After reading Foxdown Wood by Beth Webb I decided to contact her and talk to her about her book. She is a fascinating woman who is an artist, writes books for both adults and young adults and works with an organisation called Books Beyond Words, helping teens and adults with learning difficulties.
On your website you mention that the house that Cathy moves to in Foxdown Wood was a real house that a friend of yours owned. Are the Foxdown Woods real, or a fictional name for a real woodland?
I find it helps to have a real place in mind when I’m writing. This helps me visualise the action, and it also brings in fresh ideas of what could happen.
Sadly, there’s a wheat field where the wood should be. I used my friend’s house and his village (roughly) then ‘dropped’ a wood in the middle. But, I was visiting one day, walked to the end of the garden, and I blinked… The wood had gone! It was so real in my head, I’d forgotten it was make-believe! The name ‘Foxdown’ was a place near my own home, it just seemed like a really good name for the story.
The sub-plot about developers wanting to clear the forest, the children going through changes to their family dynamics and of course them going through adolescence – at first it seems like a story about change, and then the theme kind of twists so that it becomes one of revising old customs and remembering old ways and previous lives and preservation of the woods. Obviously conservation of culture and nature are important to you?
What a great question!
I intended the magical fantasy world to be an allegory to help the children in the book cope with all the change you described so well. Sort of like looking in a mirror to understand change and loss better. I find old customs and stories are excellent ways of looking at human psychology (I’m with Jung on this). Things do change, and children feel helpless and alone. I wanted the book to help my readers look for stories in their own lives to help them cope.
I guess the conservation theme is about how to look after the things that you can keep, while letting go of the things you can’t. And yes, conservation is very important to me. We’ve got one world (that we know of!) – let’s look after it.
Some of your references I had to search on Google to understand what cultural references were being made. It seems that Gaelic mythology and cultural history play a large part in your work. What can you tell me about the mythos of Foxdown Wood?
Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to be obscure! Woods were very important to our ancestors in every culture, and perhaps this is ‘coming round’ again as we begin to realise that trees are the earth’s ‘lungs’ and deforestation will ultimately both suffocate and drown us (with changed rainfall patterns and melting ice caps).
Hence, (back to Jung, again) storytellers take these images and make stories about them to get these rather heavy ideas across in a friendly, accessible way, but still carries a big ‘Important’ label.
So, let’s look at a few specifics, eg, the ‘Rogation prayers’ are still used in the Church on England in rural districts. Parishioners walk the bounds of the parish, ostensibly to bless the seeds and the land for the coming year, but it’s also a time when children are shown the borders of ‘their’ land, beyond which they MUST NOT GO. This refers to mediaeval England, when people were not allowed beyond their parish boundaries.
I suspect the idea of boundaries is fairly deep rooted in pagan thinking, asking the gods’ blessing on ‘your’ patch of land, and sending the demons away beyond your borders.
‘Guardians’ link in with this. They very ancient ideas, sort of demi-gods who protect their ‘patch’, also expressed as guardian angels in later western culture and religion. Consider ‘patron saints’. Other than that, I don’t think I was consciously linking into a particular mythos, but as I grew up reading myths and legends for fun, they could be so deeply ingrained that it they just tumble out without me noticing.
I am very fascinated by parallel universes, which I play with a bit in Foxdown Wood. But is that mythology explaining reality again?
In my ‘Star Dancer’ quadrilogy for YA and adults, I consciously link into Celtic mythology in a BIG way, but that was historical fantasy, so I made a conscious effort to get it right.
How much of this story was your own childhood, or was it the childhood of your children?
Not at all really. However, when I was a child, I used to dream this sort of adventure all the time. So… perhaps the answer is ‘yes, my childhood’? Please read my answer to the next question too.
Young adult fiction often relies heavily upon tropes of angst, familial dysfunction and isolation. These themes are present in the book but, thankfully, they actually function as drivers of plot and character, as opposed to just background exposition like many authors fall guilty of. What were your intentions with the problems these children had to cope with outside of the main plot?
Ah, this is a strange one. As you’ll have gathered, I see stories as vital ways of helping children and YA to cope with life, by creating allegories – always with hope at the end, because that’s the way I am. So, when I write, I often have something I’ve seen happening as a starting point. Sometimes the story comes first, then I realise what it’s ‘about’ as I start playing with the idea.
Foxdown Wood began with my friend’s rather tumbledown house, and the name ‘Foxdown.’ Then as I wrote, my husband left me, and my son’s best friend’s father died. We weren’t quite the families in the book…. But it was weird, uncanny and very disconcerting.
I wonder if I subliminally knew what was happening, and was telling myself a story to find a way through. Interesting, I’d not thought about that before.
Your most popular series are the Fleabag Trilogy and the Star Dancer Quadrilogy – tell me more about these works.
The Fleabag books are a trilogy for children aged 8-10 (ish) with a three legged talking cat with ‘cattitude’, a kitchen girl, a thief and a lady knight in shining armour who’s a snob and can’t stand cats. They were first published about the same time as Foxdown Wood, and have just been revised and re-launched with illustrations. Book three, Fleabag and the Ring’s End should be out later this year.
I have read the opening chapters to Star Dancer (which I quite enjoyed) and see that it is over 300 pages long. What was the target demographic of this series?
The Star Dancer series is for YA and adults. It’s a dark historical fantasy about the Roman invasion of Britain from the British point of view. I have druid friends who loaned me books and spent hours explaining how druids thought and worked their magic. So, it’s a mixture of history (mostly Tacitus), archaeology – I went to every almost site where the action takes place to get the ‘feel’ of the setting. I also thought about the characters psychology, studying how sympathetic magic works.
In Star Dancer, book 1, the co-protagonist, Griff, has learning disabilities, yet is more of a ‘man’ than many of the male characters. In every sense he’s the hero of the hour. I’m a great believer in diversity within books. I don’t know much about gender, so I write about disability and learning disability. Without different people, life would be colourless and empty, and stories would be lies.
I also had the help of a Crime Scene investigator who helped me work out how to solve a crime committed by magic (Fire dreamer, Book 2). Foe Wave Hunter, (3) I went to Anglesey where the Romans slaughtered the druids in a massacre in CE / AD 60, I investigated Celtic bog bodies, followed the footsteps of Boudicca the warrior queen who almost ousted the Romans ion CE/AD 61. (Stone Keeper, book 4).
I also really studied the Celtic myths and hero legends. It was exhausting!
In total, it’s 333,460 words! Again, you can read the opening chapters here: http://www.bethwebb.co.uk/#!blank/d1pr0
As time has gone on your books seem to be targeted at an aging demographic – was this just the natural evolution of your writing, or were you writing for the same audience, but one that was growing older with you?
I think at first, my stories were growing up with my children, but now they are adults, I’ve gone back to writing for younger children. Sadly, my current publisher doesn’t do kiddie books. I’ve got dragons and monsters, ancient myths and silly mice, all waiting for a nice, friendly publisher!
I’ve also written some adult short stories, but never tried publishing them. Basically, I just love writing stories – for any age group.
The final book in the Star Dancer Quadrilogy was Stone Keeper, published in 2013. You do a lot of talks and workshops and classes – do you still write?
Oh yes. I took time off to help my elderly parents between 2008 – 13, but now they’ve died, I’ve got three books ready to go. After Fleabag and the Ring Fire (for ages 8-10) later this year, I’ll be taking a new direction with ‘Skin and Bone’ a YA crime thriller, about a 15 year old girl who’s psychic and sees crimes before they happen, and her 17 year old cousin Joe, who helps her solve them. It’s a sort of cross between X files and CSI for teens, with accurate forensics!
Tell me more about Books Beyond Words and your involvement.
This is a brilliant project for teens and adults with learning difficulties. http://booksbeyondwords.co.uk/
About 26 years ago, I was visiting a friend who was a psychiatrist working with people with learning problems. A client who’s always been calm and friendly, has suddenly become angry and destructive. His carers wanted my friend to ‘give him something to keep him quiet.’ Instead, my friend started asking questions; she discovered that this young man’s father visited him every week without fail. But the father had died, and no one had tried to explain to the young man why his father had stopped coming. They thought he wouldn’t understand. So – he was trying to tell people he was scared and worried in the only way he could – by making a noise.
My psychiatrist friend was looking through children’s books about death – but they were all allegories about butterflies, or kittens dying. She said she needed an artist who could draw exactly what she needed.
I said, ‘I can do that.’
For my drawings, I used mime and body language to show meaning. I also employed idioms, and emotionally-keyed colours, eg, ‘I feel in the pink,’ I feel blue’ ‘I’m under a cloud’ etc. I also used the sort of symbols you see in marvel comics – big ‘POW-ZAP’ stars etc.
It worked, we found we could communicate entirely without words. It’s a bit Western culture- specific, but we’re working on that.
What inspired you to become involved with books for those with learning disabilities?
I started with being desperate for money, then I found I could do something that made people’s faces light up as they understood what was going on.
There’s nothing to beat that in all the world!
My books are available from http://www.marchhamilton.com/
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