New Author Steps Out With 'Glass Feet'

Not too long ago, Ali Shaw published his first novel, a fable. There is a creature which turns animals and birds white. A recluse breeds tiny winged cows. There is a boy who falls in love with a girl, and tries to save her, because in this tale, birds, animals and people mysteriously turn into glass. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Shaw about his new book Girl with the Glass Feet, which has been long-listed for The Guardian First Book Award.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Not too long ago, Ali Shaw published his first novel, a fable. There's a creature, which turns animals and birds white. There's a recluse who breeds tiny, winged cattle. There's a boy who falls in love with a girl and tries to save her. Because in this tale, birds, animals and people mysteriously turn into glass.

"The Girl with Glass Feet" received critical acclaim when it was first published in England. The novel's author wrote it while working in the Oxford Bodleian Library. The book has just been published in the United States, and Ali Shaw joins us from the BBC in Oxford. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ALI SHAW (Author, "The Girl with Glass Feet"): Hi, Liane. Nice to be here.

HANSEN: Oh, it's great to have you here. Describe first the northern archipelago this fictional place where your tale is set.

Mr. SHAW: The archipelago is called St. Hauda's Land and one of the literary inspirations for it really was to try to create a contemporary landscape that would be reminiscent in a way of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy stories -those sorts of snowy, chilly, windblown environments, but were quite delicate and beautiful wintery magic can occur.

HANSEN: What references do you take Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Mermaid?" I mean, this is a love story and it's a young woman whose human legs are turning into class.

Mr. SHAW: Yeah, I absolutely adore that story. I think it's one of Andersen's best. And I wasn't trying to draw upon that story, specifically more on the landscapes and general tone of Hans Christian Andersen. But I think there is definitely a parallel in the way that you have a heroine who is out of her place.

Because in "The Girl with Glass Feet," Ida, who's the titular girl with glass feet, is there any character in this story who isn't from St. Hauda's Land? She's arrived there from the mainland, from a world that's much more colorful, much more usual than St. Hauda's Land is.

And so she's similar in a way to the little mermaid in the way that the little mermaid has to learn to adjust to our world, the world of two-footed people and the various pains and difficulties that come hand-in-hand with being human.

HANSEN: Tell us about now your hero, Midas. Man, that's a name deliberately taken straight from fairytale?

Mr. SHAW: Well, yeah. It's less of a direct reference, I think, to the myth in terms of Midas's character himself and more a reference to the element of that story, of the great story of Midas. Where when King Midas touches things and they turn into gold, it's a horrible distancing effect. You know, it ruins his life because everything he touches becomes remote and inaccessible to him and these sorts of invisible boundaries come up because he can't get near to people and so on.

Midas, in my story, is a very introverted man and he does have what really is probably best described as a phobia of touch and contact with other people. He's desperate to stay within his cell at all times. And he's a photographer and he interprets his entire life through the medium of his camera. It's almost like his camera is his glass, his telescope, his means of filtering of the information that the world gives to him and into things he can understand.

HANSEN: Looking through the glass lens, I mean, it's...

Mr. SHAW: Yeah.

HANSEN: ...Through a Glass Darkly, blah, blah, blah.

Mr. SHAW: Yeah.

HANSEN: But we later learn Midas' father had a heart of glass. Every time he felt affection, he felt a piercing pain, like a shard of glass, but it turned out that his heart was actually turning to glass.

Mr. SHAW: Yeah. And it's never explained 'cause I think to - and I don't have an explanation for it, I deliberately didn't include one and don't want to create one, really. Because the first to do so would be to move kind of into the realms of science fiction and so on, because then you start having explanations for everything. And this is magic, but it's not, sort of, Disney magic. It's magic as an expression of the hard things that can happen to people in real life.

HANSEN: Yeah. I mean, this is like hard, long night Norse magic that's happening.

Mr. SHAW: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I read that in the middle ages in Europe there was actually a glass dilution that was...

Mr. SHAW: That's right, yeah.

HANSEN: ...documented as a psychiatric condition. Tell us about that.

Mr. SHAW: Yeah. King Charles VI of France was the most high-profile chap who suffered under this thing. It's not quite the same as in my novel where you have a character who he's actually turning into glass. These people in the Middle Ages in Europe tended to think that their bodies were glass objects. So, they may think that they were a bottle or a beaker or a pair of spectacles. You know, they thought that they were glass items.

But they took it very seriously. And King Charles had a suit made of padded clothing in which he would sit because he would be terrified that if he sat down too hard without this suit, his body might shatter or...

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. SHAW: But there's an interesting parallel there I think with "The Girl with Glass Feet" in that all of the characters have wrapped themselves up in psychological, cotton wool suits if you like. So, they're terrified of breaking.

HANSEN: Yeah. Ali Shaw's first novel is called "The Girl with Glass Feet." It's just been published in the United States. And he joined us from the BBC in Oxford, England. Thank you so much. Good luck to you.

Mr. SHAW: Thank you. My pleasure.

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