world a better place’. Probably, giving them more hope than the news right now. I would think.
JESSICA: Well, I mean, I think possibly what they might see is the way, have that slightly distant because they're swimming in it right now. We're all swimming in it. We're living this. It's hard to pick apart what's happening to you. It's hard to pick apart what's happening around you constantly, especially in a situation like this that's constantly changing, really difficult to understand. It's a little bit easy to understand in some ways when you have that little bit of distance and you're talking about fictional characters and a fictional world that is a contained thing and that you can make sense of it. You know that by the end of it, there's going to be some kind of resolution and everything's going to be okay.
I think that possibly what they might be able to observe a little bit more easily... I mean, we are observing it in our real life but the way that people react more than anything. This is about a disease but it's not like us. I'm joking when we say it's like a zombie book – it's not like a zombie book. There's nothing particularly scary about the disease itself. There are some frightening bits where Wunimals go on a bit of a riot but to me, the most frightening thing about this book is the way that people respond to this emergency, and that obviously has been the one of the most frightening things about the way that we've experienced COVID. Maybe they'll be able to have that little bit of distance and observe.
But again – I'm going off on little tangents in my head even as I speak – but I'm really hesitant for people to draw those exact parallels because none of this was written as reaction. This was all written just literally in my head I thought, ‘I wonder what would happen if this went on’. Unfortunately, I was able to pinpoint a few things and guess at how people would react. I guess people are more predictable than we think they're going to be.
The reason I'm hesitant for people to draw these direct parallels is because, particularly later on in the book without wanting to give away too many spoilers, I mean it's not that much of a spoiler but there are protests and there are people that are angry and different groups are blaming different people for this situation. I only worry that they will ... If I said, ‘Well, yes. This is just like what we're experiencing now’. I don't want anyone to say, ‘All right, well in the book bad guys quote-unquote are acting in this way and the good guys are acting in this way. How does that line up with how I perceive who the good guys are in real life? How do they line up and oh, okay, well if they behaved in that particular way then what are you saying about this group of people in real life and how they feel about school closures and blah, blah’. I worry that people will take it too literally, but that's also probably me just not giving people enough credit because I think it'll be okay.
ASTRID: Look, the book's been out for a few days so I guess, both of us will wait and see. My interpretation is that yes, you foresaw a lot of things that have turned out to happen, but isn't that the power of fiction? You have given us a way to experience something that might be happening in 2020, but in a beautiful world of Nevermoor that is an escape and this fully realised world. It is a safe place because we're going there in our imaginations, we're not going there physically. That's way safer than doing anything in real life. I like to think you've done everybody a great service, Jessica.
JESSICA: Thank you. That's very kind and I suppose the comfort is that it is a safe place and you know that things are going to probably turn out at the end whereas, we're still living this. That's the difference.
ASTRID: Look, we are still living it and look, we're both adults and neither one of us knows what to say right now because it's terrible. I'm going to change the topic. Smooth.
I want to talk about how you address privilege throughout these three books. I didn't even notice it necessarily on my first read but as I read it again, I'm like, ‘Oh, I'm loving this. This is like some little moral lessons in here that even I'm learning from’.
I guess, there's the obvious pin privilege. You've mentioned the Wundrous Society, and this is this cool society that Morrigan gets to join. Pin privilege is where you get the best seats on the public transport or you get into a fancy show and don't have to wait outside, just really obvious little benefits but you also get a great deal of... you're esteemed in society. That's the obvious way you deal with privilege. There are different groups as you've just alluded to. There is class. There are Wunimals, animals and people. There's all sorts of things for a child to be exposed to here in what is actually a really inclusive, intelligent way of presenting things. I guess, that's totally leading, but how do you think about how you approach privilege in this series?
JESSICA: It's the thing at the forefront of my mind in writing and has been from the beginning. I am so glad to hear that it crept up on you a bit, because that's what I want. I want it to creep up on you and I want it to keep creeping up on you in these nine books, without trying to spoil anything. Again, it's so hard to talk about the entire thing because I have nine books in my head but I want it to feel like, ‘Oh, okay. I thought that I was getting into this magical fun Dorothy in Wonderland type – that's two different books – story, but it is that kind of creeping realisation that, ‘Oh, actually all of those things that maybe we thought we were rooting for, those characters that we thought we were rooting for and that maybe we still love, they are again, very tricky’.
I'm just trying to word this in a way that's not going to ruin anything but okay, slight spoiler for Book Three. I'm going to caveat this with okay, so this is a spoiler for Book Three. If you have not read the first few chapters of Book Three, please turn off your podcast.
When Morrigan and her unit have that realisation in the first few chapters of Hollowpox, where they figure out what the Wundrous Society is about – the whole idea of containment and distraction, and that the Wondrous Society has this history of having been responsible for these dangerous terrible things having happened and now they spend their time containing those things but also distracting the public from it. I have Morrigan point this out, and she puts her hand up and asks the question. It was really important to me that she ask that question because I do want the reader to interrogate that a little bit and be like, ‘Well, why are these people taking it upon themselves to keep these massive secrets from an entire population and they think that they're doing it for everyone's benefit and they think that they're the only people who can take care of it and handle it but they've entirely taken that burden on themselves?’ There is an inherent privilege in that.
It's not just the Wundrous Society. The fact that Morrigan, she is a child who grew up with really no love, no friends, no affection from her family was hated by everyone, was blamed by everyone but, having said that she grew up in a place called Crow Manor. In all of the ways that we understand… in that way that we understand privilege, she was privileged. She comes to Nevermoor, a magical place, she lives in a glorious hotel. She's privileged. There will be other situations in the future where it is very clear that Morrigan has a certain level of privilege rubbing alongside uncomfortably with the fact that she is the brunt of everyone's blame and accusations about things. She's constantly fighting to prove that she is worthy of a space in this world and always grappling with that. It's a question that's always on my mind. It's a question that is going to be more and more apparent.
I try to avoid reviews, but people tag you in them and you can't always avoid them. I have seen people be like, ‘Oh, the Wundrous Society. I can't tell if they're good. Are they a force for good? Are they a force for bad?’ The answer is yes. With everything, this is a world of greys. This is a world of many, many shades of grey and I never really want people to feel utterly comfortable with any of this or any of these characters. I always want them to have that little bit of questioning and interrogation of, ‘Oh, I love these people and I love this place but actually, is this really as much as a force for good as they think they are?’
ASTRID: This is the third book, and Morrigan has grown up a little bit, about two years have passed and over time, that means that your audience, your readers can grow up with you. I increasingly noticed themes of identity politics and xenophobia and bigotry. You don't use the first two words in the book, obviously, but you do use the word bigotry. I have a quote Fenestra the Magnificat. This is not a plot spoiler but I'm going to give you a one-line quote: ‘We don't ignore bigotry that's how cowardly bigots turn into brave bigots’. I read that. I'm like, ‘Yes!’ I imagine that 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds all feeling that and believing it. These books are just pure fantasy, and it's perfect fantasy, Jessica, but also that just makes me want to go buy ten books and give it to all the kids I know who I haven’t already given it to. They've all got these books on their shelves. But, bigotry's a big word to put in a middle grade book. Tell me how you did it. Why?
JESSICA: Do you know? I never thought of it as being that big of a thing until you just said that.
ASTRID: I really love it.
JESSICA: Thank you. To me, it was just a natural thing to say because that was that was playing out. I didn't go into this. The idea for this book was like, ‘Oh, it's going to be a pandemic novel where... It's going to action and scary and blah, blah, blah’. It didn't really particularly begin bad at all. It ended up being this weird just observation of how people... It's much more about the horror of how people treat other people when they are afraid. Elder Saga says in the beginning, he says – I can't remember the exact line from my own book – He talks about what I was saying earlier about Morrigan saying, ‘Why? Why don't we tell people that we're doing this?’ One of the elder says, ‘When you tell people that they're at risk, it makes them frightened and when people are frightened they're dangerous’. That's true. It did become much more about that in the way that they're reacting to other people.
Honestly, it's not a thing that I consciously think of as well, I need to put this message in there. I've got to tell the kids about bigotry. It's just a natural consequence of okay, well this disease happens. Okay, as soon as I realised logically for there to be some kind of conflict, it's got to affect some people more than others. Maybe it just only targets this particular group. And then for other different overarching series plot lines, I needed it to target this particular group of people. The natural consequence of that is well, if it's just affecting Wunimals, then how do non-Wunimals feel about it? How do Wunimals feel about the way that humans are reacting to it? And how are these people getting along in a situation when it's hard to perceive... Well, it's hard to perceive there are victims on both sides. But you know what I mean? Are the victims the Wunimals or are the victims the people that the Wunimals are attacking? It was a very natural consequence that there would be conversations about bigotry, because there was already bigotry in this world. There was already hints of people not quite feeling comfortable with the idea of talking animals.
Yeah, the thing is it's not meant to... It's really, really not supposed to draw a parallel with any particular specific group, but unfortunately with no shortage of that in real life, everywhere you look at the moment, well not at the moment forever but it feels like particularly now, just everywhere you look there is bigotry being enacted online and in the real world. It's such a difficult thing to deal with and that sentence of when we ignore, that's how brave... What did I say? Actually, what was my sentence? We don't ignore bigotry. That's how the bigots become brave. That phrase is something that is just naturally on my mind for the past several years and forever. It's always been something I've thought about but that is exactly right.
Even as a kid, I always felt like – not necessarily with bigotry at school, I'm not sure I encountered much of that, but with bullies at school – I always just felt like the prevailing advice about bullies that kids hear is ignore it. I always felt that's terrible advice. You don't ignore bullies and you don't ignore bigots. You can ignore them to an extent, and I think that there is definitely something to be said for people preserving their mental health, preserving the safeness that they feel in real life and online. I'm definitely not saying we all need to take up arms, like pitchforks or tortures or whatever, but gosh. How do we expect anything to go away? How do we expect anything to get better if we don't talk about it and if we don't address it and if we don't say to these people, ‘You're wrong about this and this is why’.
We've seen that really in the last few years is that all cowardly bigots need is a little bit of empowerment. They just need someone in a powerful position to say, ‘Hey, it's okay for you to think these terrible things and it's okay for you to act on them’. That's a powder keg.
ASTRID: I could not agree with you more. Fenestra, the character who said the quote about bigotry, she has become part of Morrigan's family. She may be a giant Magnificat – and for those of you who haven't read any of the Nevermoor books that means she's a really giant feline creature who is highly intelligent – but she has taken on that role of friend and family. They both live in the Hotel Deucalion and Morrigan has pieced together really strong family and friendship relationships that she's chosen. Her Unit 919, and the Hotel Deucalion, because her original family isn't really much of a family at this point. They treated her really terribly. That is such a message of inclusivity and hope for your readers but as I got to the end of Book Three – and there's no actual spoiler here – but I just want to make the point, Jessica, that you leave mothers out of this storyline. Morrigan doesn't know her mum. We assume that she's never been part of Morrigan's life. Her guardian, Jupiter North, is also the guardian of his nephew Jack. We never find Jupiter's sister, Jack's mother. My question to you is, where are the mothers? Or why aren't they there?
JESSICA: That's a really valid question. No, 100 per cent mothers are really important to me. My own mother is very important to me. The mothers in my life are very important to me, and they have always been intended to be a very big part of this story. Again, I mean a thing that I like playing with is subverting things and making people feel comfortable, as in ‘Oh, this book is about this’. I know that people love the dynamic between Morrigan and Jupiter of being this uncle-niece, big brother-little sister, father-daughter thing. I think we have people feeling comfortable in that that you think, ‘Oh, is that what it's about? It's about father-daughter relationships’. This series for me, without wanting to give too much away, I think that when people get to the end of Hollowpox, they realise that actually mothers are quite important and will be much more important.
It was a very deliberate choice. There were conversations in my editorial team in the first couple of books exactly talking about these questions. Where's Morrigan's mum? What happened to her? How did she live? I never wanted to even... The idea is that with Morrigan, she's never looked. She keeps her mother in her peripheral vision. There is one moment in Nevermoor where you have the briefest mention of her, and it's very much skated over. That's very deliberate. That is because Morrigan doesn’t think much more about that. She doesn't even – again, spoiler so sorry, just a spoiler warning for everything – I was just going to talk about the whole book but there is that moment when she goes back to Jackalfax in this book on her own, and she sees her little brothers and she sees her stepmother, who she does not like, being so motherly towards them. This to me was the moment that explained everything about Morrigan feels about mothers, and the importance of mothers in this book is that she knows she feels some kind of loss. She knows that there's something going on there, but she has no idea why. She's looking at it thinking she feels envious of these boys. She feels this feeling of longing and she says, ‘Why do I feel that? I don't even like Ivy’. She does not even make that connection. She just knows that whatever it is, she never got her fair share of it. She never had it. The point is that she's never had it and she's never had… there are plenty of children who never had mothers, but they have an understanding of what that loss is because they have other people in their lives who remember that person for them and talk about that person. Morrigan has never had that. She just has this blind spot and that again, no spoilers but that is so much of what...
I always say Book Four is the book that I've been looking forward to writing since before I finished writing Nevermoor, because I knew that this was when Morrigan would begin to come to grips with that. That would begin to actually be part of her reality and part of her mental landscape and she would start to understand what that massive gap is that she has and how she's going to fill it.
ASTRID: That fascinates me, you looking forward to writing Book Four before you've even written Book One, Book Two or Book Three. World building and plotting are such essential tools for writers, particularly writers of genre and writers of fantasy. I'm not asking for spoilers here, but in terms of your plotting and craft, how do you hold nine books in your head and give enough? For example, we've just been talking about your approach to what you wanted to reveal in terms of how important mothers are and how much you would give of Morrigan beginning to understand. With all that plot, how do you choose what to reveal and when because that is a lot of plot? When that's published, that's going to be 4000 to 5000 pages or something.
JESSICA: I know, and honestly, it's a monster. It keeps getting bigger because I've got all of the stuff that I've plotted and planned but then I still can surprise myself when I'm writing. There are still things that happen on the page, and Rook for example. I'm not going to say who Rook is, but Rook was a surprise to me in the moment that she appeared on the page.
ASTRID: She was such a good surprise.
JESSICA: Thank you. I love her. I really love her as a character. I can't wait to write more of her. But it was literally like she popped up and I went, ‘Oh, yeah. Of course, of course she exists. You have to’. There are things like that where I was planning to write that and different plot threads that I'm starting to make myself… I think of it as a tapestry, but it's not. At the moment, it's just a bunch of threads and material and things, I'm just adding to the plate of threads that I need to tie up. But, miraculously, I honestly don't know how it happens. This is such a hard question to answer because I don't know.
Again, it's one of those things where I don't have the distance from it. I'm living it and I'm working on it now, so I don't have that distance that allows me to analyse it. But, miraculously, things always just seem to come together. I think I have all of these disparate threads and then I realise the picture begins to resolve. I'm like, ‘Oh, this thing that I plotted 15 years ago is entirely related to this thing that came up by accident and was never planned’. They converged really nicely, and it doesn't always happen like that but so much of it just goes ... I think I talk a lot about I have just 15, 17 years of just documents, literally millions of words, just a massive iceberg and we are only seeing the tip.
It’s funny to me sometimes, going back and finding that thing that I wrote seven years ago because it will just be like this stream of consciousness. Suddenly, I see where it had the idea because there are 50 exclamation marks in a row. There's words like ‘bam’, ‘oh my god’, and ‘then this happens’. That's how I'm writing it out. That's my favourite bit of writing actually. That's the best script.
ASTRID: That must be so surprising even just for you, going back and finding that moment when you had the creative genius idea that makes this whole thing hang together. Writers do listen to this podcast, and I'm going to re-ask the question in a different way. You obviously have done all of the work and the world building. You have all the materials. When you are crafting a story, I mean it can't be easy. This is an excellent piece of work and excellent pieces of work face challenges in the making of them. How do you deal with issues? Plot points that just don't work, what is your problem-solving approach?
JESSICA: When I really come to a problem – and I've had situations where and this is going to be so specific to me that's not going to help anyone or it might help people. Basically, the person that I go to most often is my sister, Sally. She knew about the books for years before anyone else did. She read bits and pieces. She didn't read the whole thing, but I would sometimes send her little bits of pieces. She'd read it before I sent it out to an agent. She and I think in very similar ways. We used to co-edit the children's magazine together, so we've done that kind of stuff.
I guess how this applies to other people is that the most useful thing to me is literally just to sit down, talk it out and not worry about how the words are coming out. Not worry and just be like ‘And this happens’. Then say, ‘Oh, hang on. Go back to this thing. Oh, no, no’. What you have to understand is that this actually happened to me a few chapters ago. Let me just go back and then...’ but I just word vomit it out and say, ‘This is what the situation is, and this is what I mean this chapter or this scene to achieve. It's got to end up in this way and I don't know how to do it.’
Sometimes, it's literally that's all I needed to do. I just needed to speak it out loud and just let it go and go. Sometimes all Sally has to say is… One time I spent, honest to god, I spent 40 minutes just monologing and saying this terrible situation I had in this book and blah, blah, blah. All she had to say at the end was, ‘Ugh, yeah. No, I'm really glad that I don't do your job’. That was it. It's not as if it's always something then sometimes she has some really specific idea that's like, ‘Oh, what if it was this thing? What if this happens?’ And that's enough to spark it off.
I think when there are real big problems like that, I am someone who is so introverted, I live so much inside my head, I am not naturally a person who seeks help. I'm not naturally a person who asks anyone. I think I'm the only person who can fix anything and I mean, it’s terrible. It's a terrible attitude. That's my general attitude is instead of seeking help or asking for some kind of understanding or something I just shut down. I very much do that with writing, where I go 100 per cent inside my head, no one else can know what I'm talking about so whatever. It has to be really bad. It has to be quite a bad situation for me to go, ‘Listen. I just need you to shut up and let me talk for half an hour’. Yeah, sometimes that's exactly what is necessary. You would think that that would be a really simple straight-forward truth that you would know that actually sometimes just asking people to help you is the right thing to do. Bt no, I'm 35, I'm still learning, and every time it happens. I don't know if that's a useful answer in terms of what but that would be a specific thing I do.
The other thing is obviously just walk away from it. Sometimes, that's what you have to do. Sometimes, you have to walk away. You have to take... It's such a clichéd piece of advice, but you got to take a shower or have a bath or take a walk, go and have a cup of coffee or think about something else. Watch your TV show. Read someone else's book and then let your brain do that work for you in the background. That's what it's built to do. That's what your brain is built to do. It is built to solve problems for you when you're not thinking about them. Sometimes that's what you need. It's just to stop.
ASTRID: That is such good advice. I'm serious. I need to learn how to take that moment to walk away, go for a walk, have a shower, whatever, because too often I find myself just staring at the problem and it doesn't go away. That does not make it go away.
I would like to talk about Ezra Squall.
JESSICA: Yeah, let's do it.
ASTRID: This is not a spoiler. Ezra Squall is the baddie, for want of a really generic stereotype. In Book Three, we find out more about him, and we find out more about his past, particularly his childhood. This puts our main character, Morrigan, in a very peculiar situation. I guess this is the bit that I want to ask you, and I think we can have this discussion without actual plot spoilers. She has this antagonistic friendship, mentorship, somehow connection – I don't know what the right word is – with the worst guy in the world. They have the same powers. They are both Wundersmiths. And the way you explore that relationship I thought was really quite nuanced. He is the bad guy and everyone is terrified of him, but also now we know there's something worse than him, right? That's profound. How do you write a 12-year-old girl and a 100 plus-year-old evil man having these pretty intense adventures?
JESSICA: Yeah, it's a weird one. And it became that weird dynamic before I even realised that was what I was writing. I was like, ‘Oh, okay. That's what's going on. That's bizarre’. It is a bit strange yeah, when you put it like that, but she needs something from him and he needs something from her. That's the entire heart of their relationship, for want of a better word. The whole dynamic there is that they both require something from each other and they both resent that fact. It's going to be something that gets trickier as I go along, because again, I know so much about Squall, why he is the way he is, what he wants, what he doesn't want, what he's trying to achieve and Morrigan needs to slowly figure that out.
But yeah, the way that that dynamic shifts again at the end of Book Three, it's going to be suddenly much more at the forefront. It's going to be a tricky thing for me, I think. It requires a lot of thinking time because again, when you are just in the thick of it, it's so hard for me to have that though, to step back. That's where editors are very helpful as well. That they have that bit of distance and they can step back and go, ‘Hang on, you've said this thing and should I already know something about this?’ It's like, ‘Oh, no. I just assumed you did because I do’.
It's that really trick thing of exactly what you were talking about before, like when do you drop things in? How much do you give away at certain points and how much is too much? The worst thing would be that if I get to Book Four or Five and realise, ‘Oh, no. I needed to mention that thing in Book Three’. It hasn't happened yet, touch wood. It's just a tricky balance and it just involves literally a lot of sitting and thinking and daydreaming and knotting things out, but I'm glad that you enjoy those parts of it because it is the thing that I like writing the most.
There's another character, a new character, who comes in and puts a bit of a spanner in the works in this one, and I think that might be the conversation and the scene that I enjoyed writing the most of anything in the entire series so far. I really loved it.
ASTRID: I loved it too. No mention of who that character was.
Going back to Ezra Squall, I found how it played out on the page fascinating because although Morrigan now has friends her own age, Unit 919 and others, she has the relationship with Fenestra the Magnificat. She has the relationship with Ms. Cheery, her conductor. She has a relationship with Jupiter North, her father/uncle/friend/older brother character. And now Ezra Squall, the great big baddie. She interacts with so many adults and they're also flawed. Ezra obviously most but they're all flawed. Jupiter makes mistakes. Ms. Cheery makes mistakes. Fenestra makes mistakes. And Morrigan sometimes, she's learning from flawed humans and it's interesting to watch a character grow up.
I feel like now that I've read three books, I feel like I can see Morrigan becoming a teenager. How old do you have to be before you're a teenager, right? It's cool.
JESSICA: Yeah, she's a teenager and more so, I feel like this series has really split in my head into three acts, because I've always said it's nine books. It's nine books. The story that I'm telling, it's got to be nine books probably. I do reserve the right to change my mind if I just get sick of it! But I think of it as three acts or emotionally three acts rather than plot wise. We're now going into the second act of this series, and Morrigan has a lot of growth here. She is becoming a teenager. You really do see that at the end of Hollowpox, where she actually stands up against the person that she loves the most and has this argument of, ‘No, I'm right’.
You're right. They are all flawed characters. They have to feel like flawed characters because all humans are flawed. I never wanted these adults – she interacts with so many adults! There's a real danger there that you end up having this quite precarious situation where all of these adults just exist to prop up our hero and send her off on a journey. You turn the page and they stop existing. I don't want it to feel like any of those adult characters just stop existing. They have their own problems and aspirations and stories and pasts and love lives and blah, blah, blah. That's what I remember feeling as a kid, that none of these people existed purely to be there for me at that particular quest and part of my quest.
ASTRID: You know, I have to say one of the bits that made me smile is reading and seeing the very veiled, very very minor hints of some of the adult character's love lives. I'm like, ‘Yes, Jessica's done it again’. I so enjoyed that.
I have one final question to ask you, Jessica, and I am just outrageously going to ask for a spoiler. For anybody who hasn't read Book Three or actually just doesn't want to listen to me trying to pick Jessica's brain for something that she hasn't explained yet, please turn off now. Know that I highly recommend these books, and I'm sure many will turn off now.
Jessica, back to Ezra Squall. When a Wundersmith calls Wunder they sing something. They sing a tune that means something to them, and we know that Ezra Squall's tune involves the words ‘little crowling, little crowling’. Look, Morrigan Crow. Crow Manor. My question here is obvious. What can you tell me?
JESSICA: Actually, I can't tell you anything… but that should give you your answer.
ASTRID: Look, I had to try.
JESSICA: I can tell you that's a really good intelligent question and it's a good observation. Don't worry, there will be satisfaction there. All I can tell you is that there will be satisfaction.
ASTRID: Look, satisfaction is all I'm after here with the great resolution of your fantasy series. And I saw you look at me on Zoom, so thank you for the visual you gave me and I'm going to run with that. I'm sorry to all podcast listeners who didn't get to see it, but I think you've given a brilliant answer.
Jessica Townsend, thank you so much for letting me fan girl about your middle grade series once again.
JESSICA: Thank you. This is so much fun. I really love The Garret. I've really gotten into it. I love hearing from all of these writers, especially all these Aussie writers that you don't often get to hear from. And you ask such thoughtful pertinent questions. It's always such a delight. It's a delight to be interviewed by you and it's a delight to hear you interview other people. Thank you. Thank you so much. I'm always and forever happy to come on The Garret. Thank you.
ASTRID: You have made my day.