Interview With an Author: Liz Hyder

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Liz Hyder and her her novel, The Gifts
Author Liz Hyder and her her novel, The Gifts. Photo of author by Ashleigh Cadet

Liz Hyder is a writer, creative workshop leader, and freelance arts PR consultant. She is the winner of The Bridge Award/Moniack Mhor's Emerging Writer Award. Bearmouth, her debut novel for young adults, won the Branford Boase Award and the Waterstones Children's Book Award for Older Readers. Originally from North-East London, she has lived in South Shropshire for over a decade. The Gifts is her adult debut, and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Gifts?

It came from a scene that popped into my head one day. A woman in England in a forest in autumn, struggling as a pair of wings rip themselves from her shoulders, a visceral transformation. Bearmouth, my debut young adult novel, was set down a working coal mine, a very male environment, and so I wanted to do the opposite of that for my next tale which ended up being The Gifts. I wanted to absolutely centre it around women and their stories and experiences. I also challenged myself to write an epic with different viewpoints rather than a first-person story like Bearmouth. So that’s how it all started! And from that initial transformation idea, which ended up being the opening scene in The Gifts, I started thinking about what might have happened if a woman really had grown wings… and then what might have happened if she had done so at a time when religion and science were rubbing up against each other… and all of that took me to Victorian England.

Are Etta, Edward, Annie, Mary, Richard, Natalya, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Yes! They’re all partly or mainly inspired by different people, usually a mix of real-life individuals. The Gifts is fiction with a dash of fantasy, and so I felt I could take a few liberties and draw inspiration both from before and after the period in which it is set. The most important thing to me was that it felt real… it’s very much my version of 1840, and, of course, no one really grew wings then! Well, as far as we know…

Etta, my botanist character, draws on various people, including Mary McGhie, a real-life botanist born in Jamaica who ended up living in Ludlow in Shropshire (where I now live) right up until 1844. Edward, my surgeon character, was inspired both by the anatomist and polymath John Hunter, a brilliant man whose house was the inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde, and Astley Cooper, a talented but cocky surgeon who ended up being Queen Victoria’s physician. Edward’s artist wife in the book, Annie, was inspired by Annie Swynnerton, a painter from later on and the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Society of Arts. Her use of colour and light is glorious, look her up! She’s brilliant! My youngest character Mary, my aspiring writer and journalist, has more than a dash of George Eliot about her and a little bit of Harriet Martineau too. And finally, Natalya, my storyteller, has elements from real-life storyteller friends along with a smidgeon of the brilliant George Mackay Brown, a fantastic writer, poet, and storyteller from Orkney. His writing is extraordinary, poetic and vivid, and utterly mesmerizing.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I think ideas always evolve as you write them. No matter how much I might plot things out for them, my main characters always end up behaving in strange and unexpected ways as I write. I think that’s part of the joy of creativity, seeing what happy mistakes might happen but also allowing those characters to become independent, to come to life as real people, albeit ones in the pages of a book! I’m sure there were scenes that ended up being cut or radically rewritten, but whatever we lost was for the best. Kill your darlings and all that!

Having said that though, one of my favourite things about Victorian London was the toshers, the hard-working folk who sifted through the sewers to find anything of value. A dirty, smelly job that could, quite literally, result in finding treasure. I found them fascinating, but they never made it into the book… I’m sure I’ll find a home for them in another story at some point.

How familiar were you with late 19th century England prior to writing The Gifts? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

Well, from writing Bearmouth, I was really hot on coal mines in the early and mid-19th century but not so good on anything else from that time period. I had to immerse myself in it afresh. I went on lots of trips to museums, travelled around and so on, I walked a lot too, both around London and South Shropshire, imagining myself as my characters and wondering what they would notice, how different things would have looked and so on. I read lots of fiction and non-fiction from the time and about the time too, and an awful lot of newspapers as well! The British Newspaper Archive is a fantastic resource, horribly addictive though. Research is always endlessly fascinating. Food and clothing are always really key—who eats what and when, who wears what and when, depending on status, wealth, location, gender, etc. You can fall down real rabbit holes with it all… My rule is that you know when you’ve done enough research when you start spotting mistakes in other books. “I think you’ll find that was in March of that year!” etc. Then you know you need to step back from it all and get on with the writing. And huge amounts of the research won’t make it into the book, but it all adds to the flavour of it.

I think it probably took me about 18 months or so of deep-diving research before I was ready to write the book, maybe up to two years. And then I wrote the first draft really quickly, like I always do. About five weeks I think. And then I spent a lot longer reworking and finessing it.

The stories Natalya tells during The Gifts are lovely. Are they your own creations or are they inspired by other sources (folklore, etc...)?

Ah thank you! I’m so glad you liked them! They’re a mix of my own creations and other sources. The first of Natalya’s three stories is inspired by the Bluebeard legend, so it’s effectively a retelling of that. The second one, "The Mother of the Sea", was inspired by an Orcadian myth that I found rather fascinating but didn’t quite fit with what I wanted so I took the initial idea of a female weather god and then made up my own story around it. The third and final story was completely made up, although it does include a short-eared owl, a bird that is apparently really common in Orkney. Having said that, it took me the best part of four weeks and two separate trips to the islands to actually see one. They are stunning birds (I am very much a bird nerd) so it felt appropriate to have one guest starring in Natalya’s last tale…

If you could choose, would you want to have wings like the characters in The Gifts? Why or why not?

Definitely not! I think it would be hard to get a good night’s sleep with wings on your back and, to be honest, I’m scared of heights so not sure I’d do very well with the flying side of it either. I’d love to have them for a day maybe, to soar into the sky like a hawk or a swift, just to experience what that was like, but then I think I’d be done with them…

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Oh, I’ve got a huge pile of books by the side of the bed. A few proofs that I’m really excited about, The Revels by Stacey Thomas, a debut that I think is going to be great, and 73 Dove Street by Julie Owen Moylan, a superb writer. I’m reading Vulcana by Rebecca F John at the moment, about a real-life Victorian strongwoman. It’s an incredible story, and Rebecca is an exceptional writer and storyteller. I find it utterly baffling that she’s not a huge household name. She deserves to be. I also have a towering stack of books about and from the 1930s when some of my next book will be set, so I’m readying myself to delve into the research pile.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Ooh that’s hard! Just five? Well, I’ll do this off the top of my head so it might change by tomorrow or even later today! I’ll go for those who I think helped inspire The Gifts first.

So, a few Victorians to get us started. Charles Dickens for his sheer brilliance, storytelling, and characterisation. And I love Elizabeth Gaskell too, Cranford is a masterpiece. So deliciously funny and moving and glorious. I’m also a big fan of HG Wells, his short stories are packed full of ideas, and he’s an under-rated master of the medium.

In terms of more recent writers, I love Alan Garner’s writing. Both Treacle Walker and Boneland are two of my favourite books. He’s so economical in his storytelling, and yet it is so hugely powerful and atmospheric. He’s extraordinary. And more recently still, I’m going to cheat and mention a few truly brilliant modern writers who I adore, Daisy Johnson for her incredible use of language, Jackie Morris for her powerful storytelling, Catherine Johnson for her beautiful visual writing, Katya Balen whose October, October is a masterpiece and rightly won the Carnegie Medal, and Rebecca F John as mentioned above.

To be honest though, I find inspiration in many different authors but also in different types of writing too. Shakespeare obviously, but more modern playwrights like Hannah Khalil and Rabiah Hussain, and in singer-songwriters like Ezra Furman and Cate le Bon. So that’s my justification for cheating on this question!

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

A toss-up between The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander and Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here by Michael Rosen. I still love them both. The Chronicles of Prydain is a fantastic set of books (The Book of Three is the first), funny, clever, cracking fantasy with great female characters too, I love Alexander’s work. He seems to have fallen out of fashion a bit in the UK but whenever I find a fellow fan, we wax lyrical for some time! I found the Lord of the Rings series so disappointing having read Alexander’s series first. And as for Michael Rosen, he really is a national treasure here in Blighty. Some of Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here was read to my class in primary school by our brilliant teacher, Mr. Frowde, and that’s how I first came across Rosen. I’ve given so many copies of it away over the years—almost as many as Cranford!—and it remains a favourite even now. He’s one of those rare writers who’s never forgotten what it feels like to be a child. He’s rather magical.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Ha! No, I’m the youngest of three, so my older sister had already broken all the rules, making my way much easier. I’m less rebellious than her anyway, but I don’t think any one of us ever had a book we felt we needed to hide from our parents.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I don’t think so, it’s always better to be honest! And the sort of person who would judge you for not having read a specific book probably isn’t the sort of person I’d like to be friends with anyway.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Oh, loads over the years! There’s so much great cover design around at the moment. I’m a sucker for a sexy cover. Having said that, I can’t think of one that I bought recently just for its cover… but I definitely do fall for that!

Is there a book that changed your life?

There are books that have changed me in smaller ways, where the world has shifted slightly on its axis when you look up from them. I loved The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane for that, seeing the landscape around me with fresh eyes and in a slightly different way. And, when I was a kid, seeing my tomboy self reflected in Michael Rosen’s books and in Flossie Teacake by Hunter Davies was a revelation—I wasn’t the only one! I’ve been lucky enough to read lots of books over the years and all of them have shaped and changed me to a certain extent, even those books I didn’t particularly like.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)? And is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I think, right now, my answer to both of these questions would probably be Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker. It’s a strange, haunting book, almost an incantation in a way. It begs to be read aloud, and there’s something so powerfully odd about it, it’s both ancient and modern, absolutely timeless and yet with elements of the latter half of the 20th century. It’s utterly discombobulating and bewitching. And you’ll love it or hate it—it divides people, but either way, you won’t want to stop talking about it!

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I’m very late to this one I know, but I finally braced myself to watch the TV drama Chernobyl written by Craig Mazin. It came out in 2019, but it’s taken me a while to get around to it. It’s so good that you run out of superlatives about it. Everything from how the story gradually unfolds, of what really happened and why, to the direction and design, the performances, it’s all outstanding. It brings the disaster of Chernobyl down to a very human level and is all the more powerful for it.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

A perfect day always, for me, means a really good walk in the hills, so I’d want some good weather! Not too hot, not too windy, a few clouds scudding across the hills. Time with friends, maybe dinner in the evening outside? But really, right now, I’d love a time machine and to travel to March 1896 and spend a day in London. I’d go to the Egyptian Hall and see the great magician David Devant perform and I’d go to screenings of the Lumiere Brothers’ films and hopefully catch a moment with Robert W Paul, the brilliant inventor and film-maker, father of the British film industry. That’s what I’d really like to do! But my perfect day, like my favourite books, will change on a regular basis. I’m about to start researching some Egyptologists and I think it’s quite likely that I’ll soon be wanting my time machine to stop in the early 1920s instead…

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Nothing really! But today I’ll go for ‘What’s your favourite bird and why?’ Ha! Obviously that’s like asking what your favourite book is, so again it would change regularly. I’m a big fan of red-backed shrikes, a bird that used to be native to Britain but not anymore. There’s one in The Gifts and they are utterly fascinating. It’s a handsome little bird that sits—conveniently—on the top of shrubs so they’re easy to spot. They kill all sorts of things, beetles, mice, anything like that, and peg them onto the spikes of a bush as a sort of larder. I found out about them as a kid when I read Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood and I’ve been a bit obsessed with them since. I have seen them in the wild now, in southern Sweden, and in the Isles of Scilly. But I have to say, I have a terrible fondness for a swift. Apus apus. Such incredibly strong and beautiful birds. I’ve been lucky enough to hold a few over the years, and last summer, a young pair started nesting in our swift box for the first time. I’ll be looking up in late spring and wishing them a safe return back here, hoping for chicks this time… This is all very nerdy, but my fellow bird nerds will understand!

What are you working on now?

I’ve just been redrafting my next young adult novel, while my new adult one, The Illusions, is coming out in the UK in June. It’s been huge fun to write! Set in 1896, it explores that fascinating overlap between a golden age of British magic and early-film pioneers. Right now though, I’m just starting to research the book after that, another adult one, set in the late 1930s and exploring ideas around ownership—both of land and objects—and our relationship with the natural world. I’ve got three really intriguing characters in it, all of whom have secrets they’re hiding, and I’m bursting to want to talk about it more, but it’s too early just yet!

Book cover for The Gifts
The Gifts
Hyder, Liz