Firstly a massive congratulations on The Unadoptables, which is publishing July 23rd! From the very first page I was completely mesmerised by your tale of friendship, belonging and daring adventure. Are you able to give readers an idea for what’s in store for them?
Thank you! I’m very excited that readers will finally be able to get their hands on The Unadoptables soon. I would say they’re in for a tale that’s a little bit spooky at times, often filled with danger, but also brimming with absurd adventure, unbreakable bonds, and a little owl sidekick to top it all off.
What three words would you use to describe The Unadoptables?
Puppets – Mystery – Belonging
What was the original inspiration behind The Unadoptables, and did you undergo much research during your writing process?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment of when inspiration struck. It did feel like it appeared out of nowhere one morning, but in hindsight I can see that so many of the themes, characters, and plot-points had been brewing inside me for a while. I suppose the main thing I really wanted to write about was a group of ‘misfits’ who refuse to conform to what society deigns as acceptable or normal. When I was their age, I had just become an immigrant, I had a noticeable physical disability, I developed selective mutism, and it took me a long while to realise that none of this had any bearing on my worth or capability. I also learned, slowly, that the issues people took with this was a reflection on society’s shortcomings, rather than my own. That’s the main seed of where these five orphans came from: I wanted to write about a group of children who empower each other, see their own worth, and carve out their own story rather than be forced to conform to someone else’s.
I do a lot of research for my stories – it’s one of my favourite parts of the process. I visited an old orphanage (now a museum) in Amsterdam, explored several windmills, spent hours upon hours walking around Amsterdam. I even cycled the route they take to the polder to get a sense of how long a journey it would be and what the landscape would be like, although it’s quite a built up area now so I did have to use my imagination and old photographs as well. I’m quite a visual writer, so ensuring that I have a really good feel for the settings is vital.
The inspiration for Rotman came from an article I read that suggested there was a sinister ‘orphan trade’ in the time of the Dutch East India Trading company (a hundred or so years before my story takes place). There is some evidence to suggest that orphanages (which were bursting at the seams) would send orphans to work on merchant ships, under gruelling circumstances, and receive compensation for this.
There was a lot of other research too, but I realise my answer to this question is becoming an essay, so I’ll stop there!
What was your favourite part about writing The Unadoptables?
Definitely the five main characters. People kept telling me (and I agreed wholeheartedly with their worries) that writing five main characters might be a mistake, or that it would prove too difficult to pull off. I did consider trying to write just three or four but, ultimately, I couldn’t part with a single one of them; they all add to the story. They make it, in fact. It did take quite a bit of time to get them all to shine on the page, but I’m glad I stuck to my instincts. Seeing them truly come to life was worth the effort.
Lotta, Egg, Fenna, Sem and Milou, and not to mention your dastardly villains, are all such brilliantly original and unforgettable characters! Where do you get your inspiration to write your characters? And would you say any of your unadoptables are based on yourself?
They are all based on me to a very minor extent but are completely their own people – it’s in no way autobiographical (obviously). I think that happens naturally when you’re writing characters – even the bad ones. I mentioned above about the five children, but I think the adults also come from experiences I’ve had, or aspects of my countries’ (Netherlands and England) history which I keenly acknowledge and feel shouldn’t be glossed over or ignored. E.g. Gassbeek who is consumed by the bitterness she feels for her own childhood experiences; Edda and her fierce determination to push boundaries and be true to herself; and Rotman who epitomises a very dark side of European imperialism/capitalism.
Each unadoptable has a delightfully unique attribute – I loved that Lotta’s 12 fingers made her a fierce and speedy inventor, and that Milou’s sensitive ear prickling kept them one step ahead of danger! What would your unique attribute be?
I have an occasional, unreliable knack for summoning/attracting cats. Mine followed me half a mile to the shop, waited, then followed me back again the other day. If I whistle the Addams Family theme tune, she usually comes running to me (only that song, for some reason). I also had a ginger cat (not mine) follow me onto a bus once, which was rather embarrassing. There’s another one who lives nearby who keeps appearing in our house, but me and him have fallen out because he keeps beating my cat up (he doesn’t like it when I shoo him out). I’m not sure exactly what benefits would come from this ‘skill’ though, it’s mostly a nuisance.
If could spend a day with Lotta, Egg, Fenna, Sem and Milou what do you think you’d get up to?
We’d definitely make puppets and put on the spookiest puppet show imaginable.
The Unadoptables is set in the winter of 1892 in Amsterdam and this complete Dutch setting with icy canals, magic puppet shows and beautiful windmills really gives the novel a unique charm. Did your own Dutch roots inspire much of this setting?
Very much so. I grew up surrounded by polders and windmills and canals. I cycled everywhere, ice-skated along the canals every winter. It’s very much the landscape of my own childhood, albeit a few years before my time. It was on a trip back to Holland, sitting beside a canal in my hometown, that I first realised I should be writing a book set there. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before that moment.
Which city and time period would you love to explore next in your writing?
I’m keeping to the same time period for now but moving to a new city in Europe (a bit further east this time!). I would love to write some stories set even earlier though, at some point. The Viking/Saxon era interests me greatly.
This is your dazzling debut children’s book! What made you want to write a middle grade children’s book?
A whole host of things: becoming a mother, then a teacher, and revisiting childhood favourites (e.g. His Dark Materials) and realising that there is nothing quite as magical or eye-opening as children’s literature.
Do you have any tips or advice for someone writing their own debut?
Write the book you’d want to read. I know that is probably said A LOT, but it really is important. Writing a book takes a lot of energy, so if you’re excited and enthralled by it, it makes it so much easier to push through to the end. Also, don’t over think the first draft. Call it draft zero instead and just vomit it all out onto the page. I truly believe you can only really start writing a book, once you’ve got the basic outline of a story to work with. Writing really is re-writing. And, if you can, try to find some like-minded writers to form a critique group with. It is so easy to get so lost within your own story and feel so trapped by the plot-holes or inconsistencies, that sometimes you can’t see what’s staring right at you. A fresh pair of eyes to point this out can make all the difference.
Here’s the big question I know we’re all dying to know, will there be a second Unadoptables?
It’s a good question, and one I’m not entirely sure of yet! My next book will be same-but-different, and there might be the odd familiar face in it, though I don’t think I can say yet who that might be.
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?
A book I loved as a child: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
A book I love right now: Lockwood and Co by Jonathan Stroud (I’m late to the party!)
A book I can’t wait to read: The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant
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 honestly taking each day, week, month at a time right now. Most of my current effort is in trying to finish my next book. I am hoping I’ll be able to engage with readers in meaningful ways this year, but I’m not sure how feasible school visits will be. I’m adapting though. I’ve recently filmed an online workshop that will be shown at Puffin’s Festival of Big Dreams next week.
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?
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: they are the two writers who probably had the most impact on my own writing. Jameela Jamil: she’s passionate, humble, funny, and has a lot of great things to say/talk about. Ada Lovelace – I have a bit of an obsession with 19th century innovation/science at the moment, and what better brain to pick than a woman who was one of the first computer programmers. My mother: she’s a hoot, plus she’d never forgive me for not inviting her to a party with her three favourite authors.