The Lightning Catcher

Alfie has noticed a few things since his family moved to Folding Ford. He really misses life in the city. He and his sister don’t exactly fit in here. But the most interesting one is that the weather is BONKERS. One frost-covered branch on one tree in the middle of June? A tiny whirlwind in a bucket in the garden? Only in Folding Ford.

Armed with his bike, a notepad and his new best mate Sam, Alfie is going to investigate. His best clue is Nathaniel Clemm … the only thing in town weirder than the weather. When Alfie ‘investigates’ Mr Clemm’s garden, only SLIGHTLY illegally, he finds a strange box that freezes his trainers and makes his teeth tingle. And when he opens it, only SLIGHTLY deliberately, SOMETHING gets out. Something fast, fizzing and sparking with electricity and very, very much alive. But the creature from the box brings trouble of its own, and as barometers and tempers go haywire in Folding Ford, Alfie finds himself at the centre of a perfect storm.
Skellig meets Stranger Things in this funny, heartfelt adventure story perfect for fans of Ross Welford, Christopher Edge and Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Bloomsbury
Cover illustration by Paddy Donnelly

I loved THE LIGHNTING CATCHER! An absolutely brilliant debut, really imaginative sci-fi for MG+ with brilliant characters and some unexpected turns. I asked Clare Weze some questions and her answers are wonderfully insightful, so I’m not going to say anything else (except that: if you have the opportunity to invite an author in to do a creative writing session, I love her idea and want to come along)!

What gave you the idea of creating living weather (basically) for a story?

This is such a lovely question, because from an early age I’ve loved weather, so I was probably waiting for an opportunity to use inspiration arising from our own increasingly bizarre weather. But the idea came to me in stages rather than all at once. The isolation of the setting (based on aspects of the house I live in now) encouraged wild and unpredictable weather, but it wasn’t until I had the character that things started to gel. Because he was a curious, intrepid and somewhat contrary character, he went trespassing. The plot couldn’t have unfolded in my mind without that event, because it set off a unique chain. When he opened that box and let something loose, it gave me the perfect opportunity to have a creature that created its own weather systems. So rather than reverse-engineer a situation that would suit a creature like that, everything grew organically from playing around with a character in a setting.

Did you always intend to write for a middle grade audience, or did Alfie and the plot evolve that way?

The middle grade age has always been my favourite, not only to write for but to engage with in all ways. I particularly enjoyed being with my own children at that age. Pre-teens have such clever and original ideas, and their language use is funny and inspiring. And of all the ages I’ve been myself, that age felt the most magical in terms of the possibilities of the world, and even the universe. You get glimpses of what certain aspects of the natural world and the world of people might mean, but you don’t always get the full facts, so your mind joins the dots and comes up with something new and fun (even if it’s sometimes completely wrong!). That’s why that age felt, to me, like really living your best life. Perhaps when we’re that age, we carry that sense of ‘living in the moment’ into the worlds we inhabit when we read a book, and that’s why middle grade books feel so real and plausible to their readers.  

I find middle grade writing very freeing in terms of what can be explored. As long as you clarify things and don’t let the plot hang around, the sky’s the limit. Ordinary things can be explored afresh, and when they’re put next to extraordinary things, something new and exciting arrives.

Which is your favourite of Clemm’s menagerie?

I need two favourites, please! Lysander the hornbill is curious and cheeky, and he taps into Lily’s mood so perfectly, but I also have a big soft spot for Julia, the accidentally hairless cat. I also love the fact that Clemm has sacrificed almost everything for his conservation cause. His farm is falling down around his ears because instead of working hard to build up his finances, he’s been abroad looking for animals in distress.

Towards the end it takes quite a dark turn, with Alfie having been mistrusted by the “locals” in the small village the family have moved to, without overtly telling the reader that he was stereotyped because of his race. What led you to not be explicit about tension being caused by racism?

A lot of racism these days is covert and consists of gaslighting, so I thinks it’s fitting for the suspicions circling Alfie to follow this zeitgeist. I didn’t want to centre this particular book around race explicitly – to give it top billing – because Alfie’s exciting adventure is the main event.

It’s always nice to leave a few gaps between the lines so readers can insert their own meaning, their own interpretations, as that can be a richer experience. So with Mr Lombard in particular, his motivations can be however you choose to interpret them, because in real life, we only get to see what people show us.

The book set ups many questions about Mr Lombard’s motives. I suspect he wouldn’t view himself as racist. He might even be one of those people who thinks racism’s gone extinct, and he’s going after Alfie purely because of his audacity and rule-breaking. He’s certainly a busybody. Race might be a convenient peg for him to hang his prejudices on, but there’s always the alternative viewpoint. He could have mistrusted any incomer who’d been trespassing. The book might have worked with a white character who acted in the way Alfie did, but would Lombard have made it into such a vendetta with any other child? It’s interesting to go back and forth in this way. There’s quite a philosophical conundrum there. When someone from an ethnic minority does something slightly wrong, are they targeted because they stand out more, or is there less leeway given?

As for the other people in the village, the rumour mill is fascinating, and it doesn’t take much to get it going in small places. Racism is so complex, and it’s only getting more so as time goes on. I doubt even the most dyed-in-the-wool racist really has a firm grasp on why they’re acting that way.

I was interested in Alfie’s learning curve regarding all this, because coming from the particular area of the city he used to live in, he’d never really experienced being quite so conspicuous before. His detective cover is ruined; basically, he has no cover! His attempts at covert surveillance are therefore quite funny and touching.

Alfie and his family have moved because of his sister’s eating disorder, triggered by bullying at her old school, almost a whole storyline in itself and the main reason his parents are distracted. Did you find it harder to write these realistic scenes or the fantastical adventure side?

Both had their tricky aspects. The fantastical side probably wins the hardest label, because although it made sense in my head, there’s always the worry that it won’t transfer. I was dedicated while writing Lily, though, because I don’t think that particular kind of eating disorder gets much attention. You’re upset and traumatised, so your appetite disappears – without an appetite, there isn’t enough saliva being made, and you’re trying to chew dry food. It’s fairly common after a trauma. I thought it would be interesting to look at the consequences of bullying, the ‘next chapter’ of the part of Lily’s story that began in their former home.

In a perfect world, what kind of events would you like to do with young readers to get them interested in science and literature?

I would like to do an event where I give young readers some of my notes for The Lightning Catcher, which contain additional details for the science, and get them to formulate their own questions about everything involved. I’d also be interested in talking about where Alfie goes from here and whether he pursues science or detective work in his later teenage years. There are always more notes and ideas than a book has room for, so it would be nice to talk over some of the aspects that didn’t find space, which would be an interesting combination of science and literature for the event.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’ve just started Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant. It appealed to me because the opening promised quirky characters and a fast-paced adventure, and the writing style is lovely and lyrical. There are orphans, and people helping each other, and others chasing them, and lots of animals, which sounds like my perfect read!

Have you plans for any more children’s books?

Yes, I’m writing my second children’s book for Bloomsbury right now! It’s about a London girl sent to live with her grandparents by the sea after her family are evicted from their home. She’s traumatised by the separation from her parents and school friends, but sees a boy in the sea who is never seen on land. An adventure begins, and the way she feels about home starts to change.

After that, I have outlines and notes for five more children’s books.

Thank you so much, Teen Librarian! These have been lovely, thought-provoking questions.

Thank you, Clare, for your brilliant, thoughtful answers! THE LIGHNTING CATCHER is out now in the UK and I’m really looking forward to what comes next! Huge thanks to Bloomsbury for sending a review copy and to Beatrice Cross for facilitating this interview.

About Caroline Fielding

Chartered School Librarian, CILIP YLG London Chair, Bea-keeper

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