Ruth Eastham prides herself on ‘edgy fiction where past meets present’, with fine examples of her craft in her first three beautifully-observed teen reads, 2011’s The Memory Cage, 2012’s The Messenger Bird, and the recently-published Arrowhead.
In her latest offering, she turns an expert hand to Norse and Viking mythology, telling the tale of Jack, a 13-year-old ‘new kid’ in a Far North Norwegian town, who befriends fellow outsider Skuli, their budding friendship leading to a discovery that could unleash evil on the world.
What could be far-fetched in lesser hands is skilfully told, well-researched and dare I say believable, keeping readers – of all ages – gripped, with Jack and Skuli joined by the similarly-resolute Emma, this ice warrior trio facing a disturbing turn of events.
In a pacy adventure, based on myth and legend, Ruth offers wider themes too, about herd mentality, finding your own way, and that age-old battle between good and evil, with plenty of descriptive detail that suggests an accomplished story-teller.
I caught up with Ruth at her home in the north-east of Italy, near the Slovenian border, and asked what the early reaction’s been to Arrowhead.
“I’ve been really pleased with the response. I was lucky enough to have several writers read and review the book before it was published, and they said really nice things about it.”
Did she immerse yourself in Norse and Viking mythology while writing her latest children’s novel?
“I did quite a bit of background reading, yes! Everyone has a Viking fascination, don’t they? For me, it’s such an intriguing era and the culture is so rich. And we still get swept away in the stories they told, even after a thousand years.
“It took me about nine months to write. Like producing a baby! That’s about the time-frame for my other books too. Everything has to be finished well in advance of the publication date.”
Ruth, whose nine and seven-year-old daughters attend a Slovenian school (with lessons in the Slovene language), is a seasoned traveller, and much of that shows in her books, in this case seen in her portrayal of small-town Norwegian life.
“A journey to Norway a few years ago had a big impact. The epic mountain settings I hiked through helped with the setting. I also visited the awesome blue ice caves of a glacier. That made a strong impression and in the story an ice cave is a pretty important feature.”
Ruth mentions in Arrowhead’s author notes her past trips to Northumberland’s evocative Holy Island too. What is it about that remote coastal setting that fires the imagination?
“Being able to visit the places I’m writing about has always been massively inspiring. Lindisfarne is a very atmospheric place, and there’s something special for me about the way the tide cuts it off from the mainland.
“The attack at the monastery there in 793AD was so pivotal in our Viking history; it’s where all the negative reputation stemmed from. But apparently Lancashire was quite a hot-spot for Viking settlers. There’s probably quite a few of us in the county with Viking blood in our veins!”
Lancashire-born and bred Ruth lives between Italy and the UK at present, but enjoyed spells in Australia and New Zealand too, and is well travelled in her own country too.
“My first year of teaching was at a village school in the Lake District, not far from Penrith. I was at uni in York. I later taught in Cambridge and Nottingham, so yes, I have lived in a few different places!”
So can we expect books set in Australia, New Zealand or Italy in the near future?
“I’d love to write books centred round these locations, yes. All three countries give loads of scope for ideas. I guess something of the places I’ve visited and lived in always seeps into my stories, one way or the other!”
These days, she splits her time between her writing, teaching and bringing up her children. So how does that work?
“I try to keep my writing hours to a schedule, to fit around my daughters and English teaching that I do. There’s also something special for me about writing in the quiet of the evening – though too many late nights takes its toll after a while!
“I divide my time between Italy and the UK, going backwards and forwards quite often as I do school visits regularly in primary and secondary schools.
“I’ve been back to the Preston schools where I was a pupil. All my family still live there, plus close friends I love to catch up with. I see myself as a Preston girl through and through!”
After college in her home city, Ruth trained as a teacher in Cambridge, but continued with her writing, something she always loved.
“I wrote from an early age. I had some great teachers who inspired me no end, but my main inspiration was my dad, who always read bedtime stories to my two brothers and me as we were growing up. Everything from Enid Blyton to Charles Dickens.
“I think this is where I started to understand the power of story and imagination, and where I got my love of storytelling from.
“I was something of a bookworm when I was growing up! I used local libraries a lot, which is why it’s so sad to hear of cuts and closures that are going on around the country.
“When you live abroad, you can appreciate more the quality and strong tradition of libraries in the UK, and the passion of our wonderful librarians.”
Which of Ruth’s contemporary writers does she admire most?
“I was lucky enough to once have pizza with His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman, share a croissant with Jacqueline Wilson, have Patrick Ness sign my copy of A Monster Calls, and have one of my stories read out by Michael Rosen. Needless to say, these are my writing heroes.
“I really enjoy books with different layers of meaning to them; stories that can be enjoyed by adults, as well as younger readers.
“There can be some wrong assumptions about fiction for younger readers, that the stories lack depth, or are somehow easier to write. Absolutely not! And if you haven’t grabbed your reader by the second page, your book’s doomed.”
Ruth can certainly craft a story judging by her first three published novels, her real depth in character appealing to boys and girls, children and adults.
When writing, does she try to get in the mindset of herself at a specific age?
“Yes, I think it’s very important to try and think in the head of your characters, definitely. The voices of the characters has got to be real, or they just won’t seem authentic.”
“I seem to always have a boy as the main character, but strong, feisty female characters are also important to me: Lia in The Memory Cage, Sasha in The Messenger Bird, and Emma in Arrowhead.
“I have two daughters and wouldn’t want them to think girls keep to the sidelines while the boys are in on all the action! It’s about positive role models.
“Actually, all my books so far have trios of teenagers in them: two boys and a girl. This might have something to do with me being the middle of three children, with brothers either side.”
And after tackling the frozen North this time, Ruth will be heading to warmer climes for her next children’s novel, although again looking at a story with a modern setting but woven in the past.
This time her focus is on Brazil, a country already on the mind for sporting reasons, with a work centred on the search for El Dorado.
But it’s unlikely to be one-dimensional, judging by her previous publications and their multi-stranded plots.
Her first book, The Memory Cage, expertly wove in elements about dementia and old age, adoption, childhood insecurity, family dynamics, small-town issues, the Second World War, pacifism, refugees, and even the Bosnian conflict of the ’90s. Yet somehow she brings all that together.
“I didn’t set out to include certain topics in The Memory Cage; everything happened naturally as part of the writing process. I knew I wanted to explore the theme of memory, and how memory defines who we are. I also knew I wanted both Alex and Grandad to have some secret memory from their pasts that haunted them and they couldn’t talk about.
“Conflict on all levels is a theme in the book, so the World War II setting came to the surface, and then I needed a more modern day war that had affected Alex. This brought the Bosnian War into my mind, and the ideas for the story started to weave together.”
I gather it was part-inspired by Ruth’s spell working in a Romanian orphanage too.
“Readers of a certain age might remember the Anneka Rice appeal back in the ’80s. That was the same orphanage I visited one summer to do voluntary work.
“By then the donated slide in the playground had a jagged tear of metal in it, and the toothbrushes were all gone.
“The bars of the cots referred to in The Memory Cage is an image that came directly from that experience. It was something profound to be there; all at once deeply sad and desperately hopeful.”
There’s also a fair bit of knowledge about photography in that debut novel. And maybe that passion says something about the author’s visual presence on the page.
“Yes, I love photography! I’ve had photos published in the Lonely Planet travel guides, calendars, articles, that kind of thing. If I visit a place that I feel inspired by, the photography is a great way to try and capture the spirit of the place to refer to later.
“When I write I’m quite a visual thinker, imagining the chapters as if they’re scenes from a film. So images, as well as the actual words, have always been important in the writing process for me.”
My eldest daughter (now 14) read The Memory Cage before me, and soon after started asking – rather sensitively – how my Mum was coping at the onset of dementia, not long after my Dad had died following his own dementia issues. I later twigged why she was asking, read it myself, and was impressed with how you tackled the issue. Is that something you have first-hand experience of?
“My grandad (my mum’s dad) had Alzheimer’s, so yes. My other grandad suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which has some of the same symptoms, such as not being able to recognise people. Heartbreaking stuff for the families involved.
“What struck me while writing The Memory Cage is that dementia is such a major issue in our society today; and although mental health issues are talked about more openly nowadays, I unfortunately think a lot of taboos still exist.”
I mentioned in my Arrowhead review – and the same goes for The Memory Cage and The Messenger Bird – how your books would be perfect for lads as well as girls – at a time when there doesn’t seem to be the inspiration for them to read. Is that something you sought to address?
“I didn’t make a conscious decision, but I guess it’s worked out that way! I’ve always felt happy having a boy as the main character in my books. Maybe that will change one day, but having two brothers I suspect might have had a strong influence on me as a writer!”
How do you feel about age restrictions on books? There’s a pretty scary aspect to Arrowhead. I mentioned Nordic Noir and The Wicker Man for young teens in my review – is that fair? And should age classification be down to kids, teachers, librarians, or parents?
“A really interesting question. There’s mixed opinion about this among the writers I know; some are for, some strongly against the idea of labelling books for a particular age group, branding it as restrictive and censoring.
“An age suggestion on the back of the book, such as 12+, could make adults feel more comfortable when buying for children. Some might say that books containing certain subject matter need to carry some kind of warning, and many publishers for young people do this.
“In any case, the cover can often give a strong impression about who the book is aimed at. And a quick look online at reviews for a particular book gives info on its content.
“If you think about it, there’s a pretty scary aspect to Hansel and Gretel – a cannibal witch imprisoning children to fatten up and eat?!
“Then again, is there a difference between books with a more obviously fantasy element, and those dealing with real life? I don’t think the debate is over!”
Does the fact that you teach help you understand what children of a certain age want in a book, and what interests them?
“Well when I was teaching in schools this certainly gave me a great opportunity to absorb myself in books and get a good idea what kinds of stories young people got most excited about. So yes to that question!
“As a teacher of English you also deconstruct others’ stories to look at how they work, in order to then write stories of your own. I think that reading widely is vital for any writer.”
More is known about that period now, the code-breakers finally recognised for all that top-secret work. Does Ruth think she could have been like Lily Kenley in her book during that era?
“I was lucky enough to meet a marvellous lady called Beryl, who had worked at Bletchley Park when she was 18 years old. In fact, the vast majority of people working at this fantastically important top-secret decoding centre were young women.
“The whole Bletchley Park story fascinates me, and I’ve visited the site several times. Being able to talk to someone who was actually there at the time was a priceless experience.
“What you come to realise, when you get into the whole story, is just how vital the work there was. The intelligence gathered there is thought to have shortened the Second World War by two whole years.”
There’s a subtle anti-war message in Ruth’s first books too, and also an anti-bullying theme that carries into Arrowhead, promoting the value of thinking for yourself rather than going with the herd. I’m guessing there are plenty of causes she would fight for.
“Sure. Wouldn’t we all? Family, friends… the things that really mean something to us. Maybe there’s lots we take for granted in our lives, and it’s only when they’re threatened or lost that we realise their true value.”
While Ruth’s books are definitely action-packed, there’s an educational aspect too, although this accomplished author never patronises her readers. Is that the teacher in her that seeks to educate?
“Maybe, yes! I’m really not aware of teaching anything when I write. All my books are set in the modern day, but the historical back stories – World War II in the first two, and now the Vikings – can give an educational feel.
“For me, it’s the pace and excitement of the story that counts, with meaningful characters you really care about.”
And finally, what is Ruth writing now, and when is her next book likely to be out?
“That El Dorado book I told you about. May 2015. So best get on with writing it!”
The writewyattuk review of Ruth Eastham’s Arrowhead was published on this site on May 7, 2014, with a link here.
The Memory Cage, The Memory Bird and Arrowhead by Ruth Eastham are all available from good bookshops and online.
For more details head to her website at http://www.rutheastham.com/
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on May 29, 2014.