This week we talk to acclaimed children’s author, Philip Womack
Q: Hi, Philip Womack, how are you doing? What have you been up to this year?
I’m very well, thank you. I’ve been putting the finishing touches to my teen novel, Wildlord, which will be published in October by Little Island. It’s about a teenage boy who goes to stay with his uncle on a farm and finds some distinctly mysterious things going on. I’ve also been enjoying the reception of The Arrow of Apollo, which came out last May in the middle of lockdown.
I haven’t been able to do any school visits, thanks to the pandemic, but I’ve gradually started to arrange some for the summer. Otherwise, homeschooling took up most of the first few months of this year. Now that I don’t have to spend my days printing out worksheets, I’m trying to get back into the habit of doing some actual work…
Q: You use classical mythology in your stories. Is finding something new in these legends part of their appeal for you as an author?
Absolutely, yes. The Greek myths appear to us as a canon when we read them as children, but even a cursory glance into their history and formation reveals that they are much more complicated and unstable. The Greeks and Romans were forever retelling the stories in new ways, and I think that speaks to their strengths – you can always find something new and truthful within them, which underlies the way we think about ourselves and the world.
The Arrow of Apollo looks at the aftermath of the Trojan War beyond the point where the myths go. I was interested in what happened to the children of the heroes – how would you deal with having Orestes or Aeneas as your father?
The Double Axe is a retelling of the Minotaur myth, through a very different lens – I was thinking about what families do to protect themselves, really. In it, the Minotaur isn’t a monster at all, but a young boy who a priestess is imprisoning for reasons of her own.
Q: Having studied Classics and English at university, did you always want to use your classicist knowledge as a writer or was this something that evolved later?
You can’t escape it, really. Even if I tried to write something that wasn’t magical or legendary, it would have classical echoes. Wildlord is set in the modern age, but it’s also about history and literature, in a way.
Q: The Arrow of Apollo is set after the Trojan War. Many young readers won’t have any grounding in ancient Greek mythology and history. If you could make the classics compulsory, even to Key Stage 2, would you?
Oh yes, absolutely I would, as I think it’s so important to understand these aspects of our world. Literature doesn’t exist in a compartmentalised box – any novelist or poet is ultimately working in the shadow of what’s gone before. And I think the languages are so beautiful, too – Latin is just the most gorgeous thing, and Greek has a wonderful sense to it. The literature available in those languages will keep you busy for years.
I think, if you can, it’s really important to access those things in the original language. But if you can’t, then to understand the stories and the histories of the Romans and Greeks is elemental in understanding the development of history, thought and literature.
Q You’ve taught undergraduate creative writing and children’s literature, and you are also a journalist. In what ways have these careers informed your own writing for children and adults?
It’s funny being called a journalist, as I’ve never really been one. My journalism extends to writing the odd book review or feature. I’ve certainly never gone out to break a story. I think of it as part of the writer’s life – you’re engaging with new books coming out (though I don’t do quite so much of it as I used to) and thinking about the cultural issues of the day.
Teaching creative writing also seems to be a necessary part of the writer’s life now. I am never quite sure how this state of affairs came about – that writers should make good teachers is not a definite thing, but teaching writing certainly makes you, as a writer, think about how and why you write.
I taught children’s literature at university for three years as an academic subject, which was exhausting. I was researching day and night, but it was useful in the end, as it gives you a huge insight into the history of children’s literature and the biographies of many famous writers. It’s all grist to the mill, in other words. The problem is when it threatens to take over from writing.
Q Apologies, but we can’t resist mentioning that you are married to a princess! Have you ever thought of using your unique insight to write stories with a royal historical theme?
I’m not sure that I have any particular insight. My wife’s family is Anglicised. Her grandfather, Frederick von Preussen, came to England and was naturalised. The family in The Double Axe were the royal family of Crete, but that was because the story required it (as the Minotaur is the Queen’s son). Similarly, the children in The Arrow of Apollo are the sons of the kings because that’s where the story came from. I have been thinking about doing something with one of Queen Victoria’s children but haven’t yet crystallised anything.
Q: 1 in 8 schools across Britain do not have a library – have you had experience of the educational inequality within the school system or met anyone who has?
I think this is one of the saddest things. Libraries are essential. The school system needs a bit of a shakeup, but it needs to start in the early years. I think, personally, that we need a culture shift – books and literature are too often sidelined. We should instil a love of reading and its importance as early as possible.
Q: What book or books do you think all children in schools should be given to read?
A very difficult question. I think lots of authors are forgotten by fashions changing. I would ensure children read Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin, Joan Aiken and Penelope Lively – writers of children’s books that will never lose their resonance. And if I could, I would give all teenagers the Iliad. Once they’d read it, absorbed it, thought about it, it would stay with them forever.
Q: Ok, so the final question, Philip Womack – if all the libraries in the world were burning and you could only save three books, what would they be and why?
Well, I suppose the boring answer to that question would be the Bible, the works of Shakespeare and the Iliad. So let’s pretend we’re allowed six books. On top of that, I guess Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and, I’m afraid to say, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Thank you for visiting our blog. Our vision here at Books2All is a world where every child finds the books that help them reach their true potential. If you have spare books in good condition at home that you think might be appropriate for school children, please sign up for our app’s pre-release waiting list. If you represent a school, please register to receive books for your students.
Author photo courtesy of Tatiana von Preussen