It's been 12 long years since fantasist Franny Billingsley's last book, The Folk Keeper, was published to critical acclaim. Her fans have been waiting patiently, and this year's Chime has been pronounced well worth it. The story of betrayal and love, set in a swamp and populated by some of the smartest characters teen literature has seen, is both lushly told and diabolically funny. We summed it up in one word: “Delicious.” Billingsley took some time to talk to us about the genesis of Chime, her process and what comes next.
Find more great books that are good for a laugh among our 2011 Best Books for Teens.
Your first two novels were written for a rather young audience than Chime's—what made you decide to move into writing for teenagers?
Well, I guess it's an evolution and sort of instinctive. When I first started, my protagonist was 12 and the sibling was a little brother. It was a changeling story in which the girl had to get into fairyland to rescue the brother.
But I simply couldn't make that story work. Part of it was that I couldn't figure out what fairyland looked like. I did all this research—volcanoes and weird rock formations and whatnot, the thing I did know was that it wouldn't be the traditional fairyland with lush trees and little tinkling bells—and although I worked on trying to get a handle on fairyland for a long time, all my ideas were imposed upon it. It didn't arise organically from the story, or maybe a better way of putting it is that it didn't relate to the story in any organic way.
I really don't remember how I came up with the idea of the swamp, but once I did, it worked wonderfully because the swamp is organic to the story.
And why is Briony no longer 12 when she's in the swamp? I guess I have to say it's just instinct. It felt as though the setting belonged to an older character. I don't know how to explain it any better than that. So there's a long non-answer to a short question!
I love the Swampsea—it is not only organic to the story, but it's practically a character in its own right. How did you conceive of it, as you moved away from Fairyland? Why a swamp?
I think initially because swamps are so creepy and misty and just the kind of place I love to write about. And then as I started researching swamps, I stumbled upon the lore of the British Fenlands, whose history I appropriated for the novel.
Many attempts have been made to drain the fens, and the equivalent of the Boggy Mun (called the Tiddy Mun) gets mad and it turns out that engineers are found drowned in the bogs and whatnot. So the swamp and all its creatures pre-existed the story.
I guess the answer is that I thought a swamp would be cool, and once I looked into it and the folklore behind it, it just all lined up perfectly.
Can we talk about Briony? She's so prickly and self-hating but incredibly funny at the same time. She can say things we all want to say about our annoying siblings—"How has Rose lived for seventeen years and no one has ever killed her, not once?"—but don't. What was it like writing such a shockingly smart and honest character?
It was thrilling... once I became able to do it. It takes a long time for me to find the character's voice, and once I understood her guilt and the fact that she believed herself to be a witch, her voice emerged, and I'd find myself snatching these things from her mouth.
It didn't take courage, if that's what you're thinking. It took courage to slog away at the manuscript, never knowing if the character will come alive, but once she did, I had a really fantastic time putting her thoughts on paper. I'd think—yes, that's exactly what Briony would say, and I'd get a little chill that I could know her so well.
I hope teens respond to her. It's going to take a fairly sophisticated reader, I think, so maybe they'll identify with her intelligence, too.
What about the Eldric-Briony-Leanne triangle? Was that fun to write?
Yes! Leanne actually didn't come into the story until rather late in the writing of it, and once she did, it gave the book a kind of energy it had lacked. My editor kept wanting me to heighten the tension, let Leanne have more of the story, which worked well in so many ways because Briony recognizes that she's jealous, and then she has to worry that she's going to do some horrible witchy thing.
I really love Eldric and would like to go out with him, myself, and so it was easy and actually pretty fun to imagine what Briony might feel. I do love the romance part.
Were you sad to finish the book and having to say goodbye to Briony and Eldric?
I was delighted to send them out of my life! Or maybe I should rather say that I was so happy that I finally finished this book, of which I am proud, after 12 years, during many of which I doubted I could really do it. But one kind of interesting thing is that during those 12 years, I've come up with ideas for other novels, and once I surrendered Briony & Co. to Penguin I had a revelation: The stories of these books belong in Briony's world. Not sequels but, say, companion books, set later in time.
So, one, maybe it won't take me 12 years since I've set up the world, and, two, it's pretty amazing to think that my unconscious had been working away on this idea for a long time. Maybe I always knew it but didn't know I knew it. So I'm returning to the world of the Old Ones, just in a different way.
Maybe it's like sending a kid off to college—you love the kid, but you're also ready to have them leave. And if things have gone right, they're ready, too. I know that Briony's ready.