In our regular Q&A, we ask a Scottish author to share some stories about their own life. This month, we welcome Hannah, who has dazzled us with her debut middle-grade story, The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. We’re hoping to uncover the secrets of how she came to create Avery’s fantastical world.
News story: What is your book called? What is it about?
My book is called The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. It is about a girl called Avery, who is part cat. We meet her at the beginning of the book, discussing Halloween costumes with her best friend, Low. Avery has had a growing sense that she is being followed. When she is forced to flee for her life from the Halloween school disco, she and Low are set on a journey to solve an evil plot, and discover who Avery really is.
Short story: sum up your book – in five words or less.
Magic, adventure, friendship, belonging, Scotland
Life story: Tell us about how you got to where you are today?
I’d dreamed of working as an illustrator as a child, but coming from a working class background, the idea of Art College was far beyond my reach, so I trained to be a nurse. However, the illustration dream never went away and much later on, when I had a little girl of my own, I took the plunge and applied for the illustration degree at Edinburgh College of Art.
As an art student, I tried to write my own picture book, and took various classes to learn more about how to do it. Writing picture books is really hard! During one evening class I wrote a short story, which was nothing like a picture book text. I didn’t know it then, but this would become chapter two of Avery Buckle.
Over the years that followed I worked as a freelance illustrator and designer, adding to my story about Avery whenever I travelled for work, writing more for fun than anything else. I found freelancing really hard going, and in the end my mental health crumbled.
I decided my family were right, the creative world was not for the likes of me. In fact, I began to feel that the only thing people like me were good for, was working to put food on the table. I was in a bad place. I was accepted onto a Return to Practice course for nursing, and I thought that was that. My creative dreams were dead.
Around that time, I happened to see the Kelpies Prize was open for entries. I typed up all the bits of Avery’s story I had in sketchbooks and notebooks, and entered it into the prize. I saw it as an act of closure on that part of my life more than anything – a swansong! I never for one minute thought I’d be short-listed, let alone win the prize!
I returned to nursing, and over the following couple of years, I worked with my wonderful editor at Floris Books to get Avery Buckle publishing-fit. The book was due to come out last year, but because of Covid it had to be delayed. At long last it will finally be hitting bookshops this month!
Love story: Who, or what, do you really care about?
Whatever I write, and no matter how hard I try to explore other things, I always come back to the theme of belonging, especially in relation to place. I worry a lot about climate change, and how the land is exploited for maximum profit, causing huge damage to the natural world. I think a key part of mending the relationship between humans and nature comes down to our rootedness in a particular place. If we truly belong to a place – nourished by, and contributing to a community – we will take care of it.
Adventure story: Tell us about your most exciting adventure yet.
All my best memories as a kid are of the ordinary things – mucking about in rock pools with my sister, lying on our backs in the long grass looking up at the sky, my Nan laughing so hard her false teeth fell out. So, this will sound very cheesy but I think the most exciting adventure there is, is being part of a family and a community – growing together, laughing, learning, celebrating simple wonders. So, I guess my most exciting adventure is happening here, right now, and I hope it will keep going until my very last day on earth.
Old Story: What were your favourite books when you were a child?
My absolute favourite book as a child was The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken. I loved all Joan Aiken’s books but, to this day, I still think The Whispering Mountain is the only100% perfect novel I have ever read. It’s flawlessly crafted, full of incredible characters, and has an impeccable sense of place.
But I was an avid reader, and would read anything I could get my hands on. My grandparents’ tiny house was filled to the brim with books and there was no embargo on what I was allowed to read. I read everything off their shelves from spy thrillers, historic naval sagas set in the Napoleonic Wars, all of Charles Dickens, through to encyclopaedias, my dad’s car mechanic manuals and my grandpa’s gardening books! Opening a book made the world seem boundless.
Bedtime story: What’s your bedtime reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke, which I thought was wonderful – spine-tingling and full of surprises. I am also reading the Squirrel Girl comics with my son at the moment. And my youngest daughter makes me read We Have A Plan by Chris Haughton every night to her. It’s her favourite, and a great picture book for joining in with. Today I picked up The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson from my local bookshop, so that will be my next one.