Here’s the pretty cover of the new Spanish edition of La chica con pies de cristal. It’s available from Ediciones Salamandra and they’ve done a lovely job of it. I send them a big, heartfelt gracias.
This was the time of night when things seemed unreal, when a thought that could be dismissed in daylight might take hold of the guts and not be uprooted until morning… He’d dreamed of lightning striking beaches and fusing sand grains into glass.
- from The Girl with Glass Feet
Much of the fun of researching a novel comes from the strange tangential discoveries that you make while doing so, the tidbits of knowledge your usual reading pattern would never lead you to. While I was writing The Girl with Glass Feet I read all I could about glass. Glass is, of course, always a product of transformation. Glass blowers have been creating it from silica for centuries. But as I read, I hoped to discover naturally occurring transformations that might help me visualise the one afflicting Ida in my story. I am pleased to be able to inform you that our big, bad and beautiful world did not disappoint. Glass is, after all, just a very dramatic example of a constant process. Everything on Earth is continuously transforming, much as I have transformed from one thing to another during the writing of this sentence, and you have transformed into something infinitesimally different during the reading of it. In the case of glass creation, however, such metamorphoses can take place at breathtaking speed.
We would have to put our lives in danger to witness the fastest and most powerful natural creation of glass. Even if we survived the spectacle, our eyes would likely be too slow to watch the change taking place. But let’s imagine that we are superhumanly tough and eagle-eyed and we are standing on a beach during a thunderstorm. The sea is going wild, the sky is black with clouds, but it’s the beach we’re watching closely. A lightning bolt blasts down from the clouds and smashes into the sand. And in that microsecond the extreme heat fuses the fine rock grain into a forking glass fossil. This is a fulgurite, a streak of glass forged in the shape of the lightning bolt that made it. If we had lived a thousand years ago in Scandinavia one of us could have picked it up and hung it around our neck on a thread, in doing so guaranteeing the blessings of Thor. Nowadays we could probably make a few coins from selling it in a fossil shop.
Apart from during the sentence at the head of this post, I couldn’t find room for a fulgurite in The Girl with Glass Feet. Still I imagine that the beaches of St Hauda’s Land are rich with them. Perhaps there are even fulgurites there such as this one, the largest ever discovered, a glass tube penetrating seventeen feet into the earth.
There was no way at all to fit the following glassy curiosity into the novel. All the same, I’ve got a soft spot for these microscopic beings. They’re diatoms, miniscule organisms that live in the water. The interesting thing about them is that they create a kind of shell for themselves, and the shell is made from glass. It’s a very simple, capsule-like casing for a very simple life form, but as I understand it (and I’m in no way qualified to make the following statement) diatoms are the only beings on the planet who create such glass houses for themselves. Back when I was writing the novel I managed to find a video of them in a library, which demonstrated the creation of the shell itself. Sadly I no longer have it, but there are various films of diatoms online, all of which have presumably been shot through an incredibly powerful microscope.
St Hauda’s Land is home to many beasts and birds, as well as to rare creatures found nowhere else in the world. This little bestiary considers what some of them mean to the novel.
In the water huge, elegant bodies moved. A narwhal pod. Funny, she thought, how invisible such huge creatures could make themselves under only a little water. She remembered she had dived once between a mother humpback and her calf. In cyan equatorial oceans.
- from The Girl with Glass Feet
As any Inuit can tell you, the narwhal was once a wicked mother who hated her son because he was blind. She drowned when her family were out hunting whales, and in the instant of her drowning was transformed forever into a narwhal.
When I knew that St Hauda’s Land was most likely somewhere in the Arctic, I knew there would be narwhals swimming in the seas around it. I drew them in the oceans of the maps I sketched, in the manner of sea monsters on medieval charts. In the novel, Midas’ friend Denver draws pictures of narwhals swimming with the ghost of her mother, as if narwhals are a kind of angel keeping her company. Their Inuit name, Qilalugaq Qernartaq, means The One Who Points To The Sky.
A herd of moth-winged cattle on the ground could stand still for hours with all the docility of common cattle in a field, but in the air they delighted in the power of flight, and there was something kaleidoscopic about their movement. You started to see patterns, and before long you’d be hypnotised, your thoughts fluttering in the air around you. You thought how you’d been sitting like this admiring the cattle since you were young (perhaps you had been doing it for too long now).
- from The Girl with Glass Feet
When I was eighteen I used to cycle through the countryside to get to my girlfriend’s house. At the halfway point of the journey was a hamlet where a goliath of a bull presided over his paddock. I used to stop and talk to him, expecting him at any moment to join in the conversation. He was very stoic and very sedentary, old and red-eyed with lopsided horns crossing in front of his eyes. I think he had been used for calving and so had escaped the slaughterhouse. His stately nature and philosophical masticating made him my hero. Then one day he was gone. I like to think he had some kind of epiphany and barged out of his paddock to escape down the country lane. Or perhaps he just ascended to heaven one drizzly Dorset morning. I can’t bear to imagine him being slopped apart for glue with a bullet between his eyes, so instead I picture the swathes of his descendents, grown titanic and thoughtful in their own country fields.
Before I started writing The Girl with Glass Feet, the cattle obsession that my bull friend had taught me had already led me to the idols of ancient Mesopotamia. I have a sketchbook from back then that’s full of temples, monuments, hanging gardens and – somewhat incongruously – grasshoppers. I’m not really sure what those last were doing there. Mesopotamia caught my imagination because of its bulls. In the British Museum you can marvel at a giant winged bull that once stood at the temple gates in Nimrud (you can see its partner in the Met in New York). I used to live in London, where I struggled to find work and was full of self-doubt because of it. To pick myself up I used to go and stand in the company of the Nimrud bull, much as I had done with the old bull in the Dorset paddock. I didn’t normally talk to the one in the British Museum – there were usually too many other people around – but I did chance a furtive whisper now and then.
Why am I writing about this? It’s because I’m trying to work out where the moth-winged cattle in The Girl with Glass Feet came from, and I suspect it has something to do with those two bulls. The moth-winged kind arrived in the story a few drafts in. It was almost as if they flew in through a window and settled on the pages. At the time I thought I’d invented them in that moment, but a year later I was tidying away some old sketchbooks and found the one in which I’d drawn the Mesopotamian temples. Flicking through it, I found a drawing of a young bull with moth wings growing from his shoulders.
I like moth-winged cattle because they’re a very traditional kind of monster that’s a hybrid of animal parts. I like to think of them as representative of the kind of love that Midas and Ida find: clumsy, fragile but magical. Their inability to survive without nurture is vital. The most important thing said about them is this, from their keeper Henry Fuwa: “They eat and shit and get themselves killed like everything else.”
An armada of jellyfish had floated in on the tide. One or two were large as sails, with bodies rippling just inches under the surface, flying pennants of tentacles. The tiniest ones were the size of thimbles, with crests of violet suckers. One giant orb glowed brighter than the others. Its body was full of a nebula of golden light, as if it had swallowed an angel.
- from The Girl with Glass Feet
Like narwhals, jellyfish were a magical must-have in St Hauda’s Land’s seas. A lot of light is described in the novel, and bioluminescent jellies gave me a chance to play with that. It also seemed fitting that a young jellyfish is called a medusa and that the poisons of some species can be paralytic. You may find jellyfish reproduction interesting, or be intrigued to know that there is a kind of jellyfish that lives forever.
I made up some of the particulars of the St Hauda’s Land genus, but I didn’t have to stray very far from reality…
An Animal who Turns Everything She Looks at Pure White
He took a longer sip of his gin and blinked hard as he swallowed it, his expression describing the descent of the alcohol in his throat. She wondered when he’d last had a drink, then wondered if he were plain drunk. He leant across the table as earnest as hobos she’d seen in her dad’s police cells.
‘Would you believe there’s an animal in the woods who turns everything she looks at pure white?’
- from The Girl with Glass Feet
I can’t tell you very much about this animal, because I haven’t seen her. Had I done so, my author photograph would look very different. In my head I do have a picture of how she might look, but who can say whether that’s correct? The things I know for certain are that she’s magical and transformative. She is incredibly rare and can never properly be caught. It is likely that she is the only creature of her kind.
White animals have always had magical powers. The white hart of medieval romance was an elusive questing beast, hunted not for game but for the spiritual betterment of the hunter. The white hart would lead the questing knight on a chase that was a trial, in doing so teaching him chivalric codes such as love, honour and humility. On St Hauda’s Land, white beasts are less fortunate, with their abrupt loss of natural camouflage marking them out as easy prey.
This white hart was spotted in the mountains of Scotland a few years back. The below video does not comment on any spiritual betterment that may or may not have been achieved as a result of the sighting. I think it’s certain that on another occasion, something like the opposite took place.
The wind was so icy that the frost took a firm grip, but what a sight there was when the sun came up! All the trees and shrubs were covered in rime; it looked like an entire forest of white corals, as if all the branches were heaped with dazzling white flowers. The infinitely numerous and delicate network of branches, which is impossible to see in the summer because of all the leaves, now appeared, every single twig. It was a lacework, and so glittering white, as if a white glow were streaming from every branch.
- from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snowman
I was some way into writing The Girl with Glass Feet when I rediscovered Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. By that stage I had done my first rough imaginings of St Hauda’s Land and knew it to be a place full of winter and magic. I remembered being transported to such a land by a picture book of The Snow Queen that I’d owned as a child, so I greedily picked up a copy of Fairy Tales to reacquaint myself. At first I was surprised by how little of that story actually takes place in a world of snow and ice. Much of it takes place surrounded by summery flowers, or in a den full of burning fires and wild robbers. Yet these scenes of heat make the snowy realm of the Snow Queen, when we finally reach it, all the more monochrome and frozen. That’s why, in The Girl with Glass Feet, Ida’s memories and recollections of the mainland are all set in summer. To try to do what Andersen does, making the winter deeper by contrasting it with what has gone before.
Then there is the glass. In the opening chapters of The Snow Queen, a little boy called Kai is struck in the eye and heart by shards of a smashed magic mirror. They turn his heart to a ball of ice and his thoughts cruel and judgemental. In The Girl with Glass Feet, Midas’ father is essentially Kai in adult form – what Kai might have grown into had he not been rescued at the end of The Snow Queen.
My principal debt to Andersen, however, is more abstract. Of all of his stories, the one that had the most impact on me when I reread it as an adult isn’t one of his winter tales. It’s The Little Mermaid.
I don’t really have a beef with Disney about what they did to fairy tales. I’m a big fan of animation in general, and Disney have pioneered it and contributed some charming family films and some brilliant comic shorts during the early days of the studio. Besides, even the Brothers Grimm meddled with their source material to serve social and political ends. All the same their films do tend to invade and occupy the general perception of how a story goes, which I suppose is why I feel the need to mention them here. It does frustrate me that, when I type into Google the name of one of the most staggeringly moving fairy stories, I get this. The Disney version is fine – it has some catchy tunes and a singing lobster who I’m pretty fond of – but essentially it’s an entirely different film about an entirely different mermaid, and perhaps they should have called it something else to avoid the confusion.
Incidentally, if you want to watch a gorgeous mermaid animation I would suggest this by Alexander Petrov.
Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a heart-breaking account of failed love and a perfect example of magic as an expression of emotion. The story has a context you may find interesting: Andersen wrote it after retreating to the island of Fyn to avoid attending the wedding of his friend Edvard Collins. Andersen was in love with Edvard and could neither bear to see him take a wife nor to give voice to the depth of his feelings for him. This is what I mean by magic as an expression of human feeling: the character of the little mermaid can easily be seen as a literary representation of the heartbroken Andersen. To remain in the company of her prince she must endure an agony in her feet that redoubles with every step she takes. To obtain human feet at all she has had to sacrifice her voice so that, like Andersen, she cannot express what she feels for the man she loves.
Then he took her by the hand and led her into the castle. Each step she took, as the witch had warned her, felt as if she were treading on pointed awls and sharp knives, but she gladly endured it. Hand in hand with the prince, she moved as lightly as a bubble, and he and everyone else marveled at her graceful, gliding walk.
- from The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is Andersen’s masterpiece, and from it I drew assurance that although magic should be strange and beautiful, it should not be without cost or pain. Waving a wand (or a trident) and making everything right is not magic, it’s just wish fulfilment. Magic is (and always has been in fairy tales and folk stories) a form of literary expressionism, a way to demonstrate in vibrant imagery the invisible workings of human emotion. I’d fiercely recommend grabbing a copy of Andersen’s fairy tales and rediscovering their strange bittersweetness for yourself.
“Metamorphosis was in the rock of St Hauda’s Land. In quarries, blown apart boulders showed their insides turning to quartz, or revealed fossilised prisoners. The sea gnawed at the coastline, remoulding it with every year. And in nooks and crannies uncatalogued transmogrifications took place…”
- from The Girl with Glass Feet
A lot of readers have asked me about St Hauda’s Land, the little island chain on which The Girl with Glass Feet is set, wondering which real places it’s based on and where it would appear in an atlas if it were not a fictional country. It’s difficult to answer, because St Hauda’s Land developed so gradually. It’s true basis, more than anything, was a pair of glass feet, since everything in the book stemmed from that single image. When I asked myself what kind of landscape glass feet might be found in I knew it would be one covered in snow. The iciness of winter was a perfect match for the crystalline condition of feet turned to glass.
In writing the novel I wanted to explore the idea of feeling like a prisoner to yourself: that your own body and learned behaviour could lock you up when inside you felt you should be free. Just as I wanted Ida’s glass feet to give physical expression to that feeling, I wanted to build a landscape that echoed the idea in every cliff and snow-blasted hill. Hence St Hauda’s Land became a remote chain of island, far from the mainland and caged by a violent sea.
These details gave me my first geographical touchstones in the form of the island territories of the Arctic Circle. I researched the Shetland Isles, Newfoundland and the Faroe Isles, but I never intended St Hauda’s Land to actually be any of those places. Just as the communities living in those locations maintain a fierce sense of their islander identities, I wanted St Hauda’s Land to share certain geographical features while remaining very much its own place. I wanted readers to be able to imagine it in whichever far flung reach of the ocean made the most sense to them.
There was, however, one big problem with the archipelagos of the Arctic. They all missed something that I felt was vital to St Hauda’s Land. Take a look at this lovely video from the national website of the Faroe Islands.
There are no trees. I wanted trees to grow in abundance on St Hauda’s Land because I needed the fairy-tale atmosphere that their cold and twisted trunks could evoke. But as far as I could make out, it was geologically impossible for the kind of woods that birthed the folklore of mainland Europe to grow on volcanic islands such as those mentioned above. Nevertheless I planted them all over St Hauda’s Land, making the place’s existence as physically impossible as a miniature bull with moth wings growing from its back.
Expressionism has always fascinated me far more than realism, which feels very unreal to me in contrast. Likewise I love this expressive idea of ‘the woods’, by which I mean not the botanical realities of tree species and soil types (interesting though these things can be) but the feelings the woods can instil, the old fears they can stir up in the gloom, the sense when you’re lost that the trees themselves are conspiring against you. The woods help us believe in the impossible (which as an aside is a bloody good reason not to chop them all down) and form a vital backdrop to childhood stories such as those illustrated by Arthur Rackham below. I found myself writing about them from the very first page of the novel onwards, and in my mind they became a kind of communicative apparatus for the islands. I needed these woods of Rackham, the woods of the Brothers Grimm and European folklore, to cast their spell over The Girl with Glass Feet.
Every so often, and usually at the start of each new draft, I scribbled out a map of the islands. This was helpful to keep track of which compass directions characters should head in, how far they could see from each location and so on. The following passage from early in the book was my attempt at a description of the maps I drew.
From an aeroplane the three main islands of the St. Hauda’s Land archipelago looked like the swatted corpse of a blob-eyed insect. The thorax was Gurm Island, all marshland and wooded hills. The neck was a natural aqueduct with weathered arches through which the sea flushed, leading to the eye. That was the towering but drowsy hill of Lomdendol Tor on Lomdendol Island which (local supposition had it) first squirted St. Hauda’s Land into being. The legs were six spurs of rock extending from the south-west coast of Gurm Island, trapping the sea in sandy coves between them. The wings were a wind torn flotilla of uninhabited granite islets in the north. The tail’s sting was the sickle-shaped Ferry Island in the east, the quaint little town of Glamsgallow a drop of poison welling on its tip.
- from The Girl with Glass Feet
I also had a go at sketching the landscapes, with mixed success. Sometimes it helped to build a sense of place, sometimes it just confused it or frustrated me because I couldn’t capture what I was imagining. I had another go recently, but St Hauda’s Land is still difficult to draw. I like to think of it like St Brendan’s Island or Hy-Brazil – eerie islands discovered once by sailors lost in the fog, then never ever found again.
Happy New Year everyone! This month sees the release of the US paperback of The Girl with Glass Feet, so over the next few weeks I’ll be writing in response to some of the questions I’m most often asked about the book. How I came to write it, what and where inspired it, what other books influenced it. and more . If you have any questions of your own you’d like me to address, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. I also have a new sketchbook to break in, so hope to post some drawings to accompany the aforementioned posts.
In the meantime I’ve been doing some New Year tidying of this site, and have linked to some online publicity I did for the US hardback last year. The five posts below each lead to an interview or article related to the novel. I don’t think all of them have been mentioned on this blog before, so there may be some that are new to you if you’re interested.
Here you can listen to me talking about the novel with Liane Hansen on NPR.
I wrote a piece for Beatrice.com about that surreal medical condition of yesteryear, the Glass Delusion…
Follow the link to read an interview I did with Reuters.