At the start of National Libraries Week we are delighted to welcome Sibeal Pounder to discuss her approach in researching and writing Beyond Platform 13, the brilliantly imaginative novel that re-enters Eva Ibbotson's magical world. Sibeal also discusses the Easter Eggs she interlaced through the story, how many are you able to spot?
I read the The Secret of Platform 13 for the first time when I was nine years old and fell in love with Eva Ibbotson’s stories. When I was asked to write a sequel it was incredibly surreal and very important to me that I got the heart of the book right – that it felt as much like an Eva book as possible – and that I developed the characters and world in a way I believed Eva would.
It began with research – and I started by reading and listening to every interview with Eva, and re-reading the book, hoping to find clues. I had a two-pronged approach for the initial research, which involved looking at two key areas. The first was to find any clues that hinted at how she would develop the world and characters. For example, in the The Secret of Platform 13, she adds in a throwaway about the gumps and writes that every country in the world has one. To me this felt like a classic world building mechanism, which would allow her to expand the world in a sequel should she wish to return. There is the possibility that, as she was published internationally, she added it in as a way of being inclusive, so her fans around the world would read the book and although they were not based in London, they would know that somewhere nearby was a gump to be discovered. It’s difficult to know, but I feel it’s deliberately placed to accommodate a potential return, and the reason she never did go back to the Island of Mist was, I believe, more to do with external factors – things that would set her writing on a different course.
The main event that would set her on a different course was a truly heartbreaking one for Eva – her beloved husband Alan Ibbotson passed away. Afterwards, she commented that she just didn’t feel like being funny anymore, and so she turned to writing a different style of children’s fiction and Journey to the River Sea was born. It became one of her bestselling books, along with The Secret of Platform 13, and won the Smarties Prize for children’s fiction.
I felt I had enough evidence to support the idea that when writing the first book she engineered a framework that would allow her to return to the world, so I used her throwaway comment about the gumps as the basis for expanding the world in the sequel.
The second element of my research was to go back in order to go forward. I think authors, subconsciously or otherwise, create characters with similar characteristics to people they know in real life, so I wanted to figure out who the characters might be loosely based on. If I could do that I’d have a better understanding of where to take the characters – and crucially, would be able to establish where Eva would not take them.
One of my favourite parallels I uncovered in my research is to do with the character Ben. He is an interesting one in terms of development as he is the prince of the island and so wields much power. He was on my list of characters to evolve and potentially corrupt, so I wanted to figure out exactly how Eva saw him. I had a suspicion that he was in many ways Alan Ibbotson – he’s incredibly kind and gracious and gentle and loves the natural world and all creatures. These were all qualities Eva mentioned when discussing her husband.
In the book Ben creates a den for the mistmaker creature and hides him under his bed. In an interview Eva mentions her husband had an ant farm and he hid it under his bed! I loved that detail and the parallel with Ben. It convinced me that there were enough similarities between the two and therefore Ben was good to his bones and not someone she would ever think to corrupt in the story. So that was very helpful in guiding the development of Ben.
The Ibbotson family were so wonderful in being available on email, and her son Justin was incredibly kind and told me to stop in for tea any time I was passing by. One thing I decided not to do was mine the family for information. At first I was conflicted, because they knew her best, but I felt uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t initially put my finger on. I think authors share a lot in their work, but they also hold things back for the people in their life – I can imagine this is especially true if you have children. Not every special moment or tradition goes into a book. Not everything in real life is to be plucked for fiction. I really wanted to respect that boundary that Eva would’ve established and I worried how I would distinguish where that boundary lay if I dived into her private life as a way of informing the fiction.
Luckily I had to write a very detailed synopsis before I started writing, and this was to be approved by her children. In order to write the synopsis I had to do most of the research, and one of the things I found was an interview with one of her sons in which he discusses Spludger cake. This was no ordinary cake and it was very famous in the Ibbotson household – she would make it for their New Years Eve parties and it was a real feature. I loved the name, and I loved the idea of Eva making it for her family every New Years Eve. I decided to use Spludger cake as a test. I added it to the synopsis and highlighted it, explaining where I got it from. Interestingly, the only hard no from her children was a note asking me kindly to please not include Spludger cake.
That confirmed for me that the way I was going about my research was the most respectful to Eva and her children. I still haven’t found any instance where she mentions Spludger cake – I think it was something she kept just for them.
I also had fun adding in Easter eggs for super fans. I wanted the book to read on multiple levels, for those who were discovering Eva’s world for the first time, all the way up to those super fans who know her and her work so well. I won’t list all the Easter eggs as it’s fun to see if people spot them, but one I love is Netty, the new hag in the story. She’s called Netty as a nod to Newcastle, where Eva lived for many years and raised her family – it’s Geordie slang for toilet and I felt it was perfect for a hag. Another one I like is Eva once commented in an interview that if she got stuck when writing a story she would add an aunt in, so when Lina is physically stuck some ghostly aunts appear to help her. There is also a scene when Lina makes a big speech, only to realise her microphone is round the wrong way – that is a nod to Eva’s Smarties prize acceptance speech for Journey to the River Sea. She later spoke of how she held the microphone at the wrong end and no one could hear her. I knew she would keep hold of that to use in a story one day.