Patricia Forde won the White Raven Award with her new middlegrade/YA-novel ‘The Wordsmith’ which will be published in fall 2017 as ‘The List’ in the USA (Sourcebooks). ILB talked with the author about where she found the idea for the book, what children think about it and what it would be like to live in a world with limited words.
ILB: “The List” is about the loss of language, and a girl’s fight to save it. Were there real life events or political issues that gave you the idea to write “The List”?
Patricia: I am bilingual, I speak Irish and English, and all my life I’ve been watching the Irish language dying – that had a huge impact on me. This way, I started to see language as something you can get – or something that can be taken away from you.
As I was writing the novel, my husband also gave me a digital thesaurus, and if you’d type in the word “big” for example, you’d get “huge”, “gigantic”, “enormous” and so on; so my husband provided me with words in the end. I liked the idea of a list of words. And that’s from where it all started.
How did you come up with the idea of a world with limited words?
It took me about 3 years to write “The List”. Initially I knew there should be a girl with a list of words and I felt that characters in the book somehow needed to “lose” language. But I did not immediately know why or how they should lose it. So I talked to a linguist and re-wrote some scenes after he told me that simply “forgetting” language was not possible. He also said that people would need about 500 words to communicate well – that’s how I knew for which amount of words I had to aim at for the list in the book.
And there is another aspect of the idea of a limited list of words. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when the Sinn Fein (ann.: the Nationalist Party) was not allowed to speak in public; so on National Broadcast, it was actors speaking for them – it was only the current president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who in the 80s rehabilitated their right to speak in public. You could say that he gave them their voices back.
Where there passages you found difficult to write or which you had to think about a lot? For example the torture scenes?
I hate torture! I cannot watch torture scenes in films or even just read about them when they are described in detail. So I did not want to be too graphic about them.
But a scene that was really difficult to write was when Letta (ann.: the main character) hears music for the first time. I went to watch youtube videos of deaf children who, with the help of an implant, hear their mother’s voice for the very first time. It was this feeling that I wanted to transport, how it is to hear something for the first time ever. That’s also why I wanted it to be a sad melody so it would touch Letta in a very unexpected way. The sad feeling the music evoked instantaneously reminded her of her lost mother.
And at the time that I was writing the scene of Benjamin’s death, my father passed away. Before that, I had not experienced losing someone so close to me. I had the feeling that I needed to rewrite this part afterwards. But that’s the great thing about emotion and the process of writing in the end. No emotion is wasted. Anything you experience will be recycled.
How did you experience the success of ‘The List’? Did it come out of the blue?
I had been writing picture books before and it was a big departure to write a novel. So I was very stunned to receive a White Raven award and to get shortlisted for the Irish Book Award. I am thrilled that that there will be a US edition soon.
Were there, apart from the prizes, reactions from children which surprised you or which touched you?
Children are very insightful! When I read “The List” to pupils in a school, they were touched about the scene of Benjamin’s death. We discussed and I mentioned to them that my Dad had died and they were so gentle and at the same time the atmosphere was so charged. In the end, they started to tell me about whom they had lost or what frightened them. By discussing some scenes of the book they suddenly opened up and dared to speak about things they normally wouldn’t.
And children respond well to the topic of nature, they are somehow closer to nature than grown-ups. In “The List”, bees have become extinct. My grandfather was a beekeeper and if someone in the family died, somebody had to go to the bees and tell them; this ritual is called “telling the bees”. People thought that they would leave if you didn’t treat them with respect…
“The List” takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. Yet, Ark seems very medieval as all technology and knowledge have been lost. Do you think something similar could really happen in the world we live in?
Oh yes, absolutely. We are so dependent on technology, we’d have to find all of our skills again. If you think about it: our parents still made their own shoes, their own clothes. Things have been developing and changing so rapidly.
“The List” has a strong plot, a heroine of “flesh ad blood” and a lot of cliffhangers. It is very visual and the setting unfolds in front of the reader’s eye. Did your experience in directing theatre plays, television series and working as a teacher help you?
My experience in working in television has certainly helped me in how to create scenes and to make them visual. But mostly I simply write for the child I was, so writing for me when I was ten.
I have always loved anything with words. When I wrote picture books at the time my children were small people around me were asking whether I wrote for them, but even then I was actually writing for myself (she laughs).
In general, I am convinced that writing comes out of reading. Only a reader can become a writer.
In the past, I was teaching middle grade. Children this age are really so much more sophisticated than people think. I knew they were able to grasp the ideas of my book. Ten-year-old girls could rule the world!