Saturday, November 5, 2022

Q&A with Veronica Cossanteli




Veronica Cossanteli is the author of the new middle grade novel The Marvelous Land of Snergs. It's based on a classic novel by E.A. Wyke-Smith that inspired J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit. Cossanteli's other books include The Extincts. She lives in the South of England.


Q: What inspired you to write this updated version of the story that inspired The Hobbit?


A: When my son was small, I longed to share with him the classics I had loved as a child: Alice, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and The Princess and the Goblin, among others. I tried reading them to him but, to keep his attention, I found myself having to cut and edit as I read.


Times change; so do children’s expectations – and yet it is too sad to see these stories fade from view, or be replaced by screen versions that do not always do them justice. I sometimes pondered trying my hand at an adaptation but the ghosts of the original authors loomed large and I shied away, feeling unequal to the task.


Then, out of the blue, comes a call from my publisher at Chicken House.


“Veronica, what do you know about Snergs?”


I wish that I had grown up with Gorbo and his friends – I would have loved them – but I have to confess that I had never heard of a Snerg.


“I’m sending you this book,” says Barry. “It came out in 1927 and it needs a rewrite. We think you may be the right person to do it. It’s … quirky.” (He’s always polite about the fact he thinks I’m slightly bonkers.)


The book arrived; I raced through it and was instantly smitten. This story so deserved to have new life breathed into it. I sent Chicken House an urgent, impassioned email:


“I want to do this! I AM the right person! Please, please, don’t give this book to anyone else…”


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book and, if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The first thing I did, on learning of Tolkien’s fondness for Snergs, was to revisit The Hobbit (I still have the copy given to me in my Christmas stocking, when I was 9) and The Lord of the Rings.


The glorious thing about writing in a fantasy setting is that you can’t make factual errors: anything goes and there is no need to get bogged down in meticulous research. Interesting wormholes, however, are plentiful and irresistible; it’s difficult not to get sidetracked.

Before I start to write, I like to have the scenery already clear in my head, so I’m seeing exactly what my characters are seeing. Looking up ancient yews and twisting trees led me on a virtual dance around all sorts of places that are now on my list to visit one day. Some of Britain’s yews are more than 3,000 years old; I hope we remember to treat them with the respect they deserve.


The Snerg Queen’s ostriches sent me down another wormhole. (I don’t know where they came from, to be honest; they’re not in the original. Queen Mercy rode into my imagination astride an ostrich and that was that: I couldn’t un-see it.) Did you know that ostriches have the largest eyes of any land animal?


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it “A breezy refresh for a little-known story with all sorts of intriguing associations.” What do you see as the relationships among your book, Wyke-Smith’s book, and Tolkien’s Hobbit?


A: My story diverges in a number of ways from Mr. Wyke-Smith’s, but at its heart the Snergs remain themselves, not-so-distant forbears of the Hobbits. Gorbo and Bilbo both have their travels thrust upon them. Their (very different) adventures lead them “there and back again,” with a voyage of self-discovery along the way. Propelled out of their comfort zone, they both turn out to be a good deal braver and more resourceful than expected.


A common thread within all three books are the themes of friendship and loyalty – the bonds forged when danger threatens – as well as the joy of the journey’s end, be that in a hobbit hole, a treehouse, or the Sunny Bay Home for Superfluous and Accidentally Parentless Children.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: Bad beginnings can lead to happy endings!


Pip and Flora both carry the scars of their troubled starts but, like Gorbo, they manage to break free from the past and find their true selves. Only one character hangs on to bitterness and old grudges and … you’ll have to read the book to find out where that leads.


We all need to carry happy places, places of refuge, within us for when reality becomes difficult. Children’s books are the doorways into these havens: we may grow up, grow old, but these doors never close. In moments of stress, I still retreat into Tove Jansson’s Moomin Valley or A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood. If the thought of cinnamon bears and a treehouse in the Town of the Snergs ever brings comfort to a reader, then my job is done…


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The seeds of the story I’m writing at the moment were first sown decades ago, when I was 11 and miserably homesick at boarding school. To distract myself, I wrote a prehistoric tale about a Stone Age child and his friend, a woolly rhinoceros.


I hadn’t thought about it for years but it never quite left me and now it has evolved into a time-slip story involving ancient footprints, a Neanderthal family struggling against extinction and two children, 40,000 years apart but not so very different…


Some serious research needed for this one! I’m just back from a tour of Palaeolithic sites in France, my head full of mammoths and aurochs and flint…


Thank you so much for your questions. I hope, very much, that you enjoy your time in The Marvelous Land of Snergs!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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