#LoveOzYA Q&A with Karen Ginnane
Karen Ginnane is an Australian author for middle grade and young adult readers. Her debut historical fantasy adventure novels WHEN DAYS TILT and its sequel WHEN SOULS TEAR are part of the Time Catchers series published by Penguin Random House.
#LoveOzYA’s Alexandra Patrikios sat down with Karen to talk about her debut, her research process, and why she was so drawn to the setting of Victorian London.
Read the interview below, or watch clips on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel!
First things first: what is WHEN DAYS TILT about?
WHEN DAYS TILTS is a historical fantasy that follows 14-year-old Ava through London in 1858, at a time when London is the biggest city the world has ever seen. It's fast, it's furious, it's brutal.
One of the terrors that is happening on the streets of London at that time is that people are disappearing into thin air, without explanation. People don't know why, and when they come back, they're damaged — their souls are torn.
Ava’s a reluctant watchmaking apprentice to her father, and one day, her life turns upside down when she's visiting her mother's grave, because she discovers that the body in her mother's grave is that of a stranger. She also encounters this dark mirror version of London. It's like a parallel city.
She has to discover who the mother is, who she is, what her story is, and how those stories are connected to Donlon, which is this mirror city, and also the disappearances on the streets of London.
There's another very significant B character called Jack, who is a metalworking apprentice who is based in Donlon, this mirror city. So their lives and their stories become intertwined as they have a quest that they have to achieve.
That’s brilliant, and reading the book, I was struck by its almost classical tone, in the style of Philip Pullman, or even a bit of the Mirror Visitor series. Did you have any particular texts that inspired you?
I adore and revere Philip Pullman so any comparison is both flattering and terrifying, because I don't flatter myself that I’m in the same league as him!
I've also always loved Ursula Le Guin and those sort of people that draw these worlds which are really real but also very solid, very rooted in character and emotion and, and relatable, but also just sort of fly off into the imagination.
I also love magical realism, like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende.
I think you've definitely achieved that textural quality. And that ties into my next question, which is: for this story, why did it have to be London?
Yeah, good question. I am Australian, but I did live in London for years. As an Australian, you are used to new cities, plonked on ancient land, and the two have nothing in common. Whereas in London, it's such an old city, it's thousands of years old, even older, so I was really struck by this sense that it’s nestled into the ground.
I also had a sense, walking through those old old streets where millions of people have walked for 1000s of years — it's quite mind boggling — that there's like a character in those streets, which seems to be intrinsic. It doesn't matter how much gentrification you put there, it doesn't matter how many Pret-A-Mangers or cafes or whatever you put there, and how many bankers’ salaries are used to build amazing buildings, there are some areas that just don't change. They don't change.
As an Australian, I hadn't come across that before.
But this story actually started out — and it sounds ridiculous — as rhyming couplets for my kids. And then it developed and it sat in a drawer for a very long time, then it went through a journey of a contemporary novel, but it wasn't quite right. It was actually some advice I got, that gave me an a-ha moment, that I decided to put it into Victorian London, and it found its home.
In that vein, I wanted to ask about your research process. What advice would you have for writers looking to set their stories in a particular historical place or time?
I'd recommend my method, which is basically just to read so much. I went down so many rabbit holes. I have a stack of books that I bought, at home, but that's without the library books, the online articles, the Kindle books, and all of that. I read and I read and I read and I read. It was actually self indulgent. I think I was actually avoiding getting down to writing!
But it must be the most documented period of London history, Victorian London. There’s just so much literature, and so much happened: Darwin published The Origin of The Species. There’s just so much, intellectually, scientifically, technologically, artistically.
I also spoke to people. I talked to people in museums; there's something called the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, in London, so I talked to them about what it would have been like, to be a watchmaker back then.
I was living in London at the time, so I walked around, I imagined what it would have been like, and I 'felt the ghosts', that sort of thing.
So I think my method — and I'm not saying this is the best method, I'm sure there are many more efficient methods — was total immersion, and just getting my hands on everything I could possibly get my hands on.
Now I also note you’re not technically a debut author, because in your blog you talk about self-publishing at the ripe old age of 10. But as a debut traditionally published author, what has surprised you the most about the process of bringing your book to the shelves?
I didn't know anything about publishing. I didn't really know what to expect, and (I wondered) how much control do I have? Will I ‘handing over my baby’? I've actually been surprised by how much control I've retained.
Of course this is my experience, with my publisher — Penguin Random House — but they've been wonderful, this team of women that I work with, and I just keep touching wood. I've got my wonderful editor, Amy, and I've got a publicist, Tina, and all these people who are passionate and engaged and really knowledgeable and they just want me to be as happy as I can be with the work.
I don't know why that should be surprising. But I guess I think expected it to be more of an impersonal machine and I found the whole process just a fantastic team effort.
For example, I was really nervous about the cover: I had a very clear idea of the look I didn't want. I didn't want the characters drawn, because — and this is very personal thing — but I remember as a kid, I would have a very clear image in my head of the character, and when there was a picture on the front, it was not what I had in my head.
I'm curious if you have, do you have a best piece of writing advice, but also a worst?
In terms of worst: just anything that says, ‘This is a rule’? I think there are very good pieces of advice and guidelines, probably especially when you're in a young writer, an emerging writer, learning the craft, that are good to heed, like show don’t tell.
But there's always somebody who's a master of the craft, who breaks those rules deliberately and to excellent effect.
I have yet to encounter something that is truly a rigid rule.
In terms of the best writing advice, I think it is, just get it down on the page. Just turn off that editor when you're first writing. When you're doing your first draft, the most destructive and the most stultifying thing is that voice telling you, ‘Oh, it's rubbish, it's rubbish, it's rubbish’. Of course, it's rubbish! It's the first draft! All first drafts are rubbish in my experience.
So I think it's really important to say, expect it to be a crappy first draft, expect it to be rubbish, and also think, ‘I still have to write this rubbish to get it out of my system’.
Then come back to it with that sort of editing eyes. Write with the door closed to the outside world, no judgment, and then rewrite with the door open, with a critical eye.
Now, and finally, WHEN DAYS TILT is the first instalment of a duology. What can you tell me about the second book?
Yes, there is another book coming out in May next year, because this is a duology. It ups the ante: I can't talk too much about that because of spoilers, but new characters get introduced, and there’s a boss battle, which I'm quite excited about, because I'm editing it at the moment!