Author Q&A: Holly Rivers

Demelza and the Spectre Detectors
(Chicken House, £6.99)

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Demelza loves science – she loves it so much that she stays up late to work on her inventions. But she soon discovers she’s also inherited a distinctly unscientific skill: spectre detecting. Like her grandmother, she can summon the ghosts of the dead. Holly Rivers is recognisable for her childhood role in the original Worst Witch series. Now she’s returned to children’s stories with a strong and inquisitive female protagonist for a new generation. 

What inspired your ambition to write for children?
The character of Demelza was definitely the starting point for my journey into children’s writing. She arrived in my brain fully formed in her lab coat and thinking cap, and even though I’d never written a book before, I knew I had to start penning her story. I loved the writing process from the get-go, and looked forward to sitting down at my desk every day and disappearing into my new-found fictional world. It took me a year to write the first draft, and I then spent another year improving and honing the manuscript with the Golden Egg Academy. Writing for children has massively changed my life for the better, and being able to finally call myself a children’s author is the loveliest feeling in the world.

You played Drusilla Paddock in the original Worst Witch TV series, based on the books by Jill Murphy. Do you have hopes for Demelza to have her own TV adaptation and what part would you yourself in?
Getting Demelza and the Spectre Detectors to print was always my number one priority, but if the right production company was interested in adapting the story for TV or film, then of course I’d be overjoyed. I think I’d have to cast myself as one of the whimsical historical spectres that Demelza meets at the Dance With Death. These were some of my favourite chapters to write because they’re full of action, suspense and supernatural activity. I’d want an unknown young actress to play Demelza – someone with plenty of spark, tenacity and natural curiosity.

Is Demelza an autobiographical character?
I wouldn’t say that Demelza is an autobiographical character, but there are definitely some similarities between her and little Holly! Namely the red hair and freckles, but also the temperament and nature. My parents always say how happy I was spending time at my little desk as a child, writing, drawing and doodling. Some of the inventions in the book are also things that I dreamt up when I was younger!

Demelza is an inventor. Why was it important for you to write a female character with an inquisitive mind?
Women and girls are still under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers and educational settings, so writing an inquisitive, capable and science-minded female protagonist was important to me. Even though strides are being made to bridge the gender gap, there is still a lot of work to be done. Gender stereotypes and archaic gender expectations are detrimental for everyone, so I wanted to write a character who would act as a positive and forward-thinking role model for all readers.

Do schools do enough to nurture passions like Demelza’s?
Unfortunately I think we’re living in a time where there’s an increasing pressure on schools and teachers to focus on academic successes and appeasing governmental requirements, rather than nurturing a child’s natural instinct to play and explore. But as a result, I think that more than ever, teachers are doing everything they can to counterbalance this with imaginative and holistic experiences in and out of the classroom. This might be through reading for pleasure, forest school activities, meditation, quiet time or child-lead play. As a play-worker as well as an author, I think it’s more important than ever that we find ways to rekindle inquisitiveness, exploration and “childishness”, and I applaud the wonderful teachers out there who are doing this.

Do you believe in ghosts?
I don’t believe in ghosts, because I interpret the world in quite a logical and scientific way. But in terms of literature, films and art, I’m obsessed with all things spooky and gothic! That’s where the idea for Demelza and the Spectre Detectors came from – juxtaposing the scientific world with that of the supernatural. I think it’s a really interesting mix.

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