Praise for LITTLE BIRD:
'Hauntingly beautiful and emotionally truthful' Marie Claire
'Brilliantly executed - it's simply impossible to put down' Cosmopolitan
‘This sad, thoughtful tale is a refreshing look at language and relationships as you’re drawn into Elodie’s unique view of the world. Great pace, a dramatic plot and constant changes of location suggest this will be a summer hit.’
Praise for THE DEAD OF SUMMER:
The tale has all the right ingredients…the pace is compelling, and a clever double twist makes for a satisfying climax. Way writes clearly and evocatively, with a kind of tough lyricism.
Joanne Harris, The Washington Post
‘A modern day classic in the making’ Dazed & Confused
‘A beautifully written descent into darkness’ Glamour
‘So addictive you’ll devour it in one greedy gulp’ Cosmopolitan
‘Creepy, clever, compelling…absolutely superb' Arena
'Prepare to be gripped by this brilliantly haunting novel' Grazia
‘An amazing debut’ New Woman
‘This compelling psychological thriller is a real hair-raising read thanks to the gritty realistic writing' She magazine
'Way has just 'Got It'. The London Paper
Q: What inspired you to write Little Bird
A: I was intrigued by cases of ‘feral children’ – children who have, for one reason or another, grown up isolated from society – locked away by family members or found running wild with wolves or littlepacks of dogs, or left to fend for themselves in the jungle or outback. What especially interested me was society’s reaction when their stories came to light. The media likens them to wild beasts or savages; they’re a source of morbid fascination and fear. I found some extraordinary stories. Most of these children emerge from their exile or captivity unable to speak, and they are rarely successfully rehabilitated. The more cases I unearthed, the more I wondered if such a child could ever go on to function in normal society, form relationships with other people and so on. These questions planted the seed of an idea for Little Bird. Why do you think there is such a long-term interest in these cases? The idea of the ‘wild child’ has fascinated us throughout history, ever since the legend of Romulus and Remus. There are many examples of feral children in literature and we all remember fairytales about children lost in the woods. When a real-life case hits the news – children raised by wolves, kept in chicken coops, locked in cellars, unable to communicate in anything but grunts and yelps – the media furore is extraordinary. I guess part of it is fear: are we, beneath our social niceties, basically savages? People are frightened of that fine line between beast and human. It’s the whole Lord of the Flies
thing – stripped of civilisation, how long would it take us to revert to our baser instincts? One of the main themes of the book is the question of what makes us human – what separates us from animals. Language, a sense of self, the ability to feel emotion, to fall in love – as well as darker impulses, such as premeditated murder. These are all themes I wanted to explore in Little Bird
Q: Did you have to do a great deal of research? What did this involve?
A: The main thing I had to research was how we acquire language. ‘Feral’ or ‘socially confined’ children – children who’ve never learnt to speak – offer scientists a fascinating insight into how our brains work. How we learn to speak is one of the most fiercely debated issues in cognitive science. To what extent is language innate or learnt? Do we mimic others, parrot-fashion, or is it built into our biological make-up? I learnt about the ‘Critical Period’ theory, the belief that, if we haven’t acquired language by a certain age (the onset of puberty) we will never be able to do so because of how our brain develops; its hemispheric growth and lateralisation. After puberty a person will be able to acquire basic vocabulary but will never master syntax or grammar, so won’t be able to string complete sentences together. In Little Bird
, Elodie is aged two when snatched, so her brain would already have begun to acquire very basic language, plus she escapes the forest before puberty. I also found out that, when learning to communicate, the human brain has more in common with the songbird than it has with the ape. That’s what gave me the idea for Elodie’s ability to mimic birdsong.
Q: Often, the world that Elodie finds after the forest is more brutal than the one she left behind. Why is this?
A: From reading about real-life cases, I began to wonder how the media interest, plus all the focus from various doctors, carers, brain specialists, speech therapists, etc. would affect such a child. What if one of these doctors was more interested in their own glory than the child’s welfare? One of the main themes of the book is Elodie’s quest to gain control over her own life, to establish her own identity. Both Mathias and Ingrid make use of Elodie, to an extent. This control is symbolised by two green dresses, the first one, in the forest with Mathias, the second at the conference with Ingrid. The theme of control pops up throughout the book (later Elodie passes a young prostitute dressed in green shorts), as does the question of identity. After leaving America, Elodie/Kate often struggles with the idea of how she appears to others, sleeping with various men to gain a sense of self, or feeling as though others see her as a blank canvas, or a mirror. Even Frank’s love for her is initially based on his own projected, idealistic view of her. Of course, Elodie/Kate/Little Bird spends the book trying to find out who she is and as the story enfolds we gradually see her gaining control over her own life. It was important that Elodie does this for herself and on her own terms, before Frank returns at the end.
Q: What effect do you think language has on identity?
A: Language is something we all take very much for granted, until perhaps we go to a foreign country – but even then we have our own, internal dialogue to help us place ourselves in the world. Although we think in both words and pictures, language, of course, enables us to express ourselves; our desires and needs, gives us a ‘voice’ in every sense of the word, to negotiate our place in society. Elodie learns language at the same time as she discovers the world. Unlike Frank’s sections, I wrote the Elodie/Kate parts of the book in the present tense. I did this to convey a sense of immediacy, to show how Elodie is encountering the world for the first time while simultaneously acquiring the ability to label it and express how she feels about it.
Q: The pictures of the three south London boys, and especially Frank, are very moving, particularly their struggle to make something of themselves, to make sense of adult life.
A: I wanted a parallel story to run alongside Elodie/Kate’s that was more accessible, more easy to identify with. I was interested in the idea of what would happen if an ordinary person fell in love with someone like Elodie. How would they cope with her past? But also, although Elodie’s story is extraordinary, far out of the realms of our everyday experience, everyone’s life is extraordinary to the person living it. Frank has his own demons to face. Unlike Elodie’s sections, his parts of the book are in the past tense because to an extent, he is stuck in the past, forever suspended in the moment of his father’s abandonment. And just like Elodie he’s trying to find himself, to grow up and build a life for himself. All three of the boys are, like Elodie, dealing with issues of identity and acceptance, love and adulthood. The three boys, who until now are held in a kind of perpetual adolescence, are forced to sink or swim, as Elodie is – as we all are, sooner or later.
Q: The London scenes are very evocative. Where did you find your inspiration for such interesting, lively descriptions of people and places?
A: A large part of Little Bird
is set in south-east London where I grew up, although I’ve lived all over the city at various stages of my life. The characters in the novel, especially the three boys, though not based on anyone in particular are I guess, based on the kinds of people I have grown up with and lived around all my life. Just ordinary, down-to-earth people. As for the setting, I love writing about London, it’s a city I think I’ll never get bored with trying to describe. In Little Bird
, I wanted to put across two different views of the city: one through the eyes of someone like Frank, who has lived in the same area all his life, and one from an immigrant’s standpoint who might see the city very differently, as a place of flux and transience, its inhabitants ever changing, as experienced by Elodie.
Q: Little Bird
leaves us wondering what becomes of Frank and Kate after the final page. Do they live happily ever after?
A: I’ll leave that for the reader to decide but I think they both have a lot of living and growing up to do before they settle down to marriage and kids! I like to think that whatever happens, whether they end up together or not, they’ll continue to look after each other.
Q: This is your second novel. It’s notoriously hard to write the second one, did you find it difficult?
A: Yes. I didn’t make things easier for myself by choosing an incredibly complicated structure and subject matter. It’s written from two different perspectives, in two different tenses, in three different countries, over a time-span of 20-odd years. What was I thinking?! The hardest parts to write were Elodie’s sections, before she learnt language. I soon discovered that it was a huge challenge to write about someone who has no words, could have no internal dialogue and with whom I could not rely on the crutch of other people’s speech to describe what was going on. Everything Elodie experienced had to be described in the form of sensory perceptions, or impressions, or feelings, or instincts. It was the old creative writing adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ pushed to its limits! Whether I pulled it off or not, it was a valuable learning exercise. Writing my first book, The Dead of Summer
, was more of an instinctive process; it almost wrote itself, but I think I spent much of Little Bird
learning the craft of writing, and it was just a much more experimental kind of book.
Q: What is your favourite novel of all time?
A: Probably Hangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton. It was written in 1941 and set between the wars. Hamilton’s writing is bleakly poetic. I love the way he writes about London; his sense of place is so woven into the plight of his characters. I think it’s a masterpiece. I’m very drawn to writers of this period, for instance Graham Greene, Carson McCullers and John Steinbeck, all of whom, like Hamilton, have a superb sense of place, almost as if the setting is one more character in the book. There is an outward simplicity and lyricism that they all share and together they have created some of the most memorable characters of the last century. I also like the poetry of this period; TS Eliot and Philip Larkin for example.
Q: Have you any thoughts on what the subject matter will be for your next novel?
A: Yes. I won’t give too much away, but setting-wise I’m moving to the West End of London for this one. It’s a whodunit set in the dark heart of the city. Watch this space.