• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

Jean Flitcroft and the Cryptids

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews
jean-flitcroft

By Kevin Massey

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The most important thing to remember when reading any of Jean Flitcroft’sCryptid series is this; ‘Although we think of science as mountains of facts, science is really the investigation of the unknown’.  The drive to understand the unknown is central to the theme of Jean’s books and what inspires her in writing them.  She chatted to Kevin Massey about Loch Ness, Chupacabra and crytpozoology.

Jean was born and raised in Dublin, attending Holy Child School in Killiney before studying science in UCD.  On completion of her degree, Jean was awarded a Welcome Scholarship and, with job opportunities non-existent at the time, she went on to Magdalen College, Oxford University to study for her doctorate in Physiology.  She worked as a scriptwriter for science and medical films and as a travel writer, before she set off around the world with her husband.  It was on her travels that she began to combine her academic background and travel experience into an idea for a children’s book; the Cryptids, a series for boys and girls aged nine to thirteen.  This leads to one obvious question, what is a cryptid?

‘Crytpids are those creatures like the Loch Ness Monster that lie between fact and fiction’, Jean explains.  While some people confine such ideas to the realm of conspiracy theory, there have been numerous credible accounts and sightings ‘They have been witnessed by a lot of ‘reliable’ people – monks, police officers, bank managers in the case of the Loch Ness Monster and been investigated by scientists but have not been proven. The coelacanth which was thought to be extinct for 65 million years but turned up off the coast of Africa in the 1930s used to be a cryptid but has now re-entered the realms of science.  I like the idea of combining fact and fiction as most books tend to be either one or the other’.

The idea for the Cryptids grew slowly for Jean ‘As a child I absolutely loved the story of the Loch Ness Monster, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, that it really took hold of me’.  Jean was fascinated by the sheer number of respected scientists and academics who put their money and credibility on the line to try and find evidence of Loch Ness, that is was not just a bunch of people in tinfoil hats as many people falsely assume. ‘My favourite example is Robert Rines -an American lawyer, composer, inventor and physicist but also a cryptozoologist. He saw Nessie twice and then spent the next 30 years of his life trying to prove it.  He and his team published a very famous underwater photograph of Nessie in 1975 in Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals’.

Jean goes on to point out that the modern legal system places such a value on eyewitness accounts, yet such accounts of Loch Ness were dismissed, ‘The quote by author G.K Chesterton was another that particularly struck me. He said that ‘many a man has been hanged on less evidence than there is for the Loch Ness Monster.’ This made me realise that witnesses, no matter how credible, are not evidence in the world of science and yet they can be in the legal profession’.  All this led to Jean’s idea for combining the existing facts with the story that was developing in her notebook of Vanessa Day, Cryptozoologist.

The Cryptid books follow Vanessa as she continues her mother’s work in cryptozoology after finding her files in the attic.  The first book in the series covers the Loch Ness Monster (it was also, in part, written on at Loch Ness).  Each chapter starts with the facts; the true story and science on which it is based.  Each section and plot used in the book has fact or scientific investigation as its starting point which Jean can weave her story around; Vanessa visiting Loch Ness and becoming embroiled in an adventure to find the beast.

After the resounding success of Loch Ness, Jean began researching for the second book in the series and the second cryptid.  The idea for Mexican Devil started when Jean was on holiday with her husband and three children in Mexico last year, when she learned about the Chupacabra; a hideous monster and truly the stuff of nightmares.  The Chupacabra originated with the Aztecs and it’s legend has lived on with their descendents, the Nahua.  It prowls Mexico and Central America at night, draining the blood of its victims through puncture holes in their necks; the type of creature that would stop Buffy in her tracks and have Edward Cullen re-evaluate his lot in life.  ‘This story also gave me fantastic scope to explain a wide range of facts from the Aztecs and their blood sucking rituals to details of real vampire bats, the only mammal that actually lives by drinking blood. Most kids are amazed when they find out that they aren’t just in the imagination of Bram Stoker and Stephanie Myers.’

This time the story is about Vanessa and her friend Nikki who go to an aunt’s ranch in Mexico to learn Spanish and meet new cousins. There, they get drawn into a world of myth and magic. Mexican Devilfollows the same template of Loch Ness in that it provides the facts on which each chapter is based and builds the plot around them.  Education through reading for enjoyment was one of the aims Jean set herself in writing The Cryptids and one in which she has succeeded.  ‘I think children find it much easier to absorb what might sometimes be considered boring facts about history or science if the concepts spark their imagination in some way’.  She cites her own experience in that her love of science, that led to her doctorate, was sparked by the ‘stories of inventors and incredible scientific breakthroughs like the invention of the aeroplane and Marie Curie’s discovery of radioactivity’.  As she said from the start ‘science is really the investigation of the unknown and that is why I wanted to open this world up to my young readers’.

Unsurprisingly, literary explorers were a huge influence to Jean in her writing, starting with trips to Wonderland with Lewis Carroll ‘As a child I absolutely adored Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I read them over and over – the humour, the mix of the bizarre and the ordinary really tickled me’.  Later her mother gave her some old Angela Brazil books that were set in an English boarding school and for years Jean begged to be allowed go to boarding school in the south of England and play lacrosse.  Despite this brief diversion, Jean was always drawn to the adventure books of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys Mysteries and the Willard Price’s adventure series.

‘As a teenager/adult I moved onto writers like Edith Wharton and Francoise Sagan, but I was particularly inspired by the women explorers at the turn of the century, the early travel writers who went to the ends of the earth, travelling alone – the likes of Isabella Bird and Gertrude Bell. My favourite quote is from Willa Cather who said – ‘One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that make happiness: one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour at the worlds end somewhere, and holds fast to the days…’ I suppose in my own small way I have recreated a little of that in my heroine Vanessa who travels the globe in search of the unknown’

So what does the future hold for The Cryptids? ‘I would love to think it could run for many years. There are plenty of cryptids in the world and I have enough stories in my head to keep Vanessa roaming for many years to come’.  Jean is currently working on the third book in the series, set in Canada.  With this book, Jean will ‘introduce the kids to facts about illegal whale hunting, environmental issues and Greenpeace, but it is all done within the context of the adventure story’.  Her research allowed her to ‘interview Greenpeace members as well as spending time with a famous cryptozoologist who lives on the Gulf Islands’.  As she says herself, ‘Tough job or what’.

About the author

(c) Kevin Massey, December 2011.

You can learn more about Jean Flitcroft and The Cryptids at her website 

 

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