AD. Many thanks to Puffin UK for my proof copy of The Stickleback Catchers and for making this Q&A happen!
Around this time last year, I almost lost my mind over the release of Lisette Auton’s debut book, The Secret Of Haven Point. Set in a remote lighthouse, the middle grade book told a magical story of love, belonging, and found-families – featuring a glorious cast of Wrecklings with various disabilities. You can find out more about that one in this launch day chat along with Lisette at the beginning of 2022!
To nobody’s surprise, I was just as excited when Lisette’s second book, The Stickleback Catchers, was announced. I absolutely devoured the story, felt my jaw literally drop towards the end, and immediately slid back into Puffin’s DMs to see if Lisette would be up for a chat about it. Thankfully all involved were happy to oblige, so sit back with a cuppa and prepare to find out more about this latest creative masterpiece…
Thank you so much for chatting with me Lisette, and congratulations on publishing another magical book!
For those who are new here, would you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing journey so far?
Hullo, I’m Lisette, white with freckles, short brown hair and a very smiley face with dimples. I’m proudly disabled, neurodivergent and northern. I’ve always loved books and writing. I trained in Devised Performance (make it up as you go along acting) and had plans to travel the world when impairment struck. Eventually writing became an escape. With the help and supportive of brilliant friends and creatives, and programmes such as Writers’ Block North East and Penguin WriteNow, the book dream became a reality. I say I do stuff with words – I’m a playwright, I make theatre and film and performance art, I’m a creative practitioner and mentor. I’m a full time freelancer, making creativity work for my brain and body.
Once I started reading The Stickleback Catchers, I struggled to put it down and get on with absolutely anything else in my life until I’d turned the final page. Tell us a bit about the story and why you wanted to write it!
Oh, that’s amazing, hope it didn’t get in the way too much! This story exploded into life thirteen years ago and I couldn’t make it work. I didn’t have the skills to make it do what I needed it to do. Time, and a walk through the park to my studio suddenly gave me the missing ingredients and I could begin again. It’s about Mimi, who doesn’t have many friends her own age, instead all her fake aunties and uncles at the bowls club where she lives with her grandparents. Gran starts to behave a bit oddly, and cracks begin to appear which only Mimi can see. Luckily Gran finds Mimi some friends, and together they are the Stickleback Catchers – solvers of puzzles and adventurers! It involves a talking scruffy raven, time travel, scary Void Collectors, memories and a backwards flowing river. I was really close to my grandparents, and I think without realising it at the time, this book was my way to honour them.
We learn early in the book that the main character Mimi uses crutches, and I believe a majestic bumble bee design was mentioned. I have to ask, was this in any way inspired by your own snazzy collection of mobility aids?
I do love a good stick! And in the past snazzy crutches (holographic sticky back plastic was my go to!) and wheelchairs too. I have sticks for all occasions; glitzy, purple Perspex, all the purple sticks in the universe, and my one of a kind Secret of Haven Point wonder. There can be a perception that these are something to be ashamed of, but they are our tools to greatness and a part of our personality and wardrobe.
Although the book is for middle-grade readers, there are some difficult topics and themes woven into the narrative. Mimi is losing the mother figure in her life to dementia and going through a time of big changes, something that many readers will likely experience in their own lives. How did you go about communicating something so big and emotive in a way that made it digestible for a younger audience?
I think it’s the way I would have wished to have been told. With love and kindness and care, but mostly honesty. Young people are ludicrously clever and can feel and know when something isn’t right and they’re not being told something. That happens to Mimi in this book. Life is hard and heart-breaking, but beautiful too. We need to be prepared for both.
I’m trying very hard to ask this question in a way that sidesteps spoilers, but I genuinely almost cried when we meet a central character in this story. A character who plays a huge role in the plot and the adventures, mostly from her bed with dark sunglasses and ear-defenders on. Can you tell us a bit about how and why it felt important to portray this character in this way?
I hadn’t realised until about draft three how personal this book is, it has so many aspects of my life in it. I was in the position of this character for many years, as were friends I love, and the community I’m part of. Many people still are, and I spend a great deal of my time still in bed in order to be able to do the outward facing things that I do. She is a massively integral character, completely taken exactly the way she is and loved fiercely for that. We don’t have to be gung-ho to have adventures. With love and support we can all adventure, just in different ways. I haven’t read the book for a while and feel quite tearful reading what I’ve just written. More chronically ill characters in books, please!
Many topical issues around disability inclusion are woven into the story. The most impactful for me were the challenges and pitfalls that come with people who are adamant on offering help even when it clearly isn’t wanted, and Mimi’s frustrations when indoor space wasn’t kept clear enough for her to navigate, meaning ‘it’s knackering, finding alternative routes and keeping the yell inside’. Do you ever find it challenging to write about these difficult things that so many of us have experienced?
I think, again without realising, it’s cathartic, a way for me to process some things that have happened to me. Writing it from a character’s perspective, rather than from my own, makes it a little bit further away and therefore easier to deal with. It’s a very hard thing to navigate, not wanting to be rude to people, but not wanting to have to explain yourself, or permanently be on hand as a disability trainer. We often have to be very grateful as disabled people, and saying no can make us appear to be rude, and not sit inside a box someone else has determined for us. I’m trying to be a lot better at not sitting inside anyone else’s box! Blatantly lost a metaphor somewhere in there… Basically, please do ask first, and don’t be offended if we say no.
Nothing brought me quite as much joy as Fig’s vocabulary and dialect, and I’m totally adopting the word ‘soggle’ (a sob and a giggle) for everyday use. How did you go about creating these glorious words and phrases?
Oh, I’d love to take credit for Fig – isn’t he wonderful! But sometimes something just happens when fingers touch a keyboard and by magic characters appear. I wrote a first sketchy paragraph and he was too riddly and complicated, Emma my glorious editor at the time suggested we pull him back, and she was right, but to what? I went on a little dog walk to the top of my street and there was a roof full of crows and one very scruffy outsider. I did the slightly odd thing writers sometimes do and talked in the outsider’s voice. Actually out loud. And then had to dash home because I hadn’t brought a pen with me. My entire family plays with words, and my brain often picks the wrong one or makes things up, I think he’s a combo of all of us. I swear though, he’s real and out there somewhere…
In your books, you make a deliberate choice not to name the specific diagnoses that each disabled character has. Can you tell us a bit more about this, and the role it plays in how you define your characters?
I think it’s because I really want people to know that they can accept you exactly the way you are, and should do, without having to know your entire medical history. Knowing the technical words for my impairments or not, doesn’t change the fact that these are the things I need to thrive, please just do them. I think everyone has the right to choose whether they disclose their impairments and conditions or not, and I completely stand by those decisions. For me I get a little bit fed up of unsolicited advice, or sometimes even getting told off, so as a safety mechanism for me I’ve chosen to say disabled, or neurodivergent, or chronically ill. They are also big and bold political statements and I’m well up for those! It’s a protective mechanism, I guess. I also didn’t want a reader to identify with a character and then find that they didn’t have that specific name for their impairment or condition, and so lose that connection. I basically didn’t want anyone to become Doctor Google on characters I love, just like I don’t want them to do that for me.
Finally, you already know that I’m basically your biggest fan. You are so talented, and I truly believe your books have the power to change the world – knowing that children are growing up with stories like yours to read means so, so much. There’s very big heads-up at the end of this story about what’s coming next (the cause of my biggest bookish jaw-drop to date) but dare I ask… after a well-deserved rest, what’s next for you?
Oh, don’t make me cry when I’m tired! I feel very fortunate that characters I love and identify with are finding a home on shelves, ones that were missing for me when I needed them, and others are identifying with them too. Also, that it seems a really vibrant time for children’s literature with so many diverse characters springing into existence. MORE PLEASE! This year I’m mentoring some epic writers (watch out world!) and have residencies galore. Hurrah! I’ve got some big theatre projects coming up too, plays appearing this year, and I’m very proud of those. And, well, also, but I’m not allowed to tell you yet…
Thank you so much for your time Lisette, and congratulations on another world-changing book! The Stickleback Catchers is out now!