Kiran Millwood Hargrave – “Reading develops bravery and cultivates empathy” - Hindustan Times
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Kiran Millwood Hargrave – “Reading develops bravery and cultivates empathy”

ByShireen Quadri
Apr 01, 2024 09:16 PM IST

Earlier this year, at the Galle Literature Festival, the British poet, playwright, novelist and writer of epic fantasy series for children spoke about her forthcoming books and about how her own experience informs her writing

How do you weave in strands relating to the interconnectedness of nature, power, and love in your stories?

Poet, playwright and novelist Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Courtesy the subject)
Poet, playwright and novelist Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Courtesy the subject)

Let me give you the example of banyan trees. They put down their roots, over decades and centuries, in different places and they actually shift their centre. While I’m not suggesting the existence of walking trees like those in my Geomancer trilogy, it’s a concept within the realm of possibility. So are phenomena like people sensing water through vibrations in the earth or certain fungi manipulating insects by commandeering their minds. Everything has to feel possible. Each element needs to resonate with plausibility, interlinked at its heart with the central theme: the world is not merely precious but also wild and formidable. It is at our peril that we do not protect it.

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Where do you look for the visual images in your writing, and how do they guide the development of the story?

I’m inspired by things I actually see. I’m inspired by books I read. If I was given the choice between being a reader and a writer, I would always choose being a reader. Books give me the greatest joy, and they teach me so much about the world and about myself. When it comes to writing, I normally start with an image. For example, in my latest book for adults, The Dance Tree (2022), I had this image of a beehive on fire and all the bees are flying out of it, like little sparks. And then I knew that image would be important in the book somehow. So, I was writing towards that image. With the Geomancer trilogy, I had this image again of a girl walking through an underground labyrinth and there’s bioluminescence all over the walls, and I just wanted to know how she got there. Who is she? So, it’s always about that image, and then asking myself the question: How do you weave that into the narrative because, you know, if you’re so arrested by an image then a reader will be too.

In Book 1 of the trilogy, the peaceful life of the protagonist, Ysolda, is disrupted when her sister disappears in an earthquake. She leaves the forest on a dangerous quest to rescue her, and also strikes a deal with the wolf queen, in whose tyrannical shadow she has lived. What was the inspiration behind Ysolda’s character and the challenges she faces?

I’m always interested in side characters, particularly the one who’s the main character’s best friend. All my books focus more on their secondary characters than on someone who we would typically recognize as a hero. Ysolda plays second fiddle to her sister, Harry, who is gifted. She can talk to trees, which, in my world, means she can sense when they’re sick. She knows how to read the forest. So, she would be quite an obvious main character, but I’m always more interested in the person in the corner who isn’t quite happy with her life, doesn’t really want to do anything, doesn’t want to go anywhere, is a bit of a homebody, but someone who is forced into extraordinary action by extraordinary feeling, in this case, love for her sister. So, as Ysolda basically grew out of an interest in what it would take for someone to uproot their life. What would that look like? And then once they’ve been uprooted from their life, when they start to discover how big the world is, how does that feel to them if it is not someone who has always wanted to go out and see the world? What is motivating them? So, externally it is this quest to save her sister, but then internally it’s really a quest to find herself and to reach for those hidden depths and discover the strengths that she never knew she had.

In a recent Instagram post, you beautifully reflect on the emotional journey of completing the first draft of the final book in The Geomancer trilogy. Could you elaborate on how personal experiences, such as the grief of your many miscarriages, shape the narrative arcs of your characters, especially Ysolda?

I hope to always get better as a writer. I think the main way that I do this is not only by writing, but by living. And, of course, a huge part of life is loss. I’ve been thinking about the Geomancer for about 10 years, but for the last five years, it really started to feel like a book I had to write; it felt more and more urgent. It was knocking at my door. And then, three years ago, I had my first miscarriage. My husband and I went walking in the beautiful Celtic rainforest in North Wales. It was so peaceful, and it was raining, as expected in Wales. The lush greenery and the carpet-like moss, along with mushrooms sprouting from the trees, created a serene atmosphere. There was a river flowing nearby, and in that moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of tranquillity. It was as if the forest itself had reached out and reassured me, saying, “It’s going to be okay.”

This experience marked a moment of transition for me, moving away from grief and into the next phase, which, as I mentioned in the post, is not separate from grief but exists alongside it. As a writer, I consider myself fortunate to be able to channel these complex emotions into my work. In the upcoming book, Ysolda will learn to coexist with grief. Throughout the series, she will evolve from a girl to a woman, experiencing first love and profound loss. She will also come to realize her place within the vast fabric of the world, understanding that she is not its centre. This realisation brings me comfort during my own moments of sorrow, knowing that I am part of something greater. It instils in Ysolda a sense of purpose: she thinks she has a bigger mission, a bigger calling and, therefore, she has to carry on — and that gives her enormous strength.

Do you set out to explore complex themes related to identity and social norms in your work? 

It comes fairly instinctively. I don’t see any individual in isolation; I always see them as part of a wider society, a broader network. So, even when choosing to focus on someone, I’m always aware of interrelating with everyone around them. I think I’m particularly drawn to outsiders, especially people who are isolated from society by factors such as their race, class, and gender. I’ve always been interested in why society others or marginalizes people, and what are the decisions behind it? And the conclusion I’ve drawn is often fear. I think people fear that which they do not understand. And I think that reading, in particular, is the greatest tool for developing understanding and empathy. Because then you can encounter people who are nothing like you and who have lived nothing like anything you or anyone you know has experienced. So, I actually think that reading develops bravery and cultivates empathy. It nurtures the heart and the mind, serving as armour against fear and ignorance, and it allows you to be more open and porous. I see it as a life’s work to continue developing my understanding and empathy. And as long as I’m interested in that, I’ll keep writing about people who exist outside society’s normal capacity for those things.

320pp, ₹899; Orion Children’s Boooks
320pp, ₹899; Orion Children’s Boooks

Considering that you write poetry, children’s literature, young adult fiction, and adult novels, how do you navigate the creative processes for each genre, and what aspects of your writing style remain consistent across them?

I think my agent wishes I was a bit more intentional about how I approach my career. But the truth is that I just love telling stories. It depends on what the story needs from me; it dictates the way I tell it. So, for example, I would never have written anything like my first book, The Girl of Ink & Stars (2016), long before. I didn’t even know it’s a children’s book when I was writing it. I don’t know if I even thought about it anytime other than a story I was telling. It was only in the tenth draft that I understood that it was for children and so I carved it into that niche. It’s the same with every story, including The Mercies (2020), my first novel for adults. I had read about these incredible witch trials on an island where women were left behind after a storm killed all their men. After being left alone for three years, many of them were killed as witches. I was interested in how that happened. So, I wrote a book about it.

And, obviously, it wasn’t going to be for children because I wanted to explore not only the murders but also themes like sexuality and the role it played on the only island at that time. There was also this horrible event of the drownings that I had to explore. I think what’s consistent across all my writing is my voice. I’m told I have a quite lyrical way of writing, which I take to mean that I try to make the way I tell the story as important as the story itself. So, I try to ensure that the language I’m using somehow reflects the world I’m building. In The Mercies, for example, I used very cold, stark, shorter, and sharper sentences to reflect the climate. With The Dance Tree, which takes place in summer, I wanted the writing to feel overwhelming, almost stifling, because of the heat. In the first book of The Geomancer trilogy, set in a forest, I use a lot of tree imagery. Since the second book is set in the mountains, there’s lots of rock, and more sensitivity to time. So, that’s what I consistently carry through: trying to use language to create a sense of place.

What led you to write poetry?

Initially, it was a love of poetry. Reading poetry made me want to try writing it for myself. But now, because I’m busy with novels, it’s more about when inspiration strikes. So, it’s less about the rigour and craft necessary to write good poetry and more about a feeling. For example, I just had a child nearly a year ago now, and occasionally, I’m seized by overwhelming love and the need to record exactly how she is in that moment. I write it down, and it’s not good poetry, but it’s a snapshot of a moment. Maybe one day when I have more time, I’ll be able to go back and develop those into good poems. But for now, poetry for me is purely a means of release for those overwhelming feelings.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a book called The White Room, which is set during the fall of the British Raj. It’s still interesting to me how we talk about the British Raj and colonialism. In the UK, we still seem to think we were somehow the saviours, and we did good things. I’ve wanted to write a horror story for a really long time. I was reading about some of the uprisings and the way they were dealt with, and how we don’t learn any of that in school. So, you know, it still shocks people in the UK when anyone says that it wasn’t a good thing. I wanted to write a horror story about a white woman who comes into that society and somehow gets swept up in the complicity of believing they are part of the civilizing influence. Then slowly, that belief gets eroded, and she understands that maybe they’re the evil here. Eventually, there’s going to be a church involved, a haunting, but yes, it’s about those final days when British power was falling apart as they were leaving. 

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.

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