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January 13, 2014

Karen Foxlee Tells How She Creates Monsters

In OPHELIA AND THE MARVELOUS BOY there are quite a few monsters.   My little heroine, Ophelia, meets them in various places in the strange and crumbling museum in the city where it always snows.  There are threadbare taxidermy wolves that spring to life and chase her through the galleries.   There are horribly dangerous Great Magical Owls who seek out the delicate morsels of innocence for the Snow Queen.  And then there are…. the Misery Birds. 


My process for creating the Misery Birds went a little like this: 

1.       I put Ophelia in an elevator that took her the seventh floor of the museum.

2.       I found the seventh floor was very empty and very cold.  There was a corridor filled with closed doors.  I wondered what could be behind those doors.  It made me feel uneasy.

3.        I had Ophelia sniff the air and smell a dank, mouldy, feathery type of smell.

4.        I had her hear the scratch of talons on the cold floor.

5.        I said to myself, “there is something really very frightening on this floor.” 

6.        I went about deciding what it was.

A Misery Bird is very large, five times as large as a child.  It has the head of fierce eagle, a silvery beak, and snow white chest plumage.  It opens its huge leathery bat wings with a SNAP. Its eyes are intelligent and a luminous grey.  It has very bad breath. 

A lot of people grow out of thinking about monsters but I never have.  I think about them a lot.  I think about them when the lights are turned off at night.  I think about them when I gaze at certain familiar landscapes.  When I look at the clump of trees at the bottom of my garden, for instance, it always looks like the perfect place for some leafy green mythical creature to live.  The sort that walks on four legs and has a voice that sounds like rattling seed pods.  

I think about them but I had never written about them until I wrote OPHELIA AND THE MARVELOUS BOY.  I was amazed at how exciting the process of monster creation was; how frightening, how soothing, how full of strange surprises! 

I find monsters are usually born out of general sense of uneasiness in a scene, a blank space, where I know something scary should fit.  What can it be?  I don’t like the feeling!  But when the monster starts to take form, I generally feel better.  It’s still scary but it’s there. I can start to understand it.  I can begin to ask questions.  Why is this Misery Bird locked away in a room?  What would happen if it was let out?  What does it eat…oh I hope it isn’t Ophelia?  Would it like the tin of sardines that she happens to have in her pocket?

I was amazed at the number of questions that I needed to ask to understand my monsters.  How each question generated more! How through asking questions of my monsters, I discovered their purpose, their weaknesses, and sometimes even an inkling of the workings of their hearts. 

As the boy sums up, rather beautifully, when describing the vicious Great Magical Owls:

“The strangest thing I have learned is that it’s impossible to know what’s inside someone.  The wizards didn’t teach me this, but I learnt it myself.  Those who appear tall and straight and very good are sometimes rotten on the inside, and others, huge and clawed and apparently very bad, sometimes contain a pure and sweet form of goodness.  The biggest trap is to judge a person by their outer casing.  Their skin.  Their hair. Their snow-white feathers.”  

Karen Foxlee is an Australian writer. She is the author of two young adult novels: THE ANATOMY OF WINGS and THE MIDNIGHT DRESS.  OPHELIA AND THE MARVELOUS BOY is her first middle grade novel.