Big Magic by Sarah Armstrong

Big Magic by Sarah Armstrong

Sarah Armstrong, writer of awarded literary fiction, explains how she wrote her imaginative first middle-fiction novel, Big Magic for Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords blog:

A few years ago – squashed beside my six-year-old daughter on her narrow bed, reading her the classic kids’ novel, The Borrowers – it struck me that this was my favourite part of the day (despite my bone-crushing tiredness).

This was partly because I loved her rapt attention on the story, and her questions (Why did Mrs Driver send the ferret after them, Mummy?) but mainly because I was reminded of the utterly immersive, thrilling experience that reading was for me as a child.

I read heaps as a kid; we didn’t have a television, and my family made weekly trips to the local library. In my teens, I ‘graduated’ to serious, grown-up literature, and went on to write three novels myself. In other words, I left kids literature way behind. 

But reading to my daughter, I found myself falling back in love with it, and decided I wanted to write a story for kids.

Soon after, I took my daughter to see a travelling circus at Mullumbimby showground. We watched a boy of about eleven doing a handstand on top of seven or eight precariously balanced chairs, and I wondered what it would be like to grow up in a circus – moving from town to town, living in a caravan, performing most days. A story seed was quietly planted.

At that time, I was also thinking lots about nature and its power. I live in Mullumbimby, in northern NSW, not far from Byron Bay. Nature looms large here. The rain is torrential (and can lead to terrible floods); the trees are majestic; the lush, sub-tropical green presses in on every side.

This area and the natural world have played important roles in my adult novels, and I began to ponder how I could bring the natural world into a book for kids.

Before I knew it, a story was brewing. I sat at my desk and free-wrote my way into a wonky first draft. Tulsi appeared on the page and ‘Big Magic’ started to take shape.

Tulsi is an eleven-year old who lives with her mum and dad in a travelling circus. Her mum is a magician in the circus – but a real magician. She borrows energy from nature for her magic, and in time, Tulsi  – who comes from a long line of women magicians – will also learn magic. One night, a magic trick goes terribly wrong and Tulsi’s mum accidentally disappears herself. It turns out that Tulsi is the only one who can bring her mum back. But first, she must learn a lifetime of magic in one month.

To be honest, I didn’t imagine I’d ever write a fantasy book. My novels for adults sit squarely in the realism genre. I think of ‘Big Magic’ as realism with a twist of magic on the side. And – to be honest – it’s a magic that’s not really so implausible when you spend time in nature around here.

I’m sometimes asked about the differences in writing for kids and adults. In fact, there are very few differences. In the rewrites, I still have to solve all the same problems to do with characters, plot, rising action, pacing, structure (with the added business of magical world building and making sure that’s entirely logical). Making characters more dimensional (and showing more of their emotional responses) seems to be something I need to work on whatever age group I am writing for!

One difference is the need (I think) to write a hopeful ending, or an ending that – at the very least – implies hope. My first two adult novels had open, somewhat ambiguous endings, and I find myself now wanting to write and read hopeful endings. Which, more than anything, may say something about me and the state of our world.

I’m planning to keep writing kids’ books. At the moment, I’m finishing ‘Magic Awry’, the sequel to ‘Big Magic’. There’s a real joy for me in imagining myself into a child character’s shoes, which is about remembering who I was as a child and thinking of my own child.

As phenomenal kid’s writer, Katherine Rundell says, ‘When you read children’s books, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.’ (From her book: ‘Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise.’)

I feel that when I read kids books and I’d say the same about writing them.

I’m also lucky enough to be part of a (mostly) online middle-grade writing critique group, with kid lit superstars, Deborah Abela, Tristan Bancks, Zanni Louise and Lian Tanner. We meet once a month and give each other feedback on works-in-progress. They are wonderfully supportive and constructively critical and just plain good company.

*****

Here’s a snippet for you from the opening of ‘Big Magic’ which is for readers aged 9+:

The day my mother disappears, the sky is the most dazzling blue I’ve ever seen it. Our circus has just arrived in Millimba, and our convoy of trucks chugs down the wide main street, making sure everyone knows we’re in town.

Dad and I sit up high in the front truck. Cartwheeling down the road ahead of us is my best friend, Kit. His arms and legs trace great circles through the air before he presses up into a handstand and flick-flacks along as if he has springs in his hands. Today, he’s wearing his favourite luminescent blue tights and singlet, and he beams at the townsfolk who watch from the footpaths.

Our clown Jerry zigzags about on his unicycle, squirting a water pistol at the crowd, while my uncle Vincent – the circus ringmaster – strides along in his shiny black top hat, arms flung wide, shouting an invitation to our show. We need a big crowd tonight. The big top’s been less than half full for weeks.

I’ve always liked Millimba, with its sprouting palm trees and noisy, chattering rainbow lorikeets. Our circus comes here for three weeks every January and we set up at the showground, in the shade of the giant fig trees. They have smooth grey bark and roots that bunch up above the ground, like strange curved elephants’ trunks. When it’s almost dark or just light, the roots look like prehistoric animals crouched under the trees. I don’t need Mum to tell me that those trees hold serious amounts of big magic.

Life is good, I think as Dad turns our truck off the main street towards the showground. Things have been tense lately, with all the talk about not making enough money and everyone missing Mr Potts. But today, everything seems to radiate hope: the hot sun shining down on us from that glittering, impossibly blue sky; the green pointy mountains in the distance; the townies clapping and laughing on the side of the road; even the half-eaten bag of jelly snakes on the seat between me and Dad. Life seems so rosy, without even the tiniest hint of how badly this day will end.

*****

Sarah can be found on Instagram @saraharmstrongwriter and Facebook @SarahArmstrong and her website is www.sarah-armstrong.com

Bio Sarah Armstrong was an award-winning ABC Radio journalist before leaving to write fiction. She’s written three novels for adults – her first, ‘Salt Rain’ was shortlisted for a number of awards including the Miles Franklin. Her first novel for young readers is ‘Big Magic’ (Hardie Grant 2022) – a magical realism tale which includes circus and parallel universes and is set around the town of Mullumbimby in northern NSW where she lives with her partner, the writer Alan Close and their young daughter.

Big Magic at Hardie Grant

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