An interview with the amazing Franny Billingsley

Sometimes, there are writers whose skills with words leave you awestruck and not just a little bit green with envy. Franny Billingsley is such a writer, and I’m thrilled to get to interview her and take a peek into her latest, CHIME, which arrives in bookstores TODAY! (You were looking for something to read next, weren’t you?)

When I was first working on what would become A Great and Terrible Beauty, Franny graciously agreed to read my very rough first draft and offer critique. Her advice was spot-on, and I’ve always been grateful for her sage counsel. Franny takes her time with her books, crafting and thinking and rethinking and polishing every word. It’s been over a decade since her last novel, THE FOLK KEEPER, came out, so those of us who are Franny fans have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of CHIME. And it was well worth the wait. 

CHIME has already received SIX starred reviews (Holy Awesomeness, Batman!) with Publishers Weekly calling it “a darkly beguiling fantasy” and School Library Journal hailing it as “…both lushly sensual and shivery.” CHIME is certainly all of that. Set in the English Fenlands in a fairy tale-worthy town called Swampsea, CHIME feels like a haunting trip to some Gothic otherworld where the locals carry Bible balls into the swamps to protect themselves from the wrath of the Old Ones, and witches are tried and hanged to see if they turn to dust (proof of witchery). Parson’s daughter Briony Larkin knows she is a witch and a wicked girl responsible for the death of her stepmother and for the accident that left her twin sister, Rose, in a mentally childlike state. Now, the delicate Rose has been cursed with the dreaded swamp cough that has killed many in their town, and Briony might be the only person who can cure her by making a bargain with the Old Ones. But how can she save Rose and still protect herself from the hangman’s noose? Can she untangle the threads of their mysterious past? Could Briony escape the clutches of the Swampsea altogether? And what can she do when the handsome, smart, and witty Eldric moves to Swampsea and makes her wonder if she might just be lovable after all? CHIME is moving, creepy, intense, sensual, and absolutely exquisitely written.

And now, without further ado, here’s Franny. (I lied. There is further ado. I sent these questions to Franny via email. I decided that rather than try to craft this into a perfectly flowing narrative, I’d leave her notes to me intact. After all, writing is a less-than-linear process for many of us, and this just proves it.)

1. You are a spectacular world-builder with a singular voice like a Tim Burton, Jonathan Carroll or Kelly Link, so that, when reading a Franny Bilingsley novel, I immediately feel as if my own world has fallen away and I am somewhere strange and wonderful and somewhat menacing. In CHIME, Swampsea is an early 20th-century English town that feels slightly Victorian, slightly modern, slightly not-of-this-earth, and wholly original. How do you go about constructing your worlds? Is there some magical Franny wisdom you can impart to us mortals?

Libba, it’s interesting that my answers to many of your questions are tangled up in and with other questions you asked. This question about world-building, for example, is connected to the question about the genesis of Chime (below):

You and I were at Cynthia and Greg Leitich-Smith’s wonderful WriteFest workshop in Austin, TX, in 2005, where I had a first draft of GOING BOVINE and you had a first draft of CHIME. It’s astounding to me how much CHIME changed in those six years. What was the initial inspiration/seed/spark for the novel and can you tell us about the changes and the process of revision you went through?

I do have to talk about that initial spark to explain how I ended up in the Swampsea. The kindling for the spark was handed to me by my daughter, Miranda. When she was about five, I read her “A Fair Exchange,” a changeling story from the collection The Maid of the North, and when I had finished, she said she wished I’d make a novel of that story. I wanted to, as well. It’s a wonderfully gripping story, about a mother willing to do anything to retrieve her baby from Fairyland. But I was then still finishing The Folk Keeper, so I tucked the idea away in the back of my mind.

Like the woman in the story, I had a baby, too. Miranda’s baby brother was then about six months old.

A year passed, two years, three . . . The baby brother was pretty darn perfect, except for one niggling worry: He had not yet started to speak. I started taking him to see doctors of various kinds, doctors who saw only his weaknesses but not his strengths, which were prodigious. It was those doctors—damn them—who put a match to the kindling Miranda had handed me three years earlier. My idea was this: There’s a girl, like Miranda; maybe she’s about twelve. She has a little brother; maybe he’s about six. The brother doesn’t speak but he’s prodigiously talented in other ways: He’s very musical, for example, and this talent shows up in all kinds of ways when he fools around on the piano.

Enter the fairies: They don’t care about talking; they care about music. They steal the brother away to fairyland and leave in his place, a changeling—a fairy child, magicked into a perfect resemblance of the brother. The parents (dumb old parents) are delighted that their son seems to have turned the developmental corner overnight. But the sister, who knows the brother best, knows he’s not the real brother. There are many clues, but the biggest clue is that the fairy child has no music inside of him: He can’t fool around on the piano. It’s up to the sister to find her way into Fairyland and rescue her true brother.

It’s a great plot—I thought so then and I still think so today. But I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t write it because I couldn’t figure out the physical nature of Fairyland. I knew it wasn’t a place with enchanted forests and white stags and jeweled fruits. I knew it was a sinister sort of place, but that’s all I knew. I tried to superimpose various landscapes upon it—a volcanic landscape, bright with flowing lava; a labyrinth of twisted stone spires. But however intriguing each landscape might be, I knew I was simply imposing it upon my book. The geography of Fairyland needed to spring organically from the needs of the book itself—the characters, the plot—and I never could find that organic connection. That’s the book, Libba, you read in Austin.

Being nothing if not stubborn, I held onto the changeling/fairyland idea for just a little longer—just a few years, just a few long years of my life. Meanwhile, my son grew, learned to talk, and in third grade, was reading the Lord of the Rings. He was okay, more than okay, and the initial situation that had fueled the story, drizzled away.

Finally, I sat myself down for a serious talk: I was never going to succeed in finding a Fairyland organic to the story, and even if I did, I’d lost interest in the story itself. “Franny,” I said, “what about finding another setting for the story? Perhaps other story elements will emerge because plot and setting are, of course, inextricably enterwined.”

“They are?” I said.

“Just kidding,” I said. “I knew that.”

How did I come to choose the swamps? I have no memory of how I got there, but it was the right decision. The sinister creatures arose organically from the swamp setting rather than my planting the fairies in a setting not their own. And although the details changed, the plot was essentially the same: the sister (Briony) had a sibling (a twin sister, this time), who was threatened by the creatures of the swamp. Briony’s job was to save her.

Same plot, different geography. And now I circle back round to your question, Libba—now many paragraphs ago? How did I come up with this world?

It was handed to me by history and folklore. The British wetlands had been drained again and again, so often that folk stories had grown up around it. They were, often as not, stories about the chief spirit of the swamp who objected to the draining of his water, which meant he had a nasty tendency to kill the people who came to drain the swamp—engineers and other workers. I used these stories and I used the history: The people who dwelt in the wetlands (the real people) were stuck in the past; they resisted the pull and romance of technology, of the future. But the future came upon them of itself: The swamp was drained, and the folks of the wetlands had to find another way to live. There was no more fishing, no more weaving of reed baskets. They were forced to race after the future in order to survive. And so it became clear to me that Chime would be set just then, at the fulcrum of history, when the balance shifted, when the folks of the wetlands were forced to embrace the future. And had the swamp creatures really existed, what would have happened to them—what? They would most likely have died. It’s not that I made any of this up. It’s all in the folklore and history of the wetlands.

Maybe there’s a shorter answer to this question:

I steal from history and folklore. It doesn’t seem to me as though I’m building a world. I take what already exists and stir my characters into the brew. That’s why, in the swamp setting, there was never any question about the setting and plot being organic to each other. The history and folklore that pre-dated my novel made them so.

I take; I steal.

I recommend it.

2. Language always plays a huge part in your novels. There are turns of phrase and word choices that are so unusual and unbelievably beautiful that I have to read them again just for the sheer enjoyment (and jealousy!) of your craftsmanship. Has language always been important to you? Is it a way for you to discover the voice/feel of the novel? How did you come to be such a wordsmith?

The answer to this question is woven into the answer to the question below:

I know you’ve talked about the importance of ballads and fairy tales in your life. Can you tell us a little more about that and about how they came to shape CHIME?

It’s not so much about how ballads and fairy tales came to shape Chime as about how they came to shape my voice as a writer. It was the ballads more than the fairy tales, and it was the nursery rhymes and, later, the poems my father read me. My father sang to us (us kids), sang lots of songs, American folk songs as well as British ballads, and he read to us aloud, starting with Mother Goose. He started when I was young—young enough to have a sponge-brain that could soak up the poetry and the melody, soak up the rhythm and the rhyme—young enough so that later, I could speak this language without an accent.

I won’t say that the language comes to me easily—I write as many shitty first (and second and third) drafts as the next writer. More, probably, because I happen to be slow. That’s just wiring, I think, nothing existential. It doesn’t come to me easily but it comes to me naturally. It has its limits, though. I think I would have an accent were I to try to write a Western, say, or try to assume the voice and manners of the American South.

Which leads me to this question:

3. There is a great deal in CHIME about the importance of storytelling. The Old Ones beg Briony to write their stories again. And, without getting spoilery, the telling of stories, of getting down to the bones of truth, plays a crucial role in the plot. What sort of power do you think storytelling has for us now? Like the old world magic versus industrialism in CHIME, is storytelling changing for us in the wake of e-books and social networking and what-not?

I think we’ll always need stories and tell stories—the vehicles may change but the essence will not. I don’t worry about that. The one thing that perhaps I do worry about is whether people read nursery rhymes and poetry to very young kids. Whether they sing to very young kids. My bookstore experience leads me to believe that they (mostly) do not. Certainly, kids get exposed to rhythm and rhyme and melody when they’re older, but are they too old? Are their brains still sponges? The cut-off age for learning a foreign language perfectly—to be able to speak it as a native would–is terrifyingly young, and I feel that the same is true about learning the poetry of our language. But generally, I’m not in despair about the state of civilization: I don’t believe that the snow was deeper and colder when I was a child than it is today. (Well, okay, maybe it was cleaner.)

4. Briony is a fascinating character. Haunted by guilt and self-loathing, she is by turns hard, witty, arch, vulnerable, and unflinchingly honest. She is not trying to win friends and influence people. She is not concerned with being “likeable.” What drew you to tell her story? Were you concerned that you would catch shit for writing such a take-no-prisoners sort of girl? And do you think that we are, in subtle ways, encouraged to make our female characters more “likeable”? (There is no Holden-Marie Caulfield. I’m just sayin’.)

It never occurred to me I’d catch shit for writing a Briony type of girl. But then, a lot of stuff never occurs to me.

I do think we’re encouraged to make female characters more “likeable,” whatever that means. Beauty is certainly part of what it means. I know I haven’t yet broken the beauty barrier. If my protagonist isn’t beautiful (which Briony is), then she’s sort of exotic and interesting looking, which is much the same. I really admire Philip Reeve in the Mortal Engines books for creating Hester with her knife-scarred face. Do we love Hester despite the scars, or because of them? Or do we love her simply because she’s Hester? I think the last is true, but I haven’t been brave enough to test it out.

5. There is, of course, a romance in CHIME between the witty, affable Eldric and Briony. I really enjoyed the ways in which they complemented and challenged one another. And Briony thinks quite a bit on both lust and love. In your estimation, what makes for a satisfying romance? Are there romances you particularly like?

One of my favorite books is Jane Eyre, and I love your saying that Briony and Eldric complement and challenge one another, because that is exactly how I perceive Jane and Mr. Rochester. He’s longing for someone to be honest with him, he’s longing to shake off his jaundiced view of the world, and that’s exactly what honest, straight-talking Jane does. Eldric does the same for Briony in Chime. He’s playful, irreverent, non-judgmental, and once he comes into Briony’s life (Briony, who does nothing but judge herself), she can’t help but view herself differently, take life less seriously. Briony, who thought herself incapable of either lust or love, mixes them up but gets a healthy dose of each. Although I love a little lust and steam in a romance, the romances I go back to again and again are mostly the complementing and challenging sort. I love Robin McKinley’s Beauty (which is really Jane Eyre in disguise), and I Capture the Castle, and The Perilous Gard. And although not a true romance, I love David Copperfield. I love it that David who—although he initially makes a mistake in love—finally realizes that Agnes (whom he’s known for years) is the complementing and challenging life partner he’s been yearning for. I guess I can sacrifice steam for that.

6. Of course I have to ask: What’s next from the fabulous Franny Billingsley?

As I was finishing Chime, I had a sort of epiphany: The two most interesting story ideas that had come to me as I was writing Chime actually belong to the world of Chime. They’re companion books, not sequels; they’re related thematically. The first is tentatively called Shadow, the second (again tentative) Cloud. I’m hoping and assuming that because I know the world, I can write these rather more quickly than I did Chime. Perhaps I need no longer worry that I’ll die of old age before I can publish another few books.

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