Zillah Bethell’s second novel for children, ‘The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare’ is an absolute triumph with superlative writing – terrifically engaging, vibrant, life-affirming even. The official blurb on Zillah goes something like this… “She was born in Papua New Guinea, spent her childhood playing in the jungle, and didn’t own a pair of shoes until she came to the UK when she was eight. She was educated at Oxford University and now lives in Wales with her family.”
That free childhood in Papua New Guinea, she says, impacted on the Auden storyline, both in terms of the use of Artificial Intelligence and the effects of a global water shortage. “We didn’t have any technology in Papua New Guinea and I am both fascinated and appalled with 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.” In The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, Paragon the robot becomes a robot you can love, a robot with personality, even humanity. A machine with a conscience?
“Having grown up in Papua New Guinea I am acutely aware of the challenges third world countries face. Particularly water shortages. Wars over water are fought around the globe – civil war in Yemen was sparked by a water crisis – and water scarcity is now the number 1 global risk factor according to the World Economic Forum. It was a bold move to bring drought to the UK – higher latitudes are more likely to see an alternating pattern of flood and drought according to climate experts – but it seemed like the right move. It was fun thinking up details such as ornamental cacti replacing cut flowers and raising meat prices to ridiculous heights (dairy and meat production being very heavy on water). And, of course, a governing body headed by General Woolf with his Aquarian Protection Cross!”
Before the amazing Auden Dare, Zillah’s ‘Whisper of Horses’ was published in August 2016 which The Bookseller said ‘has the feel of a lyrical fable’. Prior to that 3 novels for adults were published by Honno and Seren Books.
We are delighted that Zillah has answered our questions, so without further ado…
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently re-reading If This is a Man by Primo Levi, a memoir of his time in Auschwitz. I also found a series of books in a second hand book shop called Jinny at Finmory by Patricia Leitch ostensibly for my eight year old daughter. They were written in the seventies and are beautiful books about a girl called Jinny and an Arab horse called Shantih (which means peace).
Could you tell us how you got into writing?
After studying French and English literature at university I decided I wanted to stop studying books and start writing them. I imagined myself in a leaky bedsit, drinking strong coffee and smoking cigarettes. I did live in a leaky bedsit but whenever I tried strong coffee or a cigarette I almost choked or passed out. I spent weekends labouring over words and internal rhymes when I should have been clubbing. You could say I had a wasted youth!
Where and when do you write?
Well I don’t have a writing shed at the bottom of the garden or space for a writing room of any sort. I have my head, a file and an old Dictaphone I keep for superstitious reasons. I scribble down notes in my file and record thoughts on the Dictaphone but unfortunately I can rarely decipher my own handwriting and my children find it amusing to fiddle with the speed on my Dictaphone so that when I listen back I either sound like a demented Bugs Bunny or an octogenarian who’s misplaced their teeth.
What inspired the book Auden Dare?
For a while I had the idea of a boy whose father is away fighting. I initially imagined it set in Silicon Valley in the 1970s – during Vietnam – but my editor wanted an alternate reality UK setting so I brought the story to Cambridge, England. I’m interested in Artificial Intelligence and I wanted to pose questions like what makes us human, and explore issues around identity and belonging.
How do you choose names for your characters?
I love names – their sounds and their meanings. Usually I think of a character and then a name kind of seems to suit them. Occasionally a name comes first. I once wrote a short story around the name Stuffy; and the tail end of a dream where I think my brain was saying ‘me fancy holiday’ became a character Myfanwy Halliday! Migishoo the parrot in The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare came from buying the Big Issue in Cardiff a few years ago from a guy who had a cold! I think I agree with Louis MacNeice who said he preferred sound over sense. There is a wonderful bit in Ulysees, I think, where a character is confessing to a priest. ‘I sch sch sch sch’ (says the character) ‘And did you cha cha cha cha’ (says the priest). Brilliant how sound conveys the sense of the words.
Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?
George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Racine, Enid Blyton, Kazuo Ishiguro (I wish I’d written Never Let Me Go).
How important is a sense of place to your writing? In particular, has living in Wales any influence on your writing?
A Whisper of Horses is my homage to Wales, I suppose. A beautiful landscape with mountains and sea, not unlike the terrain of Papua New Guinea though not quite as hot. I get most of my ideas walking over the mountains near Llangynwyd. I think my books are more mindscapes but certainly a particular setting gives rise to a certain story and vice versa.
We really enjoyed the narration in Auden Dare. How did you manage to find the voice of an 11-year-old boy?
I grew up with two older brothers and I have a twelve year old son. Need I say more?
There’s quite a bit of poetry in the book – who are your favourite poets?
Where to start and where to end? I like Yeats and Eliot. Sylvia Plath. Some of the thirties poets like Auden and MacNeice. And of course Dylan Thomas. I visited his house in Laugharne and the room where he wrote Under Milk Wood. Every now and again a recording played his voice reciting some of his poems. A schoolkid had written in the visitors’ book ‘very horrible, very creepy!’
Both of your books for children have been very powerful, dealing with social and environmental themes – is it important to you that your books carry a message?
My favourite part of writing is the ideas bit at the start. I love grappling with ideas. As a writer I would find just writing a story a little dull though, as a reader, I am perfectly happy reading a story without any message. Maybe I need to think about that a little…!
Tell us a bit about your rescue animals.
Someone once told me that it was my destiny to rescue animals and it does seem to be the case that if there’s a sick or injured animal around then it finds me or vice versa. Over the years I’ve saved a cuscus, a guillemot, a wild rabbit, several cats and a couple of dogs. Our current rescue pets are Domino the collie we found abandoned on the way to Tenby, Coco the terrier who turned up on our doorstep, Presto a black cat with two tabby kittens Mango and Beano; and a pony given to us by a lady who could no longer care for her. Cameo (the pony) is strawberry roan and she likes polo mints and pears. They all (apart from the horse of course) seem to spend their time on the sofa in the sitting room which only leaves the piano stool, a pouf and two hard chairs for the humans!
We know that you’re a big music fan. Do you have music on when you write? What’s the best music to accompany The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare?
I have to have silence when I write but my car CD currently includes Everything Everything’s Can’t Do, The National’s Walk It Back and Arcade Fire’s Everything Now. Music to accompany Auden Dare would have to be Purple Rain by Prince, She Comes in Colours by World of Twist, Yellow by Coldplay, Love is Full of Wonderful Colours by The Icicle Works, 99 Red Balloons by Nena, Blue Velvet by Bobby Vinton, Where Are We Now by David Bowie (for the lines ‘As long as there’s sun, As long as there’s rain’) and The National’s England (for the lines ‘You must be somewhere in London, You must be loving your life in the rain’).
What’s next for Zillah Bethell?
Well, I’ve had a bit of a break from writing and have recently been encouraged to start up again. My agent wants me to write ‘the Papua New Guinea story’ so I’m going to try and do that. I have a twelve-year-old girl in my head called Blue Wing and she is a shark caller (shark calling being a practice unique to that part of the world). Working title Book of the Long Now. I tried it out on my daughter the other night and she said ‘what does that even mean? Just call it Blue Wing!’ So I guess we’ll see where that ends up…
The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare is published by Piccadilly Press and is available online or in your local bookshop.
If you’d like to explore Zillah’s books for adults then please visit Seren Books and Honno.
We were inspired by a Q&A published on Typewritered and the quote at the top about water shortages came from a great Bethell-penned piece at the reading zone. There are also author blog posts worth checking out at Powered by Reading and Nayu’s Reading Corner.