#LoveOzYA Q&A with Stephen Orr about THE LANTERNIST

Stephen Orr is an Adelaide-based author of seven novels, including Time’s Long Ruin and The Hands. His latest release, THE LANTERNIST, is his first foray into young adult literature.
Stephen spoke to #LoveOzYA’s Bianca Breen about THE LANTERNIST, and the research process behind the book — check out the interview below.

What is THE LANTERNIST about?

THE LANTERNIST is an adventure story about the importance of family and friends, sticking by people in hard times, working through dark and difficult days. It follows the fortunes of father-and-son magic lantern team Bert and Tom Eliot (of T.S. Eliot fame, I try to use writerly names when I can!). They travel Adelaide (and country SA) at the beginning of the twentieth century putting on magic lantern shows in town halls, institutes, anywhere they can find. Bert is a great storyteller, and nine year old Tom is following in his footsteps (the original title was ‘The Lanternist’s Apprentice’), determined to become a master lanternist himself. This is also backgrounded by change – lantern shows to early bioscope films, the industrialisation of our cities, Federation. Lantern slides frame each ‘chapter’, and the story itself was ‘written’ by Tom for stage and page years after.

The story follows Tom and his friend Max through Adelaide’s dark underbelly as they search for Bert, eventually heading to Sydney. This is the sort of story I love best – colourful (and malevolent) characters, the race against time, good versus evil, the ever-present dangers (Tom living in an incinerator!), kids finding their way in the world.

How did you discover magic lantern slides and what drew you to writing a story about them?

I’ve always been fascinated by magic lanterns and lantern slides – small, often hand-coloured images on glass, stories (for example, Don Quixote) broken into chunks, into highlights, with the lanternist filling in the gaps for the audience, using a big voice, a sense of drama, effects, music, costume, whatever it takes to make the story come alive. I wanted kids to see how stories used to be told. Everything depended on the skill of the lanternist. In a sense, film culture (and now gaming) has destroyed this human element, and I wanted to re-discover it.

Magic lanterns first used candles as a light source, then kerosene, oil, eventually electricity. The slides were inserted in the side of the lantern, and many had moving effects (like an axe chopping off the King’s head). Surviving slides from this era have a lot of historical value, tell us how the Victorians and Edwardians thought (for instance, the ‘African adventure’ trope, and its problematic fallout).

From the start, I knew the slides would frame my story in the same way they framed the lanternist’s. Tim Ide captured this feel brilliantly.

What was the decision behind choosing the setting as Australia in 1901?

As I mentioned, 1901 was time of change. Education was becoming compulsory, women were starting to get (a few at least) rights, people were moving from country to city, and overcrowded slums were developing on the fringes of our major centres (in Adelaide: Bowden, Brompton, Hindmarsh, full of filthy factories, tanneries, forges, mixed in with earth-floored cottages). But then housing standards improved, health and hospitals became a priority. All of this history, I hoped, would give some friction, heat, conflict. Plus, I love writing about history, imagining the lives of the people who came before us. I think kids like this, too – they’re naturally curious. Also, maybe some of us find our own world a bit drab and boring at times, especially locked in our house!

Did you discover any cool or interesting facts while researching this novel?

Back then, people were more used to death, illness, misfortune. And many (it seems) were more bloodthirsty. For example, bear-baiting (allowing dogs to attack chained bears and betting on which will win). But also, high-wire acts in the streets, hot air balloon rides, a fascination with ‘freakshows’ (100 year old ‘midgets’). And also, the little things – what it would be like going to the toilet on a ‘long-drop’ (the name says it all), your family sharing bath water on a Saturday night, cheap cuts of meat (kidney, brains). It was a more divided society. The very rich, and the very poor, before a middle-class developed (culminating in the fifties, and the Great Australian Dream of suburbia). Kids need to know how things were different, and how things have changed, the role of unions, newspapers, politics in improving people’s lives.

This is your first foray into YA. How did you find the process?

Writing YA is more fun than ‘grown-up’ books. I didn’t feel the need to craft complex characters, provide any great insights into humanity – I wrote for my own sake. As a non-sporty kid, I loved sitting on a rug on the back lawn on a summer’s night (we had to get out of the hot house, not many people could afford air-conditioning back then) reading the latest Hardy Boys, or Battle Picture comic, and later, Dickens, Tolkien. It was just me and the characters, and this important journey of imagination that kids, people, have always had. Eventually it’d get too dark to read, and the mossies would’ve eaten your legs, so you had to go in (reluctantly). That’s what I wanted to do with this book. Allow kids those few hours with Tom and Bert and Eli Sacks. No matter how rubbish your day had been, there was always the chance that tomorrow would be better. Maybe that’s the most important thing about reading – realising what we’re going through is what everyone who’s ever lived has gone through.

I absolutely loved the little slides at the beginnings of chapters that gave us an idea of what to expect. Were they and the illustrations always part of the plan?

Yes. Originally I had very detailed plans of each slide (in the form of a museum catalogue). But I simplified these. I always wanted the images, but realised I might not get them! When I first saw Tim’s slides I realised what Tom actually looked like! I learnt that illustrators were not cream on the top, but part of the coffee.

There’s a lot of dark and gritty moments in this novel. What was it that drew you to them, especially for a YA audience?

This was what it was like for (especially poorer) kids at this time. I had no interest in cleaning things up to make them less grim. In 1901, the average life-span for men was 50.1 years and 54.8 for women. Of course, Tom was poorer, so he wouldn’t have lived this long. Infant mortality dropped by around 95% from 1901 to 2001. There were no guarantees. No welfare if you lost your job, no way to support your children – a world we can barely imagine today. Kids were working in factories, mills, around dangerous equipment, breathing gases, exposed to chemicals. In fact, Tom’s life was on the cheery side! Childhood was not seen as the special time it is now. Bad things happened to kids. But still (I can only assume) most persisted, dreaming of a brighter future. And anyway, adversity helps make us. I always think of Dickens as a boy working in a blacking factory, and how this shaped his ability to write about children and childhood.

Having taught English for many years, I know that kids are up to hearing these things, and understanding them (if explained properly). They want to know. They want to understand what was going on in Eli Sack’s head. Too many kids are bored with too many stories that underestimate their ability to ‘get it’. Maybe this is why so many turn to more realistic (and often violent) films and games. Life was (and is) not the Swiss Family Robinson or Heidi for everyone!



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