I am delighted that Ruth Estevez, author of The Monster Belt has kindly answered some questions for Unicorns and Kelpies. Have a read, enjoy and, if you haven’t read The Monster Belt, go and get it. You will not be disappointed!
I read that The Monster Belt had a really interesting route to publication. Could you tell as a little bit about that?
Yes, The Monster Belt started off as a stage play, years and years ago. Mainly because theatre is my working background and I was starting a playwriting course. We were shown photographs to start us off with character, and I chose a man, which started a theme off in the book, which I later dropped, as I’m interested in coming of age stories, and so Dee evolved and over time, the story changed. When I read about an area in the Northern Hemisphere, called the Monster Belt, then the story changed again! I already knew how difficult it is to get a play taken up, as it’s such a collaborative medium, so I turned it into a novel. I submitted it to agents, and when no joy, direct to publishers, still no joy and I put it away, I think for several years. But I loved the story, and when I joined the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (North West group), who hold monthly critique groups, I resurrected it. So, for the YA sessions I took part in, I started sharing chapters of The Monster Belt, and rewriting along the way, which made me fall in love with the characters and the story all over again. With the group’s advice and enthusiasm, I submitted it to UCLan Publishing, which I’d heard about from attending the Northern YA Lit Fest which is held at UCLan. They were full up, but it was accepted by the MA Publishing programme and I worked on the manuscript over a year with a great student, Emma Hennigan. At the end of the year, the commercial arm of the company took it on, and it’s now in bookshops! I still find it hard to believe.
Where do you take inspiration from for your writing?
I get most of my stories from articles I’ve read, or photographs that catch my imagination and set off a list of questions. I’ve also written books very loosely based on my family and from local history books. For example, Meeting Coty is set in the 1920’s perfume world and very loosely based on my great grandmother’s family. It’s being rereleased next year. And the Jiddy Vardy smuggling trilogy came from reading a snippet about a real life female smuggler from Robin Hood’s Bay in a local history book. The Monster Belt was from a sentence telling about an area between two latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere where the majority of mythical creatures are found.
And then there is place. My home county of Yorkshire inspires me. It is vast and full of stories and inspiration, so it features strongly, almost as another character in most of my books.
I really love stories that feature mythological creatures. What do you think the appeal is?
I think what appeals most is that we don’t know for definite whether they exist or not, and that makes them fascinating. I’m also interested in where these myths start and who starts them and why. Which brings about a different element to the story. I’m very interested in mermaids and when researching The Monster Belt, I read about Beluga Whales and looked up images of them. They look oddly human, with what appear to be legs and knees, shoulders and ribs and round heads. You can see how people could mistake them for mermaids, so the question of do mythical creatures really exist or not, sprang to mind. I read about how creatures decay too, I know, not pleasant, but this makes animals appear different and myths about strange creatures can grow from this misapprehensions. I’m also interested in the different interpretations of creatures from mermaids and fairies to the Loch Ness Monster. Some interpretations show them as cruel, some kind, some enticing, beautiful sirens. I also like to think about the mythical creatures’ point of view, why they hide themselves, if that’s what they do, why they are rarely seen, and why there are so few and so isolated. Now I’m getting myself started on a different element I could add if I wrote more Monster Belt books!
Have you always enjoyed writing? What were your favourite books as a child?
Yes, I’ve always enjoyed writing. I used to make my own cut out dolls and made up stories about them. Then I made families of peg dolls and made up stories about them as well. I still have those, but the paper ones haven’t survived! With a friend, I makes a series of little books, inspired by the Bronte children’s little books which I saw in the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth. And in English at school, we had projects and assignments to write stories and poetry, which I loved and it went on from there, co-writing plays at university and then in my job.
My favourite books were Anne of Green Gables, The Little House on the Prairie books, the Wells dancing books by Susan Hill (I was into dancing) and also random books I found on our bookshelves, some written in the 1920s, some in the Victorian age. I love finding books that no-one else has heard of. When I was little I loved the Flower Fairy books and learned about flowers and trees from them, and when very young, I adored the Pookie books for their illustrations. Rereading them now, I see how before her time the author was, with climate change and homelessness. And of course, in my teens, I loved, loved Wuthering Heights. I still do, but for different reasons now.
What current MG/YA books and authors do you love right now?
I don’t tend to read MG books, but for YA, I found the verse books by Louisa Reid very powerful and I love books by Ruta Sepetys and Julie Hearn. I guess I like historical fiction and also a bit of a scare! There are some less well-known writers whose books I have really enjoyed too, like Lu Hersey’s Deep Water, about Kelpies and Catherine Johnson’s books. For humour and contemporary commentary, I’d say Anna Mainwaring is great and I was carried along by Danielle Jawandos’ And the Stars were Burning Brightly. On my tbr pile are A M Dassu, Susan Brownrigg and a few Frances Hardinge books.
Finally, why should people read The Monster Belt?
It’s been described as ‘Beautiful, bold and scary’ (@Richreadalot) and ‘Scary, thrilling and heartfelt’ by you, I believe, so I hope that is enticing enough!
But, in case readers need more….
It’s a coming of age story about finding our identity and where we feel we belong even if it isn’t where we are born.
There’s information about the signs and stages of drowning (I always like to learn something new when I read a book) and most centrally, it asks the question, ‘Do monsters exist?’
By asking this question, the reader is taken on an emotional, mysterious and exciting adventure with people I hope you will be rooting for.