November 17, 2017

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Frances Hardinge on “A Face Like Glass” | Up Close

Photo by David Levenson

Coming on the heels of her Costa Book of the Year–winning The Lie Tree is another dark, extremely rich, and multilayered novel, this time a dystopian fantasy. A Face Like Glass (Abrams, May 2017) is a wildly imaginative look at a repressive social order and a naive young outsider who accidentally becomes an agent of change.

I was curious to see that A Face Like Glass actually came out in the UK before The Lie Tree. Was that intentional or just a publishing decision given the latter title’s great success?
It just worked out that way! My first four books were originally published in the United States by HarperCollins, but they didn’t take up my subsequent titles (A Face Like Glass was my fifth book). Some time later, Abrams bought the rights to my sixth book, Cuckoo Song, followed by The Lie Tree, and then set about acquiring the rights to my entire backlist, including A Face Like Glass.

Tell us a bit about how you came to create the creepy world of Caverna.
For a long time I’d wanted to write a story about a girl who could not lie, in a city of perfect liars. I imagined a society where no expressions were “natural,” and where every change of expression is a deliberate act, like putting on a hat. I visualized a court full of distrust, intrigue, backstabbing, and exotic excess. Instead of mere luxuries, they would have delicacies so exquisite that their effects were like magic. In order to make my sinister city properly claustrophobic, I located it entirely underground.

Once I had settled on these rather odd central ideas, I had fun trying to work out how my dark fairy-tale city would work in practical terms. How would these people get their air, water, light, food, and money? How would the carefully rehearsed Faces affect society? What happens to people physically and psychologically when they live underground, anyway? These are boring, practical questions, but the answers don’t have to be dull….

The dangerous, labyrinthine city of Caverna defies the laws of physical space, and I suspect that owes to the fact that I have a really terrible sense of direction! I’m always being surprised by geography, which never fits together the way I expect. For me, that’s normal.

Readers learn about the society and its many quirks and horrors right along with the protagonist. Were the details all planned out, or did you make it up as you went along?
I’m definitely a “planner” rather than a “pantser,” though I generally leave room for some elements of the story to change or surprise me. I like to understand my setting well from the outset so that I have a proper grip on the characters who live in it. Besides, many of my stories have elements of mystery to them, so I need to plan ahead. I need to know the answers to the questions I’m weaving into the plot so that I can drop in clues and red herrings and play with readers’ expectations.

Neverfell is a complex, winning heroine who is just trying to figure out who she is and where she came from. Is the theme of questioning one’s identity inherent in books for this audience?
I think it is, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading and writing upper middle grade and YA books. It’s often a time of transition, when you’re questioning everything and reaching a new understanding of yourself and those around you. However, I think that’s a healthy attitude whatever one’s age, and refreshing to see in adults and adult protagonists as well. Speaking for myself, I’m not planning to stop asking questions anytime soon.

As a guileless protagonist, her self-knowledge is hard-won and she makes lots of missteps along the way. Ironically, the more she sees and learns of the world, the more she longs for her former innocence. Isn’t that the quintessential dilemma of childhood?
I do put poor Neverfell through a lot of disillusionment, some of it quite traumatic, but despite this she usually wants to know more, not less! She’s generally quite resistant to other people’s desire to wipe her memory and return her to a state of blissful ignorance. Other people around her are eager to keep her “innocent” and “unspoilt,” though not for her own sake. Neverfell is the only person in Caverna whose face is spontaneously, helplessly, and eloquently expressive, so that you can see exactly what she’s thinking and feeling, and this makes her a fascinating novelty at court. When her disillusionment shows through in her features, it’s seen as a stain. Her face and her “innocence” are a commodity.

In A Face Like Glass, I was playing around with ideas of innocence. Does innocence have to involve ignorance? Does knowledge of the world’s darker side always have to be a spiritual fall?

At the start of the book, Neverfell is blithely clueless, but then she’s given a tough education in the ways of the world. By the end, a lot of her illusions have been painfully demolished. The question is, will this tarnish her? Will she lose her ideals and optimism and take her place amongst the cynical backstabbers and betrayers? Or will she hold on to her values and continue taking chances on people, even once she understands how great a gamble trust can be? (I won’t answer those questions, of course, for the sake of those who haven’t read the book!)

If you can keep your purity of intention, even after you have seen the world’s dark side, perhaps that is an innocence worth more than ignorance.

You have a way of raising complex societal and moral issues within the context of a completely engrossing narrative. How do you balance these important questions without bogging down the story?
First and foremost I’m a storyteller. My books often touch on themes like gender, class, censorship, injustice, race, and so forth, but the themes rise out of the story, not the other way round. I don’t sit down and decide to write about a societal issue.

Also, my books tend to explore these themes, rather than having a “message.” I’d like to give people something to think about, rather than telling them what to think.

You really seemed to relish creating these characters—Cheesemaster Grandible, Madame Appeline, the Kleptomancer, and especially the most horrid of the lot, the Grand Steward. Did you have a favorite?
I am rather fond of the Kleptomancer. He exists due to a “verbal typo”—a good friend of mine accidentally mispronounced “kleptomaniac” as “kleptomancer.” I loved the idea of divination by theft, so a character was born. I also had fun writing Zouelle, Neverfell’s rather complicated friend.

There are always some minor characters who decide they don’t want to be minor. I created Enquirer Treble and gave her a “walk on” part, on the understanding that she would then “walk off” again or die at an appropriate moment. Instead, she developed unexpected character depth, set up camp in my plot, and refused to leave. She’s far from likable, but by the end I’d developed a grudging respect for her.

I have to ask what books enchanted and delighted you as a 10- to 12-year-old?
At about that age I loved Richard Adams’s Watership Down, Alan Garner’s Elidor, Leon Garfield’s Smith, Susan Cooper’s Seaward and the “Dark Is Rising” trilogy, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Nicholas Fisk’s Grinny, and many others.

We can only hope that you are working on something new and different. Can you tell us if you are?
Yes! A Skinful of Shadows (Abrams, Oct. 2017) is a YA historical fantasy set at the start of the English Civil War. It features an ancient, aristocratic family with sinister ­inheritance customs, spies, gold smuggling, and a very angry, very dead bear.

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This article was published in School Library Journal's June 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth (ltoth@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.

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