Katherine Rundell: ‘I feel uneasy about Roald Dahl’s nastiness, but that’s probably not shared by kids’

The author, who has just won Waterstone's Book of the Year, on climate change, tightrope-walking and JK Rowling

Katherine Rundell, author and the youngest fellow of All Souls College, Oxford
Katherine Rundell, author and the youngest fellow of All Souls College, Oxford Credit: Jeff Gilbert

Katherine Rundell pops up on my screen as if by magic. She has just been announced as the winner of the Waterstones Book of the Year, for her children’s novel Impossible Creatures, though when we speak, she’s in Cornwall, near Padstow, where she goes to write. At 36, she’s already gathering quite a collection of awards: she won a Costa prize in 2017 for her novel Explorers, and last year, she won the Baillie-Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction for Super-Infinite, her biography of the poet and preacher John Donne. But she’s especially excited about this one: she describes Impossible Creatures as “probably the best of me”.

The book is a marvel, an adventure story set in Earth’s “last surviving magical place”, where all the creatures of myth and legend still live, from centaurs to unicorns to the swamp-dwelling avanc of Welsh mythology. The hundreds of hours Rundell spent in libraries finding the creatures from literary sources around the globe was, she says, “the greatest pleasure of my working life”. Some, she notes delightedly, were once believed to exist, such as the tiny jaculus dragon that (according to the 1st-century Roman author Pliny) “lives in the trees and can hurl itself at your face”. Rundell has been on tour for the past couple of months talking about Impossible Creatures, and “one of the things I’ve really loved,” she tells me, “has been meeting children who say, ‘So I know it’s not real. Obviously it’s not real. But just checking – is it real?’” 

Rundell, too, is a marvel: the author of five other children’s novels and an award-winning play, and the youngest fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, elected at 21. She’s possessed of a fearsome work ethic. While finishing her PhD in her twenties, she would “wake up at four, and work on fiction until nine, and then do my real academic job teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates until the end of the working day. Then I would go out with friends and have a glass of wine, and sometimes I would come back and try to do an hour, or half an hour, more.” She adds: “But it’s not sustainable over the age of about 35.” Indeed, these days, she only gets up at 5am, as she has recently done while working on the screenplay of a well-known children’s classic (though she can’t reveal what it is).

She has a physical fearlessness, too, that she shares with her novel’s main characters, Mal and Christopher, although a 2014 plan to tightrope-walk over the Thames hit an obstacle. “It was forbidden by somebody – I shouldn’t say who. There was somebody who was willing to try to make it happen, but it just isn’t possible.”

She lives most of the time in north London with her partner, the film and literary agent Charles Collier, who has an 11-year-old daughter. She was born in Kent but spent most of her childhood in Zimbabwe (“Zim”, as she calls it), where her father was a diplomat and her mother a lecturer. “I was very aware, because of my parents, and the way they think about the world – my father works in international development – that Zimbabwe still bears the scars of colonialism,” she says. “And much of the deeply racist [Ian] Smith regime still casts its shadow over that country. But most of my experience of growing up in Zim was: I was a kid, and it was just wildly beautiful. And for me, it was home.”

Katherine Rundell, author of Impossible Creatures

Rundell grew up with an elder brother, Gerard, who later became an orchestral percussionist before training to be a vicar, and with two foster sisters, with whom she climbed trees, built rafts and had adventures. On Radio 4’s Private Passions last year, she described the death of one of those sisters as “the great, lasting tragedy of my life”. In her books, she writes about loss with deep emotion, from the death of Donne’s 19-year-old brother in Super-Infinite to one heartbreaking event that occurs in Impossible Creatures. Rundell was 10 when she lost her sister. “She had an inherited genetic illness which meant that she died when she was 16,” she tells me. “I’m always wary of talking about it too much, because it is so important to me and so private a thing, but I loved her wildly, and in losing her I learned that things that you love can be lost.”

In Impossible Creatures, the magic that protects the islands is “fading”, “weakening” – the beasts are dying, and the Archipelago where they live is in peril. Implicitly, I suggest, the novel seems to be about climate change. “If we were to see our own world and our own creatures afresh,” Rundell says, “we would find them as extraordinary as unicorns and dragons. We have narwhals and giraffes, and we have rainforests… It is the most urgent moral question of our age.” 

Mostly, she wanted “to write an adventure that would give kids a sense of joy, and hope, and glee”, but (she adds) “we will need more iron-willed cherishing, and more active, political, furious cherishing, because what we have is so beautiful, and so in need of our protection.” (This fervent, passionate stream of words is how Rundell speaks. Sometimes she pauses at a question for long seconds, and takes a deep breath, then the thoughts flow again.)

Illustrations of the Impossible Creatures in Katherine Rundell's new novel Credit: Tomislav Tomic

Rundell’s arrest as a student protester at the Faslane naval base outside Glasgow, home to Britain’s nuclear weapons, has become well known. “I was very young, I was 18 or 19,” she says, stressing that at that age, “you don’t have many ways to make your voice heard.” (She’s not anti-nuclear energy, but thinks “it’s an enormously nuanced conversation”.) Does she think one must be prepared to break the law to effect political change? “I think many, many, many great people have done so,” she replies. “And not all laws are just. I think there are times when it is justified to break the law. But most of the protesting I do these days is very peaceful.”

We talk about the targeting of great artworks by climate activists. “I have complicated feelings about it,” she says. “I can see both sides very clearly... I can see why Extinction Rebellion do what they do.” (She is not a member.) Should all tainted money get out of the arts? “I feel that it’s very difficult to find companies that are not in some way implicated. But I think we can shift the dial to make fossil fuels and working with fossil-fuel companies look less and less acceptable.”

When Rundell won the Bailie-Gifford Prize for Super-Infinite last year, she gave her £50,000 award to conservation charities. “I think Baillie-Gifford do truly brilliant work in the literary landscape. And I guess my feeling is that they now have an opportunity to be leaders in the most important moral question that faces us.” She would prefer arts prizes to be funded by the Government. “In places such as Germany and Scandinavia,” she notes, this would be so obvious that even to be discussing it “would seem slightly mad”.

At this point, I note that she doesn’t list Belgium, a regular butt of jokes in her books. Rundell moved to Brussels as a teenager, and appears to have it in for the country. “I promise I don’t,” she says with a laugh. “I have so many friends from Belgium. But there will always be a tiny Belgium joke in all my books until the day I die. Just in honour of my 15-year-old self, who was not such a fan. Belgium committed no sins except not being Zimbabwe – that was its only shortcoming.”

At moments, Impossible Creatures is very funny – seagulls have “weaponised poo”; an elderly sphinx declares “I hate riddles” – yet it’s far from a stranger to darkness. “My favourite children’s books,” Rundell tells me, “are the ones that say: every human being has in their heart a little rat – a dark and ugly rat. And if you do not acknowledge that rat, the rat will end by eating you.”

I wonder, then, what she makes of the humour of Roald Dahl. She notes that Matilda has “the kind of electricity that many, many people have tried to replicate and very few have achieved”, but she says that, as an adult, Dahl’s books read differently to her. “There are certainly less cruel ways to be funny.  He is by no means my favourite children’s writer – he’s quite far down on my list.” But, she points out, “I’ve met very few children who object to him. My unease with his nastiness, and with his class prejudice, is probably not shared by kids.”

British children's author, Roald Dahl Credit: Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images

That list of beloved authors includes Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Philip Pullman, Diana Wynne Jones, Tove Jansson, E Nesbit, Joan Aiken, Michael Bond, Alan Garner and, in particular, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. As a child, she says, she read The Hobbit “a couple of times a year, for about 10 years… and the Narnia books felt like the purest form of glee.” She believes, too, that Ursula K Le Guin should be regarded alongside those canonical male names in fantasy fiction: “If she had her rights, she would be infinitely more famous and infinitely more adored.”

Of the most successful children’s author of the past 25 years, JK Rowling, Rundell simply says that “one of my main frustrations about JK is that this becomes the only conversation that people have about children’s literature in Britain – JK and the trans debate”. Children’s fiction, she says, is “wildly under-rated, under-studied, under-cherished in this country, and the conversations we tend to have about it are ‘cancel culture’ and JK Rowling and Roald Dahl.”

It’s hard, however, to escape “cancel culture” even in relation to her work for adults. Donne’s poetry has long been charged with misogyny – Rundell herself called it “wild, rakish and misogynistic” at the Jaipur Literary Festival this year – while Rundell’s 2016 play, The World According to Saki, celebrated the Edwardian writer Hector Hugh Munro, who has been accused of not just misogyny but racism and anti-Semitism in particular. Is she more willing than most writers to put aside someone’s “cancellable” elements? 

John Donne c. 1595 Credit: REUTERS/National Portrait Gallery/Handout

“Donne was born in 1572, and I think it would be ludicrous to hold him to the standards of today,” she says. “I think it is the job of a scholar, and indeed the job of a citizen, when you’re thinking about writers who are writing in the past, to be able to come to a nuanced middle point that takes on board context and history and the vivid changing of time. I think Donne was a misogynist, but I also think that he existed at a time when misogyny was enshrined in the law. So I’m not so interested in applying modern judgments to dead men.”

Impossible Creatures is the first in a series; Rundell has held back more mythical beasts for future novels. “There are definitely going to be three,” she says. “There might end up being more.” She does know “broadly” what’s going to happen, “but not the details yet”. Like Lewis’s Narnia novels, she intends them to be “ecosystems unto themselves”, so that each can be read alone. At the moment, she’s giving occasional lectures as a fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, but otherwise she writes full-time. Yet her readers need not fear burnout. Rundell has learned when to stop: “I think I belong to the very, very long tradition of writers who make the difference between writing and not writing into a clear bright line – by drinking wine.”

Impossible Creatures is published by Bloomsbury. For more information on Waterstones Book of the Year, go to: waterstones.com