Q&A with Hazel Prior, Katharine Lee McEwan, and Philip Battley of Ellie and the Harpmaker

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a heartwarming debut from author Hazel Prior, read by the brilliant Katharine Lee McEwan and Philip Battley. The relationship that flourishes between main characters Ellie and Dan is tailor-made listening for these hazy, late August days: give it a few minutes, and you’ll be dreaming of cozy summer loves past and the English coastline.

Ellie and the Harpmaker is one of those audiobooks that makes us want to learn more about everyone involved with its creation…so that’s exactly what we did. In this special Q&A, we talked with the author and both narrators about nostalgia, and what makes this story (and its characters) so special.

Tell us a little about Ellie and the Harpmaker.

Hazel Prior: It’s a story about love and the quest for fulfillment, told from two perspectives. Dan is quirky and handsome. He lives in an isolated old Barn on the moor and he counts everything from the steps of his staircase to the mushrooms on his daily walk. When he isn’t obsessively making harps he obsessively makes sandwiches. Ellie, on the other hand, is a housewife with a suppressed creative side. She has a dream which she has never quite managed to pursue. But when she meets Dan that dream summersaults into reality, setting in motion a stream of unexpected events.

Philip Battley: I loved the story of a dissatisfied woman, Ellie, and her discovery and subsequent revelatory relationship with loner Dan, the Harpmaker of the title, who lives and works on the wilds of Exmoor in the West of England.

Katharine Lee McEwan: Ellie and the Harpmaker for me is a little like a modern day fairytale. It has a magical, dreamlike quality to it that is reminiscent of fables my mother used to read to me; where the harder themes are wrapped in an enchantment that makes them easier to digest.

Is there a character from this book that you already miss writing or narrating, or would like to spend more time with, and why?

HP: Yes, Dan. I really enjoyed seeing the world from his point of view: the way he appreciates the simple things, the way he accepts people, the way he gives himself wholly to what he loves doing (making harps). His true nature is kindness. I especially like the fact that, whilst he thinks he is made of ‘the wrong ingredients’, he doesn’t compromise who he is in order to fit in with society.

PB: The book is written from the first person point of view of both characters, Ellie and Dan. I narrated the Dan chapters, so I only ever was seeing the story through his eyes. He’s a fascinating character, very literal and straightforward to the point of not understanding his own emotional world.

KLM: I miss Ellie and wonder what she’s doing now. I love the way she muddled through things, imperfectly, messily. Her quiet strength, her yearning for something different even though she didn’t always know what that was.

Hazel, Did you always know you wanted to be an author? Do you remember what first made you realize you wanted to write?

HP: As a child I was always wondering what it was like to be a grasshopper or a flamingo or a bat… or any person who wasn’t me! Writing helped me imagine everything more clearly; that’s why I loved it. Then, as a teenager, I was inspired by reading novels and I told people that one day I’d write one. I never expected to do it professionally, though!

Philip & Katharine, did you always know you wanted to be actors and narrators? Do you remember what first made you realize you wanted to act/narrate?

PB: I always loved performing, be it as an actor or a musician. Narrating only came much later, when I was given the opportunity by chance. It’s now become a major part of my work, and I love the simplicity of the process. Theatre, movies and TV are great collaborative works, but as an actor you can sometimes feel like a puppet in a machine. Narrating, well it’s all on you! For me, it is the oldest and most natural form of storytelling, and can be, for the listener, an intensely personal, intimate and human experience. All pretty wonderful – with a good story!

KLM: I was five years old. It’s one of my earliest and most vivid memories. I climbed up the inside of the playroom door frame and announced to my family that I wanted to be an actress. I don’t remember what led to that except that dressing up and performing, and the camaraderie of the other actors, has always been such a huge source of joy for me.

In the book, Dan helps Ellie discover a fresh perspective on life. While narrating did you learn anything new, or have your mind changed about anything?

PB: I would disagree that Dan ‘helps’ Ellie – that makes is seem as if he does so deliberately. I’d say that it’s through their relationship that Ellie makes discoveries – and Dan makes many discoveries as well. I’d they’re both affected equally by their encounters. I suppose it is always refreshing to be reminded that it is through other people that we can become ourselves.

KLM: I was reminded that strength can come in many forms. And that you can’t understand things until you’re ready to understand them. That truths can be like stars at times… it has to get very dark before they reveal themselves to you.

Hazel, When did you start playing the harp? What initially drew you to the instrument?

HP: I started when I was a student at St Andrews university in Scotland. I sang a lot but didn’t play any instrument, although I’d always romanticized about harp-playing-
There’s something so magical and mythical about a harp and I’d always found harp music enthralling. Then, by chance, I discovered an old Celtic harp belonging to the university’s music society. It was sitting, broken, in a locker and it hadn’t been played for many years. It really wanted to be played. How could I resist?

Aside from being a harpist, what made you (Hazel) decide to have harps be such an integral part of your novel?

HP: You wouldn’t believe how many people come up to me after performances and tell me they’ve always dreamed of playing the harp. So many! I thought that a harp maker would be a great main character – he could literally make dreams come true. And I wanted to write about somebody chasing a dream, so it all fitted perfectly. Harp-playing enables Ellie to discover and express a side of herself that’s always been suppressed; her progression on the harp is symbolic as well as literal.

What sound of summer (or just in general!) makes you feel the most nostalgic?

HP: The dawn chorus. I find it strangely exciting and emotional.

PB: I’m writing this listening to crickets and cicadas in the heat of the Italian countryside – that’s hard to beat!

KLM: The sound of an English ice cream truck. Nothing says summer more to me than that sound.

What was your favorite book or audiobook as a child?

HP: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. How I longed to go to Narnia!

PB: We had a recording of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals on tape that the whole family used to listen to on holiday. I think I, my brother and sister, knew every word by heart. Another one was Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – wonderfully silly and funny.

KLM: The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. I read those books for hours! It’s about three siblings that discover a magical tree in the woods that has different worlds at the top of it and is inhabited by all these amazing characters. Moon-face was my favorite of the tree folk. He had a slide in his house that lets you slide all the way down to the bottom of the tree instead of climbing down.

Listen to a clip of Philip Battley and Katharine Lee McEwan reading Hazel Prior’s Ellie and the Harpmaker

“Ellie and the Harpmaker is uplifting escapism….fresh and sweet, rejuvenated by a set of unusual characters, the raw beauty of England and the musicality of Prior’s prose. …Prior’s lyricism feels like a warm song.”—The Washington Post