Saturday, 7 August 2010

Emily's Surprising Voyage, and where ideas come from: Sue Purkiss

My new book came out this week. As you can see, it's called Emily's Surprising Voyage, and it's published by Walker Books. As you can also see, it's set on a ship. The ship is a real one, and you can go aboard it in Bristol - it's the ss Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (How could he not become famous, with a name like that?)

The Great Britain is a very special ship. She was the first to be made of iron, the first to operate by steam as well as sail, the first to have a screw propellor, and at the time she was built, she was the biggest and fastest ship in the world. Forty years ago this summer, she was brought home to Bristol from her resting place in a shallow bay in the Falklands, and since then she's been lovingly and beautifully restored.

My story is about two children, Emily and Tom, who travel on her when she's taking migrants to Australia in the mid nineteenth century, and about some of the adventures they have. Emily is from a family of mill owners, whereas Tom is from a family of mill workers. The ship is an important part of the story - almost another character - and James de la Rue has drawn beautiful illustrations which show the ship as it is and was, and the children just as I imagined them.

Last week I did an interview with David Clensie from the Bristol Evening Post - and it was only as we were talking that I realised that the ship was not the only source of ideas for the story. Another was Joseph Arkwright's cotton mill at Cromford in Derbyshire, which dates from the Industrial Revolution. A few years ago I visited it, and was struck by the accounts of the children who worked there, and how dangerous the work was. And there was another mill too. This was one I went to years ago, near Glasgow, when I was doing some copywriting for Patons. I remember the noise, the constant clatter of the looms, the tiny fibres glinting as they floated in the air, and the rainbow coloured hanks of wool.

I didn't consciously think of these experiences when I was writing the story, but they are part of it. So are the accounts of workhouses I've seen and read; so is a friend's pet rat. So is my father's passion for steam; so are the diaries of the passengers who travelled on the ship.

It's only a little story, and some of these things are merely hinted at, while others are much more significant. But it may serve as an example of the way writers draw on memories of which they themselves are only dimly aware. Yeats has a phrase that almost describes it (he has a phrase for almost anything!): in The Circus Animal's Desertion, he considers, as an old man, where he has found inspiration in the past, and where he must look for it now. He concludes that the only place left to find it is in 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart'. I'd take issue with 'foul'; maybe he was feeling jaded, or maybe he just needed to make the line scan! But the rest's about right.


Lynda Waterhouse said...

The story sounds great and I love the cover too. Can't wait to read it. My big grandpa lost a couple of fingers when working in the cotton mills in Lancashire - dirty and dangerous work. You also reminded me of the rag and bone man who used to come round the streets. Thank you Sue for shaking up the old bone yard of my memories!

Penny Dolan said...

Good luck with the new book Sue! Engineering icons like SS Great Britain are so resonant with stories - glad you found one there and will look out for it.

It's interesting that often it's not until one's written a scene or created a character that the origins consciously appear.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Congratulations! The book sounds wonderful, and I love the way you described the inspiration for it. Adore the Yeats 'rag and bone shop of the heart' quote!


Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you kindly, everyone! I do just about remember the rag and bone man, Lynda - or maybe I just think I do - perhaps I just picture him from Steptoe and Son. thanks for the good wishes, Penny and Martina - they're very much appreciated!