Magic, myth and an eerie marshland…! Best-selling children's author Lucy Strange and I chat all about Lucy's fourth book, Sisters of the Lost Marsh, and the atmospheric UK setting that inspired it, our favourite folk tales and the ultimate dinner party guest list.
What was the original inspiration behind Sisters of the Lost Marsh, and why was writing this book important to you?
There were a few different sources of inspiration for this story – an odd and wonderful little poem by Harold Monro called Overheard on a Saltmarsh, and also the landscape of the Romney Marsh not far from where I live in Kent. I also wanted the challenge of creating convincing sibling relationships between sisters, and to explore the idea of young characters shaping their own destiny.
Can you tell us a bit more about your setting in the Sisters of the Lost Marsh?
The landscape of the Lost Marsh in the story is inspired by the Romney Marsh in the south east of England. It’s a vast, flat landscape that was owned by the sea for millennia. It has a sort of eerie magic to it – I always feel like there are stories living here in the very earth.
From the lush Dover coast to the heart of the Lake District and now the chilling marshlands, your books’ locations and landscapes are at the heart of all your stories. Why is this important to you?
I think the setting is so important in grounding a story in reality, so that everything feels absolutely real and the reader can be immersed in a completely convincing world. This then means that those supernatural elements I like to play with feel all the more spooky and weird. I also think settings can act like characters in themselves, shaping the whole tone of the story and even influencing the action at times – for example when Willa has to cross the treacherous mire…
For readers wanting to travel in your literary footsteps, do you have any local/national hotspots that have inspired your writing?
So far, the north Norfolk coast, the cliffs of Dover, the Lake District and the Romney Marsh. I’m currently working on an idea for a story set on a Scottish island, but I can’t tell you any more about that yet!
What are your top three favourite children’s book settings?
I love the isolation of Misselthwaite Manor in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and the vast emptiness of the Yorkshire moorland that the surrounds the house. I’m currently reading The Enchanted Wood to my little boy and I have to say the home of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree is always going to be one of my most loved literary landscapes. From contemporary children’s literature, I absolutely love the rugged islands and windswept seas of Nicholas Bowling’s Song of the Far Isles.
The Sisters of the Lost Marsh is also rooted in ancient tales and superstitions. Did you take inspiration from any particular folk and fairy tales when writing Willa’s story?
The idea of a will-o’-the-wisp is probably the most important bit of folk lore that found its way into the story – those spontaneously igniting bubbles of methane that for centuries were said to be the lanterns of wicked faery folk luring lost souls out into a bog or marsh…
Do you have a favourite folk/fairy tale?
So many it’s hard to pin one down. The Grimm Brothers’ Six Swans or The Seven Ravens are both to do with siblings and curses and so connect to the plight of the sisters in my story. The story of Rumpelstiltskin is one that I find myself coming back to – the idea of a cruel, greedy and cunning supernatural character. He cropped up in my first book The Secret of Nightingale Wood and I think he’s here again in Sisters of the Lost Marsh in the guise of the Marsh King.
What are some of your favourite children’s books that draw on lores and legends?
I love the way Sophie Anderson uses Slavic folk lore in her work, particularly her debut novel The House with Chicken Legs. A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson is a beautifully written magical retelling of Jack Frost mythology. I think the fairy tale landscape of an eternal winter conjured by Kiran Millwood Hargrave in The Way Past Winter is just bewitching.
If you could spend the day with the six sisters in the 21st century, what would you plan?
If it could be in the world of the story, I would want it to be a summer’s day, and we would be lying in the sunshine on Glorious Hill. The triplets would be rolling down the hill and scampering back up again, and we would all eat huffkins and jam. If they were here in the modern world? I don’t know – they’re all so different, they’d want to do completely different things! I’d definitely take Willa to the sea, and I’d take Grace to the theatre to see a ballet, I think.
At the heart your book is a tale of sisterhood, strength and solidarity. What do you hope readers take away from the Sisters of the Lost Marsh?
Certainly the idea of not being “druv”. The Curse of Six Daughters is horribly controlling for Willa and her sisters – all their “choices already chosen.” I think it’s so important for young people to be confident enough to resist the pressures exerted on them by society – to be like this or look like that. The story is very much about finding your own path and shaping your own destiny.
On top of the launch of the Sisters of the Lost Marsh, you’ve also celebrated your fifth publication, The Mermaid in the Millpond (Barrington Stoke, 2022). What originally brought you into writing for children?
And what do you enjoy most about writing for this audience? When I first started writing for children, I was working as a secondary school English teacher, and I wanted to create really rich and rewarding stories for the children I was teaching; challenging, multi-layered stories that didn’t underestimate their intellect or understanding of human nature. I wanted to create stories that evoked the classic children’s literature of the past but which felt relevant and accessible to today’s young readers. I love visiting schools now and talking to students about books – I always find it so energising and inspiring.
We’re all restless to know, what’s next for your writing journey?
What’s next is my fifth book for Chicken House! I can’t tell you much about it yet, other than the fact that it’s written on a remote Scottish island…
Let’s talk books! What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you’re loving reading now, and a book you can’t wait to read?
As a child – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (I used to have it on audiobook and listened to it every night as I fell asleep!). A book I love now - The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay, and its sequel Swallows’ Flight – both such beautiful, heart-breaking and heart-warming stories; I think her writing is just completely brilliant. And I can’t wait to read the spooky new bit of historical fiction from Dan Smith – Nisha’s War.
If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictional – for a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
I’m going with some of my favourite authors here I think… Frances Hodgson Burnett, Daphne Du Maurier, Emily Bronte, Agatha Christie and Jane Austen. We’d have a brilliant evening and probably end up talking about anything and everything except books!
Lucy Strange is a best-selling and award-winning author who lives in the heart of the Kent countryside with her partner and their young son. Lucy’s books capture elements of classic children’s literature in a style that is engaging and accessible for today’s younger readers. Often inspired by folklore and fairy tales, Lucy combines historical settings with touches of magical realism and fantasy to create utterly convincing worlds in which anything might happen…
Sisters of the Lost Marsh is published by Chicken House, November 2021.