Q&A with Ellen Renner

Cambourne Chatterbooks were winners in our May launch giveaways, and bagged themselves a copy of Castle of Shadows, by Ellen Renner. As Ellen’s ‘in residence’ with us this month, the Chatterbooks have put a few questions to her…

Hello Camborne Chatterbooks! Thank you for asking such brilliant questions. I’ve had great fun answering them.

Ellen, why did you decide to change from being a creative artist to being a brilliant writer?

It as a very hard decision. I love drawing and painting. I always wanted to do both and if I wrote picture books perhaps I could have illustrated them. But I write long books for older children and publishers tend not to use illustrations (I think they should use them more). Life is very busy if you have a family to look after, so I had to decide which to focus on and I knew I wanted to tell my stories more than anything else. But I’m not giving up with my drawing and painting. I’m going to put more character illustrations on my website in the autumn and I’m doing a show of  paintings and drawings based on the books in a local gallery next spring. I’ll write about that on my website next year.

What made you want to write your story ‘Castle Of Shadows’?

One day several years ago I was sitting at my computer trying to write another story when a picture popped into my head out of nowhere. It was the king, Charlie’s dad, hanging upside down from scaffolding putting the very last card on his enormous card castle. I knew that I had to write a story about it. But I still don’t know where that image came from.

Are you pleased with the way that the book turned out?

I’m very pleased with Castle. It took a lot of rewriting to get the book the way I wanted it. It went through four major rewrites and at one point I threw away half the book and started again. But I wouldn’t change anything now. And it’s much more satisfying than if it had come out perfectly first time around. I learned a lot during the rewriting process. Working hard on something and making it better is a very good feeling.

Why do you use the phrase ‘in a world of secrets nothing is what it seems’?

My editor, Sarah Lilly at Orchard Books, wrote all the words on the cover, but we did talk it over and we felt that it was a good way of describing the book and making people want to read it. Almost everyone in the book, except for Charlie, has a secret. It really is a shadowy world of secrets and lies.

What inspired you to write about Princess Charlotte and her mother’s life?

Charlie grew into a very real person for me as I was thinking about the book and starting to write it. I wanted her to have fears because no one can be brave if they aren’t afraid. I’m a bit claustrophobic, so I thought it would be good to tie her fear of the dark and claustrophobia to her mother’s disappearance.

As for her mother, I needed Charlie to have a really big problem, something even more fundamental than a wicked housekeeper and mad father, something that was the start of everything. I’ve always been very close to my mother, and I know the thing that would have hurt me most at Charlie’s age would have been losing my mother and not knowing what had happened to her.

What do you think makes us have to read your book? What makes it unputdownable?

There are lots of elements involved in making a story work, but first and foremost I think you need to have a main character that the reader can identify with and care about. The characters need to come first and they determine the shape the story will take and what will happen. If you start with the plot and force your characters to fit it without thinking about who they are and how they would react, it doesn’t work. Plot is important, but you have to stay true to your characters.

The next thing is that you need to give your character a really big problem, something really awful, and grow that problem with every chapter – making it bigger and bigger. That’s what keeps readers turning the pages – to find out if the character is ever going to solve the problem. The classic: what happens next?

Lastly, it’s good to be able to end each chapter with something that makes the reader want to start the next one, a sort of hook into the next scene or cliff-hanger.

Great questions, Chatterbooks! A special thanks to Yasmin, who came up with many of the questions. You’ve heard a bit more from Ellen now, and do remember you can put any more questions or comments to her in our forum or on our Facebook wall this month.