Q&A with Zillah Bethell on ‘The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare’

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare_COVER ART Copyright Sian Trenberth Photography

I’m pleased to welcome Zillah Bethell to the blog today to talk about her latest children’s book, The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare. You can find out more about Zillah and her books on her website.

Auden Dare has an unusual perspective on life: he cannot see in colour. He’s always had this rare condition – and life is beginning to get harder for Auden. The war for water that is raging across the world is getting a little closer all the time. It hardly rains any more, anywhere. Everyone is thirsty all the time, and grubby, and exhausted. Auden has to learn to live without his father, who is away fighting, and has had to move to a new town with his mother, and start a new school, where everyone thinks he’s a weirdo. But when he meets Vivi Rookmini, a smiling girl bright with cleverness, his hopes begin to lift.
It soon becomes clear to Auden, though, that there are some strange things afoot in his new hometown. He and his mother have moved into the old cottage of his recently-dead uncle Jonah Bloom – a scientist and professor at the university. The place is in disarray – and although Auden’s mother tells him it’s because Jonah was a messy old thing, Auden knows differently. Someone else did this – someone who was looking for something of Jonah’s. Auden had heard too that Jonah was working on something that could cure Auden’s condition – could this be it?
Then Auden and Vivi make an extraordinary discovery. Hidden away under the shed at the bottom of Jonah’s garden is an engimatic and ingenious robot, who calls himself Paragon. A talking, walking, human-like robot. Apparently built by Jonah – but why? The answer to this will take Auden and Vivi on a thrilling journey of discovery as they seek to find out just what exactly Paragon is – and what link he has to Auden – and find that the truth is bigger and more wonderful than either of them could have imagined.

1. Why did you choose to set Auden Dare in a world experiencing crippling water shortages?

Parts of the world are already experiencing water shortages. That is our reality. Water poverty kills 1.5 million children every year; and according to the World Economic Forum, water scarcity is now the number one global risk factor. I thought it would be interesting to bring that reality to the UK. To the Englishman with his umbrella and his rose garden.

2. Auden Dare, the central character in your book, suffers from a condition that means he can only see in black and white. Tell us more about this and how this condition is relevant to the story?

My starting point was the phrase ‘to see everything in black and white’. I guess I wanted to discuss grey areas both literally and metaphorically. I was also influenced by Oliver Sacks’ wonderful studies in achromatopsia. We take colour for granted in much the same way as we take water for granted.

3. In your book, Auden and his friend Vivi discover a robot called Paragon who appears to have human-like emotions. Do you think we will ever see robots that are like people?

It’s hard to imagine a machine with a conscience and a sense of humour. Or a soul. But then again, transplants were once the stuff of Frankenstein; flying, the realm of Icarus. So it is entirely possible that one day we will have truly sentient machines. We already have driverless cars!

4. There have been stories in the media recently about the development of robot soldiers. Given your book looks at the role of robots in future society are you worried about the potential dangers posed by AI?

Only last year in Geneva, the UN discussed the legal and ethical issues surrounding LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems). I don’t think we’re in the land of Terminator yet – these weapons systems would be far too costly. But robots may indeed pose a threat to our economy, taking over jobs previously done by humans.

5. In the book, the UK is controlled by the Water Authority Board, a really sinister authoritarian government. What was your inspiration for this?

Having had such a free early childhood I found any kind of authority challenging. On a literary level I’ve been influenced by George Orwell’s 1984; and there have been plenty of real life totalitarian states and leaders from Ceausescu to Kim Jong-Un to be terrified by.

6. You say that having such a free childhood meant you found authority challenging. Did your childhood inspire this book in any other way?

Yes I think it did. I didn’t have any technology in PNG and am both fascinated and appalled by it. Instinctively I don’t like it – I don’t even own a microwave – but rationally I see its enormous potential. I think I wrestle with this in my work – sometimes outlining the dangers of it, sometimes showing the wonders of it.

7. Both of your children’s books feature protagonists who rebel against totalitarian authorities or leaders. Standing up for what’s right is a common theme in children’s literature- do you think children’s books should include any sense of morality or should they be objects of pure escapism and enjoyment?

I think a book should be anything it likes. Escapist literature has its own moral if you like – the desire to be distracted from everyday existence. As TS Eliot said, human beings cannot bear very much reality! I don’t think children appreciate having a ‘worthy’ book foisted upon them though. I was recently given Magic by Danielle Steel (about secret dinners in Paris where everyone has to wear white) and Reunion by Fred Uhlman (about an intense friendship during the rise of Nazism in Germany). I was equally enthralled by both books.

8. You’ve also written three novels for adults. What made you want to write for children and do you find that the writing processes for adult books and children’s books differ?

My editor asked me to write a children’s book so I did! The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare was written to a deadline and I think there is an intensity to it because of that. My adult novels were taken up and left off depending on how busy I was so maybe they go off on a tangent a bit! Otherwise the writing process doesn’t differ much. I write chapters in my head then eventually speak into a very old Dictaphone. (Before I had kids my neighbour commented that I talked to the cats a lot!) Eventually I get to the computer. The good thing about writing in your head is that you can do it in bed!

Thanks so much, Zillah! 

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare will be published by Piccadilly Press on the 7th of September 2017.

Check out my Twitter to enter my giveaway and win a copy!

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