School of the Ages


author interview -- Gareth Baker, Brackenbelly, and Neolithic Cyprus

Posted by Matt Posner on November 12, 2013 at 5:05 PM

For obvious reasons, I especially enjoy welcoming teachers to School of the Ages. (Hint:  SCHOOL of the Ages.) So it's really cool have with me today the UK's own Gareth Baker.

My usual starting question is:  Who are you, where do you live, and how do you like it there?


Hello, Matt.  I’m Gareth Baker and I live in Nottingham, England.  I’ve lived up here for the last ten years and, as someone who grew up in the countryside, I feel I’ve grown not only accustomed to the busy, noisy place, but to love it.  There are three great things about Nottingham.  The first is that you are never more than a fifteen minute drive to the country.  The second is that the city is very compact and has an enormous sense of pride, and, thirdly, it is home to one of the most famous heroes in the world, and I’m all about heroes.



Gareth is an Arthurian-literature name, isn't it?


There is a Sir Gareth, yes.  The name is certainly of Celtic origin,   A good Welsh name.  Merlin, or Myrddin, was Welsh too and there are many who believe that Arthur was a Celtic freedom fighter who fought against the Romans.   No Christianity or Grails to be found in Briton in those days.



What are your thoughts about your name?


I remember being quite proud of the fact it was a knight’s name when I was younger, even though I didn’t especially like it at the time.  It was different and singled me out.  I was already different because of my father’s profession and because I was the child with the “active imagination” in our small middle-class village.  I like my name now because of its individuality and always will be fiercely proud of my father’s shepherding life.   Later, I studied at Trinity College in Carmarthen, Wales and found out that no one really knows what Gareth means, despite its Celtic roots.   The most common translation is lovely or loving, which I’m quite happy with. Incidentally, I’ve just used the name Trahern, a Welsh name, meaning “strong as iron” as a name for a type of tree on Kinmara.


You are a teacher. Talk about that, especially with a view to explaining UK primary education to US readers.


I’ve been a Primary School Teacher for seventeen years now.  In that time the profession has gone through an enormous amount of change, the current round of which is generally unpopular with teachers.  Our current government wants a knowledge based curriculum rather than one based on skills and creativity.  The best thing about being a teacher in Britain is that although we are told what to teach, we are not told how. Yet.  I currently teach a class of 7-9 year olds which we call Key Stage Two, or Juniors.  Would that be your Middle Grade?



You have done storytelling sessions for the Nottingham City Council. Can you describe those events?


I believe that many teachers are “frustrated creatives” (in Britain the number of musicians and, in particular, comedians who were once teachers, is staggering).  Teachers love to put on a show and be the centre of attention.  For me story-telling allows me to combine these two things I love - weaving a good story, and being in the limelight.  It’s also an enormous challenge as your audience is right there in front of you.  You have to gauge their reaction and shift and change the story to suit them.  The sessions I did were aimed at children, and that is a most difficult audience, especially when you have four year olds all the way up to twelve in the same sitting.  For me it was also an excuse to dress up.



 Frustrated creative here -- you're right, of course.

Tell us more about one of the locations where you performed: the home of Lord Byron.


One of the places I performed was Newstead Abbey, the home of the famous and equally infamous Lord Byron.  It truly is an exquisite building and as you walk around its grounds you can get a true feel of its rich history.   You can easily see why Byron fell so in love with the place.   It suited his extravagant tastes and his sense of the macabre.  I’ve been told that he and his friends used to drink wine from the skulls of the buried Augustine monks. However, the estate was not all he dreamed as it made little money and needed many repairs.  He wrote the following lines of verse about Newstead, which also symbolised his family’s fall from power.



Thro' thy battlements, Newstead, the hollow winds whistle;
Thou, the hall of my fathers, art gone to decay.


Byron is buried in Hucknall, not far from where I teach.



Introduce us to the Kinmaran Chronicles and your lead character, Brackenbelly.


The Kinmaran Chronicles have been rattling around in my head for around the last fifteen years, though not exactly in the form they are now.  These current chronicles are a prequel to an unpublished story I wrote all those years ago, named Taralyn. The plan is to write new adventures which will lead up the times of that story.  Kinmara is a classic (low?) fantasy world in which we have two major races, the uma and humanity.  My vision is to explore how those races coexist and write something that deals with racism in a child friendly way. It will have close links to the Nazis and their treatment of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, to name just a handful of groups they persecuted.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to preach and there’ll be plenty of action and adventure along the way. 


The Chronicles are also an amalgam of all the stories I enjoy reading or watching: fantasy, sci-fi, Chinese cinema and wuxia stories, and superheroes.  Being born in 1973 I grew up in an era of cinema and TV that was rife with heroes – Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers – and it certainly left its mark on me.  Hero myths can be found in all cultures around the world and follow similar lines.  I want to recreate this for a young, modern audience.   Isomee is the poor farmer archetype like Luke Skywalker, Clark Kent and even King Arthur, who was brought up as Kay’s squire so he could learn humility. Brackenbelly is the outcast and the master who trains her.   He’s the title character of the series, although it’s really Isomee’s story.  My original idea was to create a Jack Reacher-like character for kids.  One who rides into town, solves a problem and moves on.  However, I found that the relationship between Brackenbelly and Isomee was too good, too strong, to let go and they ended up being a team.


The essential idea behind Brackenbelly is that physically he’s everything a hero usually isn’t.  He’s short and looks frightening with his large eyes, pointed ears, grey skin and fangs.  The lessons is obvious, don’t judge people by their looks.  Brackenbelly is polite (almost to a fault), kind and willing to help a stranger no matter how he or she may treat him. Someone recently asked me why he’s like that, especially as the uma are treated so badly by humanity.  The answer is simple: uma are highly intelligent and civilised.  You lead by example.   Brackenbelly NEVER kills.  He’s even a vegetarian.  Finally, Brackenbelly is a seriously skilled warrior (like Jack) and does come with a past that we have yet to find out.


You write for children. Is this an outgrowth of your work as a teacher? Or an attempt to keep the child in you alive? Or something else?


Matt, this is an excellent question.  I don’t believe it’s an outgrowth of being a teacher.  My stories are fundamentally there to entertain. The morals give the story depth beyond the sword fighting and action.  They are important life-lessons, but it is not me being a teacher, it’s just how I try to lead my life.  They are most certainly not educational in that they are not to teach reading, but I did try to create something that boys would want to read.  Obviously I know children extremely well because I’m a teacher. 


The child within me is very much alive!  You can’t be a teacher and not have an “inner” child.  I think I write for children because a small part (okay, a large part) of me wishes I still was.  I have considered writing Kinmaran stories for YA and even an adult audience, but apart from violence that is more graphic, and exploring more adult relationships, I’m not sure what would be gained from it.   



Your world has some unusual features, such as the Uma race and their ostrich-like domesticated birds. How did all these things come-about?


The uma have been with me for fifteen years and within reason have always been fully formed in my mind, though they have been more fully developed since beginning The Kinmaran Chronicles.  Their original concept was of a race that was enslaved by humanity. 


Their society is very utopian in that there is no rich or poor, a little Marxist in that everyone has a role that they must fulfil and there were elements of Judaism that I added, for example they become an adult at age thirteen, as well as the Nazi ideas previously discussed.  Then there were Chinese elements, which have yet to come out in the current world.  All uma are vegetarian, not just Brackenbelly, and have learned how to harness and live with nature.  Brackenbelly has some moss that glows, but the uma can do a lot more with it than just that.  They have no gods.  They respect their planet, each other and even the humans who treat them so badly.  Some of these ideas came out the green issues that we teach in school.


I did begin work on a new Chronicle that was going to be set in the uma capital and would fully explore and develop their culture, but I decided I hadn’t finished with Brackenbelly, Isomee, Bramble, Jake and Wilbakar yet.


As for the chostri, if I’m honest I “magpied” (that’s an expression we use in England when teaching writing. It means to borrow and alter other people’s ideas) the idea from a Star War comic.  Ki-Adi Mundi, a Jedi, rode an ostrich like creature.  Also, I wanted something other than a horse, and I just thought a two legged creature would be swift and agile.


I try to create and add in little creatures, animals, plants and places whenever I can to try and make Kinmara come alive, like the Trahern tree I mentioned earlier.


My formative influence, J.R.R. Tolkien talked about "sub-creation" in his essay "On Fairy-Stories." Why is sub-creation, or inventing new worlds to tell stories in, important for children? For adult readers?


For me, Science-Fiction and Fantasy is about exploring the human condition.   By creating a world and new races, we can explore ourselves and the many facets that make us human as well as individuals.  This is vital for children, and, even if they are unaware of it, for adults.  I read an article recently that people who read are more able to deal with life’s ups and downs.   This hardly felt like a revelation to me.  Isn’t one of the main purposes of stories to teach us life lessons?  In children’s literature, it’s certainly true.  In an imaginary world, we can deal with issues, like racism, in a more subtle and less threatening way.



What have been some formative influences for you?


Although I have chosen to write fantasy, I’ve not read a great deal of it.  I enjoy fantasy films, computer games and role-playing.  I’m influenced by Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo, two giants in British children’s fiction, but neither of them write fantasy.  At the very heart of their stories are the characters and the problems that they face.  I hope I’ve created characters that people care about and identify with.  Kensuke’s Kingdom, by Michael, always makes me cry at the end.


Then of course there’s CS Lewis.  While I am not writing an allegorical story about Jesus Christ, I hope I am writing something with a morality he would agree with.


How do you find the experience of being a self-published author?


I did try agents and I sent the original “Taralyn” to The Chicken House. However, this time I decided to self-publish because I wanted control. My original vision was to produce a book every two months.  My views on this have shifted slightly.  I have enjoyed getting to know lots of wonderful people who are fellow writers and readers.  The biggest problem that I am having is reaching my audience as “traditional” self-publishing techniques (Facebook etc) don’t seem to be working.  As I’ve had paperbacks produced, as in my humble opinion children should read real books made from paper, I’ve been going out and trying to meet my audience at various book and craft fairs.



Share your opinion of Harry Potter and of J.K. Rowling's work overall?


You know, I’ve not actually read one.  I did start to read The Philosopher’s Stone once, while waiting in a classroom where I was a Supply (Substitute) Teacher.  I read the first few pages.  My memories are that it was about loads of owls and not very interesting.  I have seen the first three films and did enjoy them.  I think Joanne is imaginative, and was clever to let the stories grow along with her audience.


What is opinion of the Shrek movies? Are they fairy tales, or are they destructive to the fairy-tale impulse?


Another good question.  I don’t feel they are fairy-tales.  They are stories with famous characters from fairy-tales in.  In Britain, and I would certainly agree, we define a fairy-tale as being a story about growing up, losing your innocence (if you get my meaning) and becoming an adult i.e. Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast.  It’s all symbolic with the prince cutting his way through the thorns and her being “awakened” by a kiss.  So, in respect of the love story between Shrek and Fiona, it is a Fairy Tale as their kiss does “awaken” her, but there are many other characters from other genres. The Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood and The Ginger Bread Man are Traditional Tales, not Fairy-Tales and The Muffin Man and The Three Blind Mice are Nursery Rhymes.  At the end of the day, it’s a fun film with a good moral message.



Tell an interesting story from your writing life.


This summer I went to the glorious island of Cyprus.  I’ve always wanted to go.  I studied history at Trinity College and the thought of seeing all those Roman remains…  Well, they were fabulous.  The Tombs of the Kings and the various other archaeological sites around Paphos were curious and stunning and had power to transport you to another time, if you so wished it.  The really funny thing is we, that is my girlfriend and I, almost didn’t go to the Tombs as we were told “they were just holes in the ground” by a Scottish couple.  I guess they are, if you have no interest or imagination.   


However, it wasn’t these two-thousand year old remains that really captured my interest and imagination. My girlfriend and I booked an excursion to the Turkish held side of the island and on the way (before we crossed over to the Turkish side) we stopped at a roadside café.  Our guide, a very knowledgeable and amusing man, made a throw away comment about a recreated Neolithic settlement that was located just behind the eatery.  I was off and as soon as I caught the slightest glimpse of it, I knew this was something special that I had to see.  What I discovered was more special and more important than I could have guessed.  It was a collection of three of four round houses, much smaller than a Celtic one, with flat roofs.  If you ever go to Cyprus I would highly recommend the Khirokitia settlement.  As well as the reconstruction, you can see the original remains on top of the hill.  Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit them too.



I had always pictured the uma living in houses carved straight out of the living rock, and this Neolithic settlement inspired me further.  I can’t really say any more as it’s a central idea for my uma civilisation story, when I get around to writing it.  That holiday had such an impact on me, especially where creating Kinmara was concerned.  I almost have too many ideas to choose from now.



Tell an interesting story from your non-writing life.


Well, as I’ve already mentioned, I grew up in the country.  My father was a shepherd and at the time I wasn’t enamoured with it.  My friends were richer than me and lived in warm comfortable homes. In the winter I often woke up with ice on the inside of my window.  Now I look back and see how lucky, even privileged, I was.  In fact that whole life is what made me what I am today and inspired so many of my passions.  Maybe I even identified with many of the hero characters I love because I too had the same poor farmer archetype to hero upbringing.  I may not wear a cape or carry a sword, but I know that to many of the children I teach, I’m their hero.


What would you like to say to readers to close this interview?


Thank you for taking the time to read it.  I hope that some sense of who I am and the values that I hold dear come through.  I also hope to see you, or your children, sometime, somewhere on Kinmara soon.  You can find me on FB, Twitter and within the ideas and dreams of Brackenbelly and Isomee.


Gareth, how about your links for readers?  My website  My blog, obviously.  My You tube channel

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1 Comment

Reply Barbara Silkstone
6:38 AM on November 13, 2013 
I love the Brackenberry series. Great family fun.