(COVER NOT FINAL)
Ren and the Blue Hands
Set in the fictional 16th Century Calico Isles, Ellen Phethean’s YA novel, Ren and The Blue Hands, sees teenaged Ren drawn into a world of intrigue, passion and politics.
Betrayal by your friends is heart breaking, betrayed by your own heart is devastating.
In a world on the cusp of change, Ren, a Blue Hand dyer, is plucked from the dye sheds to become lady’s maid up at Barrow Hall. At first she’s excited about her future, but through her mistress, Lady Lilac, she becomes entangled in a plot which threatens the dye industry that has supported her family and the islands for generations. When the secret organisation, the Mazards are exposed, Ren must think and act for herself. She’s torn between helping the conspirators, loyalty to her roots and her love for fellow conspirator Bark. Driven by passion into danger, where right and wrong are hard to tell, only a terrible event can help her see more clearly.
On a personal level it’s about love, loyalty and how to do the right thing. On a wider level it explores political themes of power and espionage as factions struggle to control the winds of change.
It’s due to be published on 2nd November by Red Squirrel Press, it’s the first book in a trilogy
- Ren and the Blue Hands
- Ren and the Blue Cloth (working title)
- Ren in Samara (working title)
Ellen Phethean wrote Wall, a teen novel in poems, set in the Byker Wall estate, based on her interviews and workshops in the east of Newcastle while Writer in Residence for Seven Stories, Newcastle in 2003/4. Wall was published by Smokestack Books, 2007.
She followed that up with another teen novel in poems Hom, set in the West End of Newcastle, published online as a weekly blog, still available at her website.
Her latest young adult novel, Ren and the Blue Hands, in prose, is launched in November 2016 by Postbox Press (an imprint of Red Squirrel Press). Inspired by real historical events, but set in the fictional 16th Century Calico Isles, Ren and the Blue Hands, was Long listed for the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition 2012: ‘A vividly imagined historical background, and interesting mixture of politics and romance. Ren is a courageous female hero whom readers will empathise with and root for.’
She’s a sound artist, playwright and poet too – her first poetry collection Breath, 2009 Flambard, was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award 2010. Her second collection, Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman, 2014, Red Squirrel Press was a New Writing North Read Regional choice for 2014.
Tweets as @phethean
What inspired you to write this?
First of all, years ago, I came up with a scene and a character in a writing workshop. A young woman finding a secret note. It seemed to be about a mystery and I kept writing scenes – I wrote about young women working together in a dark shed and singing beautifully. I imagined a nasty villain when I was given the word Grist. So it all began with bits and pieces, and all seemed set in some historical past.
Then I read about the real struggle in the Dye industry in the 16th century, when the Guilds in Europe were resisting a new dye, Indigo, coming in from India. They called it the Devil’s Dye – and that became the core of the story that pulled all my disparate bits of scenes and characters together. My women workers in a shed were Dyers, the Blue Hands. But I knew their resistance to the new dye was bound to failure, so I began to think about when change is inevitable, how and why do people adapt? I gave these dilemmas to my main character Ren, who’s caught up in the middle of these big historical changes, and has to deal with it on a personal level.
Is this a fantasy?
No, because it’s based on real events and all the technology and clothes are based on 16th life, but I’ve taken liberties with reality, and have created my own alternative world. I’m aiming for emotional rather than literal truth. It makes the book difficult to categorise by genre – it’s a historical drama, but fictional, some call it fantasy because I made up the country, but that suggests dragons and elves – there’s no magic or non-human characters. There’s a love story at its heart, so it’s a romance too, but it’s also about political struggle. Try and sum up that in three words!
Did you have to do research?
I used many historical sources for help and ideas. It’s been the greatest fun imaginable making up the world, my 16th Century cosmos. Characters have natural names like Bark and Moss and Count Saffron. The blue dye comes from the Shebble Shell. The group of isles where Shebble shell is found are The Calico Isles where the story is set. Braymer is the country that exports the wool and yarn that gets dyed by Shebble shell.
The workers on Calico are organised by their Gild. The different classes of society are subject to sumptuary laws (which were real laws detailing who could wear what fabric and colour of clothing) – in my world only the wealthiest nobles are allowed to wear the unique Shebble blue dyed cloth, while workers in the dye industry get Blue Lung or Shebble Pox, and their hands are stained blue.
I’d done an MA in Theatre Studies, and had explored the traditions of Shakespearean theatre, so I included a Travelling Theatre troupe called The Chancellor of Braymer’s Men who come to Calico to perform for the May Day Revels and stir things up. In the past there have been Dye Wars. The time of peaceful monopoly of Shebble is about to change.
Where is it set?
In my imagination, the Calico Isles are a sort of combination of mediterranean islands with elements of Cornwall. The country of Braymer is a colder, more northerly island, not a million miles away from Britain. Samara, the third major country referred to, is a mash-up of north african/middle eastern countries.
Was it a dragged out process?
Yes! I’ve been writing the story off and on for about 10 years, and it’s only in the last four or five years that I really got down to working out how the story fitted together, and filling it out. It took two more books to get the story to a satisfactory end and I still haven’t quite finished the third although I know where it’s going. I haven’t decided on the actual fate of my main character in the final chapter!
I put an early draft in for the Times Chicken House Children’s Novel competition in 2012 and it was long listed which gave me a confidence boost, and encouraged me to keep working and finish it all.
Do you have any favourite authors?
Two of my favourite YA authors are Ursula Le Guin, particularly The Wizard of Earthsea, and the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. Not only are they great writers of stories that grab you and you can’t put down, but they also deal with real, serious issues that people have to deal with: moral dilemmas, how to choose the right decision in difficult circumstances, complex characters who are both good and bad. They set their stories in the other worlds, but that allows the reader to reflect back on the real world. If I could achieve that in my writing, I’d be happy.
Thank you to Ellen for the interview, and to all those reading this, thank you. Check out the #UKYACX tag on twitter to follow posts on the authors attending the event on the 17th September in Newcastle!!