An Interview with Waterstones Children's Book Prize Winner Kiran Millwood Hargrave
"I think whether you have a map-maker’s heart or not, you know there’s more out there to discover."
Why do we make maps? Is it to trace where we’ve been? To mark our territory on the landscape? Do maps show us our ever-expanding horizons or help us find our way back home? In Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s prize-winning debut novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, maps may do many things. They may even tell stories.
An instant favourite with Waterstones booksellers, The Girl of Ink and Stars tells the story of Isabella, who lives on the Isle of Joya with her father, a cartographer, who whispers stories to her of far-off lands and the mysteries of the island’s unmapped interior, stories told through the maps he creates. Isabella dreams of exploring the island’s unknown secrets and when her best friend Lupe disappears into the forbidden forests on her village’s border, she contrives to be part of the rescue mission. Deep in the island’s hidden heart, she will find that all her skill and courage, as a mapmaker and an explorer, will be needed to face the dark threat stirring under her feet.
The Girl of Ink and Stars is written through with maps, from the inside cover’s lavish interpretation of the mysterious and uncharted island of Joya, to the maps that guide the novel’s heroine Isabella on her adventure and the star lines that criss-cross the pages of text - as though the reader were mapping their own way by starlight as they read. The look and feel of this book is undeniably part of its draw, pulling the reader in but also intersecting so closely with the plot that the map itself becomes part of how a reader understands the story. It’s something Hargrave felt was integral from the outset, not only for a reader’s understanding of Isabella’s story but also for how the story itself would be written.
"I always knew the cover was going to be really important; it’s a book about a map-maker’s daughter so it had to have a map. The map started as some terrible drawings by me and then my partner Tom, who is an artist, did a better map and that’s how I plotted my novel. I had all my landmarks drawn out and, really, I went on an adventure with Isabella through the landscape. When we actually went to submit to publishers, Tom did lots of illustrations inside and the designer, Helen Crawford White, took inspiration from his images and did this incredible cover. It was so visual in my mind and Chicken House believed in it enough to go and find such an incredible designer and then to package it so beautifully."
It’s no surprise that when Kiran Millwood Hargrave and I speak, it is her love of cartography and the way it drives her storytelling that we turn to first: "It’s the road not taken, isn’t it?" she says. "When I had my landscape and I was walking with Isabella through it, she was making constant decisions and it was interesting being in my character’s head, deciding what she would do. She’s torn between her desire to find Lupe and the longing to just go and explore this part of her island that she’s never been to before. I could feel her indecision and these twin passions pulling against each other."
Hargrave’s maps are inspired by a golden age of map-making, inspired by figures such as the seventeenth-century geologist, explorer and map-maker Athanasius Kircher, who mapped not only his surroundings but also imagined subterranean territories and the lost, mythical city of Atlantis. "He’s my favourite cartographer", Hargrave explains, "I used a lot of his ideas about underground currents in the book and I love the personality you see in those early maps."
Hargrave is adamant that maps are always human; an imprint of our personality on the landscape. As such, they are also always stories or potential stories with many and various possibilities. The process of cartography was deeply influential to the way she tackled writing The Girl of Ink and Stars, which she says she approached in “a very painterly way”.
"I read an amazing piece called ‘The Page is the Place’", she says, "and it talked about a writer as a cartographer, mapping and discovering these new lands. With writing you can always go back and change things but with a painting, once you’ve made the mark it’s there. I stuck with my decisions because Isabella was making them and I really let her lead me in that respect."
Isabella’s keen sense of curiosity, her longing for exciting new horizons, drives the momentum of The Girl of Ink and Stars. It lends the book the feel of some of the best-known and loved adventure stories; stories like Treasure Island, Kim and Gerald Durrell’s The Talking Parcel and The Fantastic Flying Journey. "Isabella is so frustrated at the beginning of the book", Hargrave explains, "she loves her friends and she loves her father but she knows there’s more. I think whether you have a map-maker’s heart or not, you know there’s more out there to discover. It’s a really frustrating part of being a child but it’s also what makes a child’s experiences so intense because you’re having them for the first time and the world is in such full colour. I love writing for children because it takes you back to that place where you’re allowed to have that freedom of imagination and that freedom of movement. It’s something we still want, I think, secretly, as adults."
Hargrave’s storytelling deftly captures our forgotten sense of the world as an unknown and uncontrolled place and the innate fear we all share of being lost. Her fictional landscape can be a terrifying place, a place where you might truly lose yourself; it’s a situation her characters must learn to accept. It’s a primal fear she thinks we’re now too quick to dismiss, believing everything to been known or knowable. "Our confidence in our knowledge and technology makes us foolishly brave. It’s so hard to be lost now. I recently read Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and she captures it beautifully. When it happens it just catches you entirely. Every child has got lost at one time or another. As a child you’re never alone in the world unsupervised and unprotected and then for a few moments that veneer slips and the world is suddenly so yawningly huge."
The freedom of her unknown landscape allows for her characters to make decisions without guidance, decisions based on instinct which are often reckless. For Isabella her journey is often about understanding and coming to terms with the consequences of these actions. "Everybody faces adversity of one kind or another in their lives", Hargrave says, "and I thought it was really important to have a heroine who isn’t a heroine, she’s just a girl who has dreams and flaws and makes wrong decisions. The stakes have to be high. My kind of storytelling is realistic people making realistic decisions about unrealistic situations."
Hargrave’s dark and powerful storytelling is wrapped up within the mythology of the island of Joya, which draws on the traditional legends of the Guanches, the indigenous aboriginal Berber inhabitants of the Canary Islands. In particular, she explores the legend of Guayota, the deity who reputedly lived inside the Teide volcano. Hargarve’s passion for the Canarian landscape and culture sings out in her writing: "It’s probably my favourite place in the world, it’s incredibly beautiful. On our third trip there we went to La Gomera, the second smallest of the islands. It’s a lot smaller and wilder and less explored. I really loved the landscape and there were only two English language books on the shelves and one was a book of Canarian myths. The myths contained the legend of Guayota and his demon dogs and how he trapped the sun in Teide. It was rumoured that the demon dogs were the same things that used to snatch sheep and children off the mountainside but in reality the children were probably taken by other people. Often the myths are dark but the reality behind them is more frightening, the way that a demon is terrifying but so is a volcano."
The vivid interaction between mythical elements and realistic details of terrain, landscape and place of Hargrave’s writing cries out to be read aloud. She is a true storyteller and the tradition of telling and retelling tales and legends is intrinsic to this novel which cocoons story within story like a nest of Russian dolls, with different characters taking on the role of storyteller through the book. Hargrave, who was a poet and playwright before becoming a novelist, says that hearing the dialogue and telling the story are essential to her writing methods:
"It’s very much an auditory thing for me, writing a story. I just love hearing people’s stories. My dad recited Beowulf to us and my mum, who is half-Indian, used to tell us myths. I tell my stories to myself to know what has to happen next. My first line generally comes first and it always stays the same. I write in a very linear fashion and I think you can tell that in my narrative style." Hargrave insists she is, first and foremost, a reader and lists amongst her childhood favourites: Harry Potter, Dianne Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials which, she says, "simply bears so much re-reading".
The Girl of Ink and Stars shares with these stories a timeless, ageless quality and, like all good legends, a sinister undercurrent. It’s a quality early reviewers of the book were quick to praise with The FT describing the book as ‘exquisitely poised between sweetness and darkness’. Some of this derives from depictions of the consequences of colonial rule on both people and landscape. The Girl of Ink and Stars is, in part, a story of subjugated communities, of people whose voices and stories demand to be heard. It’s not something Hargrave says she consciously set out to tackle,"I just find it interesting to look into these stories, without getting caught up in the bombast. I want to question what civility is. What is civilisation? Is it enslaving people? Is it forcing people to give up their culture? Are these things civilising, of course they’re not." Hargrave says she knew, "it was always going to be quite a dark book. When I started writing it I didn’t really know who it was for, I didn’t know it was going to be a children’s book. I always site my sources as anything from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Cormac McCarthy and it’s only when I knew that my protagonist was a little girl that I realised it was obviously a children’s book. Even then, the darkness never really went away."
Hargraves' next book, The Island at the End of Everything, promises yet more of her enticing blend of history, mythology, fantasy and truth. "It’s about a girl called Ami and she lives with her mother on the island of Culion; it’s based on a real place in the Philippines. In 1904, legislation was brought in by the Americans who had ownership over the island; they decided that it was going to be the leper colony for the surrounding community and over the next few years it grew to be the largest leper colony in the world. To make way for these new people, the authorities forcibly deported healthy children and ripped families apart. The book is about Ami’s experiences of being taken away from her and the adventure that follows."
Hargrave finished the first draft of her second novel whilst still waiting to find a publisher for The Girl of Ink and Stars, in a period she describes as, “a frenzied couple of weeks, thinking nobody was going to buy my first book". Has winning the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize allayed those doubts?
"There’s so much self-doubt around the process of writing", she says, "and for it to be sent out, packaged so beautifully and to have people believe in it, even to the extent that they’d award it a prize well that’s just impossible to believe. Now I am finally starting to believe it."
Photo: Kiran Millwood Hargrave accepting the Waterstones Children's Book Prize from Waterstones Children's Laureate Chris Riddell and Waterstones Managing Director James Daunt