Sally Prue on the influence of her childhood on her latest novel, Song Hunter: the story of a girl at the dawn of the Ice Age.
‘Hm,’ said my husband Roger. ‘This is a very autobiographical novel, isn’t it.’
Now the startling thing about Roger’s comment is that the book in question was my novel Song Hunter; and Song Hunter is not only a book inhabited almost entirely by Neanderthals, but it’s set 40,000 years ago at the beginning of the last Ice Age.
So, you may ask, were you brought up in a cave? Eating mammoths?
Oh, and just think of the publicity if only I could answer yes. Sadly, however, I was brought up in a 1930s semi-detached house eating mostly, as seem to I recall, custard.
Song Hunter is a very autobiographical novel, though, all the same. Amanda Craig from The Times described the book as a clash between species, and that does describe my childhood brilliantly.
So, were you brought up by wild dogs, then?
Er … hedgehogs?
Well, I think that probably ostriches would be the nearest I could get. The thing is, I turned out to be not at all what my family was expecting.
I suppose I must have seemed all right to start with, when my parents adopted me, but I was only six months old at the time and couldn’t talk. Learning to talk was when the trouble started.
Why? I asked, constantly. Why? Why?
My mother did her best to keep me … what? Respectable? Acceptable? Perhaps merely quiet; but putting a lid on me just sent me shooting frantically in ever crazier directions, like rhubarb.
The basic trouble was that my mother didn’t understand the word why. To be quite frank, she didn’t even get reality in the way most of us understand the word.
Her assumption, as far as I could ever make it out, was that everything in her world was exactly as she wanted it to be.
That meant that I couldn’t trust a word she said. It wasn’t that she told lies, I don’t think she often did that; it was more that for her, reality was nothing to do with, well, facts. For instance, she was always adamant that her hair was fair. It was actually dark brown (she didn’t dye it: as far as she was concerned there was no need). It was just that she liked the idea of having fair hair, and so as far as she was concerned that was what she had.
Yes, it is hard to believe. It was hard to accept, too. Soon, instead of just saying why, I started saying but, as well. Things got extremely frustrating. We were each doggedly defending our own view of the world while at the same time threatening to blow the other’s sky-high.
I grew incensed and fretful, and my mother coped by dismissing more or less everything I valued. Music (nothing like as good as Victor Sylvester (she’d once danced with Victor Sylvester, she said—and, indeed, she may have done)); art (can’t draw) poetry (just words that rhyme) books (keep her quiet).
And how did it all turn out in the end? Did my poor mother ever win me over to her world-view?
Well, no, of course she didn’t. She inspired me to rebellion. She made me passionate about the importance of both logic and the arts. She made me cling onto books and pictures and music and plays as my greatest treasures. She made me quite evangelical about them, especially as far as poor family-imprisoned children were concerned.
My mother convinced me that the more real and beautiful something was, the more it was worth fighting for.
So, yes, my husband Roger was right. Song Hunter, which is about living in a family which doesn’t even wish to understand its children, and also about art transforming and even saving lives, is a very autobiographical story indeed.
Sally Prue is a writer for children of all ages, from picture books up to Young Adult fiction.
Her day jobs have included being a Time and Motion person, an accompanist, and a piano and recorder teacher.
Sally is married, has two grown up daughters, and lives on the edge of a small but very beautiful wood in Hertfordshire.
Song Hunter is out now.
Visit the Song Hunter blog, where Sally has been sharing fascinating insights into the Ice Age based on her research.