A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Today I’m chatting with Kiran Milwood Hargrave on the publication of her 2nd novel, The Island at the End of Everything.
Rhian: As a poet and a novelist do you approach those two forms in very different ways
Kiran: By the nature of their forms, my discipline around them is very different. Ideas for poetry tend to come in short, intense bursts, and it’s a very instantaneous reaction: I write them down there and then, and put them away to give them breathing room. With a novel, I push. That initial inspiration – be it a line, an image – is similarly quick, but I am more insistent about drawing it out. If I got halfway through a poem and it wasn’t working, I’d move on. With a novel, I tend to work at it until I iron out the kinks – which as my plots are fairly linear, doesn’t tend to be a problem. With both, I am a brutal editor.
Rhian: The Island at the End of Everything has been described as a poetic story. Do you find poetry and prose work well together when you’re writing novels?
Kiran: Definitely – poetry is all about getting to the heart of the matter, and this brevity (as is evident in my novels’ length) has carried over. It’s also about reaching for the less obvious – but most precise – word, and again, I try to use words that illustrate my worlds in the most vivid ways possible.
Image: Vigattin Tourism
Rhian: How did you find out about the island of Culion? What drew you to it and have you visited it?
Kiran: Initially, it was a poem! I attended an awards ceremony for poems linked to medicine. It was total luck, as I was only there to read a winning poem on behalf of a friend. Someone read a poem about Culion Leper Colony, and my initial spark of interest was a bit morbid. I began to learn more about it and question my reaction, which was obviously problematic. When I discovered that its creation meant children were taken from their parents, I knew I had something to say about it. I desperately wanted to visit whilst writing (Culion is no longer a colony but the hospital is now a museum), and applied for several research grants, but I was unsuccessful. Someday!
Rhian: There’s a very difficult balance between telling the reader too much information and showing them just enough to give them a sense of the world you’re creating, what’s your research process when writing?
Kiran: I am lucky to have several doctors as friends, so they were very helpful in fact-checking. I also read fiction based around leprosy – my editor sent me A Burnt Out Case by Grahame Greene, and Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, which were both excellent. I still haven’t read The Island by Victoria Hislop though! I tend to research as I go when writing, otherwise I have a historian’s tendency to get caught up in the details. I never want my research to overwhelm the story. Reading mainly novels, and letting an expert fact check, helps avoid this.
Rhian: Ami and Mari are told they’re ‘only children, only girls’, are you writing autobiographically here about your own experiences of childhood and gender?
Kiran: Kind of and not really. I was brought up to believe I was capable of anything, and was never treated any different from my brother by my parents. But at the same time, both parents (and grandparents etc) are staunch feminists and so I grew up with the consciousness that my pale skin (though I am dual heritage) and middle class upbringing has protected me from many of the difficulties being a young girl brings. I went to an all-girls school, where we were encouraged to strive, and dated boys who never belittled me. But this is not the experience of many girls, and I’ve since experienced some of the powerlessness inflicted on women, so I write for them, and for me, now.
Rhian: What kind of pressure did you feel when writing your 2nd novel, following the many, many, many awards for The Girl of Ink and Stars
Kiran: I actually wrote The Island at the End of Everything whilst The Girl of Ink & Stars was on submission, and was being rejected twice daily throughout my first draft! So whilst there was pressure there, it was because I thought GOI&S wasn’t going to be published and so I needed another book. It was an utterly different editing experience. GOI&S went through eight major edits with my editor alone – I’m talking big, structural changes – whereas TIATEOE was a lot cleaner and tighter, and really only needed one major edit.
Rhian: How did you come up with the title and are long titles going to be your thing?
Kiran: Ha! It was absolutely not my plan to have long titles. My friends will tell you long titles used to be a major bugbear of mine – I was always harassing them to change their titles into one word. My original titles were The Cartographer’s Daughter and Butterflies of Culion, but in both changes my publisher encouraged me to change them, and in both cases they were right. But it’s not something I set out to do – more than anything, I want to have shorter titles to give my cover designer Helen [Crawford-White] a break. Fitting my name and titles on a cover must be traumatic.
Rhian: I think we can all agree that Helen has done an outstanding job!
Rhian: Is the bond between mother and daughter something that appeals to you in fiction, both as a writer and a reader?
Kiran: Completely. My mum is my best friend.
I drew on a lot of that love and mutual respect when writing Ami and her nanay. I love reading books, especially children’s books, where at least one of the parents are present, because I enjoy seeing the dynamics of that. I don’t actively seek them out, though.
Rhian: What are you working on next?
Kiran: I’m currently on my third attempt at settling the story for my third book. I think I might be experiencing second-book syndrome a book late! But I just recently found the voice and I’m ploughing on. It’s a wintry adventure about sisters who go on a dangerous journey to save their brother.
Rhian: If you had to choose between writing poetry or prose for the rest of your life, which would you pick and why?
Kiran: That is horrible to even think about.
Kiran: It would be prose. For a start, you can’t live off poetry! And I am so utterly in love with writing prose, it would break my heart to stop. Perhaps I could write novels in verse?
Rhian: Now there’s a novel idea (sorry, not sorry). Thank you so much for answering these questions and I have no doubt that The Island at the End of Everything will be as big a hit as The Girl of Ink and Stars.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Kiran is 27 and writes poetry, plays and novels. Her bestselling debut The Girl of Ink & Stars won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and was voted Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards 2017. Her second, The Island at the End of Everything, was published in April 2017. She lives in Oxford with her husband, Tom, and her cat, Luna.