On the 19th September, we publish Liz Hyder’s remarkable debut novel, Bearmouth.
A story of hardship, friendship and rebellion, Bearmouth is truly original, with the voice of its narrator and main character, Newt, like no other. We asked Liz to tell us a bit about how the story and the character of Newt came to her, and what she found out along the way.
So grab your candles, we’re going down the mine…
Usually when I write, it’s the story that’s the first thing that grabs me, the story that pulls on my trouser leg demanding to be written, the story that taps me on the shoulder, whistles in my head whilst I’m trying to sleep, the story that demands to come out of my head and onto the page, pushing its way out like a splinter from the sole of a bare foot. With Bearmouth though, it wasn’t like that, it was the distinctive voice of Newt that grabbed me first, whispering to me in the depths of the night, demanding my attention. That came first, before the full story did.
The first spark of an idea for Bearmouth came about on a wet and windy day in North Wales. I was on holiday to wander and walk but with the weather having already closed in, a good hike was out of the question. Instead, I donned a hard hat and descended down to the depths of the Llanfair Slate Caverns just south of Harlech. It’s a fascinating place, you’re pretty much left to your own devices, there’s not a fancy coloured light display or a bored tour guide listlessly pointing out items of interest, there’s just you with a hard hat and a hefty torch exploring the darkness. It’s both liberating and strangely unnerving. By the time I left, glad to see the faint watery sun again, the first glimmers of what would become Bearmouth were already settling. The figure in the rock that the workers would doff their caps to as they came and left for the day, the wooden stretcher shaped like a coffin in which to transport out any of those unfortunate enough to have an accident and, finally, the slit in the nostril of the young boys from the age of 12.
Their right nostril slit with a piece of slate on their first day to prove they were ‘man enough’ to work in the mine.
Within weeks, I sat and wrote the opening thousand words of Bearmouth. The voice that had surfaced in my head at night since I went down the mine poured out onto the page in a matter of hours. I stopped typing, looked at it and truly had no idea where it had come from. Newt’s strong dialect, that fiercely independent little character, it was all there. I had some idea about the direction of the story and the other figures down the mine alongside Newt but in truth, it wasn’t enough. I knew that, if I was to continue, I had to be patient – I had to make not just Newt feel real, but the surrounding world too. In short, I had to do my research.
I thought back to the slate mine in Wales. I felt angry about the exploitation, the long hours, the children working down there and it got me thinking about other mines. I remembered from my school days that children had worked down Victorian coal mines, as they had in the cotton mills too but I couldn’t recall any of the detail. Perhaps I’d blocked it out or maybe we skipped over it in our history lessons at school. Either way, what I was to discover was to haunt me. Children as young as four working 12-hour days, six days a week. Children who were so exhausted that on their one day off they would fall asleep into their food, so tired that they couldn’t even play a game of football. Children who did mind-numbingly repetitive tasks in a hugely dangerous environment, working in the dark to save money, forced as they were to pay for their own candles. Children who were disfigured by their work, made bald by the straps they wore on their head to drag heavy loads. And so many children who were killed down there in the dark, buried in the coal that they were digging out. Children gassed, crushed by a falling roof or a passing cart, children blown up, drowned in a flood.
The more I found out, the more horrified I was.
I read as many books as I could get my hands on and headed underground to other mines, but then I discovered the voices of the children themselves in the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission from 1842. The result of a three-year investigation into the working conditions in factories and mines across Britain, the report included oral testimonies from children as young as five that would break even the hardest of hearts. And they did. As a direct result, the Mines and Collieries Act was passed, preventing girls and women from working down the mines and enforcing a minimum age of ten on any boys employed.
I carried on reading. I devoured first-hand accounts from miners in the first half of the 20th Century, writers like Robert Morgan and BL Coombes. I read books by local historians including the magnificent Children of the Pits by Ray Devlin in the Whitehaven area of Cumbria. I even borrowed some of their surnames in homage naming Devlin, one of the main characters, after Ray, a miner turned historian, whose book moved and inspired me so very much.
Even from very early on, I knew that I wanted Bearmouth to be a Victorian-esque mine, not a Victorian mine. I wanted the reader to be free to interpret it as they wished, as a mine from the past or just possibly a mine from the near future. Having done as much research as I felt was necessary to create that deep, dark mine underground, finally, I felt ready to write the rest of Newt’s story.
I wrote the first draft of Bearmouth quickly, Newt’s voice pouring out onto the page much like it had all those months ago before I’d embarked on my research adventure – Newt’s determination, smartness, curiosity and resilience all there as if the character had been impatiently waiting for months for me to finish the story. Newt’s voice, that distinctive dialect, is a combination of all sorts of things – snippets of South Shropshire, Cumbrian and London voices, phrases and descriptions taken directly from the mouths of real children working down the mines during Victorian times, even bits of Shakespeare. It’s a mish-mash of influences and dialects but, ultimately to me, it’s simply Newt’s voice, the way that character speaks, thinks and writes. Newt always felt utterly real to me when I was writing the book, still does feel real – I’m glad I waited though, glad I held back for a while whilst I created the rest of that world, created the deep dark depths of Bearmouth mine.
I hope you enjoy venturing down there too. Mind your step as you go down – and don’t forget your torch…