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Kiran Millwood Hargrave

El Templo #97 (diciembre-enero 2023)
Por Daniel Renedo
147 lecturas

[This interview took place during the summer of 2023]

Up to this point, you have written two adult books, several middle grades and even one young adult novel, and that is only your prose production. However, what comes first: the story (as an idea and regardless of the target audience) or, on the other hand, the readership? Have there been any exceptions?

Oh, it's completely the former, it's the idea that dictates the audience. I knew, since I wrote my first book, that I wanted to just be able to follow my nose and trust my instincts and go wherever I wanted to go. And it is wonderful to have been allowed to do that, because obviously publishers are very keen on you building a brand, understandably, but it's really nice that my brand is kind of just me and, then, doing whatever I like.

So, I often think of what unites my work, and I think it's very much a strong sense of place. All my stories have a strong sense of place, but apart from that I really love to be inspired by things I see. I am a very visual writer. I often say that, when I'm in the flow of writing, it's like I'm watching a film in my head and then I'm writing down what's happening, or events from history, like my first two adult books have been. Or I love taking something real —like my first book took the Canary Island of Tenerife and it twisted all the reasoning behind it—, so adding in magic by taking real things and just twisting them to allow that fantasy element in.

Middle grade fiction is not an easy age range. In your middle grade novels readers can always find the hero’s journey (or, more specifically, the heroine’s journey), but this quest is told in a ravishing way and there is not only constant action but interior reflection and evolution. The question, nonetheless, is: do you think people underestimate younger readers?

Oh. Definitely. I think that, if you're not constantly confronted by younger people, it's easy to forget that when you were that age you had such a rich interior life. Every bit is rich (as it is now), it might be lacking elements like worrying about tax or sex, but it still has those elements that are so pure and powerful. And they're often, I think, where the boldest storytelling can happen, because the stakes can feel so high. It doesn't matter what it's about —it can be saving an island, or it could be saving a friendship—, the stakes just feel enormous for people that young.

I think people do underestimate younger readers, and I think they also patronize and talk down often to that readership, which is something I'm making a conscious effort not to. Therefore, I use quite complex language, quite poetic lyrical language, because, if children don't understand a word, they can look it up or ask a teacher or a parent. I like to really embrace my audience and try and carry them and lift them into the story, rather than standing on like a pedestal and delivering it down to them.

Your debut, The Girl of Ink and Stars, was a huge success not only in the United Kingdom but worldwide (being translated into many languages) and it was the winner of the Waterstone Children’s Book Prize among other accolades. The publication of the illustrated gift edition in the UK and the now consistent line of covers of your subsequent higher (in age range) middle grade books show that The Girl of Ink and Stars remains very present in the market. What is your reflection on all this? Did you ever imagine such a “life” for your very first book?

No! I had no expectation beyond writing it in the first instance, and then, when it was published, that was sort of “OK. I've done it. It's out in the world”. And to be honest, my publisher didn't think it was going to be such a success either: I remember my publisher telling me a few years later that they budgeted six hundred pounds for the marketing, so it wasn't that big book that year. And it really was because of booksellers that it found its audience; it was Waterstones, but also independent booksellers who really took it to their hearts and spread the word. And winning that prize changed my life. Since then, I've written full time (as my full-time job) and I’ve been able to take risks not writing another fantasy straight after this successful book, and I've sort of weaved through wherever I've wanted to go.

I think it's always hard when you're first book is your most successful, because “where do you go?”. The goal posts have changed, and your aims get bigger. And I really try (and I don't always succeed), but I really try to remind myself what a privilege it is just to be published and to have the books in the world with the possibility of them finding their readers.

Because I had no expectation, all the fuss came in such a lovely surprise, but when you start to expect it, everything feels a disappointment. Because, you know, that's maybe even (I hope not), but it's maybe even once in a career thing. I think the thing I struggle with is it's not my best book, because it was my first; I wrote it in my early 20s, I was learning how to write with that book. And I think my best book is my last book; it's always going to be, cause writing is a craft, so I’m going to get better hopefully. So that's what I struggle with: I love that book and I'm so grateful of everything it did, but I hope that it leads people onto other stories of mine and they don't leave it at that, I suppose. But I am, of course, so hugely grateful for that book.

We have just mentioned your “higher” middle grade books, referring to those +10 instead of +8, as it is the case of the very acclaimed Julia and the Shark (published here in Spain by Bambú instead of Ático de los libros) and Leila and the Blue Fox. Besides, these two titles are illustrated by your husband, Tom de Freston. How was the process of working on them?

He's upstairs looking after our baby, actually.

We were worried; we wanted to stay married, so we were worried because we work in very different ways. We say that Tom is like an oxen, like a cow: he likes to get up and plow the field every day. He's very structured and disciplined. I am like a cat: I like to sleep. I like to eat. And then, every so often, I will spring into action. So very conflicting styles but, obviously, we have huge respect for each other's work; it's one of the things that brought us together.

So… while we were nervous, when this idea for Julia and the Shark came, we knew there was no one else we could work on it with. And, actually, it was such a blessing and it worked so well. We didn't fight once. It was incredible and lovely, because, when you write a book, it can be quite lonely since you're living in this world completely alone until it goes out and share it with readers. We were building this world together, we got to live in it together and we got to know the characters together and make decisions about the plot together. Everything (even though I can't draw) was a joint decision, so I'd give him feedback and he'd give me feedback. It was a very exciting enriching process, and that is why we've gone on to make more books. We are having a third book done together that's going to be coming in a couple of years so, yeah, it worked really well. We're very glad.

I do not know whether you know this or not but The Mercies here in Spain is titled Vardo and its subtitle is “La isla de las mujeres” (the island of women) and the title of your second novel, The Island at the End of Everything, in Spanish, La isla del fin del mundo, follows the same pattern. What is with you and the islands?

I love them as a plot device, because, at a very basic level, it makes it very hard for your characters to escape. They're in in my books in close proximity, they're in small islands especially in Vardo, which is a real island and it takes 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. It becomes a microcosm for society, because what I'm most interested in is individual relationships and small societies. I'm less interested in political… countrywide conflict. It's not what I do well; what I do well is more intimate conflict, so it also it's a cheating way of not having any outside interference: no border wars, and it also promotes a really strong culture and all the islands that I reference have very individual unique cultures that have been preserved by being surrounded by the sea and being stuck in these places together particularly historically, obviously.

And islands often do become melting pots as well, because people will emigrate from all directions, so for me it's like a perfect way to tell the story I want to write without getting into the complications of things I'm not interested in.

Language and folklore are key elements in your books, but also the inner world of the characters and their mental health. Could you expand on these matters a little bit?

For me, mind and body are inextricable. I have had a lot of mental ill health and writing was really the thing that lifted me out of it, and when I got some distance from my own struggles, I found I wanted to explore it more clearly in my writing, like with Julia and the Shark. I like to think of the mother and Julia as if they're both me, and they're me now and then. It was me exploring whether I could be a good mother and be ill, mentally, so there's that. I can and I am. It's also that there are no bigger struggles than the ones we have with ourselves; we also often hold us back from living our truest most authentic lives, so it's kind of an endless bounty of storytelling conflict, the troubled inner life of anyone I love.

You will notice in my books I always focus on the characters who would normally be the sidekick in the traditional story, because I'm far more interested in the people we don't focus our lens on most often. I'm far more interested in the ordinary person made extraordinary than the extraordinary person doing extraordinary things. It is something I'm becoming braver with the more confident I am, because I think it requires a lot of skill and craft and it's a sensitive area. But I think it's so important especially for younger readers, because younger readers do have mental health and you know it's far better for them to encounter it in a book and see that talking and words and not shame and the dark (keeping it in the dark). It's a really important thing, I think, to put it in children's books, because it's a reality and also to always show hope with it too.

The Island at the End of Everything and The Mercies are set in the past, in real places, while The Way Past Winter and The Girl of Ink and Stars are in imaginary worlds (especially the former). How do you approach the writing of a historical novel in opposition to the one of a story with a non-existing world or place?

I love that question. I always start all my stories in the same way: I will write a first draft that is pure instinct and pure character-led. It doesn't matter if you're writing someone who's imaginary or who's based on your own imagination or someone who's based on someone that might have existed; they all in my books have the same bodies, they have the same sensations, they all feel hunger or fear or, like, happiness in the same way. So I write from the body, in my first draft. I love writing a first draft, and I feel a bit like a shark when I'm writing a first draft: I have to keep swimming forward or I will drown. It's just pure adventure and play for me. I don't plan, at all, which maybe I should a little. But I just follow my characters and follow their desires and their needs and see where that takes us. And then, the second draft (if I'm doing historical) that's when I have to actually do the research and I realize I've made all these mistakes. In The Mercies, for instance, they were all burning wood in their fireplaces, and they were drinking tea, and there are no trees that grow that far north so they were not burning wood; they were burning things like pit. And they weren't drinking tea; they were drinking small beer and things like that.

It's the second draft that I really start to thread that reality through it, and if I'm making it up, that's when I solidify my mythology, because it needs to feel real. Even if it's stuff I'm making up, it's called taboos and there's got to be histories that feel like they could have formed this story and formed this person in this place. So a lot of stuff doesn't make it into the book, but the second draft is where the drafts grow a lot, because that's when I’m putting in all the details. And then the third draft is about whittling it back to what matters to the characters, because, especially children readers, they're not going to put up with pages on what they burn; they’re only interested in what the character needs and obviously a character needs fire to survive, but they don’t need to know the history of fire on the island, they only need to know where they are going to get it. There you are.

Yeah, many drafts. Girl of Ink and Stars had the most; that was ten drafts, but now I normally do three or four, so it’s fine.

There is something we can attest and that is that when a reader finishes a book of yours, they leave the world of the story having learned that kindness is key to navigate any world. Why do you think that is?

I see kindness as a really fundamental and quite radical concept in a world that is necessarily pitting us against each other and, not to get too political, but you know capitalism exists due to competitiveness and there being scarcity and some that have and have not. It is actually especially in children's book, but I believe in adult books too, and it's something that I just believe in as a person: if we can breathe empathy through books but also in reality, then we're kind of winning; our humanity is preserved. And most people have that, it's just we're forced into these structures that are actually pretty inhumane, and if we can stay soft, in a world that's trying to make us hard, that’s kind of insanely brave, I think. So, yeah, kindness, empathy, these are soft gentle things, they're actually really essential vital brave acts to me and that's something that I carried through all my books.

You are not only a brilliant prose writer, but you are also an award-winning poet and playwright. How do these two literary genres pervade in your prose fiction?

I feel like such a fraud now when someone mentions my poetry because it feels like another life. I started in poetry, that's what I did before I started writing novels and I went to university to study poetry and came out writing prose. And really poetry was the building blocks for how I approach writing prose: I'm very brutal editor of my work, I'm very happy to kill my darlings and I’m quite fearless in terms of, if something's not working, I will just cut it and sacrifice things in the in the name of the narrative.

I think, being a poet, you have to do that, because you could spend months on a poem and then nothing but a line works. You become quite used to putting your heart in the page and then stabbing it. It also has made me very grateful, because (I don’t know if you have ever done a poetry reading to one person, and that person is your mum, but I have) you become; if there’s ever more than two people in the audience, now I will give them absolutely my best. If there's only two people in the audience, I'm like "let's just go to the pub; this isn't gonna work". But, you know, it's a weird old industry and nothing is guaranteed, and poetry has taught me the value of writing intrinsic, the value of writing as opposed to commercial value. I'm really grateful to make my living from writing, but I also know it's something that I need to do for my heart and for my soul as well, and poetry definitely started that.

And playwriting… dialogue is so important to me. Especially in children's writing it's far better to put information in the mouths of the character than to put it in a beautiful way that you might want to express it because you are a writer and you're proud of how you write. But sometimes it's far better just to have someone say something, so I think that's what playwriting has taught me: stripping it down.

And I'm hoping to expand these skills. I'm writing the screenplay for The Girl of Ink and Stars at the moment, and all it's a totally different thing but it's so much fun. And, yeah, I’m just hoping to keep learning and I hope to come back to poetry one day but it's a very different part of my brain, so everything just is at the service of the prose at the moment.

The Deathless Girls was your debut YA novel. However, even though it was published in 2019, it has not been yet translated into Spanish. How would you pitch it (in order to get it translated)?

(Kiran laughs). So, The Deathless Girls is essentially the origin story for the brides of Dracula. In Bram stoker's novel, they appear across a couple of pages and they're quite sexualized, and in all the film depictions is like Monica Belluci: they're beautiful, they're there to seduce and they’re a prop and don't have any agency.

I was approached, I was actually commissioned to write The Deathless Girls by Hachette for their Bellatrix project, where they wanted authors to take classics and reimagine them from a feminist point of view, and my mind went straight to them. I was so curious about them, how would they got there… So I started looking into the origin myth for Dracula, and discovered all the stuff about strigoi and Vlad, the impaler. He had a lot of travelers slaves, and travelers originated in Rome, in particular from the same region in India that my family's from. So, it felt obvious to me that they would be (you know, they're described as two dark and one light in the original), so instantly the two dark became people of Indian origin to me and people of traveler extraction.

It's about two twin sisters, Kizzy and Lil, and they are on the eve of their divining, which is where they are going to discover what they're meant to do in life, when their entire traveler settlement gets wiped out and they are taken prisoner of a local Lord. And Kizzy is exceptionally beautiful. And Lil is not: she's normal, so she is of course our narrator and, eventually, they end up in Dracula’s castle. But it's a really sensual book; people come to it sometimes expecting vampires; there are vampires, but only at the end. It's really about two sisters coming into who they should be separate from each other. It's about stepping into your own power and how that might look very different from what you imagined.

The publication of In the Shadow of the Wolf Queen, the first installment of what is going to be your first trilogy —the Geomancer Trilogy—, is the next big step in your career. How has it been and at what point are you right now?

I am so excited about this project. I can't believe I get to start talking about it. This has been about ten years in the dreaming, and I started thinking seriously about writing it five years ago. It is all based around earth magic and everything in it; all the magic in it is possible, so it's either things that have happened, will happen or could happen based on nature and the natural world. So, even though the things that are happening might seem extraordinary, there is a scientific basis for every single one. And that was a really interesting limitation to put on myself.

And it's about this girl, who comes from the small woods, and her sister is stolen by the Wolf Queen for unknown reasons and she embarks on this adventure story, on this adventure to try and rescue her. There's a map that's going to grow across the series, so it starts with the isles, which is based on the Great Britain, then the next map is going to have Great Britain and Scandinavia and then the final is going to drop down all the way to Greece. So the world grows as Isolda, my main character, discovers it, basically.

It's kind of… It’s the best book I’ve written, without a doubt. I've written the first two, I was raising my daughter to write them all, but I didn't make it; she arrived before I wrote the third one. But I’m writing the third one when I come off maternity leave at the end of the month, and I am so excited about it. I have really thrown my heart and soul into it and I really hope it gets home in Spain, so that I can come and talk about it. I think is full of really big imagination and really big heart.

So, that’s all. Thank you very much, Kiran.

Lovely! Thank you, Daniel!