Thursday, 17 June 2021

Urban fantasy, King Arthur and Brexit. My interview with Holly Race - Tracy Darnton

This month I’m interviewing fellow SASSIE Holly Race whose book A Gathering Midnight is out this month with Hot Key.

Congratulations, Holly!

Can you tell us a bit about A Gathering Midnight?

Of course! It’s the sequel to Midnight’s Twins, my YA urban fantasy set between our world and Annwn, the alternate reality we go to when we dream. In the first book we meet 15-year-old twins Fern and Ollie, who hate each other. They have grown up believing that their mother died in her sleep when they were babies, but then Ollie is recruited into a secret army in Annwn known as the knights, who protect dreamers from their nightmares – because if you die in your dreams, you die in the real world as well. Of course, that makes them think again about what really happened to their mother, and makes Fern determined to fight her way into the knights alongside her brother in order to uncover the truth.

*Spoilers ahead!*

A Gathering Midnight picks up a few months after the events of Midnight’s Twins. Fern and Ollie have discovered what happened to their mother, but the person responsible for their mother’s death is still at large and becoming increasingly powerful in both the real world and Annwn. The first book introduced some Arthurian legend, and this becomes more prominent in the second book, as the twins embark on a quest to find Excalibur, which they believe holds the key to defeating their mother’s murderer once and for all.

And for those of us who write in other genres, what’s urban fantasy?

It’s a subgenre of fantasy, where supernatural elements are layered on top of a contemporary or ‘recent history’ urban setting. Some examples of urban fantasy novels are Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of the genre before I was about halfway through the first draft of Midnight’s Twins – I didn’t set out to write ‘urban fantasy’ at all!

A Gathering Midnight is the second book in a trilogy. Can new readers launch straight into this one or should they start with Midnight’s Twins?

Someone recently said that they felt you could dive straight into the second book, but they had read the first, so I’m sceptical! There’s a lot of world building in Midnight’s Twins that’s important for understanding some of the fantasy elements of A Gathering Midnight, but perhaps more importantly you get a better sense of Fern and Ollie’s character arcs if you read Midnight’s Twins first.

What are the pressures and challenges in writing a trilogy rather than standalones?

I think a lot of authors, myself included, suffer from the shiny new idea syndrome – making it halfway through a manuscript then getting distracted by a totally different plot and set of characters. That’s amplified when you’re tied into writing a series, especially when you’re on tight deadlines as I am, with each book coming out a year after the last. You have to stay very focused on the trilogy, even when other ideas are calling to you to come and play.

A challenge specific to my books is that they have quite high death counts, so coming up with new characters and establishing them within the existing characters’ arcs and affections well enough to get readers to root for them has been tricky!

As a professional script editor working in TV and film do you have a particularly pernickety and harsh inner critic for your own work?

I definitely have the voice whispering ‘this is awful this is awful why are you even bothering’ throughout my drafts, but I’m not sure whether it’s worse than any other author’s inner critic! I’d like to think that it makes me more open to taking notes from my editor, but perhaps that’s my ego talking!

Something that I do have to remind myself to do is to sink into the emotional beats and nuances of my characters in the prose. With scriptwriting you have to be quite sparse; you have to make every line work really hard, push a lot of meaning into subtext and trust that the director and actors will read into the script to make the nuance clear. In a novel, that’s all on the author – in some ways it’s much more of a responsibility than scriptwriting!

Holly Race

I’m in awe of your worldbuilding, Holly. You draw on medieval history and Arthurian legend (I have learnt lots of new words like reeve and veneur!) So have you read loads of non-fiction as research, or used it as an excuse to watch old Merlin episodes, and I’m certainly imagining you dressed up as a knight roaming round Tintagel at the very least?  How do you build up all those layers and keep track of it all?

I own a lot of non-fiction books on Arthurian legend, medieval castles and jobs and the like, but I haven’t read them from cover to cover. I was worried I’d get sucked into research and lose sight of the story and characters, and that’s a particularly dangerous thing in YA fantasy where the ‘ideal’ word count is perhaps lower than you’d be allowed in adult fantasy. I worked as a researcher for a few years, specifically for the project that would later become the film Mary Queen of Scots, as well as a few other scripts that didn’t get greenlit. The writers in those cases pinpointed quite specific areas that they wanted or needed to explore (for instance, how did women clean themselves in the 1600s?) and asked me to focus on those. That way, they picked up interesting facts that would add richness and truthfulness to their worlds, but they didn’t get too distracted by irrelevant details.

Ooh – I like that tip for avoiding going down a major research rabbit hole, Holly!

I did explore London a lot, though! Like Fern, I love walking around cities without a map, not following a tourist trail. So I let myself get lost in the side streets, to try to capture the ‘scent’ of London for Annwn’s version of the capital. I also visited St Paul’s Cathedral (which is the site and blueprint for the knights’ castle, Tintagel) several times, although my vertigo meant I couldn’t quite bring myself to climb right to the top of the dome!

As for how I keep track of it all? Not as well as I should, to be honest. I have a ‘story bible’ from the first book, which I put together for my editor when we started working together. It outlines the backstory of Annwn (such as the way in which Arthurian legends feed into the world and the history of the knights) and some of the main characters, but I haven’t updated it in years so it’s becoming less and less useful as I dive into book three. I should probably look into that soon…

And I’m guessing that the political tumult of the UK in recent years came in handy too for the rise of Medraut?

Very much so. I’d been playing in this world of dreams and nightmares for several years, not really sure why I was writing the story, and then UKIP started to gain in popularity, Brexit happened and Michael Gove told us that Britain has ‘had enough of experts’. I found myself baffled by the fact that so many people – some of them people I love and care about – were making decisions with huge ramifications for the country, the world and future generations, off the back of emotions, feelings and sometimes prejudices that I hadn’t realised they held. It was deeply upsetting.

We’re now living in a world where personality is more important than policy: a giant reality show contest. That popularity has put these politicians on pedestals where we’re not allowed to question them at all – we simply have to trust that if we vote for them, everything they do is ‘right’. I find that extremely worrying. It made me think about how that might translate to Annwn, and suddenly I had my story: a world powered by imagination, where our imaginations are being manipulated by someone lacking in substance but hungry for unequivocal power and obedience.

I know it all had an impact in The Rules on my plot and characterisation too – it’s interesting how many of us children’s and YA authors have processed it in this way without ever mentioning the B word.  

You’ve been writing and publishing these books in very difficult times. Tell us about your dedication at the front of the A Gathering Midnight.

The dedication is ‘To the 126,000 and counting, and those who cared for them’. I had originally intended to dedicate A Gathering Midnight to my husband, but I ended up writing the bulk of the book during the first UK lockdown. It was… a struggle! I think that a lot of my fear and anxiety, and my anger at the way it was all handled, are evident in the tone of the book.

But of course I’m here, and I’m healthy, when so many aren’t. I’ve been immensely lucky to not lose anyone I love to Covid, but so many haven’t been as fortunate. I think the grief and fear so many of us have felt over the last 18 months will have long-lasting psychological consequences. It felt wrong to not acknowledge that loss and collective trauma somewhere in the novel.

Midnight’s Twins – the first book in the trilogy – was published in June 2020. We were still in lockdown 1 at that stage in England so I’m guessing it wasn’t the launch you’d dreamt of for your debut?

No, it wasn’t quite what most authors imagine when they think of launch parties and book signings! It does feel a little as though something was stolen from me, if I’m honest, but then I give myself a pinch and a headshake because come on, I’m a published author – does it really matter whether I got to have a party? My friends and family threw me a wonderful online launch, so I really can’t complain!

The bigger impact has been on sales, and I think most non-celebrity debuts and mid-list names have experienced this. While online book sales rose during lockdown, people were looking for recognisable and established names. No one was browsing bookshops and coming across new titles and authors, and of course booksellers couldn’t do the brilliant job they do of recommending titles either. It’s meant that it’s been much harder for new authors to get traction.

Very true. And what about this time round for launching A Gathering Midnight? What are you looking forward to that couldn’t happen last year?

The book came out last week! It’s been a completely different experience: I’ve been able to celebrate in my garden with small groups of friends, and go into my local independent bookshop (Heffers in Cambridge) to sign copies of the book on the morning of publication. Perhaps one of the best aspects this time round has been finally being able to spend time in person with the brilliant community of authors who have supported each other online over the last year – in the last week I’ve met Katharine and Liz Corr, the authors of The Witch’s Kiss trilogy and A Throne of Swans duology, and Menna van Praag (author of The Sisters Grimm) popped into my garden launch party!

You’re an advocate of UKYA, setting up a supportive Facebook group for us UK YA-ers. I know many of us feel it’s so hard to get any traction or shelf space with all the big YA hitters and US books dominating out there. And now you’ve just set up ukyabooks on Instagram with Kat Ellis. Is there hope for UK YA? (Please say yes!)

I don’t feel particularly qualified to talk about this to be honest, since I’m relatively new to publishing in general! Do I think there’s hope for UKYA? I’d like to think so, but my feeling is that we might be waiting for a while. I get the impression that genre ‘trends’ ebb and flow like the tide, and we just need the balance to pull back in favour of UK-based YA books in the way it did maybe a decade ago. But in the meantime all we can do is be patient, support each other and keep writing the stories we love with integrity.

(Kat Ellis is entirely responsible for the Instagram account, by the way – she’s brilliant!)

Maybe one good thing from this very strange year is that it’s made us connect more as a community of writers?

Definitely! I set up the UKYA group because I desperately wanted to ‘meet’ other UKYA authors during lockdown, and it’s become such a great little community with a life of its own. My hope is that as things begin to open up over the next few years, we can organise our own events both in person and online, across the country and across YA genres.

I do think it’s important to retain online access as much as possible though. Lockdown gave so many opportunities to those who, for whatever reason, wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend physical events – I would hate for us to go back to a ‘normal’ where a huge proportion of readers and writers are once again ‘locked out’ of panels, festivals, and socialising, educational and job opportunities.

We wait to see what will become the new normal...

Lastly, are we allowed to know the final title in the trilogy and when it’s coming out?

I don’t have an exact release date yet, but I think it’s likely to be June 2022. The title (and you’re hearing it here first!) will be A Midnight Dark and Golden.

Fab title! Let's hope we're in a blended world of amazing online events and massive book launch parties and oodles of YA events by then. 

Thank you so much, Holly. Once again, congratulations and here’s wishing lots of lovely bookshop YA shelf space for The Gathering Midnight!

Thank you so much for having me, Tracy!



Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers The Truth About Lies and The Rules. She’s wondering if she should put some knights in her next book.  You can follow her on Twitter @TracyDarnton. 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lovely interview. Really enjoyed it.