Debut author Kirsty Applebaum sat down with Kirsty Stansfield (her editor and Nosy Crow’s Head of Fiction), to discuss The Middler – an atmospheric story for 9-12 year-olds of forbidden friendship, loyalty and betrayal set in a near-future world.
Nosy by name, nosy by nature, I thoroughly enjoyed asking Kirsty Applebaum some searching questions about her brilliant novel, The Middler. Here are her full and frank replies!
And the award for Most Popular Question Asked in Schools goes to: What was the inspiration behind The Middler?
Lots of things inspired The Middler, all brewing up together in the back of my mind. For example: the songs I learned in the Brownies; a trip to Berlin; terrible reports of child soldiers on the news; memories of my 1970s childhood, and the white feathers handed out during the First World War to shame young men into enlisting. Also, around the time I started writing, I’d heard a programme on the radio about letters written home to family by Japanese kamikaze pilots. This all merged in with an incident in which a woman blacked out in front of me and hit her head on cobblestones. It made a crunck sound that stayed with me for days – I couldn’t get it out of my head – and I wrote the scene from chapter two, with Maggie, Trig, Jed and Lindi in the cemetery.
Fennis Wick is brilliantly realised. Is it based on anywhere in particular?
Thank you! Much of the setting was inspired by the semi-rural part of Hampshire where I grew up, but some has been influenced by fictional places too. For example, I am a great lover of the way setting is used symbolically within fairy tales – especially woods and forest. In The Middler the forest is almost inseparable from Una – sometimes they even merge into each other in Maggie’s eyes. The forest (and Una) can be seen to represent freedom and independence of thought, in sharp contrast to Maggie’s controlled, boundary-enclosed town.
One of the many things I love about The Middler is its quietly menacing undertone. Are you a fan of books with quiet menace? And what books and or authors have influenced your work?
So many books have influenced The Middler in so many ways! But focussing on the quiet menace in particular (which I am a HUGE fan of,) I would have to pick out Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams from the books I read as a child. Its silent, blinking stones haunted me throughout my entire childhood! From the books I have read as an adult, I would choose Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or A Pale View of Hills – both masterclasses in the creation of quiet, growing unease.
So nosy: are you the eldest, youngest, or a middler?
I am a youngest – I have a sister two and half years older than me.
The first thing we all did in the office after reading the manuscript was discuss who was a youngest, a middler or an eldest, and how birth order had affected our lives, and those of our children. Did your own sibling-dynamics influence the relationship between Maggie, Trig and Jed?
Yes, definitely. My sister was 13/14 when I was Maggie’s age. She, of course, was growing up and didn’t always want an eleven-year-old sister hanging around, especially when her friends were there. I often felt left out and left behind, just like Maggie does when Jed and Lindi are climbing the tree at the beginning of the book. (Note – things are different now! She is lovely and would never leave me out!)
This is a story of boundaries between people and places, of belonging or being an outsider. Can you think of any boundaries in your own life that influenced this book?
The Fennis Wick boundary is central to The Middler – as a physical barrier that adds conflict and intensifies the plot, but also as metaphor for internal boundaries such as Maggie’s self-limiting beliefs about lacking bravery and not being special.
The boundaries in my own life have been mostly of the latter variety. Maggie is very much based on me, even down to the shorts she wears on hot summer days. The only dresses I wore as a child were school uniform. And, just like Maggie, I lacked confidence in my abilities and considered myself unimportant compared with other people. I have been working for a long time to overcome these limiting beliefs – and I still suffer from them today. I doubt they will ever completely go away but I am much better at dealing with them now. I hope The Middler can sow small seeds of possibility in the minds of any readers who might also experience similar internal boundaries.
The Middler is a book of many themes but friendship is an important one. Was this deliberate?
I had a sudden moment of insight when I thought about this question. In the relationship between Maggie and Una I think I have subconsciously re-created the very close friendship I had with my best friend at primary school. She was much freer and wilder than me. She had long brown hair and always wore summer dresses when it was warm, while I wore my shorts. She was wonderful. We did everything together.
One of the most moving scenes in the book is Maggie coming across her mother, curled up beneath the portrait of Jed after he has left for the Quiet War. What gave you the idea for the portraits of the eldests?
Mr Wetheral’s role as a portrait artist painting fighters before they leave for war is based on reality. In the First World War, for example, photography had become affordable enough for many soldiers to have photographic studio portraits taken of themselves in uniform before they left for the front. In Maggie’s world, with its scarce resources, photography has become unaffordable and impractical once more, so the portraits are painted by hand.
Writers’ routines are endlessly fascinating. Are you a morning person? Do you pull all-nighters? Do tell…
I would love to be able to say that every day I go out for a brisk walk first thing, then return home for a chia seed smoothie and half an hour’s yoga before retiring to my dedicated writing room with a view across the butterfly fields for my regular morning writing session… but it wouldn’t be true. In truth I have a cheese and tomato omelette for breakfast and I squeeze in writing wherever and whenever I can. My desk is in the corner of the sitting room with a blank wall behind it and I take frantic breaks to panic-tidy in case someone comes round. I do have a VERY nice electric standing desk though, which goes up and down at the press of a button.
Thank you, Kirsty! Excellent to get these insights. And congratulations on the very brilliant Middler. I loved working on it with you!
Here’s a look inside the book:
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