Jessica Townsend talks about the fantastical world of Nevermoor and Morrigan Crow
PUBLISHED: 10:00 02 November 2017
The Australian writer and former Primrose Hill local's first novel is already marked out for a movie and is delighting audiences worldwide
It must be a unique feeling to be the one to discover an outstanding novel from a debut author. I imagine that first reader of Nevermoor must have powered through in a matter of hours and began telling everyone they met about it, much like I did.
The story follows Morrigan Crow, a young girl cursed by her birth on the unluckiest day of the year and blamed for everything that goes wrong in the town. She is fated to die on her eleventh birthday but is whisked away by a mysterious, ginger eccentric to a world of enchantment, umbrellas and giant talking cats.
The recently released book has seen an overwhelmingly positive response from readers of all ages.
“It feels wonderful and bizarre,” says author Jessica Townsend. “Nevermoor is kind of just the contents of my brain spilled onto paper – all the weird, specific things I love and the stuff that makes me laugh – so it’s gratifying to know that people outside my own head are connecting with it too.”
The theme of a child mistreated by their family who escapes to a new life in a secret, magical world has prompted comparison with a certain other popular tome. But the association with Harry Potter is something she feels “a bit conflicted about”.
“It’s the greatest compliment in the world, but it’s also an impossible comparison to live up to. Nevermoor wears its influences on the page and I’d never shy away from that: Harry Potter is one of the series I grew up with and I have so much love for it, of course it’s been an enormous influence.
“But every second children’s book in the last ten years has been dubbed the ‘next Harry Potter’, and honestly, it’s wishful thinking on all our parts. I’d love there to be a next Harry Potter, but I’d like someone else to write it, so I can have the joy of reading it for the first time.
“Also, we still have Harry Potter! The glorious thing about books is that you can keep re-reading them forever and ever until you die, AKA my retirement plan.”
The 32 year old Australian and former Primrose Hill local worked on the novel for around ten years before publishing, inspired by her time living in London.
“There are specific, obvious parallels like the Wunderground and the Battle of Christmas Eve in Courage Square, which is really a ridiculous, overblown reimagining of the Trafalgar Square tree lighting,” she says. “But for me it’s also steeped in this feeling of coming to a complex, fascinating, frustrating city and feeling like I’d found the place I was meant to be.
“Also, the Brolly Rail exists in Nevermoor because the first day I arrived, my friend Laura gave me an umbrella as a welcome gift and said: ‘You live in London now. You’ll need this.’”
Working on the book for a decade allowed her to build a layered world full of detail in the scenery and characterisation. Much of this occurs in the hotel where Morrigan finds herself living, home to a mish-mash of people and creatures, and the structure of which grows and changes over time.
“The Hotel Deucalion is my dream hotel – plenty of whimsy, magic and fun, but also the unsettling feeling that at any moment a chandelier could drop on your head or a shadow-wolf could stalk you down the hallway.
“None of my characters are based on any one person, but there are tiny bits of many people (including me) in all of them,” she adds. “And in my head, Fenestra the Magnificat has always spoken in the voice of Jo Brand. I have no idea why, but I’m not complaining. Jo Brand is rad.”
Is this a hint perhaps? Even before publishing, Nevermoor had been snapped up by Fox to be made into a film, written and produced by Drew Goddard (The Martian, Cloverfield).
“I can’t really tell you anything because I’ve been sworn to secrecy and I read somewhere that if you reveal the secrets of fancy movie people, they send their fancy movie thugs round your house to glare at you crossly.”
She might have moved back to her native Australia, where she is working on the second instalment, but Townsend still returns to London and her former home of Primrose Hill.
“It’s always the first place I want to visit when I come back to London, I’m still so nostalgic for it. I lived around the corner from England’s Lane, which is essentially the Perfect London Street. It had a pub with a board game collection, a bookshop (sadly no longer there), an Indian restaurant and I guess about twelve thousand cafes, which seems like an acceptable ratio.
“North west is best.”
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is out now (Orion Children’s Books, £9.99).