An interview with Francesca Armour-Chelu
PUBLISHED: 14:09 09 January 2017
Francesca Armour-Chelu's romantic Suffolk childhood has inspired her debut children's book, Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero. Catherine Larner talked to the Halesworth based author about success and the sequel
It’s a childhood straight from the pages of a storybook – four sisters with artistic parents, living alongside a menagerie of animals (horses, rabbits, chickens, doves, ducks and an injured seagull) in a rambling old house in the middle of the Suffolk countryside.
All summer, while their parents are occupied seeking buyers for their paintings at exhibitions in Aldeburgh, the girls are left to their own devices roaming the marshland, or following lost dogs down the town’s high street.
Even when youngest daughter Francesca left school, she chose to set up home in an abandoned Edwardian railway carriage in the middle of a water meadow. Paying her way through cleaning jobs and working as a nanny, she used an early paypacket to install a piano, and spent evenings reading history books to better her qualifications, eventually earning her way to university.
These romantic, evocative images are almost of another time. No wonder that Francesca Armour-Chelu has used her memories, experience and individual flair and creativity to write original magical children’s stories of her own.
Her first book, Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero, was published last summer and was immediately selected by Julia Eccleshare, children’s books editor for the Guardian, as her pick of the month. It was also shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Award. The sequel due to be released later this year is likely to confirm Francesca as an exciting new talent to watch.
The story is set in an imagined world sinking beneath flood waters. Fenn is introduced as a baby, orphaned through the efforts of the wicked Terra Firma who are determined to kill all Seaborns. Fenn has been saved by Halflin, who he calls grandfather, a rough, gruff old man who, nevertheless, has a tremendous heart and a determination to keep the young child safe and equip him for his future.
Fenn has a special destiny, and needs to be resilient and resourceful to counter the efforts of his pursuers.
The book is a traditional good-versus-evil adventure story, but also raises themes of community, alienation, and the environment. It is beautifully atmospheric with astonishingly vivid descriptions of life in and around water. The reader can almost taste, smell and feel the brine, yet Francesca admits to being a landlubber.
“Although I am not a sailor, I feel in my heart I would probably make a very good one,” she says. “I used to spend lots of time round boats in Aldeburgh.” One particular boat she remembers from her childhood appears in the story of Fenn Halflin.
“Ionia is a real boat, which we knew on the marshes. She was a beautiful fishing smack, which got washed up and stuck in the mud. She’d been built on and became a home for various people before falling into a state of disrepair. We were forbidden to go anywhere near because she was very dangerous and there were signs saying ‘keep out’, but I was drawn to it like a magnet.”
Francesca now lives in Halesworth with her husband, a scriptwriter, and their three children, aged nine, 12 and 16. She works part-time in the local library, and was previously an education officer in Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.
While she has inherited artistic talent from her parents – the watercolourist Ian Armour-Chelu and his artist wife Angela Burfoot – she has elected to focus on writing as her chosen career, winning competitions for her short stories and a novel, but not finding publication before this story of Fenn Halflin.
“Sometimes it’s just about timing,” she says. “I had rejections from agents and they gave me good comments and suggestions, but I couldn’t take six months off work to rewrite it for them. And you have to be prepared to take advice.
You have to be quite brutal with yourself. I’ve found that I had to drop whole characters or sections of writing, but it was for the strength of the book.” Producing the second Fenn Halflin book was more demanding than the first, Francesca says, as she had to tie together the threads from the earlier story, and write quickly to meet the demands of publication. But, no doubt, fans will be eager for more.
“With what I’ve written at the moment, the story completes with book two. There might be scope for a prequel – we come in quite late to the story about Terra Firma – but I have ideas for other children’s books, and a graphic novel, and stories for teenagers and an adult novel. It’s a question of choosing which one I want to take forward.”