Step inside a world of magic….#London with Robert Dinsdale
Sometimes along comes a novel that captures not just a setting but a place in your imagination which, when it comes to life, really makes your eyes light up and your heart sing…
London might be the city the book takes place in but the real setting is the wonderful toy emporium which is somewhere in the alleyways hidden from view until you are ready to see it and discover the magic for yourself…
How did you think of such a wonderful setting?
Writing the novel was a long and sometimes difficult process, with lots of changes and different iterations along the way, but the Emporium itself came to me almost fully-formed. Several years ago, when my daughter was one, I was pottering with her in a local chain toy store. The cynic in me cringed at some of the mass-produced merchandise up on the shelves – but seeing the way her face lit up at the touch of a tacky plastic figurine, the happiness and magic she poured into something I would have quickly disregarded, startled something in me. It cast me back to a time when toys, even ones we might now think of as cheap and ordinary, can be elevated by the imagination of a child. By the time I’d walked home, I knew my way from the Emporium’s half-moon hall, through its workshops and the snowflake stairs, past the carousel and the insectarium. Lots of the other texture, of course, spirited itself into being as I was writing – but the look and feel of the Emporium was one of those rare and happy moments in writing when something just presents itself and you’re eager to get exploring.
Was London chosen for a particular reason and how does it add to the story?
London is the place that the Godmans would naturally have come as immigrants, when they sought to open their Emporium – and the idea of a toy shop at the heart of London Society in that era was very appealing. I lived in London and know and love the city, and it was nice to be able to set something there for the first time in my writing.
Were you that little boy wanting your toy soldiers to come alive?
Weren’t we all? The idea that our toys, faithful companions from childhood into adulthood itself, might not just absorb the love we give them but return it too, is such an appealing thing. It’s strange but, even though rationally I know that there isn’t life in toys, the idea of the pieces of my old chess set not being together to keep each other company in their box – or the figures from my daughter’s dolls house being separated – can still make me anxious.
The greater part of you knows they’re just plastic and wood, but even as an adult there remains a part of you that feels for them in the way you might feel for your loved ones. When we were in New York a couple of years ago, my daughter left her pink bunny, which she’d been carrying around with her, in the back of a taxi. And if the thought of that rabbit, lost and alone in the big city without its child to keep it safe, doesn’t break a little corner of your heart, well, you’re more cynical than me…
In prehistoric days, it’s likely that we human beings were all animists – like some modern tribal peoples, we attributed living souls to the inanimate objects around us: rocks and rivers and mountains and trees. And that’s what children do to toys. Instinct tells children that, if things exist, they simply must be alive; and it’s only as we grow up that we learn the distinction between the animate and the inanimate. I like to think that the dreams we all had of our toys coming to life are, in some way, hard-wired into us…
How did you write this? Did it take you long or did the characters come to life and take over?
The Emporium might have come to me almost fully-formed but the novel did not. It’s been five years since my last novel Gingerbread and the reason is that writing takes hundreds of unexpected twists and turns! Sometimes it tricks you and you write yourself into a dead end, and that happened many times across writing this novel. In its original form, The Toymakers was a contemporary story about a family inheriting an old, abandoned toyshop and unearthing its magical history.
Then it became a novel about a runaway during the London Blitz, who gets taken in to the Emporium’s heart. Those were both false starts, but somewhere along the way I was up late at night imagining the toys that inhabited the Emporium. It’s one of my favourite moments in all of my writing when I imagined the toy soldiers who could wind themselves up and, in that way, developed intelligence. In the first versions I wrote, the toy soldiers were just a footnote – more of the colourful texture that gives the Emporium life. But, the more I thought about them, the more crucial they seemed. It’s the toy soldiers themselves who dragged the novel back in time to the early Twentieth Century and the battlefields of Flanders and France. It’s because of them that, what might have been mere back-story to a different kind of novel, became the main event. I can’t thank them enough!
Where can I buy a tree in a box? Please tell me they are real?
I couldn’t possibly show you the correct origami to create an Emporium Instant Tree. That’s a secret that stays in the Emporium…
What about the other magical toys?
All toys are magical! All the Godmans do is make us cynical adults remember what it was like to be 5, 6, 7 years old and pouring our imaginations into them.
Did you visit Hamleys as an inspiration or does the magic just come from your mind?
Hamleys is its own kind of wonderland for children, but I’m terrified of the place. A chaos of colour and movement, with too many places to go missing or get lost… I haven’t yet taken my daughter there – I know she’ll love it when we go, but that place is like the Emporium, bigger on the inside than on the out…
What toy in your book or even one that didn’t make it in, would you really like to have?
The patchwork animals will always have a place in my heart, but there are many toys that didn’t quite make it into the novel. If I ever write the sequel, we’ll discover them there – but suffice to say that there are many different versions of the Long War, some of them mentioned in passing in the novel, and somewhere out there, there are sets of Roman legionaries, medieval knights and samurais slowly developing language and thought, just like the toy soldiers in the book. It would be fantastic to explore them soon.
The story itself is quite sad in places.The story of Russia and the war. What kind of research did you have to do for this part?
Before I wrote The Toymakers I’d spent a long time researching and writing a novel about the siege of Leningrad, which I never quite brought together. Before that, in my last novel Gingerbread, I’d found an excuse to write about the wilderness through Russian and Slavic folk tales, a rich tradition brimming with dark magic that has always captured my imagination. In The Toymakers, and in particular Papa Jack’s history, I was able to bring all of that research for past projects to light. The Great War stories, too, have lodged in memory since I researched my first novel, The Harrowing, more than ten years ago. In a way, The Toymakers is the coming together of lots of different interests for me – all anchored in a singular, enchanted store.
Was blending the magic and the painful hard to do?
Not at all – because, without the pain, the magic doesn’t exist. Without the pain, the magic is just pure whimsy… and I don’t think pure whimsy has the capacity to move us in the same way. It needs the pain to cut through it. Shadows need light, and light needs shadow. Unless you have both, neither is revealed as what it really is – so, for me, they go hand in hand.
Thanks Robert for such a magical book. A heartfelt and heartwarming read with some really dark moments which build an amazing tapestry of emotions