Interview: Marcus Sedgwick – Held To Ransome
The Independent on Sunday
Russia has entranced Marcus Sedgwick since childhood. As a baby his mother staved off boredom by teaching herself the language. As a teenager in the early 1980s, his parents visited the country, returning with amazing stories of friendly people that fired the imagination of the future children’s author.
Most of all, the author of nine novels – including the 2003 Carnegie Gold Medal-winner The Dark Horse and My Swordhand is Singing, nominated for the same award this year – was drawn to the country by Old Peter’s Russian Tales, written by the recipient of the first Carnegie Medal in 1936, Arthur Ransome. “I remember reading it at grammar school when I was about 11,” he recalls. “I would read it and then go back to the beginning and reread it.” What drew him were not just the gruesome tales of Baba Yaga, the iron-toothed witch, and firebirds killed by hoary old Tsars, but Ransome’s linking narrative about Old Peter and his grandchildren. ” There is a bit at the end of the story ‘Frost’ where he describes how the children and their grandfather blow on their spoons as they eat soup. It is just wonderful,” Sedgwick says admiringly.
Sedgwick’s latest novel, Blood Red, Snow White, out next month, unites his love of Russia and Ransome. It is a mesmerising retelling of Ransome’s time in Russia during the Revolution, and should appeal to adults as well as Sedgwick’s loyal band of teenage readers. It is based on Ransome’s love affair with Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, whom he later married and who smuggled three million roubles’ worth of diamonds and pearls out of Russia. Revelations about the diamonds, and British secret service suspicions that the Swallows and Amazons author was a Bolshevik spy, inspired the book.
“I remembered there had been a bit in Hugh Brogan’s  biography asking, ‘exactly what did he do in Russia?’” explains Sedgwick, who does a mean impression of another supposed spy in his band the International Band of Mystery, “the South’s premier Austin Powers tribute experience” .
Sedgwick drew on Ransome’s autobiography and diaries to create the narrative, which weaves in historical fact, Russian folklore and a classic ripping yarn of espionage and romance, as well as a cast of characters that includes Lenin, Trotsky and a threatening Karl Radek. A drunken, whoring Rasputin makes a memorable, if fleeting appearance, alongside bands of wild gypsies and uptight British diplomats.
Sedgwick’s Ransome is full of charm: from his ability to fall in love at drop of a hat to his blithe naivety as he strides across St Petersburg while bombs and bullets are flying about. For those who of us who loved his children’s books, it redeems Ransome from the image of a bitter curmudgeon who refused to acknowledge the Altounyan children as inspiration for his most famous work.
How did Sedgwick feel about his hero by the time he finished the book? ” I ended up feeling there were two Arthur Ransomes: the young one is truly quite likeable; and the old one is rather irascible, to put it nicely.” He adds: “You read his accounts of wandering about St Petersburg as grenades are being thrown around – in one bit someone waves a pistol in his face – and he is so matter-of-fact. I don’t think it is bravado, I think it is just that he was an innocent abroad.”
The incident with the pistol features in the second section of Blood Red, Snow White, which is split into three, and opens with a retelling of the Russian Revolution in the style of one of Old Peter’s tales. The final section, narrated by Arthur, tells of his return to Russia to rescue Evgenia. The complex structure reflects a determined effort by Sedgwick to break away from linear, fictionalised biography. It was a rod for his own back: he destroyed the first draft and started again from scratch after the first version morphed into exactly what he wanted to avoid. “I go cold at the thought of it now,” he says with a shudder.
“When you talk about rewriting, it usually doesn’t mean completely redrafting. But literally with this one all that is left of the first version is a few passages in part three.” Looking back, he believes that the false start was necessary. “I think I was only able to write it as it is now because I got that out of my system. When I started again I felt very confident writing the first part, which I hasten to add is an unusual feeling. I don’t always feel so sure about what I am writing, but with this I felt really calm and happy and had a sense that I was doing the right thing.”
I suggest that he may also have struggled because aspects of Ransome’s story hit close to home. Ransome had a disastrous first marriage to Ivy Walker, which produced one child, Tabitha. It was a miserable union: she was a fantasist who took lovers, he an escapist who eventually abandoned his family for Russia where Ivy was unable to follow. His relationship with Tabitha became strained to breaking point.
Broken marriages and estranged children have resonance in Sedgwick’s own life: he has a 12-year old daughter, Alice, from his first marriage: “I am very lucky, my ex-wife and I have always got on very well and we both realised that what was most important was our child.” Blood Red, Snow White. is dedicated to Alice.
“The moment of losing your daughter, as Arthur experienced, really struck me,” he adds. Witnessing what happened to his father increased the impact. “My dad didn’t see his daughter for seven years, though they got back together and were very happy until he died. In Ransome’s case he and Tabitha never patched it up and it all went sour.” Though Tabitha appears in the third section of Blood Red, Snow White, Sedgwick glosses over the bitterness that grew between them – a quarrel about her sale of his personal library was never resolved. Sedgwick acknowledges the criticism: “I have done a bit of a gloss, but I stayed true to what happened. But the book is meant to be happy and there is no way I could pretend their relationship ended well, so all I do is hint at it.”
Sadness, death and estrangement are not new to Sedgwick, who in typically self-effacing manner describes his previous work as “Goth froth”. Though vampires, Cassandra-like seers and witches may regularly feature, his topics range from the First World War to teenage dislocation; his novels are far from froth and he has been well rewarded on the children’s book prize circuit.
What draws him to death? “I find it fascinating,” admits the former Goth. “I actually find it really amusing, though when I tell people, I can see them looking at me out of the side of their eyes.” He laughs, but there is a serious purpose in his obsession. “To me it is the most important subject. Until you sort out your feelings about it, you can’t get on with anything else.” Fairy tales and fiction provide a safe place in which to face death. Echoing Ransome’s introduction to Old Peter’s Russian Tales, he says: “Fairytales were not written for children, they were written for everyone. That is why you come across dark and brutal things in there.” The young Ransome would have agreed. s
‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’ is published by Jane Nissen Books. ‘Blood Red, Snow White’ is published by Orion on 27 July
Kidult novels: Crossover books which span the generation gap
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling
As Harry turned 13, the storyline became darker and more complex, and grown-ups wanted to know what all the fuss was about
The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger
Beloved by book burners everywhere as well as teenagers and adults who hate phoneys with as much venom as the 16-year-old narrator
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Teenage would-be sleuth Christopher has Asberger’s syndrome. A witty, heartbreaking insight into family life
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Secret codes, strange visions, sacred moons and Roman soldiers talking like squaddies. A tough read for teenagers, but adults know it’s all about sex
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Epic fantasy satirising religion, with gay angels, cute daemons and a kick-ass heroine to boot. Everything your inner teenager craves to read about
Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
A fight for equality in a society where the noughts (light-skinned people) are oppressed by the all-powerful crosses (those with dark skins)