by Liz Flanagan
The dragons will return, one last time…
On the island of Arcosi, dragons and their riders used to rule the skies. Now they are only legends, paintings and symbols: dragons are stories be read aloud at bedtime, their dazzling colours to be gazed at on palace walls and their lithe forms to be wondered at in ancient jewellery. Then servant girl Milla witnesses a murder and finds herself caring for the last four dragon eggs. Tensions in the City are rising as those who have power fight to keep it, and those who are supressed start to question the authority of their leaders. If Milla is to keep the dragon eggs safe, she also needs to keep them secret. When so much history is compressed onto one island, it will only take one small flame to ignite a political firestorm….and now the dragons have returned! Will the bravest kill the dragons, or will she ride them?
As a story for our times, Dragon Daughter is luminous. Milla sets off on a quest of discovery to unravel her own, and her island’s, past. Themes of migration, tolerance and finding unity in an ocean of differences, all shimmer on the surface of Liz Flanagan’s beautiful writing. Dragon Daughter is an astonishing book; this is storytelling at its very best – exciting, political, poignant and utterly enchanting. This is a perfect tale for the restless and troubled times we ourselves live in and in which our children are growing up. If our own sceptred isle could dream for us all now, it would dream of dragons.
Dragon Daughter will be published on 4th October 2018, but to whet your appetite for this epic new fantasy novel, we sent our own fiery Tamsin Rosewell to talk to the book’s author, Liz Flanagan.
Tamsin: To start let’s talk about the Isle of Arcosi, the island on which the events of Dragon Daughter take place. I’m always interested in how authors think about their locations. Do you think of the islands as characters within your plot, with mood and a history – or is it a location, a backdrop in which the characters find themselves?
Liz: I love islands, especially small ones. They definitely have their own atmosphere. Having an island city allowed the plot to be very compressed in a relatively small space. Arcosi is the backdrop in which characters find themselves, and their relationship to it is vital. As a child, where you live is hugely important, isn’t it? You have a very special way of thinking about it and navigating through it. As a servant girl, Milla has more freedom to roam: Arcosi is her city and she knows and loves it deeply.
Tamsin: Arcosi is a complicated place, with ports and hill towns, bays, orchards, markets and tiny alleyways in fishing ports. How did you ensure that your descriptions of the geography and distances between locations were consistent? I’ve seen Pam Smy’s model of the building of Thornhill which she used as she was creating the book; I wondered if you built a model of the island, or did you use maps? Or did it just exist in your mind?
Liz: I did draw lots of maps and diagrams early on, so I knew where things were in relation to each other and what kind of scale I was thinking of. The Yellow House is based on a beautiful house I once stayed in near Malaga, and I’m sure the steep hilly streets and alleyways have taken something from my Yorkshire home town, even if its climate is a bit different! I love the idea of secret passages, shortcuts and snickets, and the fact that often it is children who know them best. There are definitely elements of Yorkshire fishing villages threaded with tiny alleyways, like Robin Hood’s Bay, then there are Italian influences, from Assisi, or Rome, Spanish hill towns like Valldemossa, and even the German merchant port of Lübeck. From each one I borrowed something for the made-up island of Arcosi.
Later, when I needed to give the artist Paul Duffield some clues for creating the gorgeous map at the front of the book, I tried to draw the island again, but felt too daunted. My daughter Molly ended up painting a lovely version from my scrawled diagram, and I sent this to my editor to pass on. I also made a Pinterest board to show some of the places I’ve visited that were inspirations for Arcosi. They’re all very different – from Yorkshire fishing villages to Spanish houses to Italian hill towns and German trading cities – but somehow each part is there, though overall the feel is probably more Mediterranean than anything else.
Tamsin: Lets talk about dragons! Dragons mean different things in different cultures – and indeed in different periods of time. Sometimes they are symbols of malevolence, fury and evil; and at other times they are guardians of good fortune and luck, some guard the underworld and others hoard treasure. Some have four legs, others have two, some have wings and breathe fire and others spit poison. Like all monsters, our dragons are a construct of our time – so tell me about your dragons! What sort of creatures are they?
(Images right and below: Dragonology ©Wayne Anderson, Douglas Carrel and Helen Ward. Templar 2003)
Liz: My dragons are definitely good! They breathe fire but would only attack someone in extreme circumstances (as you’ll see). In this story, each dragon has to bond with a person when they hatch. This connection becomes the most important thing in the lives of the person and the dragon, and when they fly together, that’s pure joy. There’s also a connection between the dragons and the whole population of the city – it needs to be symbiotic and sustaining for both. Milla begins to realise this, and to suspect the dragons have a kind of healing and unifying force. So in this way, the dragons symbolise power, and how it needs to be shared, not gathered in the hands of one person. When that happened in the past, the dragons almost died out.
Dragons can only hatch on Arcosi because of the very particular springwater there – that was a handy plot limit to explain why there aren’t masses of them all over this fantasy world. I spent a long time looking at other illustrations – including skeletons of birds, bats, cats and dogs – before I settled on them having four limbs and two wings.
Tamsin: One of my favourite scenes is at the beginning, in the palace during a party, I won’t give too much away but it involves dancing dragon puppet-lanterns – where did that image come from?
Liz: The puppets are based on something very specific. Each year in our town of Hebden Bridge we have a fantastic community arts event where people make their own costumes, but the lead artists make these astonishing paper sculptures. The Handmade Parade is in the summer, but the Lamplighter Festival happens in the winter, and seeing the streets lit by hundreds of fantastic lantern-sculptures is magical!
Tamsin: You write about dragons from when they are still inside their eggs, to the end of their lives, so you must have a clear idea of their natural history. I am intrigued by the way zoologist and writer, Nicola Davies, uses her knowledge of things like migration patterns and homing instincts in animals and birds to talk about human habits – we are, after all, animals too. How did you create a realistic lifecycle and ethology for a mythical creature?
Liz: This is very easy to answer: most of the dragon life cycle is based on what I saw in my little flock of chickens! I remember seeing a documentary about the link between birds and dinosaurs, which also helped. I would take a cup of coffee out and sit with the chickens, watching them scratch and forage in the garden. I was very fond of them and they all had strong personalities. One was a bossy, feisty thing and she became fiercely broody, sitting all day, even though nothing was ever going to happen, as we didn’t have a cockerel. She would have brooded and brooded, till she quite neglected herself. So I ordered some fertilized eggs in the post. You can actually do this – order eggs in the post which later become living creatures – and it seemed like a miracle to me. Then she sat on them and three weeks later: chicks!
When the eggs hatched, it was clear that the new chicks were exhausted and very vulnerable, and we lost one or two at that stage, though the others thrived and grew very fast. Also, the mama hen was a brilliant mother, caring for her chicks with such diligence, till suddenly one day she rejected them and they were on their own, as if a switch had been flicked in her body clock. All this fascinated me. In the absence of a mother, incubator-hatched chicks will ‘imprint’ on the human who feeds them and be very tame and bonded. So all this definitely fed into the way I imagined the dragons and the speedy way they grow.
Tamsin: Can I ask about language – I don’t think people ask authors enough about the words they choose. You’ve written realism too; Dragon Daughter is a very different creature from Eden Summer. What little shifts in language do you make to effect that change? If I wrote about political economics in the style of Ursula le Guin it would be hilarious and inappropriate; how would you describe the rules of writing fantasy, and indeed of writing realism, to an aspiring writer?
Liz: For me it’s a bit like flavouring, if you imagine all the many different kinds of food you might like, and how you might want something sweet or spicy, filling or comforting, at different times. Just as I love many kinds of food, so I love reading and writing different genres. When I was writing realism in Eden Summer, I could use contemporary phrasing, sometimes pared-back, sometimes Yorkshire dialect and rhythms, sometimes more descriptive, but I was basically trying to conjure something that people already knew. With fantasy, you’re inviting a reader to picture their own version of a made-up universe, so the language is richer and more ornate perhaps, and the metaphors have to suit that world. I love metaphor so much and this story is crammed with it – lots of sea-related images and bird-related images that seemed to suit the island and the hatching dragons that will one day take flight. I think that’s what my first draft was for, to find out the story question, to get to know the characters and what they wanted, and to find out the flavour of the story and its world.
Tamsin: Can you tell me a bit about the writers and other artists who guided you to where you are now? Who were the people whose spirits kept you company while you were writing Dragon Daughter?
Liz: Thinking of influential fantasy authors whose work I’ve loved, I bow down before writers like Ursula K Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey whose books I read as a young teen. I can still remember gleefully discovering that section in Hebden Bridge library. Then later I read Tamora Pierce and Garth Nix and Jonathan Stroud, among others.
Also, I definitely set out to write this book for my daughters, particularly my youngest, Hanna, who adores Tamora Pierce, as I do, and who loved Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle. So for them, I wanted to create female characters who were complex and brave and resourceful, as they are.
Tamsin: There is a huge political tension in Dragon Daughter. The island is very divided. I think as a culture now we protect children too much from politics – we don’t discuss it with young children as it is seen as such a negative force in our lives. I loved Wed Wabbit for its satire; think political comment in literature, art, comedy and music is important to the health of a nation. Did you set out to have a political backdrop to Dragon Daughter that reflects out own western society, as we are now, with Brexit widening religious and cultural divides?
Liz: Yes, the political issues came right at the start, along with the characters. I think that was why it was such a challenge to write: I needed to get that balance between character and theme and plot. Also, my girls were coming home from primary school asking big questions about politics: war, immigration, land rights and so on. We can’t hide political issues from children, although I wanted to explore them in a way that was honest but also age-appropriate, and Dragon Daughter is part of my response to them. I don’t have the answers! But it feels important to talk about these things carefully and from many angles.
Tamsin: Can we talk more about politics and Brexit? I think about it a lot in terms of how it will affect the book industry; I worry about things like the fact that we don’t have the raw materials on this island of ours to print books on our own; we are entirely reliant on networks abroad. I also think for a future generation of writers the fallout of Brexit will be a significant feature in their own history; and clearly it is influencing the thoughts of this generation too. Your own daughters have been very involved in the creation of this book, was politics something you talked about together as the book evolved?
Liz: I’m heartbroken about Brexit, for so many reasons, some personal and specific, and many broader ones, and, as you say, it will have a massive impact for this generation of young people. I’m also terrified by some of the divisive rhetoric that has been normalised very quickly, and deeply concerned about where it could lead.
Yes, we have talked a lot about it, because as a family we faced difficult questions about our identity, since my partner isn’t a British citizen though he’s lived here almost all his life. We haven’t raised the children to be bilingual, and they do feel thoroughly British, so where else could we belong? We had taken certain things for granted, so it was a shock to realise some of our family might suddenly not be welcome here. I know many people have faced much worse than this recently, and I’m sure all these Brexit-era anxieties fed into the book.
Families tell stories about themselves, and I’d believed for a long time that most of my ancestors were Irish people who left their homes after the famine in the nineteenth century. Recently my mum was curious about her ancestry and alongside her family research she used some of the new DNA analysis that’s now easily available. It turned out most of our guesses were right, but that her ancestry was even more intriguing and varied than we realised. I wish we could access those lost stories now! It suggests to me that we are all more connected than we realise, and that our links across countries and continents go back hundreds, even thousands of years. It might sound naïve, but I wish we could hold on to this connectedness as we go forward and try to think of ourselves as part of a global family. We will need that to face the challenges that lie ahead for our planet.
So, unsurprisingly, I’m a believer in the richness that newcomers can bring to an island, and it can be easier to think about politics through fantasy. On the imaginary island of Arcosi, many different waves of migration have happened: people have fled and also arrived on the island for urgent and valid reasons. This story allowed me to explore the different feelings of belonging that this might produce.
Tamsin: There’s a great cast of characters in this book – tell me about a few of the people we’ll meet when we read Dragon Daughter?
Liz: Thank you! Things happen in fours in this story, like cardinal points on a compass. There are four main characters spanning the range of society. Milla starts the story as an orphaned servant girl of twelve years old. The family she works for have twins: Tarya and Isak, who are thirteen. And soon they all meet Vigo, the duke’s son who’s also their age.
Milla is a classic underdog character, and I hope readers will be rooting for her. She is loyal, resourceful and capable, because she’s always had to work hard, and we see the world through her curious eyes. The twins were great fun to write, especially Tarya who is brave and warrior-like and stubborn. People often compare siblings – perhaps that’s even more true for twins – and that definitely happens here. Isak believes his father is disappointed in him and favours his sister. He is sensitive and struggling to find his place, so he’s the one who is most influenced by the powerful duke. And Vigo is a bit stiff and distant at the start, because he’s not had many friends, but he soon transforms when the eggs hatch and the four of them are connected forever.
When Milla discovers her true family, there are some other female characters who are also strong and resilient. I’ve read some really interesting research by feminist historians which proves there were high-status female warriors, for example in Viking society. That’s all the encouragement I needed to write female dragonriders this way…
Tamsin: As a bookseller I’m really interested in the relationships between authors and their publishers. We spend a lot of time introducing our customers to the work of different independent publishers. Talk to me about your publishers. How have you worked with them, and were you involved in the discussions about how the book should look and feel?
Liz: I am so lucky to work with the small and brilliant team at David Fickling Books. It’s a family business and it has that warm and friendly feeling to it. Each department has just one or two people in, and each one has been amazing to work with, so committed and knowledgeable. I felt so grateful that I ended up writing a whole blog post about it here: (http://lizflanagan.co.uk/blog/2018/2/20/how-many-people-does-it-take-to-build-a-book).
My editor Rosie kept me involved as the book was designed. I got to comment at early stages and I’m absolutely delighted with how it turned out. It’s great to be included in these discussions, but at the end of the day, I trust them implicitly and I’m happy to be guided by their advice and expertise.
Tamsin: Who else was involved in the creation of this book? Were there people you turned to in your research or for advice as you progressed?
Liz: Many people! I did my research as I went, and I asked certain people to read it with certain questions in mind. The novelists Tara Guha and Tiffany Murray were particularly supportive as the story got underway. I’m really lucky to belong to a wonderful writing group who read and critiqued the manuscript, particularly the sections that veer most into political territory. Later, I asked the Italian author and illustrator, my dear friend Francesca Chessa, to comment on any Italian-flavoured names to check for mis-steps there. I discussed diversity and representation with a wide range of friends and authors. And through my fabulous agent Ben Illis, I’ve got to know some fantastic writers, who’ve read and commented on the story as it grew. Author Sophie Anderson and her daughter read and critiqued the almost-final version, for which I was very grateful. I think every writer needs a team to cheer them on, and I’m very grateful for mine.
It wasn’t an easy book to write. I started writing it over five years ago, and gave up several times. During one of those times I wrote Eden Summer, so it wasn’t all bad. Most of all I was supported by my wonderful editor Rosie Fickling, who believed in this book so strongly and kept me going. I honestly wouldn’t have finished it without her.
Tamsin: The book looks stunning: the front cover is striking, but I love the back cover too, the sense of distance and depth is powerful. And it has those tiny little flecks of light across the city in the distance; the attention to detail is fabulous. The book opens with a map (I do love it when a book starts with a good map, I think all books should have a map!), who drew the map and who drew that gorgeous cobalt blue and gold dragon on the cover?
Liz: Isn’t it gorgeous? I’m thrilled with how it looks and by the response to the stunning cover. The cover artwork is by Angelo Rinaldi, and it was designed by Alison Gadsby. The interior artwork, including the map, is by Paul Duffield. I also love the art Paul created for the section frames and his version of Milla’s necklace which appears on each new chapter.
Tamsin: Is there anything else you wish I’d asked?
Liz: Everything I’ve said sounds very serious, so I’d better tell you something lighter too! As a child I was obsessed with animals and begged my parents for more and more pets. Over the years, I managed to persuade them to have cats, dog, rabbits, hamster, hens. So Dragon Daughter is for every child who has wanted an animal of their own. I still adore animals and my cat is sleeping on my desk right now.
Dragon Daughter, by Liz Flanagan
Published by David Fickling Books on 4th October 2018