Last week I had the opportunity to interview children’s author, Francesca Simon, who will be visiting the Island to discuss her latest book, ‘Two Terrible Vikings: Feast with the King!’ at the IW Story Festival. I grew up reading her series of ‘Horrid Henry’ books, so having the opportunity to interview Francesca was a real privilege.
A new book
I asked first what three words she would use to describe her latest book; she settled on “Funny, exciting, and unexpected!”
With Francesca’s books aimed at children, I was interested to find out what she had been like as a child. “Actually, I was the world’s best behaved child at school. I always did my homework; all my teachers loved me; I was sat at in the front row and always raised my hand!”
Becoming an author
We spoke about about her path to becoming an author. She explained: “My dad is a writer, so it was always in the back of my head. I liked writing stories and was always a massive reader. But I didn’t know I wanted to write. I later discovered that, just because you can write, it doesn’t mean you can choose what you’re good at writing; you have to discover that. When I left uni, I fell into a job as a freelance journalist. I never had any ambitions to be a children’s author; I started getting ideas just after my son was born, and then suddenly I was writing a lot of children’s books. So no, not a very planned career, but a big part of me has always wanted to write.”
Francesca has written more than 60 books, so I was intrigued which of her characters has been her favourite to write and develop, and why.
She said: “My favourite is probably Hel, the Norse goddess of the dead, from my book ‘The Monstrous Child’. I later turned it into an opera, which was performed at the Royal Opera House in 2019, so that was very exciting. Of course, as my first opera, she is very close to my heart. I loved writing a Norse myth about a funny, angry teenager, who happens to be half human, half corpse.
“The story is also an interesting way of talking about women’s issues regarding their bodies. But it tapped in to that revolution that most women, unfortunately, have about their bodies. They think they’re too fat, too short, too thin, too ’this’ or too ’that’. That wasn’t my initial purpose in writing, but it started touching on that.
“Obviously I love Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter, but Hel really spoke to me. It’s the first time I got a character’s voice inside my head immediately. It was also the first time I had ever written in the first person, which I’ve really started to enjoy.”
Speaking about her literary influences, she said: “I would say Anthony Trollope. And Edward Eager, who was influenced by E. Nesbit who wrote ‘Five Children and It’. What I got from those books was the idea of magic being something unstable and uncontrollable, which I find really interesting.
“I have a deep interest in myth and fairy tale, so I like Andrew Lang who wrote a series of fairy tales.”
Born and raised in California, I wondered what had brought Francesca ‘across the pond’. “I read Old and Middle English at Oxford, which is what brought me to England,” she said. “Understanding alliteration and getting a feel for the rhythms of English influenced me.”
Advice to the next generation of writers
Francesca passed on some advice to aspiring writers: “I have a notebook filled with fun beginnings of stories that just tail off in the middle, so the main thing I would say is to finish what you start. Keep a notebook and write your ideas down. Combine two ideas that you have, even if they don’t seem in any way connected; that’s how to get a very original story.”
To IW Observer readers, she said: “One of the reasons I am excited to come to the Isle of Wight is I love talking about these books in places where there were actually Vikings.
“I’ve tried to be as historically accurate with the books as I can.
“Vikings are pirate farmers, but they have kids, and what would Viking parents want their children to be like? That was the premise; they would want their children to be aggressive and fight, but at home they also want a bit of peace and quiet. The books are really funny, and I hope lots of people come and enjoy!”
Francesca was amazing to talk to and, if she is even half as lovely and chatty as she was during our interview, we are all in for a treat at her talk next weekend. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing her at the story festival.
The Isle of Wight Story Festival is back next weekend, with 19 authors and illustrators appearing to share their work. Check our ‘What. Where. When.’ section on pages 16 and 17 for more information.