The Monstrous Child (Faber & Faber, £9.99) tells the mythological tale of Hel, a sardonic, witty and perceptive teenager banished to the Norse underworld to rule over the dead. Children’s author Francesca Simon’s foray into young adult fiction explores body issues, young love and family dysfunction with exquisite sharpness.
What inspired your interest in Norse mythology?
I’ve always loved mythology and fairy tales, from the first time I read Andrew Lang’s re-tellings of the Iliad and Odyssey and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s retellings of Norse myth Axe-Age, Wolf-Age. I think these stories have lasted because of the way they resonate for all ages.
Why did Hel, Queen of the Norse Underworld, stand out as a character to write about?
Hel chose me to write about her. Her sarcastic, funny teenage voice popped into my head a few years ago while travelling on the New York subway, and I knew it would be a powerful story to write about being a young teenage queen who rules the dead. So I’ve used the outlines of the myth as it has come down to us, but seen from her eyes. She believes she’s a monster, and hates the gods, who are usually the heroes of these stories.
How does the novel reflect the struggles of teenagers and young adults in contemporary society?
Hel is a young teenage girl who has a lot of “body issues,” but since she is human from the waist up and a corpse from the waist down her belief that she is revolting and disgusting has some truth. She’s also quite depressed, and I imagined her lying on her rotting bed, face turned to the walls she’s painted black. So her sadness was a starting point, but what saves her is that she’s very funny in that “Yeah, whatever” voice she adopts. She’s also hopelessly and desperately in love with the god Baldr, and I imagined her as an obsessive One Direction fan who projects all her emotions on to Harry Styles.
Your son Joshua inspired the character of Horrid Henry in your Horrid Henry books. Who inspired Hel?
Myself, and every teenager.
How easy was it to move from children’s into young adult fiction?
It was extremely easy, because it wasn’t conscious. I got the ideas for setting Norse myths in modern Britain, and the stories flowed from there. A longer book automatically means an older age range.
Talk us through the evolution from The Sleeping Army to The Lost Gods to The Monstrous Child.
I wanted to write about the Lewis Chessmen, and since they are of Scandinavian origin, I re-read lots of Norse myths and came up with the idea of an alternate Britain where Christianity never happened, and everyone worships the old Anglo-Saxon and Viking Gods. I always ask myself questions when I write, so in this case it was: “Why are the chessmen so sad?” and “Whose army are they? What’s their mission?” Once I decided that they were the secret and sleeping army of the god Odin, I was on my way. My heroine Freya was always part of the story, as my first image was this young girl blowing on a Viking horn in the British Museum, waking the army, and forced to go on a quest to rescue the goddess of youth, Idun, from the giant who had kidnapped her, to save the gods from dying of old age and disease. I discovered while I was writing The Sleeping Army that there was a further story – that of the gods coming down to earth to try to drum up worshippers, and instead realising what they need are fans. This was my chance to write about the Norse idea of fame for great deeds, as opposed to our modern one – of fame for nothing. The Monstrous Child is a companion to the first two books. It’s older, and Freya makes an appearance, but it stands entirely on its own.
You backed Philip Pullman’s call to boycott events that do not pay authors a fee for appearing earlier this year. Why do you think that authors are expected to appear at events for free?
I feel very strongly that writers should be paid for festival appearances. It’s ridiculous when audiences are paying for tickets that the main attraction isn’t paid. I think festivals just hoped they could get away with it, but writers are mostly earning so little these days that many rely on speaking engagements to scrape together a living. Fortunately, things are improving and I am grateful to Philip for speaking out so publicly.