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An Interview with Angela McAllister

So far your ‘World Full of’ anthologies have featured spooky stories, Shakespeare stories, Dickens stories, animals stories and folk tales and myths from around the world! Can you give us a hint of what your next anthology will be about?

My next anthology is a collection of ‘Stories for Bedtime’. This won’t be a repetition of the usual familiar tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, although there will be a couple of old favourites, but it will be a selection of fifty less well-known stories from a variety of cultures around the world. I’m steering clear of anything which might induce a bad dream – so no spiders, snakes, dragons, witches, ogres, trolls, or any of the other gruesome creatures that inhabit the pages of ‘Spooky Stories’! Instead, these will be stories of humour, magic and adventure which will hopefully send the reader to sleep with a smile and fill their dreams with wonder.

What‘s your favourite part about writing your ‘World Full of’ anthologies?

I love researching the stories for these books. In order to find fifty folk tales, myths and legends that will work together as a collection I need to read at least five or six hundred for each anthology. I have a huge collection of folk tales and also research in libraries and online. It’s wonderful to squirrel yourself away with a book and let it transport you to another time and place and I enjoy learning about the culture of each country I visit. I also enjoy spending time with each story to understand what it has to teach me. Often there are many levels of information and reference to be drawn from a story. For instance, in ‘Spooky Stories’ I included a tale from Norway called ‘Old Nick and the Girl’ in which a girl races a demon along the banks of a very long, narrow lake. I was interested in the fact that she wore birch bark shoes and in the process of researching those I discovered that the story was set in a real landscape, which soon had me travelling along the shores of a beautiful Norwegian lake, thanks to Google Earth.

How long does it typically take you to write one of your anthologies?

The anthologies vary. The folk tale collections take around three months to research and three months to write. ‘A Stage full of Shakespeare Stories’ was quicker because I didn’t have to source the stories – just plunge in and enjoy myself. However, my latest book ‘A World full of Stories from Dickens’ took longer as I had to digest eight dense novels, some of them two volumes long, each with a huge cast of characters and myriad subplots and diversions. The daunting job of condensing the novels was a long editorial process which wasn’t helped by the fact that I moved house in the middle of the work!

Each anthology is illustrated by a different artist – do you work quite closely with the artists throughout the writing process?

Unfortunately I don’t usually meet the artists I work with on these anthologies as most of them live in other countries. However, the art editor sends me all the artwork as it arrives for comment. I also feed any reference material to the illustrators that comes out of my research. For instance, a Native American story will be very specific to a particular cultural group and any details in the illustrations need to be accurate, such as what type of wigwam or tipi or lodge they lived in, what type of clothes they wore, baskets and pots they made and landscape they inhabited.

But I was lucky enough to work more closely with Chris Corr who illustrated ‘A Year Full of Stories’. It was thrilling to send him each story and a few days later receive a sketch and then a bright, beautiful illustration. His work is immensely joyful and made that book a real pleasure from beginning to end.

What does your writing space look like?

I have a study at the back of my house overlooking beautiful gardens and very majestic beech trees beyond. With the window open the room is filled with birdsong. At the moment six tomato plants are growing alarmingly fast on my windowsill, yearning to be allowed outside. I’m still waiting to put up bookshelves so there are books piled up in every corner, picture books, illustrated books, sketchbooks, notebooks and my trusty, very tatty dictionary and thesaurus. On my desk is a little Inuit black bear sculpture and two tiny figures of a turtle and a crocodile from Africa. Also a silver bookmark for winning the Red House Book Award and a beautiful four thousand year old stone axe which I found while field walking, as I’m passionate about archaeology and love nothing better than spending my weekends in a muddy trench or surveying a damp, windswept field!

You most recent anthology, A World Full of Dickens Stories (published July 2020) brings to life eight of Dickens’ greatest works – did you face any particular challenges when writing this?

The hardest challenge of this book was how to effectively simplify each novel, how to prune out subsidiary plotlines and characters that weren’t appropriate, re-order events if necessary and ensure that motivation and emotion were clear, so that the retellings could be enjoyed by a young reader. To this end I also added a glossary of unfamiliar words at the back. We’ve all known a child open a book or a play in class, take one look at the first page, think they’ll never understand it and firmly close the cover. My hope is that becoming familiar with these simple retellings of Dickens stories and the plays of Shakespeare will give young people confidence to read the great works themselves one day.

Which of Dickens’ stories did you enjoy working on the most?

I particularly enjoyed ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Before starting I thought it was going to be difficult to manage a story set in France and England but I was instantly captivated by the powerful historical forces at work in the novel and I found the personal struggles of love and sacrifice hugely moving.

Your first ‘World Full of’ anthology was A Year Full of Stories: 52 Folk Tale and Myths From Around the World – what’s your favourite folk tale/myth?

Ooh, that’s a difficult one! Some make me laugh, some intrigue me, some are satisfying tales that put the world to right. In that book I particularly like ‘The Cracked Pot’, a story from India, which demonstrates how our flaws are also our blessings and so is a reminder that happiness comes from learning to accept ourselves for what we are.

This question is about your favourite children’s books – a book you loved as a child, a book you love right now, and a book you can’t wait to read?

One book I read over and over as a child was My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. It’s an American story about a boy who runs away from home and learns to live through the winter in hollow tree in the Catskill Mountains. I loved the feeling of his solitude deep in the vastness of the mountain woods and also the detailed pictures showing how he made all the contraptions he needed to survive. Hmm, maybe I’ll read it again.

My favourite children’s book at the moment is How to be a Lion by Ed Vere. It’s a story about acceptance, being yourself and the power of words to change the world. Fantastic!

A book I can’t wait to read is about to arrive through my door tomorrow, it’s an old book called ‘The Boy’s King Arthur’ (hopefully written for girls too!), illustrated by the amazing N.C. Wyeth. I’m researching the legend of ‘The Sword in the Stone’ for my new anthology and trying to make sense of fact and fiction when it comes to King Arthur, so a good excuse for some tales of the Round Table.

2020 has already proved to be a difficult year, but I always like to ask, what else is on the horizon for you this year?

As well as the Bedtime Stories, I’ve also just started working on a collection of my own stories but I can’t say more about that yet. I loved working on Wild World’ which was an environmental book of poems about the varied habitats and creatures of our beautiful planet and I’m keen to write more on that subject too.

And finally, my favourite question I always like to ask, if you could invite any five people – past and present – to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

Well, you might not be surprised to hear that I’d jump at the chance of inviting Shakespeare and Dickens to dinner. Shakespeare embodied the mind and heart of everyman, the most brilliant guest you could have, and Dickens also had amazing and amusing insight into the workings of both, so no awkward silences there. I’d particularly like to ask them both about what London was like in their time. A few years ago I wrote a novel set in Victorian London, called The Double Life of Cora Parry, and developed a fascination for Victorian newspapers, so listening to tales of Dickens walking through the city at night would be thrilling. The third guest would be Alan Garner, my favourite contemporary writer, whose interest in archaeology and the landscape I share, and next to him I would sit a Neolithic woman, assuming she could instantly master the language and wasn’t too baffled by the food. I think we’d all be very keen to hear what she could tell us about our ancient ancestors, the first farmers in Britain, and the monument builders who left us with Stonehenge and the longbarrows scattered around Wessex where I live. Lastly, I would invite Gandalf, because a bit of mischief and magic always makes a party go with a swing and all my other guests, apart from Dickens, were, or are, partial to a bit of mystical goings on. I’m sure Gandalf would work his magic on Dickens.

A massive thank you to the wonderful Angela for taking the time to answer all my questions. I don't know about you but I cannot wait for Angela's next anthology Stories for Bedtime’! If you're on Instagram be sure to follow Angela here to keep up to date with all her exciting bookish news.

Angela's newest anthology, A World Full of Dickens Stories, is published on the 7th July, and you can read my review of it here. And check out my review of A World Full of Spooky Stories here too.


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