Belinda Murrell is the author of highly popular children’s series fiction and historical and time-slip novels. Her series include ‘Pippa’s Island’, ‘Lulu Bell’, ‘The Sun Sword’ trilogy and ‘The Timeslip’ series. Her books are warm and rich with appealing characters and entrancing storylines.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Belinda.
I was captivated by your new middle-grade fantasy, The Golden Tower (Puffin Books). Could you tell us about where it is set in time and place?
Thank you so much! My fictional land of Tuscia is inspired by the landscape of Tuscany – with its fortified hilltop towns, castles, Renaissance palaces, vineyards, olive groves and towers. While this story is a fantasy, it is also firmly rooted in the history, architecture, and culture of Renaissance Italy, which I adore.
How have you transformed your setting from the real world?
While travelling in Italy, I was fascinated by the region’s folklore and traditions, which stretch back hundreds of years. I drew upon this mythology, to make my world truly wondrous and magical. My Tuscia has flying horses, centaurs, water witches, magical objects and talking cats.
What did you love about a particular place you discovered during your research? Could you give an example of how you have enhanced this from the original?
Two years ago, I travelled with my family for three weeks in Italy, researching the book. I knew one of the key settings would be an ancient tower, which formed part of a Renaissance palace. One of our favourite experiences was staying for a week in a rustic apartment at the top of a medieval tower in Lucca. The apartment was furnished with romantic family heirlooms like four poster beds and antique chests. We spent New Year’s Eve watching fireworks from the loggia on the tower roof. This experience helped me imagine my fictional tower which I made grander and taller, with a mysterious, forbidden room called a studiolo.
Could you please introduce your protagonist Sophie?
My protagonist Sophie is a thirteen-year-old girl who is shy, dyslexic, and bullied at school. She is visiting her Nanna in England and accidentally stumbles into the magical land of Tuscia, following a trouble-making cat. Sophie doubts herself, worries what people think of her and whether she is good enough, yet she must find all her courage and confidence to face her fears, unravel mysteries and undermine the Duchessa’s dangerous plots.
How does she grow and change?
Through her adventures, Sophie learns that she is far braver than she knows, that it is much better for her to face up to her challenges, no matter how scary, than to run away, and that her everyday problems shrink in comparison to the dark dangers of the past.
Which of your other characters are you particularly pleased with, and why?
Isabella is feisty, strong and knows exactly who she is and what she wants in life, although she’s not very good at accepting help. Nicco is kind, caring, funny and a great friend even when things get tough. The Duchessa, Ginevre is a beautiful, powerful and dangerous villain, who seems impossible to defeat. While who wouldn’t love a sword-wielding Nonna or a sarcastic talking cat?
Why have you included a cat character?
Our family loves animals (my Dad was a vet) so we’ve always grown up with lots of animals. The Italians adore cats, and one of the towers we stayed in came with a couple of resident felines, who wandered in and out at will as though through secret tunnels. Trickster cats with cunning personalities feature in many of the old Italian fairy tales such as Costantino Fortunato (the original Puss In Boots) and Il Gatto Mammone (The Cat King). My fictional cat, Baccio, is named after one of the cats in the Italian fairytale Two Kinds of Cats.
How have you incorporated strong, admirable older women into the story?
My grandmother, Nonnie, like many Italian grandmothers was a huge influence in my life. I wanted to celebrate this by creating two strong, inspiring and wise grandmothers – Sophie’s Nanna in England and Isabella’s Nonna in Tuscia. Grandmothers in fairy tales are often meek and mild – but Nonna fights with swords and wears armour. Isabella loves to share stories of her Nonna’s courageous adventures as a warrior maiden, fighting off pirates and rescuing her kidnapped husband. These stories were inspired by true life exploits of Italian Renaissance noblewomen like Isabella D’Este and Caterina Sforza.
What is the significance of your title, The Golden Tower?
Medieval Tuscan villages and hilltowns, bristled with fortified stone towers, many with secret escape passages. They were a noble family’s safe havens, a last line of defence and a symbol of their wealth. A maiden locked in a tower is a common motif in fairytales. Yet what struck me, was that in English fairytales like Rapunzel, the helpless and beautiful maiden is rescued by a charming prince. However, in the original Italian versions such as Petrosinella, the girl is clever, empowered and uses her courage and wits to save herself.
How have you incorporated magic and mythology?
Sophie stumbles from the real world into the wondrous land of Tuscia, with its mythical creatures such as flying horses, centaurs, unicorns and fauns. She must challenge the dangerous plots of the Duchessa, and her magical powers. One of my favourite magical creatures in the book are the Mazzamurrelli. These are noisy and mischievous little fairy people, like Scottish brownies or Irish leprechauns – who wear red hoods, play tricks on people, scare them, and steal odd objects. Most importantly they care for young girls, protecting them from cruel stepmothers or unkind masters. I loved the idea of these Italian fairyfolk because their name is so similar to my family’s name of Murrell.
Could you give an example of how you have created suspense in the story?
One of my favourite tense scenes is when Sophie summons up the courage to explore the forbidden studiolo in the tower. The Duchessa has threatened dire punishments for anyone who enters. Sophie is accidently locked in, with all the strange and magical objects. The reader knows that sooner or later Sophie will be discovered there, and that there will be a terrible retribution. I felt as anxious and frightened as Sophie when I wrote it, and I hope the reader feels the suspense building with each passing moment.
How have you included humour?
My magical creatures provide much of the humour. Baccio, the cat, is sarcastic and wise cracking. Pozzaro and Scazzo, the mischievous Mazzamurrelli, are clumsy and greedy tricksters who are easily offended. Their antics make me laugh out loud. I also enjoy the jokes and banter between the characters.
What would you like your readers to understand about encouraging girls and how young women and females should be treated?
I am a staunch feminist, who strongly believes that females should be treated equally with males and have the same opportunities and rewards. I believe in writing books which create strong, active, clever role models for girls – characters who readers can learn from and aspire to be like. Sometimes I get so angry about how females are portrayed in films and books – as passive victims, in need of rescuing or wing-girls there to make the male protagonist look good. Girls unknowingly absorb messages that their key value is to look beautiful and to attract male attention.
Is The Golden Tower a stand-alone novel or will there be a sequel?
The Golden Tower was originally written as a stand-alone, however, I loved the world and the characters so much, that I have planned out a second novel and pitched this to my publisher, Zoe Walton at Puffin. She loves the idea, so fingers crossed, the whole publishing team loves it too!
Could you tell us about the book you wrote with your sister Kate Forsyth and how it is being received?
Ove the last three years, my sister Kate and I, worked together to write Searching For Charlotte: The Fascinating Story of Australia’s First Children’s Author. It is inspired by the true-life experiences of our great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson who, 180 years ago, wrote the first children’s book published in Australia. Charlotte was not only a bestselling author, she was also an early Australian artist, a feminist and a pioneer in the fight for women’s legal rights, waging a bitter court battle for the right to raise her own children. The book was published by The National Library of Australia in November.
Kate and I have been absolutely thrilled with the reception to the book. We spent more than six weeks together on tour, doing radio and media interviews, bookstore signings, speaking engagements and literary events. The book had some excellent reviews and news coverage, but most importantly we have received so many letters and messages from readers telling us how much they loved the book, what an extraordinary woman Charlotte was and how fascinating they found this exploration of colonial history.
What are you writing or planning now?
I am working on a new junior series for kids aged 6 to 9, about a family who leaves their city life behind to live on a beautiful Australian farm, with all its joys and challenges. The early chapters have been sent to my publisher yesterday so I’m waiting anxiously to her what she thinks.
What have you been reading and enjoying recently?
I love historical fiction and have recently discovered a couple of brilliant books by Kate Quinn – The Alice Network and The Huntress. I also enjoyed The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little.
How would you like your readers to contact you?
I love receiving letters and emails from readers who enjoy my books. Readers can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the contact form on my website.
I hope you are happy with the comparison, but reading The Golden Tower reminded me of some of Emily Rodda’s best rite of passage fantasy novels.
I relished your imagination, wise words and storytelling in The Golden Tower!
Thank you for your responses, Belinda, and I hope that this book reaches many, many young readers.
The Golden Tower at Penguin Random House