I am particularly grateful that just as Sophie’s second book “The Girl Who Speaks Bear” was published on September 5th and she was actively promoting it, she never-the-less found the time in her tightly packed schedule ( a case of truly “I don’t know how she does it!”) to answer my questions about writing her books.
In addition to being a mother of four and home-schooling her children, Sophie possesses an amazing story-telling talent, weaving together threads of past fairy-tales and folklore into her modern novels. Aimed at children, they are so beautifully written, I dare adults not to have a book-tug-of-war with their children over Sophie’s books.
Q & A with Sophie Anderson, author of the best-selling “The House With Chicken Legs” and “The Girl Who Speaks Bear”
What was the inspiration behind “The Girl Who Speaks Bear”?
Sophie Anderson: “The Girl Who Speaks Bear” was inspired by a variety of Russian folktales. There is a tale called Ivanko the Bear’s Son, about a boy who is human from the waist up and bear from the waist down. That idea and imagery was a big inspiration – I loved the idea of a character with human and bear characteristics. Another tale called Why Bears’ Paws are Like Hands was an inspiration too. That story helped me connect the main character, Yanka, with the bear-like side of herself. I drew on many other tales to create a backstory for Yanka; tales of Baba Yaga, Koschei the Deathless, Zmey Gorynych, and the Slavic female Bogatyr (warrior) Nastasya Korolevichna. I wanted to weave several stories together, and have Yanka use them as a guide on her journey of transformation and discovery – much as I have used fairy tales as a guide in my own life!
After tremendous success of ‘The House With Chicken Legs’ was it daunting to get back to writing the next book and did you find it easier or harder second time running?
Sophie Anderson: “The House with Chicken Legs” was so well received, it was definitely daunting writing book two. During the times The Girl Who Speaks Bear was an ‘under-construction-mess’, I worried I’d never be able to make it as good as The House with Chicken Legs. If I hadn’t been under contract, I wonder if I might have abandoned the project! My agent and editors were hugely supportive though. They helped me through the tough times, gave me brilliant advice and endless encouragement, and I am now really proud of what we created together.
As for which book was easier to write, I think were about as difficult as each other, but perhaps for different reasons.
What important life lessons do you want to teach children (and adults) through “The Girl Who Speaks Bear”?
Sophie Anderson: This is a great question. I never set out to teach lessons through my writing, but I love the idea of readers gaining some kind of enlightenment through the story that is personal to them. The Girl Who Speaks Bear has themes of belonging, discovering and accepting who you are, and finding your own family or herd. I hope these themes will be relevant to all readers in some way, and I hope individuals will interpret and develop the themes in a way that is most useful to them. This is the magic of writing and reading I think – it is only together that a writer and a reader creates a story in the imagination, and for each reader that story will be unique, with very personal lessons.
What’s your writing process like – do you do research first and then start writing? Do you write every day?
Sophie Anderson: There is always a thinking and researching period first, where my head is gradually filled with ideas and the story begins to take shape. Then when I start writing, it flows and I do try to write everyday. I don’t always manage to though! Once a first draft is down, I try to take at least a week off before I go back in again.
Are there plans for book No.3 in the works?
Sophie Anderson: There are; I am working on a first draft now, so it’s early days. But I can say it is Russian folklore inspired again. That folklore is so rich and wonderful, I find it an endless source of inspiration.
My son very much enjoyed reading ‘The Girl Who Speaks Bear” but what would you say to those who might think that it is more geared up for the girls because of the title?
Sophie Anderson: It would be such a shame if male readers were to miss out on this adventure because they thought it was for girls. Books are for everyone! What if girls didn’t read Harry Potter because they thought it was for boys? We, as readers, will miss out on amazing stories if we only read books with main characters of the same gender as us! The Girl Who Speaks Bear is an adventure story, for everyone.
Who is your favourite character in this book, the one that particularly pulls at your heart’s strings and why?
Sophie Anderson: I become very fond of all my characters, so this is a very difficult question. If I had to choose a favourite it would probably be the main character, Yanka. The Girl Who Speaks Bear is written in the first person, so I really had to get inside her head when writing it. I experienced all her emotions, and journeyed with her in every way, so she feels part of me now. She lives in my heart.
What advice would you give to young budding writers in order to improve their story-telling skills?
Sophie Anderson: Firstly, read lots! When you read, you subconsciously learn what makes a good story, and begin to carry that through to your own writing. Secondly, write lots! The more you write, the better you get. And finally, try re-writing. After you have written a story, hide it for a week. Then take it out again, re-read it and think what might make it better. Don’t just think about small changes like word choices and punctuation. Think about bigger changes, like developing the characters more, clarifying their motivations, and changing aspects of the story.
What are the best and the hardest things about being a children’s author?
Sophie Anderson: This is a tricky question! There are so many things I love about being a children’s author. From a writing point of view, I really love it when a story comes together in a satisfying way and I start to feel proud of my creation. After publication, I love hearing from readers who have enjoyed my stories. There is nothing better than knowing someone has read and connected with your work, and maybe even been inspired by it to be creative too.
The hardest thing perhaps is balancing work and family life, but I think people find this difficult in all kinds of jobs.
Do you ask your own children when you are writing a book for input?
Sophie Anderson: Yes! I often read my eldest two children work in progress and ask for their feedback. They are both very gentle with suggestions and comments, and I nearly always take their advice.
Do you think fairytales are as relevant to children today, as they were to us when we were children?
Sophie Anderson: Absolutely! I think fairytales have survived for thousands of years because they are relevant to every generation. I believe they contain fundamental truths about what it means to be human, and wisdom to guide us through life. Fairytales can be a powerful medium for communicating deep and sometimes difficult truths in a safe space. They are maps through the woods, trails of breadcrumbs to show us the way.
“The Girl Who Speaks Bear” by Sophie Anderson, £6.99, published by Usborne Publishing. Can be purchased via Waterstones, Amazon or any other good bookseller (the links aren’t sponsored).