Before Briony's stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family's hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it's become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment.
Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He's as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she's extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn't know.
Franny, Chime only came out last week but you’ve already collected some raves! I think you’re up to 6 starred reviews now? Congratulations!
Thanks! It makes me so glad I hung in there and didn’t let go of the novel before I felt it was done.
You hung in a long time. Your previous novel, The Folk Keeper came out in 1999. What was it about Chime that made it so difficult to get right?
Chime was originally going to be a changeling story: The protagonist’s brother was to have been stolen by fairies and she to have rescued him. But I couldn’t figure out the geography of Fairyland. I knew it was a sinister sort of place, but I couldn’t figure out just what it looked like. I imposed various settings upon Fairyland (exploding volcanoes . . . stone jungles) but none of them worked because none of them connected to the plot. I now realize that for me the setting has to be organic to the plot—or perhaps it’s that the plot arises from the setting—or perhaps a little of each. It was only when I allowed myself to back away from fairies and Fairyland and consider other settings and other dangerous magical creatures that I stumbled onto the swamp setting. I’m not quite sure how I got there, but once there, it was obvious that the plot (elements of which I borrowed from folktales of the British Fenlands) and the setting were intertwined to such an extent that you couldn’t separate one from the other. Only then was I able to write this story.
That’s fascinating, the idea that your plot arises from your setting—and the swamp setting is so creepy and evocative in Chime. Can you talk a little more about how you built that world?
Once I got to the swamps, the world seemed simply to present itself. I did research on swamps, of course, and on the history of the British Fens (the many attempts at draining the Fens), and the folklore that grew up around the draining (the swamp creatures who objected to the draining away of the water). I also borrowed bits of vocabulary from the Fens and customs (the Bible Balls), and although, as you know, writing is never “easy,” the connections were clear—the connections among the draining and the swamp spirits and the threat to the protagonist’s sibling. Once I got to that point, I knew that I knew what I was doing and that I could finish the book.
Your heroines! They tend to look lovely and ephemeral, but they’ve got wills of iron. Briony especially. Can you tell us a little bit about how you created her?
Basically I had to figure out what Briony wanted, and what she believed about herself, and elevate those wants and beliefs to something rather larger than life. Likewise, I knew that the actions she’d be willing to take to achieve her goals needed to be actions we sensible, risk-averse people probably wouldn’t take. It sounds simple but it takes a long time to come to understand these things in a subtle, nuanced way. But once I did, Briony’s voice and character then sprang to life, and as I moved her through the narrative, she began to say things, and assert her independence, in ways that were surprising—astonishing, even—to me.
You took a big risk with Briony because she believes herself to be evil. In fact, she seems to be trying to convince the reader of her own innate badness throughout most of the book. Were you ever worried that you would lose the reader’s sympathy?
I didn’t, actually. I consider that to be an element of voice, and I love books with voice. I also think we like characters whom, in real life, we might not care for and that often a character needs to be a little outsized to succeed in turning the narrative cogs of his or her story. I think we tend to love characters who, were we to meet them on the subway, would drive us crazy. Just as art doesn’t imitate life, a successful character often does not resemble a “real” person. Most of us “real” people wouldn’t do the things Briony is willing to do to save Rose; we wouldn’t take the risks. Take Lolita. The protagonist is fascinating just because he’s so creepy and obsessed. I love to read about him but I wouldn’t invite him over for dinner.
Would you ever write a book with a male protagonist?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I could inhabit a male protagonist as fully as I can a female protagonist.
In your first book, Well Wished, the main character, Nuria, accidentally wishes herself into someone else’s body. In The Folk Keeper, Corinna loses some of her power by cutting her hair and disguising herself as a boy. I don’t want to give too much away about Chime, but Briony, too, is very deliberately not being herself. The idea of literally and/or figuratively not being yourself seems to be a recurring theme of yours.
That’s a very astute observation and absolutely true. This theme even runs through my one picture book, Big Bad Bunny. I don’t know why that is. I know I cast off my sealskin as a corporate lawyer to become a children’s book writer, but there must be something that goes deeper than that.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you did that, cast off your corporate-lawyer skin to become a children’s book writer?
At the five-year mark, I was on my second job and looking around for a third when it happened that I spent two weeks visiting my sister, who was then living in Barcelona. I felt at once that her life—the slow rhythms of her days, which were rich in so many ways (friends, art, reading, walks) and short only on cash—reflected my true values. It made me question my choices—did I really want a third legal job or was I simply living by rote? The answer was obvious. So I quit my job and moved to Barcelona, bringing with me all my favorite children’s books. Once I began to revisit those books, I thought, How could I have gotten away from the things I really love, like fantasy, and novels, and fantasy novels? And it was then I started writing, just a few weeks after moving to Barcelona.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? For instance, do you plot your novels beforehand, or are you a “pantster?”
I don’t plot. I’m unable to figure out “what happens next” unless I’m writing. I tend to know the main story complication (girl gets stuck in the body of another girl, say) but from there, I have to write my way into knowledge of everything else.
And finally, we won’t have to wait a decade for your next book, will we? What’s next?
I hope not! I’ve already realized that I have two more books set in the world of Chime, not sequels but companion books. Now that I know the world, I’m hoping (guessing . . . praying . . . ) that writing these companion books will go much more quickly.
Thank you for visiting the Inkpot!
You can read more about Chime and about Franny Billingsley at http://www.frannybillingsley.com/