Lindsay Littleson’s latest novel – Secrets of the Last Merfolk – has just hit the shelves. Sarah Broadley ADORED it, and managed to track down Lindsay for this wonderful, wonderful interview.
Grab a cuppa & enjoy…
1. The merfolk see the world in a totally different way to humans, how did you plan their characters in comparison to the two human main characters, Sage and Finn, that readers love?
I used historical fact as the basis for my merfolk legend, and to explain their feelings of loss and homesickness. At the end of the Ice Age, a huge tsunami swept over a massive landmass known as Doggerland, one of the richest hunting and fishing grounds in Europe, and drowned the land and all its inhabitants. I imagined that a few survivors adapted to life in the sea and became merfolk, who still carry memories of their long-ago lives in the Land Time. So, I imagined them as melancholy, weighed down by their memories and by a terrible secret. They have no time for fun and take their responsibilities in the Undersea very seriously. As Muir, one of the merchildren says: “When we merfolk realised we could live forever, we wondered what we should do with our time. We chose to live our lives caring for the creatures of the shore and the sea.” The exception is Cuan, the youngest of the merchildren, who is fun-loving and mischievous, not unlike the human character’s younger siblings, Ava and Taj.
As with the unicorns in Guardians of the Wild Unicorns, it was very important to me that the merfolk in Secrets of the Last Merfolk were neither cute nor sparkly. I doodled them first, as I wanted to be able to see them in my head…more alien than Ariel.
‘Their camouflage was incredibly effective, their grey-green skin merging seamlessly with the lichen blooming on the rocks. Their wet, straggly hair hung to their shoulders, the texture and colour of seaweed. As Sage drew nearer, she could see their pointed chins and wide eyes the colour of green sea-glass.’
2. Secrets of the Last Merfolk is set in a fictional seaside place – Dunlyre. Is this based on anywhere you know? Have you spent much time near the sea? Did you need to do much research for the amazing caves and natural inlets described so well in the novel?
Dunlyre is based on the lovely seaside village of Dunure, near Alloway on the West Coast of Scotland. I’d chosen it as a setting even before I came up with the merfolk story, and made several research trips there, to take photos of the ruined clifftop castle, rocky beach and little harbour, all of which appear in Secrets of the Last Merfolk. There’s something really inspiring and romantic about the place, and the gruesome history of the castle was fascinating, though the tale of the Abbot’s roasting was too gory to include in the book!
I made the decision to change the name of the village when I needed to add some fictional elements, like the Grey Isle and Whin Bay, the rocky cove where Sage and Finn first encounter the merchildren. I love the west coast of Scotland, with its stunning islands and beautiful beaches, and spend as much time as possible on Cumbrae, my favourite small island in the world, so the coastal descriptions came easily.
3. The fantastical elements to this story only add to the electric atmosphere of every bump in Sage and Finn’s journey as they keep the secrets in check amid their determination to succeed? When this idea first came to you, was it the human or merfolk element that unravelled first?
My ideas for the human characters, their family relationships and the building tension over the adults’ opposing views on the harbour development formed first.
I was keen to write a main character whose parents are going through a divorce, and who is struggling to cope with the resulting changes. Finn’s parents’ divorce is fairly amicable, but he feels his life has been turned upside down, and he is angry with the adults in his life, particularly with his new stepmother, Lizzy. Stepmothers tend to be the baddies in children’s literature, and I thought it would be much more interesting to make Lizzy a perfectly nice woman, but one who is being seen through the lens of Finn’s resentment. It was important to me that readers could empathise or sympathise with Finn, even when he was being bad tempered or behaving badly, which is why some of the chapters are from his perspective
Sage provided contrast, as she is very secure in her family life, and she was a joy to write. She comes across as quite a serious, responsible girl, quite merfolkish really, but we discover that she is keeping a massive, rebellious secret from the rest of her family. I loved creating Sage’s lovely, warm-hearted parents and her little brother Taj. The younger siblings are the focus for a lot of the humour in the book.
Of course, although my human characters came first, my story is a fantasy adventure, and merfolk seemed the perfect mythical creatures for a seaside-based book.
4. You were inspired to use beautiful Scottish Gaelic names in this novel, can you explain a little about their meaning and why you chose them?
I chose sea themed names for the merfolk, because the Gaelic words are lovely and I wanted my merfolk to have unusual but appropriate names. The three merchildren are Traigh (Try) which means beach, Muir (Moor) meaning sea and Cuan (Koo-an), meaning ocean. Mol’s name has two different meanings; shingle (as a noun); and praise, pay tribute (as a verb), and the verb seemed particularly apt for the chief of the merfok. Eilean (Ai-lan) means island. The merfolk’s previous home, the one to which they long to return, is called Cianalas (Kee-an-alus), a Gaelic word meaning homesickness, longing or nostalgia.
Easgann Mor (Is-gun Mor) simply means Great Eel, and I think she is my scariest antagonist so far!
5. What is your favourite legend/mythical creature? For example, the Loch Ness monster, among others, is mentioned in your novel (no spoilers!)?
My favourite Scottish legend is about a mermaid-type creature called the Ceasg (pronounced kee-ask). She is said to have the upper half of a beautiful woman and the tail of a salmon and can be found in the sea, rivers and streams in the Highlands of Scotland. Excitingly, if she is captured, the Ceasg has the ability to grant three wishes. In the legends, she never stays on land forever, but always returns to the sea. One to look out for if you’re in need of three wishes, and who isn’t?
6. From The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean, The Titanic Detective Agency, Guardians of the Wild Unicorns and so many more of your amazing novels for children, what’s next for Lindsay Littleson?
The Rewilders is coming out with Cranachan Books in March 2022, and is an adventure story with lots of humour about two children and a ridiculous dog, who are catapulted into a dangerous mission to rewild Cora, a young lynx. Here’s a sneak peak-
“She has released a pack of wolves? Jeez.” Under her freckles, Esme’s skin had turned pale. “Remind me never to go for a walk anywhere near that estate.”
Callum chewed on his lip, unsure how to break the bad news. “The problem is, Esme, that’s what we’re about to do. Thanks to Sadie and Jean here, one of the female lynx is missing a kitten. And they’d like us to take it back to Rothiecraig”
I’ve two brand new stories on the go. One is a fun spy caper set in several European capital cities and the other has a more serious storyline about a boy coping with his grandmother’s dementia. Lockdown really affected my ability to focus on writing, and even to think creatively, and it is such a pleasure and relief to finally be able to write again.