About The Author
Zillah Bethell was born in a leprosy hospital in Papua New Guinea, spent her childhood barefoot playing in the jungle, and didn't own a pair of shoes until she came to the UK when she was eight. She was educated at Oxford University and now lives in Wales with her family. Zillah has written three adult novels for a small Welsh press.
Her first children's book, A Whisper of Horses is a lyrical journey of discovery across a reimagined Great Britain, ruled by the menacing Minister. When her mother dies, Serendipity sets out on a quest to find the beautiful horses she's always dreamed of, but the journey is hard beyond imagining and will test her endurance, her will and her beliefs.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Zillah about inventing a language and a caste system, how children have an innate moral compass and the challenge of balancing ethics, nature and technology.
Questions & Answers
Was there a particular reason why you chose horses as the impetus for Serendipity’s search, as opposed to any other creature?
Growing up in New Guinea I saw no horses so they became almost mythical creatures to me, I suppose. Even their colour names – strawberry roan, palomino, chestnut, dapple grey – I found to be beautiful. It’s also interesting that horses have been used to progress human development, possibly more so than any other animal.
English is not your first language. How difficult was it therefore, to tweak the language just enough to suggest how English had changed, become degraded, in the future where your novel is set?
I grew up learning both English and Ewa ge (the language of the sea people). Many people also spoke Pidgin English, which is a mixture of German, English and Australian. For example, you might hear ‘dispela truck is buggerup tru’ meaning ‘this heavy goods vehicle is not working correctly’! Initially I wanted the language in the novel to be more obfuscating but decided it would ultimately become too frustrating for the reader.
You invent a kind of caste system, with Aus (gold), Cu (silver) and Pb (lead). This is an extreme version but do you think society is getting ever more polarised?
Yes, indeed. I feel that society is becoming more polarised. The outcome of the recent EU referendum seems to support this idea. I think that society is better off than it used to be, but the disparity between the richest and the poorest still remains. But, then again, compared to many other countries we are ridiculously spoilt.
Serendipity has a strong and true moral compass, as ultimately, does her friend,Tab. Do you think this is actually a quality innate in children – given that neither of them had parents to guide them – or is this what marks them out?
I think this is innate in children. Their moral compass goes false if they are neglected or abused in some way. Like horses turn bad for the same reasons. Luckily I believe this process can be reversed with time and great care.
Do you think that children will take to heart what the Wizard says about people having lived through technology and become ‘static, unthinking, blinkered automata’. How do we prevent this happening to our young?
Technology is both a wonderful and a dangerous thing. We can access the whole world and everything feels possible. Yet, on the other hand, we become frustrated when things don’t come to fruition or go our way. We have to ensure that technology enhances our life as opposed to becoming our life. I think one of the greatest issues that mankind faces is how to balance ethics, nature and technology.
Did you feel conscious of having to tell your story in a particular way, to meet the needs of your technology-savvy if not obsessed, audience, a profoundly different readership than say, even 20 years ago?
I was conscious of readers’ expectations and I suppose I wanted to undercut them. Let’s just say the book is a little pause button!
Do you agree with Serendipity, that more than anything it’s important to act: ‘I hadn’t just stood there and waited for things to wash over me like the pebbles on the beach.’?
Absolutely. The story is concerned with the idea that trying is everything and that the end result doesn’t always matter. There is never any point in not trying.
Although there are lots of lessons for young readers to take away from your novel, it is also extremely exciting and full of action, suspense and surprises. Did you plot the main events at the outset or were you sometimes as surprised as your characters at the turn of events?
Stories and characters are like wind-up toys. You wind 'em up and off they go. If they look like they’re about to fall off the table it’s my job to catch 'em.
You were born in a leprosy hospital in Papua New Guinea. Can you say something about how this experience has shaped your life and perhaps found its way, however obliquely, into your novel?
Papua New Guinea made me intensely aware of the natural environment. I can’t be too far away from the sea – it is a second heartbeat for me. Cities are good to visit but I couldn’t live in one. Maybe this strayed into the feel of the book.
Can you say anything about what you’re working on next?
I’ve wound up a robot called Paragon who knows the Latin name for bluebell, a boy called Auden Dare who wears a magnifying glass around his neck and a girl called Vivi Rookmini who owns an orrery. We’ll have to see where they end up.