Q&A with Zillah Bethell on ‘The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare’

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare_COVER ART Copyright Sian Trenberth Photography

I’m pleased to welcome Zillah Bethell to the blog today to talk about her latest children’s book, The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare. You can find out more about Zillah and her books on her website.

Auden Dare has an unusual perspective on life: he cannot see in colour. He’s always had this rare condition – and life is beginning to get harder for Auden. The war for water that is raging across the world is getting a little closer all the time. It hardly rains any more, anywhere. Everyone is thirsty all the time, and grubby, and exhausted. Auden has to learn to live without his father, who is away fighting, and has had to move to a new town with his mother, and start a new school, where everyone thinks he’s a weirdo. But when he meets Vivi Rookmini, a smiling girl bright with cleverness, his hopes begin to lift.
It soon becomes clear to Auden, though, that there are some strange things afoot in his new hometown. He and his mother have moved into the old cottage of his recently-dead uncle Jonah Bloom – a scientist and professor at the university. The place is in disarray – and although Auden’s mother tells him it’s because Jonah was a messy old thing, Auden knows differently. Someone else did this – someone who was looking for something of Jonah’s. Auden had heard too that Jonah was working on something that could cure Auden’s condition – could this be it?
Then Auden and Vivi make an extraordinary discovery. Hidden away under the shed at the bottom of Jonah’s garden is an engimatic and ingenious robot, who calls himself Paragon. A talking, walking, human-like robot. Apparently built by Jonah – but why? The answer to this will take Auden and Vivi on a thrilling journey of discovery as they seek to find out just what exactly Paragon is – and what link he has to Auden – and find that the truth is bigger and more wonderful than either of them could have imagined.

1. Why did you choose to set Auden Dare in a world experiencing crippling water shortages?

Parts of the world are already experiencing water shortages. That is our reality. Water poverty kills 1.5 million children every year; and according to the World Economic Forum, water scarcity is now the number one global risk factor. I thought it would be interesting to bring that reality to the UK. To the Englishman with his umbrella and his rose garden.

2. Auden Dare, the central character in your book, suffers from a condition that means he can only see in black and white. Tell us more about this and how this condition is relevant to the story?

My starting point was the phrase ‘to see everything in black and white’. I guess I wanted to discuss grey areas both literally and metaphorically. I was also influenced by Oliver Sacks’ wonderful studies in achromatopsia. We take colour for granted in much the same way as we take water for granted.

3. In your book, Auden and his friend Vivi discover a robot called Paragon who appears to have human-like emotions. Do you think we will ever see robots that are like people?

It’s hard to imagine a machine with a conscience and a sense of humour. Or a soul. But then again, transplants were once the stuff of Frankenstein; flying, the realm of Icarus. So it is entirely possible that one day we will have truly sentient machines. We already have driverless cars!

4. There have been stories in the media recently about the development of robot soldiers. Given your book looks at the role of robots in future society are you worried about the potential dangers posed by AI?

Only last year in Geneva, the UN discussed the legal and ethical issues surrounding LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems). I don’t think we’re in the land of Terminator yet – these weapons systems would be far too costly. But robots may indeed pose a threat to our economy, taking over jobs previously done by humans.

5. In the book, the UK is controlled by the Water Authority Board, a really sinister authoritarian government. What was your inspiration for this?

Having had such a free early childhood I found any kind of authority challenging. On a literary level I’ve been influenced by George Orwell’s 1984; and there have been plenty of real life totalitarian states and leaders from Ceausescu to Kim Jong-Un to be terrified by.

6. You say that having such a free childhood meant you found authority challenging. Did your childhood inspire this book in any other way?

Yes I think it did. I didn’t have any technology in PNG and am both fascinated and appalled by it. Instinctively I don’t like it – I don’t even own a microwave – but rationally I see its enormous potential. I think I wrestle with this in my work – sometimes outlining the dangers of it, sometimes showing the wonders of it.

7. Both of your children’s books feature protagonists who rebel against totalitarian authorities or leaders. Standing up for what’s right is a common theme in children’s literature- do you think children’s books should include any sense of morality or should they be objects of pure escapism and enjoyment?

I think a book should be anything it likes. Escapist literature has its own moral if you like – the desire to be distracted from everyday existence. As TS Eliot said, human beings cannot bear very much reality! I don’t think children appreciate having a ‘worthy’ book foisted upon them though. I was recently given Magic by Danielle Steel (about secret dinners in Paris where everyone has to wear white) and Reunion by Fred Uhlman (about an intense friendship during the rise of Nazism in Germany). I was equally enthralled by both books.

8. You’ve also written three novels for adults. What made you want to write for children and do you find that the writing processes for adult books and children’s books differ?

My editor asked me to write a children’s book so I did! The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare was written to a deadline and I think there is an intensity to it because of that. My adult novels were taken up and left off depending on how busy I was so maybe they go off on a tangent a bit! Otherwise the writing process doesn’t differ much. I write chapters in my head then eventually speak into a very old Dictaphone. (Before I had kids my neighbour commented that I talked to the cats a lot!) Eventually I get to the computer. The good thing about writing in your head is that you can do it in bed!

Thanks so much, Zillah! 

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare will be published by Piccadilly Press on the 7th of September 2017.

Check out my Twitter to enter my giveaway and win a copy!

Moonlocket by Peter Bunzl

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Storm clouds gather over Lily and Robert’s summer when criminal mastermind the Jack of Diamonds appears. For Jack is searching for the mysterious Moonlocket – but that’s not the only thing he wants.

Suddenly, dark secrets from Robert’s past plunge him into danger. Jack is playing a cruel game that Robert is a part of. Now Lily and Malkin, the mechanical fox, must stay one step ahead before Jack plays his final, deadly card…

Moonlocket is the second book in Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart Adventure series. I interviewed Peter about the first book Cogheart here.

This second instalment is a fast-paced, mystery solving escapade. Set 8 months after the events of Cogheart as London prepares for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, Lily, Robert and Malkin delve into Robert’s long lost past….and it’s not long before they get mixed up with famous escapologist and criminal Jack Door!

This book involves spiritual seances, lock-pickers and a mysterious, moon-shaped locket…With the help of London urchin Tolly, Lily and Robert become detectives. The clues they uncover come together seamlessly and propel the plot forward, building up the tension so well that I had to remind myself to read slowly. It was great to  find out more about how mechanicals work.

Peter’s vivid characterisation of Lily is fantastically done. She’s so nonchalantly confident and determined, and I love how she informs her father and Robert about the intricacies of lock-picking between bites of toast. Peter’s writing is engaging and full of humour:

“Malkin,” Lily whispered, “you’re going to have to create a distraction.”
“What sort of distraction?”
“I don’t know, a distracting one.”

Some of the prose is just breathtaking.

“The moon’s waxy pockmarked face peered through the window, pale and pithy as a piece of fruit, stars sprinkled behind her like spilled sugar.”

One thing I’m looking forward to returning to in the next book is the conflict between Lily and her over-protective father. I didn’t feel that this was completely resolved in Moonlocket, so I’m hoping we’ll see more of how Lily deals with this and being a ‘hybrid’ in book number three!

This is a thrilling novel about proving your worth and the struggle to forgive. Courage and catastrophe come together to create an adventure as intricate as the Cogheart itself.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Down who died of breast cancer before she could write it into a story, A Monster Calls is a young adult novel brought to life by Patrick Ness. A book that is raw in emotion, it tells the story of Conor, a teenage boy whose mother is dying of cancer, whose father has left him for a new family in the US and who is bullied at school. Conor is terrified of losing his mother, but his true nightmare is something he’s hiding deep within himself. A monster calls at Conor’s home and tells him three stories that are true. Then Conor must tell his own truth or be eaten.

This is a modern day fairytale which captures the anger of a child facing his mother’s imminent death in such an authentic, gritty way that it’s painful to read. As an aspiring children’s author, I feel that touching just one child with my stories and allowing him or her to relate to a particular situation or emotion and draw comfort from them would be the greatest achievement there is. Patrick Ness has done this with A Monster Calls. The novel is a validation of grief and anger and the unfairness of death. The author is telling the reader: it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be sad. Death isn’t fair. It’s a validation of the guilt you can feel when a loved one passes away, because the worse that could happen has happened and you don’t have to fear it anymore.

“You be as angry as you need to be,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not your grandma, not your dad, no one. And if you need to break things, then by God, you break them good and hard.”

This book reminds us of the complexities of human emotion.

The monster always visits at 12.07 and tells Conor three stories that could be interpreted as representations of Conor’s relationships with the main people in his life. Through these, Conor must look at himself and face his most darkest, secret truth.

“There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.”

Despite Conor’s pain and the darkness of the book’s themes, there’s still room for lighthearted humour and teenage sarcasm that makes you laugh.

“Who am I? the monster repeated, still roaring. I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable! It brought Conor up close to its eye. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.

“You look like a tree,” Conor said.”

By the end, the story comes full circle and all the loose strands meet together in a satisfying and meaningful way. This novel deals with such important concepts; the acceptance of death and the anger that follows. It is heartbreakingly beautiful and if you’ve ever experienced the death of a loved one, I would urge you to read it.

The monster called to heal Conor, but he’ll heal you, too.