I’d written a trilogy of stories about her, she’d been my companion for several years, but the time had finally come to say goodbye to my favourie alien, Opal Moonbaby, and write something new.
I knew only two things about my next book. It would be a stand-alone novel for children over seven, and it would be called, The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch.
If my title reminds you of another, well-known one about a certain wardrobe, well, it’s really no coincidence. I lapped up C S Lewis’s books when I was a child. Narnia, its inhabitants, its wooden portal and the young visitors who travelled through it are all hard-wired into my brain. Just like the contents of the other books I soaked up as a child, they’re still with me, and they exert a powerful influence. In fact they often leak out, almost unbidden, into my work. This time, though, I was going to meet them head on.
The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch.The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch. The title kept swirling rhythmically around in my head. I’d always loved the idea of those big cakes that turn up at parties, the ones people pop out of, but I thought it would be fun to see what happened if, for a change, the people doing the popping up were the ones who were surprised.
Max, my ten year old hero, doesn’t feel very heroic. He’s worried about his dad’s new marriage. He doesn’t want to move in with Ilona and her two peculiar offspring, Nettle and Wild. He’d rather stay in his bedroom perfecting his marble run, the one he’s been working on for years. Max started the marble run after his mum died in a climbing accident, and over the last three years he’s devoted himself to it, and to making quite sure he and Dad stay out of danger.(There’s definitely a bit of me in Max, the bit that is afraid to try new things, that catastrophizes about the risks involved in anything out of the ordinary, or anything at all.)
Max has had to to grow up quickly, and he’s left a lot of things behind, including stories. He doesn’t read them – can’t see the point in them any longer. Their structure and their resolutions don’t reflect the random nature of life as he sees it now. And he knows, from bitter experience, that happy endings don’t exist. So he’s mad as anything about having to jump out of a cake at the wedding reception with his two new siblings and shout, “We’re all going to live happily ever after!” Talk about insult to injury.
And when the cake is strangely diverted, so that the children do not pop up, as planned, in the hotel dining room, but in a totally new landscape, a landscape fronted by a talking, but still fierce and slavering wolf, Max goes straight into denial. It took a lot of cajoling, not just from me, but also from my editor to get him to accept the challenges being presented to him. “It’s chapter seventeen,” Jenny Glencross would patiently point out, “and Max still hasn’t got out of the cake!” Max and I both needed jolting out of our comfort zones to get the story moving. (You see, being perfectly in tune with your characters can have its downsides.)
The cake has touched down in The Land of Ever After, a place populated by characters from familiar stories, the endings of which have all gone haywire, thanks to an evil power-crazed witch called Babs Haggard. Unlikely as it seems, Max is regarded as the expert, the only person who can defeat Babs Haggard and put right the happy endings.
Once I’d set Max and Nettle and Wild down in the Land of Ever After, the fairy tales I read as a child and wanted to work with, came swimming straight back into focus. They’re as interesting to me now as they were then, but I do have a different take on some of them this time round.
For example, I’m less concerned with Snow White’s dress and perfect lips, and more interested in what it might be like to be one of the dwarves who loved her. How did he feel when she went away with her prince? What did he do afterwards? And that troll, parked under the bridge. What did he get up to down there all day? Did he have any other interests apart from billy goat watching?
One story character that bothered me, and still does, is the Gingerbread Man. I suppose it’s a simple cautionary tale but I never could understand why he just got up off the baking tray and ran away from the couple who had made and loved him. Why did he do that? Just because he could? We never really learn much about his mental make-up, do we? I’ve given the Gingerbread Man a slightly different role in this story, which has, to some extent, helped me come to terms with him. He’s still running about like crazy though.
Max is facing a major Humpty Dumpty situation here. He has to be all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and pick up the pieces of every story he meets. But while he’s about it, he’s going to need to pick up the pieces of his own story, too, and get it back on track.What’s more, he’s going to discover that there are other characters in his story – he’s got a new sister and brother now and they’re on the road with him too. As Max travels through Ever After in search of Harsh Mountain, the Shining Pathway and, finally, Beyond, he’ll have company. Because this is not just Max’s story. It’s a whole bundle of stories, old and new, out of which, if I’ve done my job properly, the main one comes tumbling out.
The story of Max and Nettle, and Wild.