Celine Kiernan’s critically acclaimed work combines fantasy elements with the exploration of political, humanitarian and philosophical themes. She is best known for The Moorehawke Trilogy, a dark, complex trilogy of fantasy YA books set in an alternative renaissance Europe. In this second part of our interview, I ask Kiernan about writing characters and storytelling for a Middle Grade audience in her latest book, Begone the Raggedy Witches.
You created some amazing characters when you wrote The Moorehawke Trilogy. The trio of friends in the first book, The Poison Throne, are delightfully unique, genuine, and engaging. So much can happen in five years, especially when one changes from a child to a teen. What do you feel was the most challenging aspect of writing teenaged characters for The Poison Throne as opposed to writing them younger, or as fully-grown adults?
I didn’t find it a challenge. To be honest, I just write my characters as they are in my head. I make no conscious decisions re market or target audiences or anything. A book occurs to me and I write that book.
I think young characters can be tempting to write about, because it’s a time of life when you’re not too much tied down to the minutia of daily life (paying bills, feeding babies, getting to work on time) and so your mind can be better focused on big issues – and freer to physically engage with changing injustices. Everything is so new too – first love, first sex, first meaningful encounters with death, injustice, triumph, philosophy etc. In Resonance, however, the young characters are very much the working poor and so their minds are on how to get and keep work, how to pay the bills, how to survive in an unsympathetic society, while also battling the uncaring supernatural forces which want to use them up and discard them. In Moorehawke and also in Begone the Raggedy Witches, there are many older and middle-aged side characters which bring balance to the younger, innocent and more idealistic main characters.
Now the heroes of Into the Grey caught my attention for a different reason. Here, the protagonists are twin brothers. Being a mother of twin boys m’self, I find this particular bond both fascinating and exasperating. As a writer, what led you to select this specific kind of protagonist duo to head the story as opposed to, say, twin sisters?
Funnily enough there are a lot of twins in my books. Ashkr and Embla, the twin brother and sister, in Moorehawke; Dom and Pat, the twins in Into the Grey. Though it’s never made much of in the book I also always think of Aunty and the Queen in Begone the Raggedy Witches as being twins. I also have twins in two of my unpublished novels (brothers in one, sisters in the other) It had never occurred to me before to explore why, but I do think it’s probably because of my fascination with the different paths people take in life. What could be more interesting than two identical people, starting from an identical base-line, growing into individuals?
The twins in Into the Grey had to be boys as it was specifically a boy’s experience of war which I needed to explore in that narrative.
Now this year you published Begone the Raggedy Witches, the first book of a new trilogy. Unlike your previous works, this trilogy is geared for Middle-Grade readers. What are the benefits—and challenges—of writing this story for a slightly younger audience?
None really, to be honest. I just approached it as I always do. There was no historical research to these books, though, I guess that’s one difference. I was writing purely to explore personal and sociological themes within a pure fantasy set up. But the books didn’t feel easier to write than the more historically based ones. In fact, they’ve taken me longer than most of my other books to complete. (Mind you, this is happening more and more – I think it’s because I’m better aware of the craft now. My first draft takes longer to produce, but nowadays they’re more complete and better polished than previously.)
Okay, I just have to end on the first line of Begone the Raggedy Witches, because it is KILLER:
“The moon was strange the night the witches came and Aunty died.”
Ye gods, we’ve got time, intrigue, magic, and doom all packed into one sentence! How on earth did you create this first sentence, and do you have any tips for other writers in creating that killer hook of an opening line?
The first chapter is nearly always the last thing I write. That’s not to say I have written a first chapter ( I write liner narrative, so I work from the start to the finish of every book) It’s just to say that I always go back to the first chapter and refocus it so that it better leads into the narrative. By the time you get to the end of your novel you’re always so much better tuned in to what the themes are, what the characters’ motivations and personalities are etc. etc., the first chapter should evoke or foreshadow these things, I think. Make a promise to the reader as to what journey this novel will bring them on. Often you can’t do that properly until you’ve taken the journey yourself. Funnily enough though, the first lines of most of my books have stayed the same through all the drafts. I can’t explain why. I think it might be because they’ve always been the point from which I enthusiastically dived into the process of starting a new novel. That excitement and enthusiasm doesn’t always last for the whole long, siege-like process, but its almost always there for the first line.
“The moon was strange the night the witches came and Aunty died.”
“We were watching telly, the night Nana burnt the house down.’
‘The sentry would not let them pass.’
‘For a moment, the Angel looked directly at him, and Cornelius’s heart leapt with joy and dread.’
All these lines were bringing me somewhere. All of them were promising me something – I had no choice but to follow them onwards.
My deepest thanks to Celine Kiernan for sharing her stories and experience in the writing craft. It’s an honor to speak with one whose creativity has influenced my own imagination for decades. Please check out her books & her site at https://celinekiernan.wordpress.com/. Be sure to share a review when you read her, too!
Thank you, dear readers, for buying Fallen Princeborn: Stolen!
It’s still hard to believe my debut novel is out in the world. This story was born the same year as my daughter. Like Blondie, Stolen has gone through many growing pains before setting out to forge its way through the world (or elementary school–that’s epic enough for Blondie). Every time I see a purchase or read a review, my soul goes runnin’ through the clouds. To those who’ve read Tales of the River Vine or Stolen, please share your thoughts with me on Amazon or Goodreads. Your reflections mean all the world to new writers like me!
Shouting for Shout-Outs Again!
Now that we’re halfway through November, I’d like to start gathering up kudos and plugs from fellow creators to share on my newsletter on the 1st of the month. If you’ve a book, an album, a site, or all of the above you’d like to share with new readers, please email me and I’ll hook you up. 😉
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!