Author and illustrator, Charlie Mackesy, talks about hibernating in winter and why his bestselling book, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, became a tonic for our times.
It was a huge surprise when my book [The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse] became a bestseller. I still wake up surprised each morning. I started posting my drawings of the boy and his animal friends on Instagram a couple of years ago and people liked them. Making the book was tough. I’d just lost a friend, and my dog, Dill, was dying. I could have never anticipated the past year, but I had to get it done.
I wept when I found out that NHS workers used my drawings as their screensaver. I still get letters from nurses telling me they look at a drawing every day and use the words as a mantra. In one, the boy asks the horse what he’s learned about storms. “That they end,” the horse replies. I feel moved thinking they’re encouraged by marks I’ve made on paper. It’s one of the greatest privileges of my life.
The boy, mole, fox and horse would be wide-eyed at the year that was. But, in their terms, they know all about it. They’ve hit storms and their answer is to focus on their love for each other rather than their fear of the storm. All four are parts of me: I’m still a naïve boy with questions and a fox who’s been damaged. There is a wise horse in me and a greedy mole who is always medicating himself with cake…
Having said that, I don’t really like Christmas cake. I draw the line at marzipan. For me, the highlight of a Christmas dinner is crispy roast potatoes and gravy with slightly mashed redcurrant jelly. The festive season is spent in Suffolk with my mum, sister, brother-in-law, niece, dogs and horses.
In January, I hibernate. I start falling asleep when it gets dark at four o’clock. As a bit of an introvert, I spend the month recharging, although my whole year has been quieter than usual. I live in South London but have been in Suffolk to be near my 90-year-old mum. We go for a daily walk – but, other than that, I’m used to a solitary existence. I drink tea, draw all day, listen to Radio 4 and walk my dachshund, Barney, on the beach as the sea mist rolls in. It’s very Hound of the Baskervilles.
There’s something incredible about crunching through the woods in winter. Everything is quiet. Nature has gone to sleep. There’s a lot of snow in my book. I find the way it covers everything up very reassuring – it’s like it creates a new beginning. Maybe that’s what winter is: turning onto a new page. My New Year’s resolutions are simple: to carry on being kind to myself and to be kind to others.
Winter is a time to be cosy, drink tea and think. During the last bursts of sunshine, I was torn between recording my audiobook and feeling obliged to be outdoors. The audiobook was a slow process. I converted my illustrations into words as if narrating them for someone who was blind. I’m not a writer, so it was a new experience. Recording it in a barn in Suffolk had its own issues: tractors were always rumbling by and cows were lowing in a nearby field.
I feel safe within the animal world. Growing up in Northumberland, I had a pet dog, ferret, chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits. I didn’t quite understand people, but I understood them. In the evenings, I would go into the hills to see badgers or lie in the long grass, watching hares run around in the moonlight.
It has been painful not to see friends who are struggling because of the pandemic. Maybe I feel too much – but if there was a red button you could press that would stop you feeling, I would never press it. That’s not living. Being human is to feel an awful lot – and people who carry on loving, living and persevering inspire me to do the same.
The audiobook of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is available now on Audible.
This interview features in the January issue of Country Living. For a monthly dose of positivity through your door, subscribe to Country Living magazine today.
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