Tom Moorhouse Talks To Bookbag About Fantasy, Reality and Water Voles

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Tom Moorhouse Talks To Bookbag About Fantasy, Reality and Water Voles

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Summary: Anne loved The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse
Date: 9 October 2013

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I've been asked a lot, over the last few weeks, to make lists of my favourite childhood books. This is quite an odd thing to have to do, and prompted some memory searching and a few phone-calls to my mother (who originally supplied most of what I read back then). The picture that emerges is of a sort of prototypical fantasy novel enthusiast: books like The Dark is Rising, The Hobbit, A Wizard of Earthsea, Pawn of Prophecy etc. And this is a trend that I've continued. Although I've abandoned the full-metal Swords n' Sorcery (where people smite fanged creatures with ancestral swords while calling out the long-forgotten runes of their ancestral whatnots) I now read a lot of books in which fantastical things happen, sometimes in a strange world. For example I love Haruki Murakami's novels, and those of Neil Gaiman, and The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and all for exactly the same reason. These books take the 'real' world and introduce odd happenings and inexplicable events until the main characters don't know whether they're coming or going. And then, when the characters are up against it, we learn something about the sort of people they are.

So what, I hear you ask, does this have to do with The River Singers, my just-published novel about a family of young water voles making a dangerous journey down a riverbank? Certainly my teenage diet of escapist fantasy (The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings - naturally – and anything by Terry Pratchett) wouldn't normally seem to predispose me to write a riverside tale. I think the answer is that The River Singers - as indeed is any book in which the main characters are animals - is actually very similar to a fantasy novel.

I've given quite a lot of thought to what it is that intelligent fantasy novels do – and here I'm drawing a distinction between those fantasy books that involve goblin smiting and little else, and those that also tell us something about humans and how we work. For me the key element is the one I described above, of putting characters that we identify with in difficult and unusual situations and seeing what they do. In A Wizard of Earthsea, for example, a young wizard inadvertently releases a creature that (spoiler alert, although the book has been published long enough, for heaven's sake) eventually turns out to be an incarnation of his own death. And only by embracing this creature is he able to become a whole person. So Ursula LeGuin makes a point about how we should live, using a completely fictional world, populated with wizards, dragons and odd, scary creatures as her tools.

What I'm getting at is that in animal stories the set-up of the world is much the same. In The River Singers the Great River is not fictional, exactly, but it is certainly alien to the readers, and the details that we would overlook when going for a walk down it are life-or-death important to the water voles in question. And while the fact that the characters are water voles partially limits the sorts of things that can occur (no dragons need apply) it also means that they face life-threatening situations that simply wouldn't arise in a book about humans. For water voles, a fox or a heron becomes an immense, savage monster, intent on their death. These predators do the job of dragons; monsters in an alien landscape. The fact that the landscape and 'monsters' actually exist is certainly relevant, and in some ways limits what can be done, but still the format places the 'human' characters (the water voles with whom we identify) in terribly dangerous situations that fall outside of the readers' normal experience.

So what both animals stories and fantasy books do is to permit a fast-paced adventure story to be intrinsically coupled with an exploration of the way that people live, and what makes us who we are. For me the joy of writing The River Singers lay in balancing my knowledge of the details of the River Singers' world with the action and danger, and with my thoughts about life in general. In doing so it combined two of my passions: fantastical writing and the natural world. And I hope that you'll now agree that these two things aren't quite as separate as they might have at first appeared.