The Inspiration for Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean
My daughter had the good fortune to visit St Kilda on a day when conditions allowed a landing ashore. She had read many books about the place. We had both read about it in Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. Being an actress, she had been moved to write a play – which left behind a ‘spoil heap’ of unused material. I asked if she wouldn’t mind me using the bit about the boys on the stac.
- Where the World Ends is based on a true story. How did you approach expanding on a real historic event?
That ‘bit about the boys on the stac’ extended to one and a half lines of text in an antique record kept by the minister of the day. No names. No comment. No hint as to how they had survived or what the experience had done to them or what became of them.
Events in history which are known to all and sundry have also been written about by all and sundry. What an author of fiction needs is some tiny shred of history which, if turned into a novel, will not have to contend with the general public already knowing how it turns out in the end. What this author loves is the barest trellis up which to grow a plot. Mind you, I did wonder, three chapters in, why I had undertaken to tell a story
- devoid of girls (I solved that one)
- Set in a single small area
- Performing the same tasks day by day by interminable day
- For a VERY long time.
Somehow, though, the characters explained things to me quite cogently and I soon found that plenty goes on among any group of people confronted with death, fear, suffering, hope, hates, loves, dreams and desperation
- Were you inspired by any other survivalist tales while writing this book?
My original thought was to do a kind of upbeat take on Lord of the Flies. Given that the people of St Kilda were gentle, Christian, self-reliant folk, I thought that, faced with the end of the world, the boys might create the Ideal Society (as has been done on another isolated island elsewhere in the world). But there was no tension. The only adversary was the ocean and weather, and there’s only so much you can do with sea and rain. It needed a villain – maybe more than one. I needed the whole gamut of emotions teenage boys (and men) go through. Indeed, I needed to feel a whole gamut of emotions to carry the impetus forward. I needed every one of those boys (and men) to be different, because difference is what makes people individual and interesting.
- What was it like to be in the heads of these characters as they struggled to survive in such bleak conditions?
It’s a big cast. I was, by turn, every one of those people. But my resting place was always in Quill’s head, watching the others, minding about their predicament, finding ways of fending off their despair and his own. It’s funny: I don’t think I’m nearly enough of a ‘good neighbour’ to my fellow mankind, so I suppose Quill is what I would like to be like. Do you suppose all authors try to endow their heroes with the qualities they would like to have themselves?
- What do you hope readers take away from Where the World Ends?
Nobody these days (including myself) can imagine a life as hard and isolated as those people on St Kilda – let alone imagine surviving what those boys went through. I hope readers will be left with an admiration for the sheer willpower they must have summoned up when staring Death in the face for month after month while their clothes, their hopes and their bodies fell apart and even the birds deserted them for the open ocean. Above all, I hope they’ll stick it out as far as the end – because it’s not all sorrow and sadness. Honest!
Geraldine McCaughrean is the author of the Printz Award winner The White Darkness, the New York Times bestseller Peter Pan in Scarlet, and many other books for children and young adults. She is a two-time winner of the Carnegie Medal, including Where the World Ends. Geraldine lives in Berkshire with her husband, John, and the lingering shades of all those characters she has invented in her books. Her cottage is under year-round siege from wild birds demanding to be fed. The ducks even knock on the door. Where the World Ends was just named a 2020 Michael L. Printz Honor Book.