When you first started writing The House with Chicken Legs, did you have any idea of how far it would travel (so to speak)?
When I first sat down to write it, I didn’t even have an agent, so I had no notion of it having any audience whatsoever. I’d been writing for ten years, mainly for my own children, and purely for the love of writing, so I had no reason to think this one would be any different. I wrote Chicken Legs to help me through grief, so it was very much for me. I didn’t have any thought of it being shared as a book, never mind as a play.
What was the initial spark for the story itself?
I’d experienced a lot of grief, and to be honest I hadn’t dealt with it very healthily. So I knew I wanted to write a book about grief, but also the character of Baba Yaga, who is linked to death. There’s also the fact that the main character, Marinka, is the same age as my eldest daughter at the time I was writing it. A lot of what she was experiencing, especially her desire for independence, is woven into the book. So I suppose it was a combination of me wanting to understand myself and also my daughter.
What was the reason you wanted to explore the story of Baba Yaga?
My grandmother was Prussian and used to tell me stories from her childhood. Like so many people she lost everything during the war, so the stories and music she carried with her were extremely important. A feeling of wanting to record these stories for my own children is the reason I started writing. My grandmother would tell many versions of the Baba Yaga tales, and they were always my favourite. They were very powerful and often scary, and I was fascinated by this character who was sometimes portrayed as a cannibalistic witch, and other times as a helper. She’s wonderfully ambiguous.
What does the house represent?
The imagery of the house, which has chicken-like legs and a skull and bone fence, is very powerful. It represents a kind of liminal space between life and death. As a child I perhaps didn’t fully understand all of its meaning but it certainly stayed in my head. I also felt empowered to play with the myth because that’s exactly what my grandmother had done. In one of the stories Baba Yaga has three knights, representing different times of day, and my grandmother switched them to tanks driving through her hometown. There was always this feeling that I could similarly use her to explore things in my own life.
How does it feel knowing that the book has become such a favourite for so many people?
It’s just mind-boggling. I honestly didn’t think anything would happen with it. I even remember my agent saying, “I’m not really sure how big the market will be given that it’s about death”. But then before it was published it was chosen as Waterstones book of the month, and then teachers started to embrace it as well, which was wonderful. I often have Zoom calls with whole classes of children, and they tell me what it means to them. I also get messages from grown-ups telling me how it’s helped them through grief, and even that they’ve used the death journey words from the book at loved ones’ funerals. I feel very honoured that the story has helped people in this way.
How did you react when Les Enfants Terribles approached you about a theatrical adaptation?
I was so, so happy. There had been a bit of interest from film companies, but there was always this feeling of unease, nothing felt quite right. But as soon as I was contacted by Les Enfants Terribles, it just felt so good. I felt the aesthetic of their work fit the story so well, and as they sent more information about their vision for it, the more excited I became. By the time I actually got to see the show I cried pretty much all the way through. They are just the most talented bunch of people and they’ve created something so utterly astonishing and magical.
What has their version brought to the story?
Oliver [Lansley], who adapted it, totally recognised and brought out the essence of the book. But he also drew out other themes and enhanced them, such as the importance of individuality. He’s also widened the Yaga folklore and made it feel more global. I think it’s really wonderful how it feels both true to the book but is also very much its own thing. They also show the house using amazing puppetry, and it becomes a whole character of its own. And there’s wonderful music, played by the incredibly talented cast, which incorporates Slavic and many other influences. It’s just such a feast to watch, it’s so full of life.
You must be thrilled that it’s heading to the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre following an Autumn tour..
It’s incredible. I remember Oliver saying after it premiered in Manchester last year that it would go on tour, but then there was a period of silence and I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen. Finally this email came through confirming it was and I was so excited. I’m especially pleased that a lot of school children who have studied the book will get to experience it, and see how Les Enfants Terribles have worked their magic. The first time I saw it there was a school group behind us and my husband was crying because he was so moved hearing all their comments.
The production is partnering with a charity, Cruse Bereavement Support. Could you tell us more about that link?
I think the partnership with Cruse is a great idea. The charity will have a presence at all the shows, and hopefully that will demonstrate to people dealing with grief that support is available. The reason I struggled was because I didn’t seek help; I think in our culture too often it’s something people think they just have to get on with. But Cruse is a brilliant organisation that is there to help. I hope it will be useful to people.
Your next book, The Snow Girl, has recently been published too – what’s it about?
I wanted to write a magical, wintry, family story. I set out to write for a wide range of ages, something that was good for reading at bedtime, magical but not too scary. Like all my work it’s based on a fairy story, but has a bit of a modern twist. It’s also my first hardback, and features some beautiful illustrations. Hopefully it’ll be on a few Christmas lists!
The House with Chicken Legs plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre from 13-30 December 2023. Tickets from £25: here.