Ananda Braxton-Smith first came to attention with her YA nonfiction book The Death: The Horror of the Plague. She tells Natalie Crawford about her latest offering, Merrow.
There is a beautiful sense of landscape (both emotional and physical) in Merrow, particularly in relation to the character of Neen. Did it ever seem to overwhelm her adolescent journey?
Merrow’s landscape came first; the characters grew directly from that. They emerged from the cliffs and the sea and all that lies beneath; out of deep waters and caves, and so forth. I was very aware while writing that the caves were acting as Neen’s psyche, and the sea as her emotional element, though I tried not to know it while writing for fear it might become a lifeless landscape. Neen and the island reflect each other. Shifting ideas, shifting ground; new stories, new caves; heat waves; tempers fraying. I love a good pathetic fallacy. What’s good enough for the Brontes and William Falkner is good enough for me. I never felt the conflation of Neen and her environment to be getting out of hand. Once up on her own feet she remained central to her own story, and everything else served that.
The trend at the moment in young adult fiction is for more glamorous historical settings. What drew you towards the lives you have written in Merrow?
Food tastes better when you’re really hungry. I wanted to include this simple pleasure; the pleasure of knowing one’s hungry and then satisfying the hunger. Rich people don’t get hungry like Neen and Ushag. Neen and Ushag live a survival-life as does much of our contemporary world. They are resilient and inventive because of it, two qualities I much admire and which are responsible for human survival into the present time. I wanted to display Neen’s skills and capacity for survival in a way which I hope respects the actual abilities of young people. Neen’s work is not just a training for real life, it is real life. Finally, as I needed Neen to have access only to her oral tradition, she had to be (romantically) illiterate. She needed her natural wits about her, her voice to be straight and true, and her reasoning untrained by medieval rhetoric.
Water, with all its power and elemental force, is a significant aspect of Merrow. Have you always had a particular interest in water legends?
Finding the Irish merrow legends re-ignited my interest in that watery world. I had been lost to mermaids once Disney got hold of them, and they became so … well, wet. All their power was gone and they just looked like girls I might know but with fishy tails. Mermaids are supposed to rise from another world, alien and more-than-somewhat disturbing. Myth and legend were part of my childhood. My mother had bookshelves of folktales with illustrations by artists like Rackham, Beardsley and Kay Neilsen. Legends talk about life more as a lived experience than as a biography. People have seas inside brimming with tiny, private merrows, and kraken in their undertows. Each one of us has a blind fiddler trying to tell us something important. I have never forgotten a dream I had at 15, in which I was a bunyip with an albatross growing out of my navel explaining to my brother how very difficult it was to be a myth.
Though told in the first-person, Merrow gives readers a real sense of each character and their perspective. How?
Reading other people is what we do best. Characters other than Neen are only accessible through her but being young she tends to report what she sees and hears in its totality and ambiguity, instead of confidently interpreting others as an adult character might. Like most young people, she often doesn’t know what’s going on with the adults and has no problem saying so. Readers are left to read for themselves the tones and body language of other characters. Neen has no television. She listens closely to, and remembers in their own language and emphasis, the stories other people tell her and recites them word-for-word without mediating the interpretation. Her plain failure to know everything leaves room for readers to make their own guesses.
What are you working on next?
I’m in discussion for another novel set on Neen’s island. Merrow is set on the isolated northern cliffs and among their bays and caves. This new one is set up on the bog in the west of Carrick and concerns a pair of twins, a plague of ‘monsters’, and an island that comes and goes in accordance with its own mysterious laws.