by Emily Ronan @emilyjronan
Christopher William Hill, the Cornwall bred children’s novelist and playwright, addresses a room full of children with the question: ‘do your parents want you dead?‘
An apt opener from the author of the gloriously gruesome Tales of Schwartzgarten series, of which the fourth instalment, Marius & the Band of Blood, has just been released. A wonderful knack of remembering all the children’s names, Christopher turns to a young boy and asks ‘Ted, do you ever catch your family looking at you the wrong way over the breakfast table?’
The Schwartzgarten series is composed of Osbert the Avenger, The Woebegone Twins, The Lily-Livered Prince, & Marius & the Band of Blood; all of which are set in the city of Schwartzgarten, which has a murderous history and is prone to cut-throats. During the session, Christopher discusses his interesting journey as a writer; how an unfortunate bike accident at the age of eight resulted in nine weeks spent in hospital with a broken leg. All because he was afraid of macaroni and cheese. Luckily for Christopher, he remembers all the gory tales his nurses told him, which became an inspiration for his stories to come
The talk is lively and engaging, filled with murderous nuns, voodoo dolls, and poison marzipan. We hear tales of removing a crow’s brain with a tablespoon and how a burnt human heart ended up in a jar, all in a similar manner to the Horrible Histories series that I loved as a chid. Christopher poses the question: ‘Which three elements make up a good story?’ The answers he wants are a beginning, a middle & an end. What the young darlings, with blonde locks and freckled noses, shout instead are: ‘Severed heads!’ ‘Blood!’ ‘Smells!’
Afterwards, I caught up with Christopher to find out more about the inspiration behind the Schwartzgarten series:
What is the best thing about writing for children as opposed to writing for adults?
I think that children can be so much more creative than adults, they’re willing to invest in stories in such a brilliant way. When you try to create a world for a child, they can absolutely invest themselves in that world, whereas an adult is more aware that it’s a work of fiction.
When you began writing the series, did you base it on what you would’ve enjoyed as a child?
Thats exactly what I did. As I mentioned in the session, I remember being in hospital with a broken leg when I was eight years old. Most of that summer I can remember in clear detail; the horrible stories I was told by the nurses, and watching jaws for the first time. When the severed head appears in the underwater shot, I thought this is kind of cool. So my books are aimed for eight year-olds, and up to about twelve, and I can remember what it was like being at the lower end of that age range.
Why did you choose the German/Eastern Europe setting for Schwartzgarten?
The location for Schwartzgarten was influenced by my travels; I have spent time in different European countries and have always taken notes when I’m abroad. Also, I enjoy eating, and like to try foods that aren’t familiar and working out the type of character who might eat that food; a character who might have a sweet tooth and eat marzipan, or a particular type of German cake. I think it grows that way. I knew I wanted to write a book that wasn’t set in England, and German and Eastern European countries feel – perhaps not exactly exotic – but I just like the strangeness.
Did your home-county of Cornwall influence your writing at all?
In writing, I think that you always assemble characters from people that you knew growing up. There were some teachers that I loved during my time at secondary school in Penryn, and there were teachers that I didn’t like so much. I’m thinking about one teacher in particular, which I shan’t name, but I often think of her, she’s the very embodiment of all that is bad in teaching. When creating the teachers in Osbert the Avenger I thought about characters like her. There are good bits as well. The Institute, the really hideous school that the characters attend in Osbert the Avenger, was inspired by Truro School. Not because of anything bad, but simply because it dominated the sky-line. At night when it was illuminated you could see the school stood on the hill, and I was sure that I could work this into a book somehow – where there’s a school that has so much control over a town that it’s always looking down over the landscape. Overall, I think there are lots of things from Cornwall that have crept in. Silly little things like the gutters in Truro streets, the oddness of things like that; a town that is built on three rivers. Now I think about it, I was inspired by Cornwall, probably everything came from Cornwall except for the chocolate cake that came from Germany!
Out of all your characters, who is your favourite?
There’s a character in The Woebegone Twins, the second book, called Olga Van Veenan who’s a children’s author. I love her, I think she’s brilliant because I love villains and always have. I like the idea of somebody having real writer’s block, so adopting a couple of orphans and putting them in danger so she can write about their adventures. There’s something so sadistic and purely evil about that, and it’s lovely.
Would you consider turning your books into a TV series or a video game?
Of course, I’d be open to the series being turned into a film or for television. The only problem with a film adaptation of a book is that you have to cut out some of the detail that children like to lose themselves in. The audiobook versions of my books run to six hours, so if someone wanted to make something dramatic out of that then they’d really have to compress the story. But in principle, I’m not against anyone turning my series into a film.
What is the nicest thing a fan has ever said to you?
The nastiest thing I heard was from a child at the Hay Festival last year who suggested that I kill myself! But the nicest – it’s difficult to say, I remember all sorts of things. Sometimes it’s not even from children. For example, if a teacher or parent tells me that their children didn’t enjoy reading, but they’ve suddenly started to read my books, I love that. If I’ve had something to do with a child reading again, then that’s just brilliant.
By Emily Ronan
Photos courtesy of Dan Hill