Tuesday 1 December 2020

The Song of the Nightingale - Author Q&A

We're thrilled to invite Tanya Landman onto Picture Book Party blog to tell us all about the making of her new picture book, The Song of the Nightingale, illustrated by Laura Carlin.

The earth was young and full of colour. But the animals were dull and drab. The painter decided: something must be done! With dabs and sweeps the painter's brush creates the stripes on the zebra, the sharp suit of the penguin and the bright splashes on parrots. But what can he give the nightingale when his paintbox has run dry? A beautiful and gently moving tale from the award-winning Tanya Landman and Laura Carlin.

Guest Author Q&A - Tanya Landman

What was the inspiration behind The Song of the Nightingale?
I first heard the story when I was about twenty. I can’t actually remember where or when but (*SPOILER*) the image of a drop of gold on the back of the throat really caught my imagination. It was one of those deeply satisfying stories that has every listener sighing at the end.

About ten years later I started living and working with Rod Burnett, the artist and a puppeteer who later became my husband. In the bedroom of a shared basement flat, we were building a show for the two of us to perform together – a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale.

I remember very clearly the day when the two of us decided to take a break. It was sunny so we went outside to sit on the triangle of grass over the road. We were both really bothered because somehow the show was lacking something. The beginning didn’t quite work. It needed something extra to really draw people in. That was when the story I’d heard years ago about how the nightingale got its voice rose to the surface again. I told the bare bones of it to Rod, he was as enchanted as I had been when I’d first heard it. So we used the tale as the opening of the show to great success.

And then – another ten years or so later when we’d had two children and moved to Devon – I started writing books. I’d already done Waking Merlin for Walker but also submitted a whole pile of other ideas including The Song of the Nightingale.

My then editor loved it, but it was problematic. For various reason, creation stories are a hard sell, so I had to find another way of approaching it. Basically, I needed to tell a creation story without actually mentioning God. It was tricky. I went through so many drafts, I tried so many different angles!

But eventually, I came up with a version that discarded the creation aspect altogether and just focussed on the animals being drab and colourless. Who better to brighten them up than a painter?

Tell us a little bit more about your writing process.  

I started writing when our children were toddlers. Rod was performing solo shows by then and was away on tour for sometimes weeks at a time. I had to keep an eye on the boys while I worked so there was no locking myself away in a writer’s shed! I started off in a corner of the kitchen and that’s where I still work now, almost twenty years later. I can only write when I’m alone these days because I tend to do the voices of my characters out loud to get them right before committing their words to the page. Small children are happy to ignore such eccentricities, but now both boys are grown up I get strange looks. So I usually write in the early mornings when the house is quiet.
What was it like to see Laura Carlin’s illustrations for the first time?
I will never, ever forget that day! It was March 13th 2020 – the last time I was in London. I remember wishing I hadn’t travelled there - the atmosphere was very tense and strange because of Covid 19. Women in the Ladies at Paddington were hand washing as if they were auditioning for Lady Macbeth. Everywhere there was a nervous talk of lockdown and why it was taking the government so long to act. The fearful mood in the Underground had me thoroughly unsettled by the time I got to the Walker offices.

But then the designer showed me Laura’s illustrations for the first time and I was transported somewhere else, somewhere full of joy and magic.
I’m a writer. Words are my thing. But it’s hard to properly describe the sensation of seeing those spreads for the first time. It was utterly overwhelming. Laura’s illustrations literally took my breath away and I know they will do the same to adult and child readers alike.
Do you have a favourite spread in the novel?
I think they’re all magnificent. But my favourite has to be the whale.

What was your favourite Picture Book when you were a child?
Where the Wild Things Are. It fascinated and terrified me in equal measure and I returned to it over and over again. I used to practice staring without blinking once, just in case a forest should ever start to grow in my room (a skill that later came in handy when giving talks to Year 9's).

Tanya Landman

A special thanks to our guest author this week, Tanya Landman!

The Song of the Nightingale is now available to buy from all good booksellers.