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Menna van Praag on writing a portal fantasy novel

Menna van Praag on writing a portal fantasy novel

I’ve always been a great fan of Neil Gaiman, but I didn’t read Neverwhere until after I’d written The Sisters Grimm, so was delighted to read in the prologue that in writing Neverwhere his aim had been “to write a book that would do for adults what the books I had loved when younger, books like Alice in Wonderland, or the Narnia books, or The Wizard of Oz, did for me as a kid.”

I wrote The Sisters Grimm for the very same reason. Of all the books I’ve ever read, those that had the greatest impact on me were The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, they inspired my ideas and shaped my literary ambitions as if stamped upon my brain.

I spent my childhood seeking out ornate wardrobes wherever I went and sneaking inside them as soon as the opportunity arose. My paternal grandmother owned a marvellous Victorian colossus of a wardrobe and every time we visited I would double-check that the portal to Narnia hadn’t miraculously opened up. Rabbit holes, of course, were harder to find but I have a distinct memory of searching for child-sized ones whenever a field presented itself.

Thus, when it came time to write my own portal-fantasy novel – it was only a matter of when, since that subsection of the fantasy genre in all its forms endured as my very favourite – I delved into my imagination and immediate surroundings for inspiration. It didn’t take long to hit on the notion of gates. I grew up in the city of Cambridge, and went to Oxford for five years, so had been encountering ornate and forbidden gates for as long as I could remember. A gate seemed as good as a wardrobe, with the added bonus of being outside, thus providing the chance of a rather more atmospheric setting when being visited at night. And so the idea developed into particular gates that could only be accessed at 3.33am (the numbers came from my studies of numerology) during the third-quarter moon, by those with a little Grimm blood in them. Then, and only then, could a person step through a forbidden gate not onto the lawn of the Master’s garden or the grounds of the Fitzwilliam Museum, but into a magical realm of “perpetually falling leaves and hungry ivy, mist and fog, moonlight and ice”.

I wonder, if I hadn’t been born and raised in Cambridge, how my chosen portal might have differed, but this I shall never know. I wonder if Gaiman and I hadn’t read the Narnia and Wonderland books as children, how different our own novels might have been. I suppose we shall never know that either and nor does it matter. Though when my first child was born, the first thing I bought – before either cot or pram – was his own illustrated copy of The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland. He’s now ten and already working on his own graphic novels and a small novel. I wonder, if and when the time comes, what portal he will chose.

Menna van Praag’s Night of Demons and Saints was published by Bantam Press on 3 February 2022

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