And then they vanished, from sight, from sound. Laura, and the Wild Ones, and the unicorn, had gone.
Spellhorn began life as a radio play called A Dream of Unicorns. I had a request from Janet Whitaker, then a producer for BBC Schools programmes, to write a drama series about a unicorn. I had recently written a novel, Tough Luck, in close consultation with a class of teenagers from a school in Doncaster, and had loved the experience. I felt it would be wonderful to involve children in this new project. Radio writing is still my favourite medium. How interesting and exciting it would be, I thought, to involve children for whom sound has a particular quality. I contacted a school for the visually impaired in Sheffield, Tapton Mount School, (now closed), and asked if it would be possible to talk to some children there. At this stage I had no idea what I was going to do, or what would develop. I had had very little contact with the blind. I was a little anxious about meeting these children. I also wanted to give something positive back to the children.
It was easily arranged. Four of the children made up one whole class. Their teacher, Pat Darley, was very happy for me to work with them in this way and we agreed that although my visits wouldn’t necessarily be regular or for a specific length of time they would always be on the same afternoon of the week. Soon I got to know Holly, David, Robert and Richard quite well and had a sense of how they worked as a group and how I could draw them out individually. Their range of visual impairment and experience varied. Richard and Robert had been blind from birth. David had lost his sight in an accident two years previously. Holly had cataracts, but could read very large print with the help of a strong light. David was by far the brightest of the four, and was very intelligent, confident and articulate. Holly had learning difficulties.
I began by asking the children to write, on their Perkins Braille typewriters, stories or poems about any animals. I was surprised to hear their descriptions, because you would not have known from them that they weren’t sighted children, as they wrote descriptions of colour, shape and movement. Soon I realised that what they were doing is what most of our children do, in that they were reproducing what they had read in stories and poems written by sighted people. They were giving me what they thought I wanted. But I wanted much more. I wanted to encourage them to write from their own experience, using their other senses. We spent many hours together, writing and reading to each other, listening to sounds and making words for them, listening to each other on the tape recorder, talking about their experiences of going swimming and visiting farms, about the things they could taste and touch and smell and hear. Gradually I began to work on the play, and at the same time to write a novel. I wanted to share it with the children at every stage, reading it to them chapter by chapter as I wrote it. But only then did I decide that my central character, Laura, was going to be blind, like them.
The play was broadcast on Radio 4 Schools Radio as A Dream of Unicorns, and I continued to work on the novel. I read it to Holly, David, Richard and Robert chapter by chapter, and encouraged them to write their own chapters so we could compare notes. Together we invented languages, made up songs, created a Wilderness. When the book was published we had a launch party in Crystal Peaks Library in Sheffield. The National Library for the Blind created Braille copies for the children, and I commissioned a potter to make four ceramic tiles with the raised impression of the book cover so the children could have lasting memories of our wonderful time together.
I loved the freedom of writing fantasy, and I really enjoyed developing the language of the Wild Ones. Twice now I have been approached by filmmakers who were interested in making Spellhorn into a feature film. I was very excited by the idea and for each of them I wrote scripts, which took several months, developing the written words in filmic, visual terms. Sadly, so far, the film hasn’t happened! But I love to hear from children who read the novel, especially when they write to me in the language of the Wild Ones! That makes me right heart-glad, that does.