Actor Tamzin Merchant has worn many hats in her career. She’s been a doomed Tudor queen, a cradle witch, a Scottish warrior, and a lady in high society. She can add author to that list now with the release of her debut children’s novel, which has been tipped as one of the big middle-grade books of 2021.
The Hatmakers is set in an alternate 18th-century London where a selection of rival families make enchanted garments for royalty. The protagonist of this story, young Cordelia, belongs to the Hatmaker family, and her father Prospero is known for being an exceptionally skilled milliner. However, Prospero goes missing at sea, and then it surfaces that someone is trying to use the milliner’s magic to start a war. It’s up to Cordelia to find out who and why.
To celebrate the release of Merchant’s fantastical debut, we got in touch to ask her our 21 Questions. Here, she reveals her love of fictional heroine Anne Shirley, how her novel came to her in a dream, and the time she did a very peculiar scene that involved being lowered down a 50-foot tube…
Which writer do you most admire and why?
I adore Diana Wynne Jones for her brilliant inventions and her humour. She told stories so intelligently and with such observation and wit. Every time I pick up one of her books it is such a joy.
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle! There is something very lovely about the colours of all the things the caterpillar eats. I was absolutely mesmerised by it. I still am!
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. I love Anne's outlook on life: her imagination, her determination and feistiness. Also, her unapologetic campaign to get people to spell her name correctly was inspiring to me as a teenager – people kept replacing the 'z' in my name with an 's'. Anne's determination to hold onto her 'e' spoke to me!
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
Pride and Prejudice. Not only is reading Jane Austen transformative because she's an absolutely beautiful and brilliant writer, but playing Georgiana Darcy in a film adaptation of this book started my career as an actor!
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I'm an actor, which is often a strange job. Once I did a scene where I got dropped down a well on a bucket. We filmed the scene in a studio and the 'well' was a 50-foot tube. I had to be taken to the top of it on a special lift and then lowered down the well with a harness on under my Jacobean era dress. I also got rather wet when I finally reached the paddling pool at the bottom. That was a strange day...
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
On his podcast, John August (a screenwriter) suggested doing timed writing 'sprints'. I took this idea and made my own little practice out of it – I do three hours of writing every weekday, with one hour on the timer, and have breaks in between. I'm not sure an hour of writing would be classified as a 'sprint' but it works for me!
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Every time I reread it, something different strikes and moves me. Every time, I feel an affinity with a different March sister. And every time, I laugh and cry!
What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson! I should really read it – I'm sure my inner child would love to meet the Gruffalo.
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
An actor, which I already am! If I wasn't an actor, I'd like to be a garden designer.
What makes you happiest?
Planting vegetable seeds and watching them grow. It's a slow kind of happiness, watching the seeds turn into vegetables. And swimming in the sea is the quickest way to happiness I've ever discovered.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
I really enjoy oil painting, and I am very, very bad at it, which is half the fun!
What is your ideal writing scenario?
A clear desk, a comfortable chair and a ferocious thunderstorm outside.
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
I once received a poetry prize from Carol Ann Duffy and I was too shy to talk to her afterwards! That was a bit embarrassing.
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
I would invite Shakespeare over for dinner and I'd serve him all kinds of modern dishes that would BLOW HIS MIND and then I'd write down all the inventive exclamations he came out with. What would the Bard say when presented with a Baked Alaska, or a taco, or Ben & Jerry's or a vindaloo? What an evening!
What’s your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is letting fear stop me from doing the things I love.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
YES! And preferably a bubble bath.
Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?
Chocolate! Especially hot chocolate.
What is the best book you’ve ever read?
Oh, my goodness this is an impossible question to answer! Impossible! The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman is wondrous. I have about a thousand others I could say, but today I'll say that one. You'll get a different answer from me every day of the year though!
What inspired you to write your new book?
A dream! I dreamed about magical Hatmakers one night while I was filming a TV show called Carnival Row, which features many splendid hats. I woke up with a very vivid impression of a world where there is a magical family called the Hatmakers and their rivals are the Bootmakers, and I thought, 'I've got to see if I can turn that dream into a book!'
The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant is out 18 February 2021.