02 July 2012

Visiting Cornwall with James Treadwell and Advent

This week Atria releases the US edition of Advent, first volume of new British fantasy series by James Treadwell. I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy last year, and James graciously answered my questions about it. I’ll be running our Q&A over most of this week.

Almost all of Advent takes place in Cornwall. For American readers, could you describe that region of England, its place in British culture, and what it means for you personally?

For American readers, I’d suggest you take clichés about England (villages with old stone churches and cosy pubs, small wet green fields, stiles in hedges, briskly reserved people) and then mix them with clichés about Scotland (moors, heather, granite, fishing boats, craggy beards, vaguely Celtic romantic mysticism, grouchy locals). Once you’ve got those thoroughly blended, set about the whole lot with a hammer, to roughen it up and wear it down and break it into small pieces; then chuck the pieces together more or less at random and dump buckets of water all over them. Voilà. Cornwall.
[View from St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, by Bob Kingsley, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.]

Culturally, Cornwall’s always been remote from metropolitan, prosperous, urbanised England. The old Cornish language’s closest relative is Breton, from the northwestern extreme of France, and there are towns everywhere named after saints no one else has ever heard of. When I used to go there on holiday from London as a child, to stay with my grandparents, it was (by British standards) a fairly serious car journey. The roads got smaller and hiller and twister the further southwest you went, and by the time you arrived you felt a very long way indeed from the capital. The infrastructure’s improved since then, of course, but you still catch something of the same feeling when you’re down there.

My grandparents moved somewhere less inconvenient many years ago, but I kept going to Cornwall anyway. I suppose that shows what it means to me personally. It gets in the blood.

I understand Cornwall is a great place to go in summer, but Advent is set there in the winter. How did you make that choice?

It didn’t feel like a choice … The story as it presented itself to me was always going to be wintry. If I tried to analyse why, I suppose I’d point to the fact that virtually all my childhood holidays in Cornwall happened outside the summers. More importantly, it’s a place that fills up in the summer, as you suggest, and Advent is in part a story about leaving the busy everyday world behind.

One of the characters in the book, who’s partly a native Cornishwoman and partly a holidaymaker from up-country, suggests that winter actually suits Cornwall better than summer. I’d be inclined to agree with her.
[View of Cornwall under a blanket of snow by Samuel Rich, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.]

The final chapter of Advent takes us to another part of the globe. Are you choosing other settings that have special meaning for you?

It’s a setting I have some personal knowledge of and affection for, yes. I’m afraid I’ll have to take issue (again) with the suggestion that I chose it, though. The reason that part of the world becomes relevant to the story of Advent is to do with what my protagonist Gavin sees when he first goes into his new friend Hester’s house; and I didn’t really have any idea what he was going to see there until he walked in the door.

WEDNESDAY: When fantasy turns cold.

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