There’s a quotation by Michael Morpurgo on the jacket of Katherine Rundell’s new novel, Impossible Creatures that reads: “There was Tolkien, there is Pullman and now there is Katherine Rundell.” It might read like just another hyperbolic book blurb if you haven’t read Rundell’s work, which ranges from Super-Infinite, a dazzling biography of the poet John Donne, to The Golden Mole, an illustrated collection of some of the world’s endangered animals, to her impressively inventive children’s novels.
We meet in a hotel on North Wall Quay in Dublin on a miserably wet evening in September. Rundell is dressed simply in a black wool jumper and dark tweed trousers, a simple gold chain at her neck. We’re here to talk about her latest novel, Impossible Creatures, the first in a planned trilogy for children, but with Rundell all roads quickly lead back to John Donne, and that includes the inspiration for this book.
“In 1601, John Donne wrote an epic poem called Metempsychosis and in it imagines a world in which the first apple from the tree of knowledge, has a soul and that soul mutates first into various creatures and then into a person, into Cain. And he imagined a poem in which every time that person died the soul would enter the body of a newborn baby and he was going to trace it through Copernicus and Galileo and many other great men of history and then he realised that that was blasphemous and that it could get him into very serious trouble with the church.”
Ali’s death meant that I discovered the thing that everyone discovers, but I discovered it a little younger, that grief is enormous and all-encompassing and absolutely intrinsic to human experience. It cannot be outrun or escaped— Rundell on the death of her foster sister
The idea intrigued Rundell. “What if a soul entered a body and was eternal and with every death it was reborn? What would it think of us? Would they say mankind is not worth the harm they have wreaked upon themselves, or would they say despite its horror the miracle is greater? This is the debate of the book.”
The book tells the story of the young boy Christopher who meets Mal as she is fleeing from a murderer. Mal lives in an unmapped cluster of secret islands known as the Archipelago, a place where mythical animals such as unicorns and griffins live alongside humans. Christopher has been warned to stay away from the lake, which acts as a portal to the Archipelago, but as with all great children’s characters, Christopher ignores the advice of adults and the adventure begins.
While the story is very obviously addressing the issue of climate change as the Archipelago’s ecosystem is disrupted, there are many layers to the book. Rundell describes Impossible Creatures as her most personal book yet because it also deals with the idea of personal loss. She was just 10 when her foster sister, Alison, died at the age of 16.
“Ali’s death meant that I discovered the thing that everyone discovers, but I discovered it a little younger, that grief is enormous and all-encompassing and absolutely intrinsic to human experience. It cannot be outrun or escaped. Everyone has it. I just had it a little younger.”
It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Rundell and CS Lewis. Lewis also held academic posts at Oxford, also wrote about grief and loss, and the Chronicles of Narnia doubled up as Christian allegories. “I just had the biggest crush on Aslan,” she says, laughing. “I just thought he was a hot lion.”
The themes of resurrection and sacrifice in Rundell’s work could also be read as religious allusions. “I thought of it as a book about the universal idea of humanity more than a Christian book,” she says. “I didn’t think of it at all as a religious thing but given that religion plays an important part in my personal life, I imagine in a way it’s in my DNA.” She says she has faith, but it’s not straightforward. “I think religion for me is a source of great joy and great doubt.”
One of the strongest messages in the book is the danger of concentrated power among individuals, which feels squarely aimed at the rise of powerful billionaires in our society. “We live in a world that is increasingly reifying the billionaire. I just feel urgently we should be teaching children that extraordinary wealth is something to be looked at in the same way you would look at someone who walked in and punched a baby in the face. It is the deepest grotesquerie and we need to find a way to remind them of this.”
I am curious why Rundell, a scholar and academic – like Pullman and Tolkien and Lewis before her – likes to write stories for children. “We can tell the difference between something that is reductive and something that is distilled,” she says. “It’s a great discipline for me because you can get away with a little bit more when you’re writing for adults in terms of sidebars and pontification, but I think with children you need to assimilate everything into one if it’s going to work. So I find it a challenge.”
Rundell must be among the most disciplined of writers. Her first book, The Girl Savage, was published when she was 24 and Impossible Creatures is her “13th-and-a-half” book (The Book of Hopes, the collection she edited, is ranked as the “half”). When she was in her twenties and teaching full-time in Oxford, she would wake up at 4am, write fiction until 9am, then teach or work on her PhD all day. “That meant sleeping maybe four to five hours a night for about a year and you cannot do that past a certain age without dropping off a cliff of sanity so I no longer do that now,” she says. She downplays the drive that allowed her to work with such discipline, saying, “I do think waking up early is not nearly as impressive when the thing you’re doing is the thing you wanted to do when you were six years old.”
The young are growing up in a world that is seeking to monetise their sexuality and monetise their sexual anxiety and I would like them to have John Donne instead— Rundell
Rundell spent her early childhood in London, moving to Zimbabwe (where her mother was born and raised) aged nine, before moving to Belgium at 14, and finally back to Oxford to study and later work (she is now a fellow of St Catherine’s College Oxford and a Quondam Fellow of All Souls).
When it comes to teaching Donne, she describes herself as an “evangelist ... I love him and I want people to love him because I think he will make people’s lives richer and funnier and tougher and sexier and better”.
Donne is famous for his fusion of the sexual and romantic in some of his love poems. “I did love writing the sex bits of John Donne, because I was born in 1987, which meant that I was a teenager in the ‘90s and early 2000s, one of the worst times to be a teenager. The cultural messaging we received around sex and sexuality was so rampantly misogynistic and the tentacles of finance were so deeply around what we were told was sexy, and I love John Donne for being the best antidote for that because his vision of sex salutes human strangeness, human originality, it acknowledges lust, and he swings between this deep burning romance and love and a sense that sex must sometimes be met with wit because it is also absurd. That smorgasbord of knowledge that he had about sex, it seems to me that we will need more of that, especially for the young, because they are growing up in a world that is seeking to monetise their sexuality and monetise their sexual anxiety and I would like them to have John Donne instead.”
To grieve is to be a person, to lose is to be a person, to suffer and to be spiteful and jealous and stupid is to be a person and also to be brave and funny and bold and generous is also to be a person
Impossible Creatures is, at its simplest level, a joyful lesson in how working together can make life better for all and calls to mind another John Donne quote: No man is an island.
“He’s everywhere,” says Rundell, laughing. “Of course that is one of the best things that children’s fiction can do. There is such a history of children’s books that suggests that communities await you, friendships await you, there will be adults who step up, take the baton and swing for you.”
In the aftermath of her foster sister’s death, she says her parents’ “exhaustless love” showed her that “great sorrow and everyday joy coexist”. Impossible Creatures highlights that duality of hope and despair, destruction and beauty, miracles and catastrophes that is a part of everyday life.
“I think I wanted to offer the sense that this is utterly what it is to be a person: to grieve is to be a person, to lose is to be a person, to suffer and to be spiteful and jealous and stupid is to be a person and also to be brave and funny and bold and generous to your bones is also to be a person. I want kids to understand that quite complicated idea: life is beautiful, life is difficult.”
Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell is published by Bloomsbury