What was the original inspiration behind The Mermaid Atlas? What made you want to write a children’s book on mermaids?
This topic was suggested by the publisher, Laurence King, so not actually my own specific idea - but I’m always keen to work on anything involving folklore, myths and legends, because I just love the power of those old stories and ideas that have existed for so long, and been passed on over and over. I don’t know why I love them so much but it’s an emotional feeling – old tales and myths are often very moving somehow. When I heard about it, I loved the idea of combining these beings of folklore with the very factual aspects of an atlas. You can go to these places, some of them very specific, and think about the mermaids or look out for them - I love that.
What was your favourite part about writing The Mermaid Atlas?
Discovering so many wonderful mermaids and stories that I hadn’t known about, and finding out how they really are found all over the world. I had thought it might be hard to find enough but there were too many!
The Mermaid Atlas includes some of the most magical merfolk tales from around the world. I’d love to know a bit more about your research process? How did you come across all these tales and myths?
The best sources were old books, and folklore collections and archives put together by collectors who went around asking people for traditional tales. Often you can find these texts on the web, but I also found out about some useful books which I sent off for. Sometimes, like with the Little Mermaid of Copenhagen and the Syrenka of Warsaw, the mermaid is a big part of local culture and there are statues or other memorials or special places, and so there’s lots of information about them relating to the city. And for the sightings of mermaids, I was able to find news reports on the web too.
Which top three merfolk did you enjoy writing about the most?
Melusine, the secret mermaid who becomes herself on Saturdays and has a long bath - I can relate to her! The Jiaoren, the fabric-weaving mermaids, as I love sewing and fabrics. And Sedna, the arctic mermaid - partly because I love the illustration so much, and it’s a powerful story.
If you could be any of the merfolk from your book for a day, who would you be and why?
The Jiaoren – I just want to get my hands on that magical sea silk fibre and weave fabric from it, that’s my idea of heaven!
Did you face any particular challenges when writing The Mermaid Atlas?
It was a new challenge to do this research to find out about mermaids from around the world. I’ve done a lot of retellings of myths and legends before, but usually well-known ones, so this was harder in that way – but I enjoyed it so much that it wasn’t really difficult as such.
The Mermaid Atlas is beautifully illustrated by Miren Asiain Lora – did you work quite closely with Miren throughout the writing process?
Not in a personal way - we didn’t meet or chat, but I made suggestions and found pictures for her to use as inspiration, and it feels as if we were thinking the same way, because so many of the mermaids are just as I imagined!
What does your writing space look like?
Well, it’s a corner of the front room. It’s a big desk and lots of tall shelves in an L-shape, with all my books and files. There’s also a second desk for all my sewing, and where I make and test experiments for activity books. The whole area is packed with books, materials, piles of papers, stationery and post-it notes. It makes most sense to work here, as (when it’s not lockdown) I’m the only person at home during the day, and the room has a huge window all the way along one wall and a door to a balcony, so it’s nice and bright. I have an office chair with a sleeping bag on it, which I sit in if it’s cold!
You’ve written on a whole range of children’s non-fiction books, if you could write on any topic next what would it be?
Upcycling is one idea I’d really like to do a book on. Also a book about things in science that we don’t understand.
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?
As a child I loved The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt (among many others!). As an adult I’ve discovered Arnold Lobel and I love The Frog and Toad books, and Owl at Home. I buy a lot of children’s books to read, and next on my list is Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay - however I’m bad at getting round to reading books, especially in lockdown as I have homeschooling as well as work, and not enough time.
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?
I’m working on the next “atlas” book, about another mythical creature! I have various other new projects in the pipeline too, about various science topics, and the climate crisis. I’m also always trying to fit in sewing, fabric designing, and ideas for fiction books, but it’s hard to find time for everything.
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?
This is so hard! Only five!? I have to ask the Beowulf Poet (no one knowns who she or he was) as Beowulf is one of my favourite books ever. Charlotte Bronte, as we’d have so much in common - I’m the oldest of three sisters like her, and she comes from very near my home town in Yorkshire, and Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books. I have to have Arnold Lobel, who I think was one of the greatest writers of all time, my ultimate hero when I think about how to write for children. Akira Minagawa, my favourite textile designer! And finally someone from very, very long ago, like stone age times, from the time of the Lascaux cave paintings or even earlier, a woman, so we could compare notes on life, and I’d like to amaze her with modern inventions. The only thing is it would have to be a 3-day party as I have so much to ask them all!