This interview with Lynne Reid Banks was published in SCAN in October 1994, Volume 13 Nº 4. This was one of my earliest published pieces, and when I interviewed Ms Banks, I was unaware of the controversy surrounding her depiction of Native Americans in The Indian in the Cupboard series. Ms Banks is a formidable woman, and the interview got off to a rocky start, but once we got past an initial misunderstanding I found her to be forthright and imposing, but generous as well.
Lynne Reid Banks opened the 1994 Children’s Book Council of Australia Conference with a powerful assertion of the value of the imagination. Children’s books are more important than adult’s books, she claimed, because for society’s sake we must raise children with the ability to imagine the the consequences of their actions, and to empathise with the situations of others. A healthy imagination is thus a powerful tool for the young as they approach the adult world. In addition to this philosophy, which underpins much of her fiction for children, Ms Reid Bank’s writing is notable for her compassionate portrayal of families, and her ability to bring characters, both real and fantastic, to life.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss with Ms Reid Banks her thoughts on the rôle of fiction, and her various approaches, both technical and philosophical, to writing for children and teenagers. I began asking her whether her years in the theatre helped nurture her ability to explore and create character.
You know, I really think in a way it does, although there’s a great difference between writing a character and acting one. The writer of a character in a play has done a lot of work for you. What you’re doing then is not creating, you’re interpreting, and your body and everything about you has to enter into that character like it’s a kind of costume. You go into it and animate it. But while you are acting it, you have to be that person, as nearly as possible. But this ability or training that enables you to project yourself into people, to act them, is certainly the same faculty. It’s very very useful in creating character, because you do the same sort of trick, only instead of doing it with your body on the stage, you’re doing it in your head.
What makes it much more complicated than acting a role is that you’ve got to do it for a lot of different people, and it’s like acting all the parts in the play yourself and without a script. In a way, it’s like being in a play that hasn’t been written yet. It is a kind of improvisation, and you’re trying to figure out, what is the best thing for me to do here? It’s like playing chess with yourself. You’re anticipating, and yet at the same time you’re feeling it. And sometimes the dialogue absolutely flows wonderfully, and at that point you can almost withdraw, you’re not in their heads any more, they’re there in front of you doing it, very nicely. You’re copying down what they’re saying, you watch their reactions. And then you can actually observe it. Of course, if you’re writing a first person narrative, you can never get out of their head, that one head. It’s like playing one rôle, and everything else impacts onto you. It’s complicated. It’s interesting.
In the Indian in the Cupboard series in particular, you depict a great range of characters based on “types”, and you’ve successfully transcended those types. We care very deeply when the soldier-medic Tommy Atkins dies, for instance, even though he’s only “on stage” for a very brief time. This is a great facility, to be able to make a reader care so much about somebody who has just a very brief moment of glory.
I called him Tommy Atkins, which I’m sure you know is the generic name given to all British soldiers at that time, and I wanted him to be that, just your good natured, working-class soldier, who happens to be a medic. Yet having started in this way, as with all of them, he became to me tremendously alive and individual, while still being, in a way, a type. Matron is a type, but she became tremendously real to me, and she’s actually one of my most beloved characters, not least because she rescued me from a terrible doldrum I’d fallen into at about that time with that book. I’d brought some woman to life who was supposed to be the nurse, and she was so boring, I can’t tell you, she never did anything. I actually had to throw quite a lot of chapters away before Matron appeared and said “My dear, you’ve had a terrible time, just leave it all to me, just watch what I do, write down what I say, I’m going to deal with it.” And this can be what happens. They start as types, stereotypes almost, of toys, it’s the toy and it’s the stereotype. But then, inevitably, like with everything, they deviate from that type. The cowboy, Boone, becomes this soft hearted thing, and he’s also a boozer and a bigot…
And also very courageous…
When the moment comes, he’s strong as a lion.
As in helping with the birth of the baby.
Oh yes, I did like that part.
And the whole conflict between Omri and Patrick is that Patrick hasn’t yet got to an understanding that these aren’t cowboys and Indians that he’s playing with, they’re two men.
Exactly so. They’re not toys.
I particularly enjoy the relationship between parents and children in your books. What I like particularly is the trust the parents in your books have in their children. The children in your books are granted a great deal of independence and a great deal of privacy, which is an issue that several speakers raised at the CBC conference. What seems to be lacking in your books is the overriding anxiety about children and their physical and moral safety that currently seems to dominate discussion about children, and about children’s books. You’ve struck a balance between the parents’ trust of the child, and the ability to give them privacy and so on, but also great support and care from the parents.
That’s something I believe in because it’s been a part of my family’s experience, but I think I may eventually have to pick up on this. I’m thinking now about a story about a single parent who is over-protective, perhaps, for good reason, and the child needs to break away from this, feels restricted, not protected and cared for, but restricted, and needs to break away in order to have adventures, almost just the adventure of going to the shops. Going to the shops by yourself is now an adventure, for a child even perhaps of nine. I can imagine that this generation coming up now under these restraints will break away, they’ll react against it, they’ll want to prove that they’re all right, yet at the same time they may have a lot of fear in their hearts, and expect almost every stranger to be inimical, and I think this is going to cause quite a lot of interesting conflict which can be used of course in children’s literature.
Adults, be they parents or otherwise, in fact play quite a large rôle in many of your stories. I can remember when I first read The Fairy Rebel, being so very surprised that it focussed on adults for such a good part of it, which is very unusual for a children’s book.
Right. Yes, it is unusual. But don’t forget there’s Midas as well, there’s no child in Midas, expect that poor little daughter who’s gold practically throughout the book. So there’s an old guy who’s having his adventures, of course, he’s got a childish quality about him, but he’s nevertheless he’s a middle-aged man, and the whole story’s about him. There’s no rule (about having to have children in children’s books).
There’s fashion, and there are pre-conceptions. My new novel, Broken Bridge, (Penguin 1994) which is a teenage book, has many different points of view. The family in the book goes from the age of 8 to the age of 75, and you go into the heads of these people, it’s not just the teenage children. (My American publishers) asked me to re-construct the whole bloody thing, and do it all from the point of view of the teenager. Impossible! When you read it you’ll see, it’s impossible. I had to go into the grandfather’s head, I had to be the little girl, and all the intervening cousins in their mid-twenties and everything. I had to do that, because I had to show how they’re all reacting to this tragedy that happens. And I think this is important for children, for teenagers certainly. They’re looking ahead to adulthood, they’re feeling themselves almost adult, so what will it be like when I’m 24, what will it be like when I’m my grandfather’s age? I don’t see any reason why there should be a rule that teenage books have to be exclusively from a teenage point of view. Think of the Mary O’Hara books, Flicka and Thunderhead. There’s an awful lot of stuff in Flicka about the marriage of the parents, and grown up feelings. There’s a whole chapter about the mother, how she’s worried about her family, does her husband still love her. And of course there’s a whole lot from the horses’ perspective as well, and it’s not a book for horses! You’re trying again to get the child to extend himself. If you keep it all the time to a teenage point of view, all right, you’re imagining you’re not you, you’re this other teenager, but what a much greater exercise for the imagination to get into the mind of a grown up, the mind of a horse.
Also talking about what people think ought and ought not to be in kids books; you face sometimes taboo subjects like sex and death fairly well head on, when it’s required. Melusine deals with incest, I Houdini…
Oh, yes, the sex scene in I Houdini! I’ve had very funny reactions. The publisher in America has sent on letters that they’ve received, saying “We have removed this book from our library shelves. We do not think the mating scene is suitable. We do not think that the hamsters attitude to the female is a good rôle model for young men”. Well, I have one response to that. If young American males have no better rôle models than golden hamsters, it’s a pretty poor lookout. Houdini actually says, “this would no doubt seem high-handed in a human male, but this is the way hamsters are!” And I think the mating scene is very funny. I once read it to a whole conference in America, and they absolutely fell about. It’s supposed to be humorous! But it’s also supposed to be true of hamsters. I think all that’s very funny. I’ve written back to one or two really pompous headmasters and said “Come along, a little humour.” A little lightness of spirit has got to be brought to these things. After all, he’s a grown up hamster, and he has his needs.
You’ve just referred to teaching and you were, I felt, quite critical in your Conference lecture, about teaching which doesn’t permit the encouragement of imagination. You seem to see the creative arts and literature specifically as being social agents, as things that can have an impact on…
A social agent, I love that, can I borrow that?! Very good! Yes, well, that’s right, it’s a social agent, but there again you know, I have this dichotomy of feeling between what I as a political, mature woman who is worried about society, and therefore what I impose upon stories, and what I actually feel when I am creating them. I don’t allow that social agent element consciously to come out in the stories, but later on people tell me it’s there. It’s just that I’m sometimes surprised (by what other people find in my work).
How do you feel about your books being used in the classroom, as teaching texts.
Lovely. Why should I mind? Obviously, this is absolutely wonderful.
Some authors do object, because they feel that the teaching by its very nature is sort of anti-enjoyment.
I don’t think that. I only ask if teachers… I want teachers to read to children, even at quite an advanced age. I want them to do rôle play, I want them to interpret books, not just “And what did Omri do then, children?” Making dioramas and all these lovely things you can do to fix the book firmly in your head. But I also want the teachers to act it, and interpret it, and make it alive for the children, and I often feel without any smarm, that teachers are due for a great deal of thanks from authors, because if they read it badly, it’d be better if they didn’t read it. But so often kids write to me and say “Miss So-and-so did read it nicely and she put on all the accents, and she cried at the end..” The teachers who read it well are our interpreter. Wonderful.