“My books are about loyalty and bravery and honesty”
Lari Don, author of books including the award-winning Fabled Beasts Chronicles series and the hotly anticipated forthcoming Spellchasers trilogy, has always been a writer – she was making books before she could even write.
“My mum used to come into my bedroom every night and read me a book. After she put out the light and closed the door, I would sneak out of the bed, put the light back on, and get a piece of paper. I would fold it up until it looked like it had that function of the book, the opening pages, and I wrote stories in those books.”
But more than a writer, she has always been a sharer of stories – the carefully scribbled piece of paper would be slipped under her mother’s bedroom door late at night. So after a career in politics and journalism, it is little wonder that Lari is now a full-time writer and storyteller.
Lari’s latest book is a retelling of the classic Scottish myth of the Kelpie, a beautiful water horse that would lure children to the lochside and try to drown them.
But why is writing so important to Lari?
“I think in stories. I have had other jobs, but they’ve always been about words and they have always been about stories. Working in politics is about trying to make people see a ‘happy ever after’, and to make people follow the same narrative you are, to take people on a journey along with you. So I’ve always played with stories. My previous jobs were factual, so you had to gather the facts. Now I just get to make it up, and that’s great!”
Some writers work best with a clearly defined plan for their books. Others, like Lari, take a spark of inspiration and see where it takes them.
“That was the excitement of opening a book as a child. For me as a writer, the excitement is in having an idea and not knowing what’s going to happen with it. I think I have at least a dozen novel ideas on my wall – it’s going to take me years!
“I don’t plan my novels. Having an idea and then writing it has all that excitement bound up in for the months that I’m writing. I don’t know how it’s going to end! I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know where I’m going to take it.”
But isn’t that a little risky?
“It is quite terrifying, particularly if you say to an editor, ‘hey, I’ve got a great idea… I’ll give it to you in a year or six months’, or whatever, and you don’t actually know what you are writing. You’ve just agreed to write a book and you don’t know whether it will work. You don’t know what will happen in the end. And it’s absolutely terrifying.”
When she sits down to write, at a computer surrounded by notes and ideas for other stories, Lari says that she tries to focus solely on the novel at hand.
“What’s interesting is that when I am working on a novel I tend to be very, very locked inside that novel, and don’t to have many other ideas for books. But when I am in an editorial phase, I find new ideas. I find editing and redrafting and rewriting books almost uses a different part of my brain, and that’s when I have the next ideas.”
How important is the editing and redrafting process?
“Everything I have ever written is too long, and I would be embarrassed to show it to anybody. So I go back and I slice out scenes I didn’t need, maybe tweak things at the beginning so it fits. I distill it down to what I actually need it to say to the reader. I love writing but my books would be rubbish if I didn’t also edit.
“But equally, they would be rubbish if the editor didn’t edit it after that… if an editor didn’t ask me difficult questions that prompt me to step back and see what I’ve written.”
Whereas the Fabled Beasts Chronicles, starting with First Aid for Fairies, are original novels, Lari’s new book The Secret of the Kelpie is a retelling of a classic Scottish Kelpie myth, and writing this necessitates a different approach.
“If I’m retelling a traditional tale I know how it ends. Or I know roughly how it ends! I’m not slavish to sticking to the actual traditional tale, and will change and tweak… it’s more of a craft than an art, I think.”
That craft is evident in The Secret of the Kelpie, which is at once familiar and new. Some of the Kelpie myths can be quite shocking or scary, with children being maimed or worse by the beautiful white horse. In Lari’s new version, some quick thinking by the youngest child, Flora, saves her impulsive siblings.
“The Secret of the Kelpie isn’t a retelling of a story that exists. There are lots of lots of little snippets of folklore about Kelpies, so I read lots of books, gathering lots of different bits of Kelpie lore, from lots of different bits of Scotland. I created a story out what I thought were the best and most exciting, and honestly the most child-friendly, bits.”
The Secret of the Kelpie is just one of the many myths and legends that Lari has written about, yet Lari didn’t plan to be a writer and collector of traditional folklore.
“I hadn’t expected to be. I’m a fiction writer, a novelist, and I didn’t expect to do that. I always thought I would make up my own stuff. But when I was approached [by Floris Books, her publisher], I realised that the stories that inspired the novels that I write, they were already in my head. I realised that I wanted to share those stories that inspire me, as much as I wanted to share the fiction they inspire.”
Lari Don is a registered Storyteller at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, but admits that she is a writer first, and storyteller second.
“I was a writer before I became a storyteller, when I had children I started telling them stories. And I thought this is something I could learn to do, professionally. I learnt how to do it for two reasons.
“I genuinely love it, these are stories I am passionate about, I have to share them. But also, honestly, because I could see it had advantages for somebody who wanted to write. It has helped me learn how I love to tell stories.
“For me, a key to telling a story is finding the heart of it, finding the bit that I really want to share. And it isn’t about memorising a story, it’s about sharing it. When I’m storytelling, for me the pinnacle of success would be a child going home and telling that story to somebody else.”
Finding the heart of the story, as Lari puts it, is key to why she has turned to the myth of the Kelpie for the new picture book, The Secret of the Kelpie. There are lots of considerations when turning a favourite myth into a book to be read by children.
“I love lots of traditional tales, but not all of them are suitable for younger kids, or at least, not suitable without having their heart ripped out, which I don’t want to do. When I discussed potential stories for this strand with my editor, this story of the Kelpie seemed perfect. Partly because this imprint is called ‘Kelpies’. Also I’m working with Kelpie magic in the trilogy of novels I’m writing just now.
“But I had to give serious consideration to one element of the story – I had to put the children in danger, but ultimately not actually drown or devour any of them. So, getting that level of tension right was a discussion I had very early on with my wonderful editor. Making a story exciting and magical and a bit risky, without actually going so far that it terrifies the readers, requires a bit of thought. I wanted to be true to the Kelpie lore, which is about a genuinely scary and dangerous beast, but also respectful of my readers.”
Pitching a story to children means getting the balance right. Lari has written for children of all ages, from pre-school picture books like The Big Bottom Hunt, adventure novels for eight to twelve year olds, and a novel for teenagers, Mind Blind.
Lari delights in the risk and dangers she puts her characters through in the Fabled Beasts Chronicles:
“I will hurt them… the fairy is so easy to injure, it’s wonderful! I do terrible things to her. There will be danger, they will be in pain, they will have terrible things happen to them. I want the readers worried about the characters and identifying them, and to do that I have to put the characters in peril. But whatever I put them through on the journey, by the end, everyone is (almost) fine. I always leave the readers and characters with a bit of hope and a bit of happiness.”
But things are different for teenage novel Mind Blind.
“Honestly, no holds barred! People died in it, children died in this book… This is a question that popped into my head as I was writing it. It became very clear very quickly this was not a book I could read to Primary 4s or 5s. It had to be for older.”
For a picture book like The Secret of the Kelpie, the illustrations can help build just the right amount of tension. Lari is full of praise for the pictures drawn by Philip Longson:
“The most important element of a picture book is – the artwork, the pictures! They tell the story just as much, if not more, than the words. I loved the magical illustrations that Philip Longson did for The Tale of Tam Linn, so I was delighted that he has also illustrated The Secret of the Kelpie. His pictures are stunning – he makes water and horse seem both utterly beautiful and extremely dangerous, exactly as they should be in the kelpie tale. And the pictures help greatly with heightening the tension and peril of the story, but also, softening and making the story more child-friendly. Philip’s creation of Flora, the smallest child and the greatest heroine, is just perfect..”
Many of the traditional myths and legends have, at their core, a moral or lesson. The Kelpies myths could be read as an admonishment for children not to play by the water’s edge. Does Lari use stories to teach children morals?
“Yeah, I don’t do that!
“My books are about loyalty and bravery and honesty. Where there are obvious morals in fairy stories or tales I try to downplay or remove them. Everyone takes their own thing out of a story. I would never claim to interpret the meaning of a story.”
One thing Lari is passionate to include, however, is the role of women in stories. For instance, her collection Girls, Goddesses and Giants features “strong female characters, kick-ass heroines… we don’t do enough of those stories.”
“There are probably lots of strong female characters in other genres, but not in adventures. You know, girls who take on monsters. We all individually have to take on our own monsters. They may not all arrive with teeth and claws, but we still need to be able to deal with them ourselves. Without me ever, ever saying it to any of the kids in my books, that’s at the core. It’s about kids solving their own problems, girls solving their own problems. About a centaur solving his own problems!”
These strong, problem solving characters are not where Lari begins when writing a book, however. Lari says that she always starts with a question – “I wonder what if?” or “what happens next?”
“For me, I have a beginning, which will usually be a question or questions, and then a character or characters. I feel that I am a journalist going on a journey along with my characters. I’m trotting along with them, writing down what happens. And that feeling of really not controlling it is the exciting thing!
“I throw my characters into different situations and see how they react. That’s how I get to know them better. I’m always trying to help them resolve things, but I help them by throwing lots of obstacles in their way.
“I have never had an idea for a character that has turned into a story. I am very interested in characters – but I’m interested in characters in situations. The situation brings the character.”
When reading Lari’s books, there is always a clear sense of location and place ̶ even in fantastic stories of fairies and dragons and centaurs. Although Lari was born in Chile, she was raised in Scotland, and has lived in the Highlands, the Borders, the North East of Scotland, and in Edinburgh. These locations creep into all of her research and writing.
“I was surprised that there is a lot of Kelpie lore from the North East of Scotland. I thought it was from the Highlands and Islands. There’s a lot of Kelpies stories from the NE, which is great, because that’s where I’m from.”
Lari always researches her locations before writing about them.
“It’s important to me that I write a book for a child from Orkney — or a child from the Borders, or a child from Sutherland — to go ‘Oh, that’s like she’s just been here!’ I want them to feel that the adventure could be happening to them.
“There are bits in Maze Running that are set in Argyll, Dunadd and Kilmartin Glen. I had never lived in Argyll. I visited it to write the book. I visited Sutherland in order to write a book, and now we go there every year for our holidays because we fell in love with it… I will do a lot of location research. I spent a day walking around the Eildons [in the Borders] on my own, with a notebook in my raincoat pocket, and some questions. Walking around the landscape helped me answer those questions.
“My children have been dragged to some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, in the worst weather possible!”
Of course, sometimes a writer has to invent a new town or village to fit a story.
“I will take a couple of names and slam them together, to say ‘this is a place that’s kind of like places you know, but it isn’t exactly…’ I may have to change the layout of a village or something to make it work. I am quite fast and loose with the Scottish landscape, but I would never write about somewhere I didn’t have a feel for.”
Whether it is writing an original novel, or adapting a traditional tale for a new audience, Lari Don delights in the writing process. When speaking to Lari, ideas are sparking off in her mind all the time. But she has writing, and editing, and readings to do – the work of a writer never ends:
“I would be starting a new novel every week if I could. And I can’t, because to share them with people I actually have to finish them.”
The water-horse, or kelpie, frequently appears in Scottish folklore. While researching for The Secret of the Kelpie and other books, Lari Don tracked local kelpie legends from the length and breadth of Scotland. Books from Scotland loves this fun interactive map which you can use to see how the story of the kelpie varies around the country.
Lari Don has an show, ‘The Secret of the Kelpie: A Journey Round Scotland’, running from 9-13 August at 2pm as part of the Fringe in Edinburgh in August at the National Library of Scotland. Details are here. She also has an Edinburgh International Book Festival event, ‘Keeping Secrets with Lari Don’, on 16 August at 10.30 am. Details are here.
The Secret of the Kelpie is out now published by Kelpies (£5.99, paperback)
‘The story of an architectural failure which morphed into a tragic modernist myth’