Talking to Katherine Rundell about "The Explorer," her thrilling new novel for young readers

Sarah Harrison Smith on September 14, 2017

Katherine Rundell:edited:Photograph by Blair MowatEven among children’s book authors, who tend to score high in eccentricity, Katherine Rundell is unusual in all the best ways. She’s the author of four exceptionally exciting, funny, and beautifully written books for young readers, including Rooftoppers and The Wolf Wilder, but she’s also a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, specializing in Shakespeare and John Donne.  An avid risk-taker, she climbs buildings in the middle of the night, walks a tightrope, and is learning to fly planes -- with only partial success. As she told the Amazon Book Review: “I can take off, but not land, which is not really the way round you want."

That love of adventure shines through in The Explorer, her newest novel for children between the ages of 8 and 12, which Simon and Schuster published this month. It’s a riveting story about four children who narrowly survive a plane crash in the Amazon rain forest, and then struggle to stay alive in that environment. Stumbling into an ancient, abandoned city, they soon learn that they are not alone: this refuge is ruled by a man they know only as “the explorer.” He can help them get home, but will he?

Katherine Rundell spoke to the Amazon Book Review by phone from London.

Amazon Book Review: What is it about your own life that has led you to be able to write such big, swashbuckling adventure stories?

Katherine Rundell: I’ve always loved traveling. I grew up abroad. Part of my childhood was spent in Zimbabwe and we had a sort of wild life. I didn’t wear shoes for a lot of the day. I’ve always wanted to put the wildness of that childhood into books. That sense of freedom.

The other thing is that I think we sometimes underestimate children, and I want to write stories where children get to make big decisions and live large lives. I think children are capable of great things and their books should reflect that.

One of the many lines that stuck with me was when the explorer says,“Children are just undercooked people.” Do you endorse that ambiguous statement?

I think that was intended to be an attitude of the explorer that later changes. He thinks kids are just a bit pointless, just less good versions of adults. And by the end he realizes that there’s something remarkable about being a child. There’s a kind of bravery that we don’t all lose, but some of us lose. And the kids teach him that, and in exchange he teaches them how to catch tarantulas and cook them for dinner.

There’s a recklessness to your heroes and heroines, and I’m thinking about Feo, the heroine of your previous book, The Wolf Wilder, who takes on a cruel and ruthless general in the Impirial Russian Army after her mother is unfairly imprisoned, and the boy hero, Fred, in The Explorer, who risks death to try to save this group of kids in the Amazon. Those kids are reckless in a way that maybe an adult wouldn’t be.

Yes, I do think children are capable of reckless bravery and I like the idea of being willing to go “straight towards fear.” And I think sometimes meeting fear head on is what galvanizes the human heart into great things. I wanted to put that into the book, to give the children a sense that they too could do things which they are afraid of.

And of course in book form, that makes a more exaggerated version than it might in real life. But this recklessness is often for me a form of grasping life while we’re alive, of being fully awake to the world and daring to live in it boldly. And I want kids who do that!  So there is a scene in which Fred learns to fly. I myself have been learning to fly an airplane for years, not particularly ambitiously. I don’t fly very often and I’m inept. I can take off but not land, which is not really the way round you want it. But I wanted the idea that Fred has this new talent available to him and of course the idea is that if you work at it, you can become good at it.

Did you feel like you were taking on a different challenge with this book? Each one of your four books is quite different.

I find them very different experiences to write. And I’ve been writing now for 9 years. A first draft can take me six months, but it takes me another year to edit. So they do change as I change but also, The Explorer had specific challenges. I wanted to make sure it was very plotty. I wanted a story that grabbed the kid by the wrist and pulled them along. 

And it has a boy protagonist. My other three books had a girl hero. I’m just more familiar with the inner workings of a girl’s heart, having been one. And so for a boy, it was more an intricate act of imagining, perhaps, than it be for a girl, where I could go more on instinct.

In your other life as an academic, your work focuses on Shakespeare, and certain scenes in your books do make me think of the incredibly poignant reunions between parents and children in Shakespeare plays like Pericles or The Winter’s Tale.  Are there particular plays that are close to your heart?

There are! I always love Shakespeare plays that come with recognition scenes, like The Winter’s Tale, with that extraordinary recognition scene at the end. I also just love the classics. I love Lear, I love Hamlet, and the sense of people battling against the odds that you get in those plays. You can’t study something for as long as I’ve studied Shakespeare without it slightly seeping into your consciousness.

But I’m not suggesting that my books are serious, or that I’m anything like Shakespeare. That would be appalling egotism. But the idea that Shakespeare has — of reunion being a thing that can crystallize an idea, that when people see and recognize someone, they see and recognize something about themselves — I wanted to put that in. Fred longs for his father and, not to give too much away, at the very end that crystallizes in some way.

In your academic life, you are a fellow at All Soul’s college, Oxford. How do you balance the demands of teaching with writing for children?

The academic work takes up less time now than it used to. I’m now part-time academic, part-time writer. I still do seminars and I’m writing a non-fiction work about John Donne, but now I’ve finished my doctorate and I no longer teach full time, so I have much more time for writing.

I wonder about books that influenced you as a child. When you were growing up in Zimbabwe, running wild without shoes, did you have good children’s books to read?

I did. My father would get books sent over, so we had modern books. I loved Philip Pullman and, inevitably, Harry Potter. The books in the local library were very old. When you’d take out a book, the stamp [showing when the book had been taken out last] was often in the ‘60s. So I had a lot of classic books: school stories written in the 1940s, a lot of Narnia, and I started reading Shakespeare quite young. My mother is quite passionate about books in general and loves Shakespeare, I was in a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a fairy when I was 6 and I’ve just loved him ever since.

Is it difficult to write a book like this, with no person who is a clear antagonist?

No “baddie.” Yes, I knew quite early on that I wanted there to be no baddie, because a lot of the survival stories that I grew up with didn’t have a baddie—what they had was a sense of urgency created by the need to stay alive. The jungle, is at times a threat, but it’s also at times, the promise. And it’s the gift that that you get. And I wanted that relationship.

Rundell cover

So this sense of a world that could close in on you, I wanted that to be the thing that galvanizes the children to stay alert to keep moving. And then of course there’s a sense that when they meet this mystery man, the explorer, he could be the baddie but it turns out that nothing’s as simple as that. But he isn’t kind to them; he doesn’t want to help them, because it isn’t his priority.

Other than risking your life to research your books in the Amazon, what other adventurous things do you do?

I hate the term adrenaline junkie, but the kick that you get from facing your fears can, for me, feel like instant imagination, so I do do things that scare me. I’ve climbed all my life, and I love climbing, so I climb building late at night, and that’s where some of the research for Rooftoppers came from. It’s called night climbing. You can climb up skyscrapers. There’s a long tradition of climbing up Oxbridge buildings, the churches and the colleges. I spent quite a lot of time on the rooftop of my Oxford college. The thing you can get there is this perspective on the beauty of the city. A really good way to get to know a city is to see it from above, and for me to know a building and to climb it—mostly up scaffolding, or up chimneys—for me clears my head in a really potent way.

It’s sort of a metaphor for the author’s omniscient view, isn’t it?

Exactly so. It’s literalizing of the metaphor, in the same way that I walk a tightrope, a little bit, and that can feel like a literalizing of the metaphor of trying to balance your plot, your story, your tension. You’ll want to create something beautiful with words, but you’ll need to make it urgent so the kids will read it, because kids don’t really have much truck with beautiful prose.  So sometimes walking a tightrope feels a little bit like writing a book.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on next?

I’m writing on another stand-alone, for the same kind of age. I don’t want to say too much about it, because often it changes. But I think I could say that there will be a gang of kids with skills that people don’t usually have.

And I’ve got a picture book coming out next year in the U.S., about Christmas decorations that come alive and create chaos, a second one about a zebra refugee. I love writing picture books because keeping the architecture of your story in your head is so much more possible when it’s picture book, so that’s been a real joy.

 Thank you so much, Katherine, and congratulations on The Explorer. What a wonderful book.



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