Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut The Girl of Ink & Stars was edited by Rachel Leyshon of Chicken House. The judges described it as ‘wonderfully readable’; ‘quick without being shallow, some beautiful writing’; ‘fresh and different’.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I have always been a voracious reader, but I didn’t start writing until my final year of university. I began with poetry, realised I couldn’t follow through on my planned law-conversion course, and went on to do a post-grad degree in Creative Writing. It was during a fiction assignment I wrote a piece about a girl running away. That girl became Isabella - her story is my first.
How long did it take from the idea to publication with·The Girl of Ink & Stars?
Three years. I didn’t plot a lot before writing the first draft, preferring to go on the adventure with Isabella and see what we found. I drew on favourite books or places I’d travelled, but my imagination led me and the ideas came together as I wrote. This made for a nightmare first draft, but it was a lot of fun to write! I started that first draft on April Fool’s Day 2013, and I went to see it printed on April Fool’s Day 2016.
What did you enjoy most about the editorial process and working with Rachel?
Rachel is the perfect balance of sweet and savage. GOI&S was a mess when it landed on her desk. I remember the draft coming back marked up, and beneath the despair, feeling a strange sense of relief.·Realising someone shares your vision for a book, and actually has a plan to help you get it there, is exhilarating. That first stage where we shifted through, found the heart of the book, tore everything else to pieces and built it back up, was perversely my favourite part. Icannot overstate how pivotal Rachel was to what it became.
What would you say was the most challenging part of the book to write? Which bits did you most enjoy writing?
The beginning third was definitely the hardest part to write, and where I most felt that I was showing my weaknesses as a first-time writer. The first line stayed the same but everything else had to be worked and re-worked to get the balance between scene-setting and pace. The final third was my favourite to write, and also changed drastically so that Lupe was with Isabella instead of Pablo. I’m embarrassed about how hard I fought to keep Pablo in the labyrinth, when obviously it had to be Lupe. Another moment of Rachel clarity.·
What piece of advice would you give to first time writers?
Don’t get too fixated on advice - take what works for you, and ignore the rest. Writing is hard enough without all the guilt around how you should·be writing - if you are writing, it’s enough. Writing is a craft, a muscle. Use it, and it gets - if not easier - then more habitual. And if you are stuck, read.
What excited you most about Kiran’s writing when you read the manuscript for The Girl of Ink & Stars?
A rare & unexpected combination of poetic contrast in the writing: delicacy & strength; darkness & optimism – a willingness to experiment creatively. All these made it stand out on the submission pile. And then a courageous, adventurous heroine and unusual tropical setting. Of course, a story of stars and ancient maps appealed to our publishing eye!
What would you say is the one quality of her writing that marks her out as a talent to watch?
Unique poetic sensibility coupled with a true storyteller’s instinct.
What would you say was the main challenge you gave Kiran as her editor?
Kiran worked unbelievably hard on many things but especially on the story arc, the POV, building the beautiful world of Joya – and eventually choosing which character to murder!
Thanks to Kiran and Rachel for answering our questions.