Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Where I Write

Posted on 10th October 2016 by Sally Campbell
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is the twenty-six year old debut novelist whose immensely popular children's book, The Girl Of Ink & Stars, captured all of our imagination this summer with its deft mix of the very sweet and the very dark. Such success was hard-won however; here the author tells a very intimate tale of where she writes and how it reflects her state of mind.

In The Girl of Ink & Stars Isabella is obsessed the idea of becoming a cartographer, just like her father. There are myriad reasons, not least the adventures she’d have to go on to become one. But above all – not that she necessarily realises – it would give her purpose. When she looks at her Da’s whispering, map covered walls, she sees a life well lived: a life she has not yet been allowed to begin.

But of course, maps (and the areas they depict) are never just a matter of geography. Da claims his maps can also show something of the ‘feel’ of a location – the smells, sounds, dangers. The emotional topography of a place. And when I look back on the places I used to, sometimes, and now write, I realise it’s a sign of how far I’ve come.

When I began writing The Girl of Ink & Stars, I had been clinically depressed for about three years. I moved to Oxford to begin my Creative Writing MSt, and I was just starting to claw my way out, but still spent most of my days under the covers, curtains drawn, convincing myself that this was rest, and that rest was self-care. I had an obsession with feeling safe. 

So I began writing Isabella’s story – on April Fool’s Day no less – in bed. No matter that my partner Tom and I had spent a fraught afternoon building a flat pack desk in our spare room, I could not bring myself to use it. That would be admitting that I was trying to do something, to make something, and that I may fail. Looking back on early drafts of the book, you can read my tentativeness. They’re thin, underdeveloped: I was scared to take the leap of faith that writing a book always is. It took about two months, and 20,000 words, to admit to anyone other than my partner that I was writing a novel.

The ‘anyones’ were on my course, also novelists working on their first books, and once I’d uttered the words, I’m writing a novel, there was no going back. I was cajoled into ‘writing out’. This was a huge step for me – every weekday I’d head to our local pub, The Rusty Bicycle, and the three of us would write all afternoon (amazingly, all three of us have had our debuts published this year). As Isabella travelled across Joya’s forgotten territories, I could feel parts of my brain – so long numb and unexplored – fizzing into action: each time I saved her from a hardship of my own making, she saved a part of me from the darkness I’d lived in for years. It was the hardest and most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.

Kiran writing in the Rusty Bicycle, 2013

That was three years ago, and we still sometimes write in the Rusty. But now, I mostly work in my office, in our house, overlooking our garden. From my desk I can see trees, our unmown lawn. Outside my fiancé’s painting studio, the stray cat is eating the food Tom puts out for him everyday.

I’ve filled the room with favourite things: a poster signed by everyone who came to The Girl of Ink & Stars launch, a map of Joya made by a Waterstones bookseller, a bookshelf full of Children’s/YA literature, pictures of family. On my desk are research books, and the manuscript for book two marked up and ready to edit.

Every morning, I make my bed and feel so grateful I don’t have to lie in it. Isabella gave me purpose, and I’m determined to have my adventures.


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