Siblings, Structure and Pandas with Gail Aldwin

Nov 29, 2020 | Reviews

I recently enjoyed ‘The String Games‘ by Gail Aldwin. Personally, I think it’s better to go into a book ‘blind,’ so I had no expectations. Right from the off I was drawn into this story of complex family relationships and tragedy. It’s all done with a very light touch, and I was taken back to childhood times with her sensitive framing of the narrative through the eyes of a young girl who grows throughout the book. Wanting to know more about how it was put together, I spoke to the author to find out how she put it together and what advice she has for writers. Enjoy!

Blurb: When four-year-old Josh goes missing during a family holiday in France his sister Nim, aged ten, finds it difficult to cope. She carries feelings of responsibility for his loss and grows into a vulnerable teenager. In order to move forward with her life, Nim reinvents herself as Imogen. She returns to France as an adult determined to find out what really happened to Josh. How will she deal with this new information and what are the implications for her future? 

A brother/sister relationship is central to your book. Why did you choose to focus on a sibling relationship? 

I have always been fascinated by relationships within families. As a middle child, birth order also holds much interest. Siblings often enjoy a shared history in one of the most longstanding of relationships in life. From rivalry to comradeship, the sibling bond is frequently enduring. But what happens when siblings are beset by tragedy? I wanted to explore this in The String Games. I always intended a positive future for my young female protagonist who finds herself an only child once again when her little brother goes missing. The story centres on her struggle to come to terms with loss, blame, feelings of guilt and responsibility for what happened to Josh. It is as an adult that she returns to the place she last saw her brother and this enables her to address issues of unresolved grief and move on with her life. 

Gail also writes theatre and poetry and is an all-round creative type

The point of view of your novel is written from a young protagonist. How did you find taking on the ‘voice’ of a young person when writing the book? 

Writing from the viewpoint of a ten-year-old, I worked my way into this young character by remembering incidents from my own childhood and applied the thoughts and feelings from those experiences to the imagined circumstances in the novel. I found it very hard writing about the loss of a sibling. After working on the novel, I would close the door to my writing space in an attempt to gain separation from the experiences of my characters in the novel.

Using colloquial language was another challenge, particularly when writing the teenage voice. I drew upon my daughter’s experiences in secondary school to inform some of the dialogue but it took many drafts to get this right. Even the adult voice wasn’t straightforward. I think voice and character are two of the greatest challenges in writing a novel.

Apart from anything else, I love this front cover. Isn’t it great?

The structure of your book means that the whole opening section is painted over with a brilliant tension. How did you structure your story and at what point did you know this was how you wanted to structure it? 

During the drafting and redrafting process, the structure of the novel changed. It began as a linear narrative but the more I got into the writing, the more it was necessary to reveal the backstory. I started having flashbacks within flashbacks which obviously didn’t work and once the first draft was down on paper, I had to do a lot of thinking about how I could manage the different aspects of the story. Eventually, I decided to use alternating narratives from the viewpoint of ten-year-old Nim and the adult she grows up to be, twenty-three-year-old Imogen. This produced a satisfying structure, but missing the teenage years entirely from the novel seemed a mistake and particularly why there’s a name change from Nim to Imogen. As a result, I dismantled the narrative and restructured it into a three-part novel. So the middle section, the teenage years, was the last part of the narrative to be written.

Even in coming-of-age novels it’s unusual to have three stages of growing-up within one book: from child to teenager and then adult. This structure works rather like a triptych, enabling readers to become immersed in the protagonist’s emotional development. It was only when I watched the Oscar-winning film Moonlight (which follows a similar three-part structure but has a story based in a completely different context) that I felt confident this was the right approach.

My daughter and I read your wonderful ‘Pandemonium’ book three times in a row (and she wanted more). Can you tell us a little bit about it and how different it was to write a children’s book? 

This cheeky purple panda creates a truly captivating story for little eyes

Pandemonium is a full colour picture book for young children from 2–7 years. The story tells the experiences of Peta, a purple panda who lives in the toy department of a large store. Peta’s purple coat provides camouflage and enables her to get up to mischief. When an assistant sees what’s going on, she puts an end to Peta’s tricks. Peta must learn more about herself… but does this stop her fun? Of course not!

Writing Pandemonium involved considerable collaboration between writer and illustrator. In most forms of writing, the responsibility for the whole work lies with the author. By sharing input into the project, the words to tell one story and the pictures tell another, more nuanced version. Choosing the best language is the first challenge in writing for children. I didn’t want to ‘talk down’ to children so included one or two examples of advanced vocabulary and particularly words that are fun to say like pandemonium. Other features of the writing include patterned language and repetition. The number of words on the page are few and this leaves room for the visual images to fill in the blanks. Fiona Zechmeister has done a wonderful job using traditional and digital watercolours to create the illustrations. In reaching the final version, sometimes the words had to change to suit the pictures, at other times the pictures needed more detail. Through this combined effort, we have created a book which conveys an important message about always being yourself. Reviewers have also commented on how the book supports the development of early reading skills, and provides opportunities to talk about feelings.

What advice would you give to writers starting out?

There is no one piece of advice that works for everyone. I have found satisfaction in writing short fiction and poetry alongside novel writing. For me, this helps to exercise different creative muscles and gives me a sense of fulfilment in completing a task while still working on a long piece of fiction. But this doesn’t suit everyone. The most important lesson I learnt as a beginner writer was to celebrate every little success along the way, both for myself and others. Be generous as a writer by sharing information about open submission windows, competition deadlines and writing opportunities. By vicariously enjoying the successes of others, it’s possible to build the confidence that one day success will come your way, too. 

Gail Aldwin is a novelist, poet and scriptwriter. Her debut novel The String Games was a finalist in The People’s Book Prize and the DLF Writing Prize 2020. Her first children’s picture book Pandemonium is published on 1 December 2020. Gail regularly appears at literary and fringe festivals. Prior to Covid-19, Gail volunteered at Bidibidi in Uganda, the second largest refugee settlement in the world. Her home overlooks water meadows in Dorset. Find out more about Gail on her blog:



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