I do my best to temper excessive fan-dom, at least in public, over my favorite authors and illustrators, but the work of author and Oxford fellow Katherine Rundell simply makes me want to gush. Once I read The Wolf Wilder, published in 2015 (which I wrote about here), I was hooked and knew I wanted to backtrack and read the award-winning novels she’d previously written. This didn’t take long, as there were a total of two. I enjoyed them immensely; Rundell is a superb writer, and these stories really stayed with me. (The moment of finding a new favorite author is one of life's greatest things.)
So it was with excitement that I read a galley of The Explorer, which hits shelves mid-September. I loved it. It’s a survival story, borne from a trip to the Amazon that Rundell herself made years ago. Fred, Con, Lila, and Max are four children stranded in the Amazon jungle after their plane crashes. When, midway through the book, they meet a mysterious man, their one opportunity to make it back home comes with a realization: the hidden city they encounter in the jungle, and this wise but jaded explorer they have found there, must remain a secret. It’s a compelling story of staying alive, embracing vulnerability, finding bravery while shirking heroism, and learning to pay attention – oh, and snackin’ on arachnids.
I was pleased to have an opportunity to talk to Rundell, who herself is currently learning to pilot (“I can take off, but not land, which is less than ideal,” she says), about the new novel.
Jules: I am filled with questions, but I'm dying to know first: Have you ever eaten a tarantula? Something tells me perhaps you have.
Katherine: I wish I could say yes. But, alas, not. I went to the Amazon a few years ago and spent most of the time on a survival course, learning how not to die in the rainforest. It was, by some margin, the most beautiful and exciting place I've ever been. I did learn how to lure and trap a tarantula, but I was not allowed to eat it. But if ever I have the chance to go back, it will be tarantulas for dinner.
Jules: Is this trip where the story for The Explorer was born?
Katherine: Yes! I'd always wanted to see the Amazon River, ever since I'd read Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea as a child. When I got there, it was staggering, the kind of beauty that knocks you sideways, and I knew I wanted to set a story there. It's a place that's both entrancing and dangerous at once, which seemed the ideal place for an adventure. And I've always loved survival books -- books like Hatchet, in which, through ingenuity and grit, children stay alive against the odds.
Jules: I love that about this novel, but I also like what the explorer himself brings to the story – his notions of taking care of our planet, of leaving some things a mystery, of not being a man who, as he puts it, loots from the land and its history – and encourages the children to be the same. (“Encourage” is probably the wrong word, since he tells them he simply won’t help them if they don’t keep silent about where they were.) Did you start out writing an adventure/survival story and, surprisingly, he showed up? Or did you know all along you wanted that to be an important layer to this story?
Katherine: I knew all along that the explorer would be important. He is the kind of character that I love writing -- sardonic and urbane, with secrets. (It's never spelled out, but in my head, he is fabulously handsome.) In fact, in early drafts he turned up earlier, but I wanted to give the children time to really feel the wildness and fear of being alone. And I wanted to have an adult character who defied the usual expectations of adults, one who says things like or I'll cut off your ears and give them to the vulture to wear as a hat -- and means it.
Jules: Yes. He was a breath of fresh air. And he also says things like, “If you get truly famished, you’ll start feeling like a French playwright, and that’s unwise,” which made me laugh out loud.
You know, for all of Fred’s desires at first to tell everyone all about the island once he made it home, and the explorer fighting him on that, I felt that they had one thing in common: In the beginning of the book, Fred talks about liking the idea “that there’s still things that we don’t know” and about believing in “large and wild things.” Later, the explorer talks about some kinds of knowledge being vulnerable, requiring “great care.” It’s like I kept rooting for Fred to remember that he already knew instinctively that the island should remain a secret.
Katherine: Fred knows the fragile beauty of the world is in need of our protection, but he also desperately wants to prove himself, particularly to his father. He wants the world to know what he has found. He, after all, was the one who discovered the map. Keeping your own bravery a secret is very hard.
Jules: I like when the explorer tells Fred that, if an adult tells you that you will understand everything when you are older, you are being lied to. “Some things, in fact, I think you never understand.” When I was young, I used to wonder at the conversations adults had at parties, all of which were happening in the next room, and I wasn’t allowed to join. I used to think surely they were speaking great wisdoms, and I remember feeling disappointed, once I grew up, that some of those adult conversations weren’t as brilliant as I thought they’d all be.
Katherine: I remember that exact feeling of watching something incomprehensible, while adults talked. But I think my primary feeling was more dismay that their conversations seemed so dull and anxious, compared to mine with my friends, when I was nine or ten. Those were mostly about trees, and horses, and small collectible plastic dogs. I used to fear adulthood would be a grey grind. In fact, I prefer being an adult to being a child: I love the glorious autonomy of it. But I do miss the conversations about horses.
Jules: On that note, do you remember most of your childhood vividly? One thing I really like about your novels is your honesty with regard to the emotional lives of children. For instance, I was struck at the end of this one when Con tells the explorer that, at home, she sometimes wishes people were dead, to which he responds, “That’s something that the human heart does. … It bites. Don’t let it panic you. It will pass, that specific kind of wishing.” I appreciate that honesty. And though I’m no longer a child reading this, I would think children would really appreciate that.
Katherine: I do! I remember it in immense detail, and I remember my childhood as being at once a glowing and difficult time. There was so much that I loved. I grew up in part in Zimbabwe, and the wild freedom I had then still, I think, acts as an engine to my days. That raw happiness that is possible in childhood is such a gift. But I also remember being dismayed, when I was between seven and thirteen, when people repeatedly told me childhood was the happiest time in life. There is so much of the world that feels opaque and impenetrable at that age, and you are so dependent on the unruly race of adults. Children are fierce, passionate creatures. I think sometimes we treat children and their lives as far more simple than they could possibly be; I want my books, if possible, to act against that impulse.
Jules: This is one thing I really enjoy about your prose, what you just captured there.
I kept underlining favorite parts in this book, and many of them had to do with paying attention. I like how that thread wove throughout the story – how attention and love are “so closely allied as to be almost indistinguishable”; how exploring is “nothing more than the paying of attention, writ large” and how even paying attention keeps us safe; and, my favorite, when the explorer tells the children that love at first sight is merely recognition: “It’s instant knowledge: that this is a person who will make your heart larger … The same applies to places.” I don’t know that I have a question here, except to just express how much I liked that in the book ….
… though I am dying to know if tarantulas really do start to whistle like teakettles when you cook them over a fire.
Katherine:Thank you! That's very good, indeed, to hear. That link, between love and attention, is both something my mother showed us when we were very young, but it also comes from the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, whose moral philosophy I very much admire. She draws on Simone Weil to suggest that attention is intricately connected to a just and loving vision; I find that idea so compelling.
And tarantulas do, indeed, whistle! There are videos of it on YouTube.
Jules: One last question, because I'm curious: What's next on your plate?
Katherine: I'm currently working on five different things at once -- some film work, a nonfiction project for adults. But most importantly, a new stand-alone novel and a picture book. It's my second picture book. The first, One Christmas Wish, is out next year in America. The second one is about a zebra. Writing them is some of the most fun I've ever had.
Thank you so much for such wonderful questions! I've had such a great time talking books and tarantulas with you.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.