Author Q&A: HS Norup, author of The Missing Barbegazi, talks about mountains, fairytales and Christmas traditions.
The Missing Barbegazi is one of my middle-grade hits of 2018. It is the story of a friendship between a girl and a mythical, fairylike creature which lives in the mountains. The story is about family, friendship and trust and it is set in the days shortly after Christmas. If you are looking for a magical story to read in the build-up to Christmas, I can’t reccomend this enough.
I was delighted when author HS Norup agreed to answer some questions about her work, about the snowy landscape which inspired her setting and about fairytales in general. It is a pleasure to share her answers. Thank you Helle for your time.
Q: Barbegazi are mythical creatures who come out at first snowfall but are rarely sighted by humans. Did you want to write about Barbegazi, or did these creatures fit into your story?
A: When I began writing THE MISSING BARBEGAZI, I had never heard of barbegazi. I wanted to tell the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Tessa, who was desperate to win a ski race. A story set entirely in the real world without any magic or mythical creatures. But I had not written more than one chapter before Tessa met a strange furry creature in the snow. After some research, I discovered that the creature Tessa had encountered was a barbegazi. And everything about them fit perfectly into the story.
Q: Aside from the Barbegazi, do you have any favourite stories set in snowy landscapes? What is it you love about these stories?
A: Snow is magical! I still get excited every winter when I see the first snowflakes floating down, and there’s nothing quite like waking up to a newborn glittering world after a night of snowfall. In a novel, the dangers of snow and cold weather immediately raises the stakes. A landscape covered in snow can become a character in its own right and influence the story through the opposition or help it gives the protagonist, as is the case in THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper. Other favourite stories that are set in the snow includes: C.S. Lewis’s THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, Philip Pullman’s NORTHERN LIGHTS, Sinéad O’Hart’s THE EYE OF THE NORTH, Vashti Hardy’s BRIGHTSTORM, Piers Torday’s THERE MAY BE A CASTLE, and Katherine Rundell’s THE WOLF WILDER.
Q: Mountains play a huge part in your story. Why did you choose this setting?
A: I love the mountains and find them immensely fascinating—perhaps because I grew up by the sea in a flat country. From afar, the mountains present this beautiful, serene panorama, but up close they are wild and unforgiving. Add snow, and the mountains become both more beautiful and more dangerous. I have a deep respect for these dangers, especially avalanches, and they played a role in the story even before I discovered the avalanche-surfing barbegazi.
Q: You write about a world which is very like ours, except for the magical creatures who live in the mountains. What drew you to magical realism and how do you think fantasy elements help us to tell a story?
A: I have always loved reading magical realism and low fantasy stories. The idea that there might be magical or otherworldly creatures around us is both enticing and scary. I can’t go for a walk in the forest without secretly looking for fairies and I’m still afraid of the dark—my imagination often runs wild. I think fantasy elements can help us create story worlds that are fresh and interesting. At the same time, the presence of fantasy elements signals to the reader that this is a pretend world, which they can safely explore along with the protagonist.
Q: Family plays a huge part in The Missing Barbegazi. Tell us a little about how the two main characters fit into their families.
A: Tessa and Gawion are tweens (although Gawion is 154 years old) and both are part of loving families, but with very different family structures. Tessa’s parents are divorced, but she and her mum lives in the same house as her grandmother (and until recently her grandfather) and near other relatives, so she has a wide family network around her. Gawion’s family lives in complete isolations, far from other barbegazi, so they are a very close-knit family, and Gawion’s twin sister is his only friend. It’s important for the plot that they are isolated, but it’s also a situation I know well and wanted to describe. Whenever we, as a family, have moved to a new country, we have experienced 6-12 months of being each other’s only friends, and, since we left Denmark a long time ago, we have not had any family network to depend on. All family structures have positive and negative sides, and it’s important to show diversity without judgement in children’s fiction.
Q: Your story is set in the days after Christmas – the days when the presents have been unwrapped and the crackers have been pulled. Was there a reason you set your story after Christmas, and not during the festivities?
A: There are a couple of reasons I didn’t include the Christmas festivities, but the main reason is that it would have distracted from the story I wanted to tell. Tessa’s grandfather died shortly before Christmas, and the family is grieving, so I can’t imagine their Christmas was a jolly affair. Also, for many of the locals in a skiing resort, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, is the busiest week of the whole year. Tessa’s mum and Uncle Harry were both working over Christmas, catering to the needs of guests instead of their own families, but I’m sure Aunt Annie took good care of Tessa, Felix and Oma.
Q: Fun: Favourite cracker joke? Best Christmas jumper?
A: We have neither Christmas cracker jokes nor jumpers in Denmark, so I can’t really answer these questions, but we have other fun traditions. We celebrate on Christmas Eve. For dessert we always have Risalamande, a kind of rice pudding with almond slivers and one whole almond. Whoever finds the whole almond receives a small gift, but the fun lies in hiding the almond if you have found it or pretending to have found it if you haven’t. After dinner and before opening presents, we all dance around the Christmas tree, singing first psalms then jolly songs, usually ending with the whole family chasing each other around the house.
Q: Which animal would you have on the front of a Christmas card?
A: Mountain goats! We sometimes see them in the snow, springing around the steepest mountain sides, defying gravity. They’re more interesting than reindeer and deserve to be on Christmas cards.
Many thanks to HS Norup for taking the time to answer my questions. The Missing Barbegazi is available from Pushkin Press.