As today is Robert Louis Stevenson Day, we thought it fitting to join author Catherine MacPhail on her visit to Oxgangs Primary School to tell the pupils there about her novel The Evil Within – a story about how young Henry Jekyll became Mr Hyde. Afterwards, we got to have a quick chat with her about the inspiration behind the book.
It’s clear that you know quite a bit about the original story, and The Evil Within definitely feels true to Stevenson’s classic. What brought you to Jekyll and Hyde in the first place?
It’s always been one of my favourite stories – the idea has always gripped me. I have a fear, as most probably do, about the idea of the having a double, and it was something I wanted to explore in my own writing, since I’d already written about doubles in another novel of mine, Another Me.
It properly came about because of an April Fool I did on Facebook a couple of years ago, when I said I’d been asked to write about young Jekyll, which then led me to actually writing my own story. When I really think about it, I think that idea has been there for a long time. As soon as I started thinking about it, I knew exactly how I wanted to write the story.
There are so many adaptations of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for adults, but how did you come to it for children?
I re-read Jekyll and Hyde, to look for clues, to see what he was like when he was young. That’s when I realised how much information was in the original book. It made me want to explore his past. Especially reading the things Jekyll says himself there, so I looked for clues as to the past character.
Also, RLS himself doesn’t too explicitly describe Mr Hyde in the novel. My favourite description is, when referring to Hyde, he writes “O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend.” I think that’s just brilliant! So I was able to explore that, and it’s only at the end when Harry glimpses himself that you see his true form. I think too, especially for children, that not saying too much and giving too much description lets their own imagination take the lead.
What role did Edinburgh play for you in writing this novel?
The reason I wanted to set this in Edinburgh is because Edinburgh is a bit like Jekyll and Hyde. It’s got the beautiful New Town and the narrow streets of the Old Town, and I just loved the idea of linking that to the two sides between Hyde and Jekyll too.
Working with Barrington Stoke, we’re extremely interested in the importance of making books accessible to everyone. Do you approach things differently when you know you’re going to be creating a dyslexia friendly edition of the novel?
No, and that’s something I’ve always admired about Barrington Stoke. Right from the beginning they say to just write a good story, and then we work to make it accessible. I’ve also learned a lot writing for them and the one thing I’ve never been asked is to make the language simpler. It means that the same book can be read by children of different reading standards, which is excellent.
As today is Robert Louis Stevenson Day, what does he mean to you, as a writer yourself?
I have always, always loved Robert Louis Stevenson. I love the diversity of his writing – in that he could write something like Treasure Island and Kidnapped – adventure stories – and then also write dark stories like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bodysnatchers.
I have always loved his attitude though – his sheer enthusiasm for writing. One writing tip he wrote that stuck with me is ‘after three hours the orange is squeezed dry.’ Which I honestly find to be so true. Sit down and write, then after three hours, get up and do something else.
And more than that, his characters are so inspirational in themselves. They live on even now which is rare, and a testament to his writing skill. I remember reading a story about Jekyll and Hyde, and how people had thought the story to be so real they thought it inspired the actions of the real Jack the Ripper.