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The Darkling is Rising: Interview with children's author, Charles Butler
By Jess Wynne

‘There is a feeling that school stories, witch stories, and even school-witch stories, have all been done before, and (dare one say it?) rather better’.

Charles Butler, author of The Darkling and Timon’s Tide, claims to speak for ‘many people in the children’s book world’ as he explodes the myth of Harry Potter. Its easy to imagine a legion of children’s writers armed with failed manuscripts telling tales of schooling and sorcery – Larry Trotter and the Goblins are Liars anyone? – muttering various unprintable expletives regarding the sensational success of J. K. Rowling’s creation.

The Darkling (1998) Timon's Tide (2000)

Not that I’m suggesting that Butler is jealous. Not at all. But perhaps he has reason to be...

Like J.K. Rowling, Butler juxtaposes the ordinary and the extraordinary to great effect. However, his writing bears a closer resemblance to that of Alan Garner in his use of the supernatural to interpret the contemporary world; when compared with Rowling’s fairly traditional visions of boarding schools inhabited by stereotypical (despite their Pagan leanings) characters his approach seems all the more courageous. Butler’s portrayal of difficult themes betrays a deep respect for children as readers:

‘I don’t have a list of taboo subjects. If I did, it certainly wouldn’t feature death (incidence 100%), drugs (about which any inner city school child seems to know more than I do) or dysfunctional families. What would be the point of pretending none of that happened? I dislike books that set out to shock for sake of it – it’s just a kind of showing off – but with few exceptions I doubt they do much harm. Children are pretty good at judging when someone is trying it on, and act accordingly. In most cases it is the adults who get more exercised by such things’.

He believes that children actually read differently from adults; to some extend this allows him more scope within his writing. ‘There is no easy formula to describe the difference. Children know less, of course, and that has to be taken into account – but they often feel more, or more intensely. They make more demands on the technical skills of storytelling, voice and pace; but they are also more willing to have demands made on them. They have fewer preconceptions too, and will let a story lead them in its own direction. In general, it seems to me that the disciplines involved in having children as an audience are healthy ones for any writer. Children are impatient of self-indulgence, but wonderfully rewarding and committed readers when you get it right.’

I ask Butler about the books he read as a child and he recalls distinctly the feeling of pride at finishing C. S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – the first book he read by himself. He also mentions Tom’s Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce), The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) and, perhaps most significantly, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. What this indicates is the importance of fiction for children. Many adults rarely read, for all sorts of reasons, but most can remember with fondness and often clarity the books of their childhood. It is ironic therefore that there are so many difficulties to encounter when publishing within the field of children’s writing. Butler alludes to ‘a deep- seated insecurity in many adults, which makes them reluctant to take children’s literature seriously.’ He suggests that they fear the label of ‘childish’ and that this may go some way in explaining the fact that ‘as compared with adult books, children’s books are produced on a much lower budget (in terms of marketing, say), are much less widely reviewed, and in general receive much less attention than they deserve.’

With all the prejudices inherent in the children’s literature industry, plus the age-old difficulty of getting published in any area of writing, it is no wonder that Butler is simply ‘grateful’ to be in print. In spite of his ‘ambivalent’ attitude to the Harry Potter phenomenon he also extends his gratitude to Rowling for spotlighting his often overlooked field of writing:

‘Rowling’s success has brought an unprecedented amount of attention to children’s writing, and to complain about that would just be ungrateful. In fact, if the rest of us can’t make the most of this opportunity, we’ve no one to blame but ourselves. Not only has she brought attention, she has brought extra money. Without Harry Potter, for example, it’s unlikely that HarperCollins would have bought up (and republished) the extensive list of Diana Wynne Jones, perhaps the most prominent of those people who “did it before and better”. As a Jones fan from way back, I therefore have every reason to feel grateful to Rowling for indirectly getting some of my favourite books back in print’.

Anxieties about the ability of literature to attract and appeal to children submerged in a multi-media culture currently pervade the mass consciousness. What does Butler envision as the future for children’s writing? What does he think about the multitude of TV tie-ins aimed at children and teenagers that can be found in any bookstore – for instance the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series? ‘I see nothing wrong with co-existence. If anyone doubted that children still have an appetite for reading, Harry Potter has proved then wrong. Its up to us to make sure they have something worth reading. I have no problems with TV tie-ins either, so long as there is a bit of room left on the shelves for other things. However, it is depressing to go into Waterstones (or anywhere else) and see the already meagre amount of shelf space devoted to teenage books monopolised by series’ and spin-offs. No one would dream of doing that to adult books (would they?). Things have got slightly better in the last year or two, but the situation is still dire.’

And the future for Charles Butler? His last two novels were both welcomed with encouraging reviews. Perhaps the next, Calypso Dreaming, will be the one to make his name. It will be published in May 2002 by HarperCollins and is typical of Butler’s work in that it involves the supernatural. ‘ I don’t believe the opposition between fantasy and realism is so clear cut. That’s part of the point of writing it in fact, at least for me. One effect of reading fiction like mine should be to question where the category of the “ordinary” ends.’ However, in contrast to Butler’s previous novel, Timon’s Tide, Calypso is pastoral rather than urban – set on a small island in the Bristol Channel. ‘I remember Julia MacRae, [his agent] telling me how sick she was of receiving Blytonesque manuscripts about seaside holidays, secret caves, buried treasure and the rest, and how they were always the first to be rejected. I think I resolved then to write a book that would use all those elements but somehow avoid cliché.’

Now for the silly bit you always get at the end of the news – yeah you know the story about break-dancing chickens or whatever. I suggest to Butler that he is stranded in deepest, darkest Transylvania. For some reason all the trees have been stolen. Fortunately he has a whole library with him. Which books would he burn as firewood first?

With all its Nazi connotations, I was relieved to find that he would be ‘a reluctant book burner.’ Nevertheless he would chuck in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Saul Bellow’s Herzog. ‘I thought they never would end. There seemed no particular reason why they should – it was the lack of discernible shape that got to me, in fact. Fire going out? Okay, have Kerouac’s On the Road as well – for the same reason. But you’re not getting The Owl Service, no way!’

So leave those great works of fiction where they belong – in the dusty recesses of your local library. Instead rediscover children’s fiction, whatever your age, you might just find that it is better written.

For more information on purchasing Charles Butler's novels:

The Darkling

Timon's Tide

© Jess Wynne 2001

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