We chatted with YA author Michelle Kenney about her trilogy, Book of Fire, in the Winter 2020 issue of PaperBound. Read on to discover more about Michelle’s books and what inspires her writing …
Tell us a little about The Book of Fire trilogy.
The Book of Fire YA fantasy trilogy follows wild girl Talia, surviving as a hunter-gatherer in a treehouse village valley, after a biochemical Great War has destroyed most of the world. The story focuses on two communities: a sealed off scientific population who believe the outside world to be poisoned, and a treehouse-dwelling community of foragers who believe they are the only Great War survivors – until a chance encounter changes everything…
The trilogy is rich in Roman mythology, science and history, with plenty of romance thrown in for good measure. The action is also set in and around a war-torn ruined Exeter! Often dubbed ‘The Hunger Games meets Mythology,’ or ‘Percy Jackson meets The Bone Season’.
The series has strong themes and raises questions about the frequent conflict between nature and science.
Inspiration for the series grew from a visit to the Colosseum in Rome where they were burning torches of lavender at the end of every stand. The tour guide explained it was an authentic detail from the real gladiatorial games, where the scent was used to cover the scent of bloodshed. It was a tiny gruesome seed that lodged in my head, and stayed with me for nearly 20 years, before it grew into a trilogy.
How important is setting to you and your books?
I deliberately chose Exeter for my setting because I wanted the landscape to be local and recognisable – partly because I like to ground my fantasy in a little reality, and partly because Exeter has a deep vein of Roman history I knew I could tap into and use. I love living in Devon and feel very lucky to have the moor, coast and historical cities like Exeter on my doorstep for inspiration.
As the trilogy progressed, I realised readers were enjoying the local setting as much as I was enjoying writing it, and it inspired me to research and include more local history and landmarks. These included the ruined Roman bathhouse beneath Cathedral Green, which I deliberately used as a backdrop to action in City of Dust, and of course Exeter City’s famous underground passages.
Do you think dystopian fiction is on the rise again?
I think dystopian fiction is always bubbling away beneath the surface. Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to imagine a dystopian world given recent world events, and this adds a factor of relatability at the moment too. The Book of Fire series imagines a world after a devastating Great War, and I’ve been surprised by the number of readers who’ve been in touch to say how the setting feels a little too raw and realistic to be entirely comfortable. However, this is a real measure of its success for me.
Book of Fire’s core themes: science vs nature, history vs future and questioning if we should, just because we can underpin the whole series; and every reader who reviews or gets in contact to say Talia represents so much more than a wild girl in a recovering world, makes me very happy.
What dystopian novels do you love?
So many! The Bone Season series, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, 1984, Divergent, but perhaps the most influential for me was Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah.
Z for Zachariah was the very first dystopian novel I ever read at the influential age of 13, and at that time it felt as though it changed everything. Before then, I’d read a usual range of popular childhood authors including C.S Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Enid Blyton and Ruby Ferguson. But this one story turned everything on its head – a reimagining of a world after an apocalyptical war, where the race for survival is uppermost and no-one is who they seem, felt so exciting and unique. Afterwards, I actively sought books that gave that same thrill. I think part of the reason I love YA fantasy, is that it’s brave and unafraid of taking chances or asking the difficult questions.
Could you tell us a little about your writing journey?
I always scribbled stories as a child, and even had some short stories published in my local newspaper as a teenager/adult; however I didn’t start writing seriously until a traumatic event relating to the birth of my second child. While I always nursed secret hopes of getting published ‘one day’, the event was a wake-up call – a reminder that none of us are here forever, and fulfilling ambitions takes time and stamina! So I started writing seriously.
My first novel got an agent, but no deal. That same agent closed her business after a year, but by that point I had a second novel ‘Genetica’ and received four offers of representation within a week.
The initial feedback from publishers was great, but dystopia wasn’t in vogue and it went on the back burner while we worked on my next novel. Then, just as we were about to submit the new novel, a trilogy offer came in from HarperCollins HQ, a full twelve months after the original book was submitted! It was the most exciting moment of my writing journey.
Genetica became Book of Fire, the first book in the trilogy.
How valuable was it to have people to share your writing with?
Looking back, enrolling in the 2015 Curtis Brown Writing for Young Adults/Children course was one of the most valuable steps in my writing journey. More importantly than the writing wisdom and wizardry – though with Catherine Johnson as course leader there was plenty of that – I met a brilliant bunch of like-minded people who became the best friends and support network a writer could want.
Five years later we’re still in daily contact, sharing and supporting the highs and lows of each other’s journeys and lives. Some of us have agents and deals, some of us don’t, but it doesn’t matter because no-one’s success impinges anyone else’s, and everyone’s journey offers a chance to learn.
One of my cohort, Stuart White, started the hugely successful #WriteMentor, the online, accessible, support network for published and unpublished writers alike.
What’s your favourite ever book for young people?
Too hard! I do remember reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe very vividly, and being absolutely filled with wonder that someone had written a door to another world through the back of a wardrobe. It felt as though they’d read my mind, and heard the questions I whispered to myself when the lights were out. It still captures that essence of childhood magic for me.
The Book of Fire series is full of Roman myths and legends! If you could recreate a beast of myth and legend, what would you create? What strengths/skills would it have and why?
Expand this into a map of your own mythological world. Where does your creature live? Who else lives there? Think about setting/time and add as much ‘world detail’ as you can.
We’d love to read what you come up with. Send your stories here: firstname.lastname@example.org
We may even print it in a future issue!
Michelle is a firm believer in magic, and that ancient doorways to other worlds can still be found if we look hard enough. She is also a hopeless scribbleaholic and, when left to her own devices, likes nothing better than to dream up new fantasy worlds in the back of a dog-eared notebook. Doctors say they’re unlikely to find a cure any time soon.
The Book of Fire trilogy is published by HarperCollins HQStories and is available globally now (in English). The final book in the trilogy, Storm of Ash, was released earlier this year. Michelle is represented by Northbank Talent Management, and loves chatting all things book-related on her official website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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