I have five copies of Gulliver’s
Travels, the incredible fantasy tale that first got told back around the
time when George Washington still had his baby teeth. Yesterday I bought
my sixth. Here they all are on my desk, awaiting their newest member (they
better not bully him when he arrives).
They’re all different. One of them is
full of maps. Another was a bargain at £2. The third is full of tiny,
Lilliputian-sized handwriting that I can barely read. The weirdest one has a
picture of a little goblin dressed up as a snail at the end. I’m serious. We
will never know why.
I didn’t buy a single one of them off
the net. I liked to find them
unexpectedly, you see. You’d be amazed at how many Gulliver’s there are,
lurking down the back of charity shop bookcases, prices pencilled in the top corner of their title pages, sitting dusty and
forgotten, waiting to be discovered.
It was sort of an obsession, for a
while. Like baseball cards, or Pokémon. I just had to collect them. I didn’t
I used to wonder, though. Was it because
I wanted to give all these old classics a shelf to call home? Maybe I was just
fascinated by the miniature. (I am, by the way - I have loads of small stuff,
including a small guitar, a small book, two small people sitting on a small
rock and a small creepy doll’s house up in the attic that could definitely
feature in a Goosebumps book.)
But then I realised. Maybe it was something else. Maybe I was collecting all
these copies so I could see the different ways Gulliver’s Travels had been
reprinted, reinterpreted, retold, and redrawn (sometimes with weird
It took me a while to figure it out, but
that was it. That was the reason! I was collecting all these re-tellings
because somewhere, deep down the secret paths of my brain where stories wander,
I wanted to have a go at reinterpreting Gulliver’s Travels myself.
So I sat down at my desk, and started
I didn’t really know what story I was
telling, or how it would be different from Gulliver’s Travels. I didn’t
know where it was set, or who it would be about. I was like Gulliver at that
point: I travelled to a lot of strange places and got lost in each one.
Some writers hate that wandering feeling
of not knowing where a story is going, but I like it. It’s exciting. And I find
that if I keep wandering over the page for long enough, I discover something
That’s how I found my main character:
I’d been writing about Gulliver for a
couple of months before she showed up.
Before that, I’d explored the idea of
Gulliver deciding to journey to a whole bunch of strange new lands. But
whatever I wrote, it didn’t seem to feel right. Gulliver didn’t seem
like a very nice hero to me. He’s miserable and mean by the end of his travels,
and he isn’t exactly Dad of the Year either. He leaves his family for decades,
and by the time he comes back, he decides he hates them!
But who else could be my main character?
I had no idea.
Then, one day, I found myself writing a
chapter about Gulliver’s meeting with two thieves. Their names were Brindle and
This is roughly what I wrote: Brindle
and Petterkin hide in a barn during a thunderstorm. They sell a stolen birdcage
to a strange traveller called
Gulliver, who pays them in tiny golden coins.
During the chapter, one of the thieves
(Petterkin, I think) starts to wonder why Gulliver might need a birdcage. And
then he notices that Gulliver’s pockets are sewn shut. And finally, at the end
of the chapter, Petterkin swears he can hear the tiny, distant sound of someone
Now, Brindle and Petterkin soon got cut
out of my story. They weren’t very important characters. But they did help
me discover something important – Gulliver wasn’t the hero of my tale,
he was the villain! And he’d done something truly terrible. He’d
kidnapped a Lilliputian child.
I remember finishing that chapter, and
feeling very excited, even though I knew that nothing I had just written would
go into my final book.
It didn’t matter. Suddenly, I knew what
my twist on Gulliver’s Travels was about.
It was about a tiny girl, three inches
So that’s the story behind the story.
That’s why I found myself buying up copies of Gulliver’s Travels, and
how I first discovered my main character, Lily.
But if you’re still wondering why I’m so
obsessed with tiny things in the first place, your guess is as good as mine. As
Stephen Millhauser says: ‘Wherein lies the fascination of the miniature?’
If you’d like to read the short chapter
featuring Brindle and Petterkin (and Lily) click here.