‘Even if Einstein thought it was theoretically possible to travel in time, he never proved it, and if all the minds at the great universities haven’t managed to do it yet, then the likelihood of a 1920’s bungalow managing to invent a time machine, unaided, is very, very small. Time travel is far too complicated and unlikely to have been invented by a fridge.’
The Yoghurt Plot is just my sort of book. It features time travel, the seaside, a pain-in-the neck child called Lorna and a lot of yoghurt. Fleur Hitchcock has written a run of funny stories in the mode of classic children’s books from the 60s-80s (tailor made for Jackanory), told with an outlandish sci-fi twist. I asked her some questions.
Why use a fridge with time travel inducing yoghurt as your time machine?
The idea of sell by dates has been knocking around in my head for ages, but I couldn’t think how to use them. Then, one day I was doing a workshop with a group of yr 5s when two pieces of paper drifted together. On one it said: A Fridge. On the other it said: Is a time machine. Like compost, the ideas rotted down together until they threw up an idea that I could follow.
You take the idea of the ‘butterfly effect’ and explore its consequences to the nth degree. Did this give you major headaches in the plotting?
Oh yes. I began with the vaguest idea of where it was all going, and of course it wrapped itself in knots really fast. So then I wrote it backwards like a detective story but in the edits, it reached a point where Sara O Connor, my editor who is much cleverer than I am wrote on the manuscript ‘My head is spinning with this.’ Mine was spinning too, and I had to use sticky notes all over the place to work out the fine print of what was going on. I sort of enjoyed it though. It was like untangling string.
How apt that your editor is (almost) called Sarah Connor. The temptation to storm into her office and say ‘are you Sarah Connor?’ in an Austrian accent must be strong! What are your favourite time travel stories?
The Terminator is the ultimate fiddle with time and you won’t be born movie. I steered clear of everything time travelly when I was writing and thinking about the book. So that’s no time travel for at least three years. I didn’t want anyone else’s time travel rules crashing in on my story. However, that said, I’ve been a lifelong Doctor Who fan, I’ve seen all the Back to the Future movies, I love Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and one of my all-time favourite films is Les Visiteurs (hilarious story of two mediaeval knights who roll up in modern day France). So I guess I’m a fan of the paradoxes presented by time travel.
You’ve written about not having written the central character Bugg as a boy or a girl. Was this a conscious decision or accident?
It was an accident. I had two synopses for the story. One, written a long time ago had Bugg as a girl called Hannah. A later one had Bugg as a boy. So I had both in my head and in a sense they fought against each other until I couldn’t choose. And then we decided that it didn’t matter, that children could make up their own minds.
I loved the character of Lorna, she’s a classic pre-teen ‘bad girl’, could you describe her character?
I love Lorna – she’s so annoying. She’s one of those people that used to make me feel really tense when I was a child. They’d do things without thinking about them properly, just launch in and leave you to sort out the mess. She’d pour both the chemicals in together at the beginning of the chemistry lesson, or press the button on the rocket, or go down the hole in the road with a ladder sticking out of it. She’s the complete opposite of Bugg, which makes her the perfect companion. She’s not ‘bad’ so much as a liability and she’s a REALLY bad time travelling companion.
All your books have a small town / suburban setting. You seem particularly keen on faded seaside towns. Is there any particular reason for this?
As a writer, you can invent any landscape you want, and I suppose, I really love being by the sea. It’s partly geographical, seaside towns can never be in the heart of things so they’re often somewhere between chic and really run down. And it’s atmospheric. They have strange shops which are only open one day a week, plaques to heroic deeds, a faint smell of fish. The sea itself is full of magic and charm, and the harbours and beaches are often architecturally timeless – I mean outside Newquay there’s a man in a shed who repairs wind up gramophones. You wouldn’t know he was there in Slough, or Bristol, but by the sea he sticks a gramophone on the garden wall and plays it to the seagulls. It’s so utterly random.
You also draw regularly on ideas from science fiction, though I don’t think the reader would necessarily think they were reading an SF story. Are there any other sci-fi concepts you’d like to explore in your stories?
I spent hours on the bus reading John Wyndham between home and school and I love anything that can’t be explained – I’ve always been a sucker for crop circles, even though at heart I’m a scientist and I know they’re made by a bloke with a plank. Yes, there are plenty more half baked sci-fi ideas out there, but I’m not telling – yet.
I felt a little sick by the end with all that yoghurt being eaten. How many pots do they get through?
You can’t be serious! !!!! Ok so there are 2 – then 2 more except that in the final reality they don’t get eaten – and then 3 and then 3 again except… um – no – I can’t work it out.
That’s what I thought. Thanks Fleur.