Unicorns... Do You Like Yours Ferocious or Fluffy?: An Interview with A. F. Steadman
If you are not yet familiar with the two stories (so far) by A. F. Steadman that follow her hero Skandar, then hopefully this interview - with questions from Armadillo Editor, Louise Ellis-Barrett - will encourage you to go out, find a copy and start reading before Book 3 hits the shelves in 2024.
Prepare for a magical experience like no other when you enter Skandar's world...
Skandar is a magnificent story and a magnificent name for a character. I am curious, and I am sure our readers are too, as to which came first - was it the story idea or the name?
Thank you so much! The story idea definitely came first. I was walking along the road one day, listening to some music and this image of a boy riding a fierce creature came soaring into my mind. It wasn’t a dragon I was sure of that. It wasn’t a phoenix. It looked more like a unicorn – but not how I expected. It looked ferocious and bloodthirsty. I had lots of questions about the unicorn and the boy, and I wrote the first draft of the book to try to answer them.
Where does the name originate from? Does it have roots anywhere or is it entirely from your imagination? What made you decide to use it for the title of the books, too?
I’m not sure exactly where the first idea for the name came from, but I think it certainly has something to do with my brother being called Alexander. He used to try out different nicknames growing up, and it’s possible Skandar was one of them. I thought it made a good name (and title) as it’s phonetic and sounds epic, too! It is also a name that has different but recognisable forms all over the world, and so that has been wonderful to see for the translated version of the story.
The unicorns we meet in these stories are like no other we’ve ever seen before. How much research into folklore, legend and myth did you have to do to create them?
I will be honest – I didn’t do much research before starting the story. I’ve always been a big fan of folklore, legend, and myth but I intentionally tried to avoid reading anything about unicorns before I started writing!
The fantasy world that you have created feels at one and the same time to be very real and yet also beyond belief and imagining! If you could choose a fantasy world to live in, would it be this one - or another - and why?
I would definitely like to live in Skandar’s world but only if I was able to have a unicorn! If there was no unicorn waiting for me in the Hatchery, then I think I would head to the vast archipelago of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series with its many islands, awe-inspiring magic and of course… dragons.
With this second book, you introduce us to more characters, there is more world building and some great plot twists. How do you keep track of it all? Do you plan it all out before you write, or does it come to you as you write?
In terms of keeping track of characters, and especially unicorn names and allied elements, a long document exists that is passed between me and the translators of the series. It’s really helpful for them – and me – to keep all of this information up to date and in one place. I didn’t plan the first book, Skandar and the Unicorn Thief at all, but as the series has progressed I’ve found planning the plot useful. When it comes to world building and characters, I will often
leave a gap in the plan, for example it will say “new location,” or “new character,” and I like to have a bit more freedom to let them develop organically as a write. That’s my favourite part!
How would you suggest that any of our readers who want to try should go about creating a fantasy world? Is there a checklist of elements that must be included or is it left entirely to the writer’s imagination?
I think one of the key parts of creating a fantasy world is asking yourself questions about what you’re building. Who lives here? Why does this happen? How does this work? What happens if…? Ask yourself the difficult questions, and never let yourself off the hook. Don’t take the easy way out by answering with ‘oh it’s just magic.’ Find the rule. Find the reason. The more questions you can answer, the more solid the foundations of the world you’re building will be.
Is it important to you to retain continuity of characters between the books while also developing the plot and introducing new characters? How do you think this helps the story?
I think of core characters – in the Skandar series it is the quartet made up of Skandar, Bobby, Flo and Mitchell – as two things. They are the glue that holds the rest of the story together, but they are also often the magnets that keep readers coming back to follow more of their adventures. When I think of my favourite fantasy series, it is almost always the characters that spring to my mind rather than the world itself. I think this has something to do with people enjoying seeing themselves in stories, and in fantasy I think a lot of the escapism comes from imagining ourselves into new and exciting places. Characters that we know, and love help us do this more effectively.
What do you think is the appeal of a new hero like Skandar? What is it that he offers that has such a huge appeal? Do you think, or have readers told you, that they see themselves in him? Do they, like him, want to be and do something more?
When readers tell me their favourite character is Skandar, they often tell me it is because he isn’t the type of hero they’re used to. They like that he isn’t always brave, that he doesn’t always know what to do next, that he is kind and a little shy, that he admits that he’s scared, that he tries to do the right thing even though he finds that hard sometimes, and that he needs his friends around him to be the hero. I think the reason for Skandar’s appeal is his familiarity – besides the ferocious unicorn he rides – his reactions to the situations he finds himself in are relatable. Readers, I think, can see themselves in Skandar, and I hope that means they believe they can be heroes too – with a little help from their friends.
How important is it to you that the supporting characters in the story have a role to play that makes them of equal importance to the hero? How often do you like to do this - that is, if you plan it consciously?
It’s vital to me that that the supporting characters have roles to play and develop across the series. When I set out with the quartet, my goal was that readers would have different favourite characters, perhaps see themselves in different members of the main four. In order for that to happen, I knew I had to create characters that were well-rounded and realistic, so I think about this consciously and consistently when writing the series.
How easy do you find it to write battle scenes? Is this something that you have to research first? With all these legendary and mythical creatures, I imagine you can literally just make up the powers they have to inform their battle experience? The same question probably applies to other scenes, for example those in school - again, can you just let you imagination run wild because this is a fantasy story?
I love writing battle scenes. I think this partly comes from my background as a fencer. I started fencing at the age of about 10 and competed at national level throughout my teens. In fencing, you learn to attack and defend, you learn what it feels like to fear your opponent’s strengths, what it feels like to outsmart them, and what it feels like to lose too. I still fence now, and I think that has really helped me in my writing of battle scenes. That being said, I never let the battle scene or Eyrie training guide the magic itself. For me, the rules of the elemental magic always have to come first. I never let myself put something in just because it sounds cool or would win a battle – it has to make sense, otherwise the world and magic system lose their foundations and credibility.
On that note, will we be following Skandar and friends through their school years? Can you give us any other clues as to what might be coming up and how many books we might expect from this series?
There will be five books in the Skandar series – one for each element. Each year in the Eyrie comes with its own challenges. The first year was the Training Trial, the second was a jousting tournament, and the third… Well, I can’t share the details just yet, but Fledgling year is when the most riders are declared nomads – i.e., kicked out of the training school. Look out for the third book in April 2024!
Finally: if you could have any mythical creature as a pet/companion, what would it be and why?
I think I have to say unicorn – but only if it was ferocious and deadly! I wouldn’t want a fluffy, glittery one…
Thank you to A. F. Steadman and Simon & Schuster Children's books for the opportunity to conduct this interview and read these fantastic books!