The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold (published by Bloomsbury)
Author interview with A.F. Harrold
‘As the day had gone by he’d been a bottle caught in the river current, bobbing and vanishing and twirling this way and that, yes and no, peace and anger, forgiveness and revenge.’ (The Worlds We Leave Behind)
Thank you for speaking with Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, A.F. Harrold
If you could categorise The Worlds We Leave Behind into a genre, what genre is it? If it’s unclassifiable or you prefer not to classify it, what genre-ish elements does it include?
AFH: Hi joy, thanks for having me. I prefer to leave questions of genre and theme and meaning to the readers and critics and reviewers, to me it was very much ‘just the story I wrote’. However, I can tell you a little of some of the things that happen in the book, and your readers might be able to get a sense of whether it’s up their genre-alley or not…
Some kids go into the woods, muck about on a rope swing over the little stream, get into some trouble, discover a mysterious woman in a cottage that shouldn’t exist, get offered a life-changing magic bargain and get into more trouble. There are shadows, mythic black dogs, bullying, night-time escapes and secret agents trying to defend the world against supernatural threats.
You might have an easy genre label to stick on that, but I don’t think I do. Real world fantasy adventure?
The structure of The Worlds We Leave Behind is unexpected, masterful and integral to the story. What geometrical or other shape could you use to describe it, and why?
AFH: There is a certain ‘mirroring’ between, especially, the first two sections, reflecting the way things change and don’t change when big things change (I’m somewhat cryptic here because I’m loathe to spoil the story any more than I already have for potential readers!). I’ll tell you where the story began though, or rather what the first thing I wrote was. In between ‘Tuesday Night’ (rather than Chapters or Parts, the book, like our previous book, The Song From Somewhere Else, is divided into days) and ‘Wednesday’ there are four blank pages. They begin totally black and they fade, wispily using Levi’s brilliant charcoally shadows, into light. Those pages were the first thing I wrote, lying in the bath, probably on a Sunday afternoon, and I knew with those I had a story I could work on. Originally I had eight blank pages, but that got cut down (not by me) during the process of making it into a book, and probably wisely.
Please describe the atmosphere you create in this book?
AFH: It’s not really for me to say. The atmosphere I hoped to create in the book was one of a shadowy fear, sinking in the protagonist’s chest. That feeling that life’s out of your control and it’s not altogether great. There’s a certain hopelessness inherent in the human condition, that weighs us down. This isn’t always the face, however, that we show to the world, and this isn’t always even something we can articulate to ourselves, as we try to get to sleep in the dark. The counterbalance to this dreary metaphysical ballast, in the book, is, perhaps, the little girl Sascha, who seems an undimmable beam of sunlight, but, of course, we don’t see the story from her point of view, so who knows what she’s really thinking…
What warring human qualities do you explore?
AFH: I think maybe I just answered that, as best I could!
How do light and dark interplay unpredictably in The Worlds We Leave Behind?
AFH: These are really good questions for a student of literature to think about and comment on, but I suspect, as merely a poet who happened to write a novel or two, they are beyond my ken. I simply wrote the story as it made sense – any effects that emerge from that are bonuses!
On the other hand, I did write the book knowing I wanted Levi to illustrate it. Having done The Song from Somewhere Else together a few years before, and continuing this book in that world (with some of the same characters reappearing) I had a good idea of the style Levi would be using, and so I was able to write things that I thought ‘I’d like to see Levi draw this’, and shadows and deep woods and giant ghostly dark dogs were among that wish list! And, of course, you can’t know the dark, properly, without having light to contrast it with, and Levi has a mastery of light, like a Dutch master (check out his book Greenling, to really feel that Flemish light translated into an Australian landscape – stunning!).
What are some preoccupations, symbols or images that recur throughout your body of work and appear in The Worlds We Leave Behind?
AFH: Again, I’d suggest the scholars wait until I’m dead, then they can go back through the whole body of work and make a proper spreadsheet!
Preoccupations? The difficulty of knowing other minds, the cruelty of children, the fear of life and death, and the joy of being silly. Love and death and loss, the usual stuff. I don’t think there’s anything very original about my concerns!
A.F. Could you please choose one of Levi’s illustrations in The Worlds We Leave Behind that captures the essence of your story and briefly explain why?
AFH: I would like to pick the first spread of four blank pages (that I mentioned before), because they really do sum up something important about the story to me, but, although that would answer your question, I’m going to, instead, answer a different (perhaps more boring/obvious) question: ‘AF. Could you please choose one of your favourite illustrations…’
In answer to that I’m going to pick the picture of Sascha on page 5. (I will add there are no pictures in the book that aren’t my favourites – I love the close up of Missus’s face, the close up of Maria’s eyes, the views of the woods, the double page spread of the cottage… all amazing.) What I love about the picture of Sascha is that it shows how in tune Levi and I are, even though I’m ten years older, we grew up in a similar era, in similar English towns, liking similar cultural stuff. And it was when I first saw this piece of art and I immediately noticed a specific tiny background detail that Levi had snuck in, that I thought, ‘Yep, once again, I love this man!’ I shan’t tell you what it is, just that I am very fond of all of her toys, assembled there, listening to her story, even as they wait dreaming.
Thank you for sharing more of your lateral brain through your responses here, A.F. All of your books are a treat that I urge readers to seek out, with the expectation that they be transported into another world.
AFH: Thank you so much for having me here and for letting me share a few words about our strange little books. We really appreciate the hard work all you brilliant bloggers do trying to share the things we make with the world. You are a star.
My reviews of two other A.F. Harrold books The Song from Somewhere Else, illustrated by Levi Pinfold and The Imaginary, illustrated by Emily Gravett at Children’s Books Daily blog
My review of The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold at PaperbarkWords blog