Interviews

Interview with Michelle Kenney

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.

Writing Prompt:

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: paperboundmagazine@outlook.com

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.

Don’t forget you can catch up with the latest issues of PaperBound Magazine here – and they’re all completely free!

Bookshelf

Our Winter Bookshelf

Take a look at our winter warmer bookshelf, filled with each of our own book recommendations for books to read in winter. From novels to short story collections, and middle grade to YA, we hope there’s something you can get stuck into over winter here, or maybe even find something new …

You can also see this page and lots more recommendations in our Winter 2020 Issue, which can be found here.

© PaperBound Magazine

Short stories

Winning story: ‘Winter’ by Anne Manson

We are thrilled to share ‘Winter’ by Anne Manson – the winning story featured in the Winter 2020 Issue which you can read in full here – on our featured content section of PaperBound. Get ready for a thrilling atmospheric story that’s bound to give you chills …

Wind howled across the frozen prairie, raising spiraling plumes of snow.

Bishop stared out the tiny cabin window into the wilderness, then emptied the flour bag into the week-old fat of the frying pan. It was the last of her food. She set it on the wood stove.

Above the howl of the wind rose another howl—a series of them. They were closing in on her.

At first, they’d simply gathered around the cabin at night, sniffing at the door. Later they’d got bolder, hurling themselves at the exterior with ravenous cries, while she stood terrified, shaking, clutching the cast iron pan—her only defense—as the cabin door shuddered under their weight.

Daytimes, they disappeared, and she wondered if her mind was playing tricks on her. She felt as though she’d been here forever, as though she was light years away from home. All alone. Sometimes, she even thought she felt a familiar, barely detectable vibration under her feet. It was hard to know what was real and what wasn’t.

As a precaution, she’d run around the perimeter of the cabin, squatting and urinating in the brilliant snow. Father had told her about a scientist who’d done that—marking his territory to keep them away—a vague memory from the mists of time. But they didn’t seem to notice. She remembered something else, something about the scientist altering his diet. Had he eaten mice? She would have tried it—tried anything. But there wasn’t a single sign of life in that white desert. Except for them.

Even the nights they didn’t come, she sat awake, sleepless, by the cooling wood stove, the iron pan in her lap, waiting, starting at any unfamiliar sound. During the day, she gazed out the window in a sleep-deprived fog, occasionally slipping into a blessed doze.

Eventually she made a plan. She took apart the chair, cut strips from the legs, soaked them in water and bent them, painstakingly forming an oval with a tapered end. She soaked cords from the hammock in fat and wove them across the frame. Snowshoes.

She spent endless hours pondering, mountains or prairie? Open plain or wooded slopes? They could bring her down in a flash in the open. And the mountains were covered in pines—she could climb a tree. But how long would she last? They would wait her out. And in the end, what were the chances of finding anyone to help her up there? Nil. She’d have to go across the prairie.

Bishop ate the greyish, floury sludge straight from the pan, staring out the window at the first glimmer of dawn—no rosy sunrise, but a lightening of the black landscape into a charcoal grey. She finished, put the pan away, banked the stove, and set about putting on every piece of clothing she had. By the time she was done, her shirt was damp with sweat and she could barely move. Last of all, she tied the snowshoes tightly to her boots.

She eased the cabin door open, but the wind caught it and slammed it hard against the exterior wall. A heavy mist of snow blew in and settled on the floor. She pulled her scarf up over her mouth. Then she summoned all her strength and heaved the door closed again. She might need to come back here.

She took a last look at the cabin’s small wooden overhang, the snow-covered wood pile, the thin trail of dying smoke from the chimney, and felt a pang. At least it had protected her for a while.

Then she turned and stared out into the grey, clouded light—the sun, a muted silvery glow on the horizon. To her right, the west, and the massive peaks of the mountains—sharp, snow-covered pines, spiking the grey sky. To her left, east, and the barren, white plain.

A chorus of howls rose from the mountains and her heart shot to her throat. She shouldn’t have used bacon fat to soak the rope for her snowshoes. It was like laying a trail for them. But what could she do now? She’d needed to make them waterproof.

She set off across the prairie, heading toward that silvery, clouded sun. She tripped and fell on her first few steps and terror rose in her gorge. What if the snowshoes didn’t work? But she figured out how to lift the tips with each step so they didn’t catch, and soon she settled into an uneasy, careful jog, her heart racing, her legs aching numbly from lack of exercise. She kept her eyes fixed on the rising sun. East. She’d have to keep her wits about her so she didn’t end up going in circles. Sun ahead. Mountains behind. Fingers crossed.

East. East. East. The sun edged along the horizon at a low angle. There was so little light at this time of year. When was sunset? Three? A little later? It only gave her six hours or so. Her inner clothes were soon drenched with sweat, her face, hands and feet, rigid with cold. She was fiercely thirsty. She stopped and raked her gloves over the frozen earth, stuffed snow in her mouth, gagged on the bits of grit, then scraped up some more. She pulled off her gloves and sucked on her numb fingertips. She couldn’t afford to lose them. A toe or two, even the tip of her nose, fine. But not a finger. Please.

There was still no sign of a living soul. No houses, no road. Maybe she should have stayed and starved in the cabin. The scarf around her mouth was frozen rigid. The winter air passed over it and raked her lungs with every breath. She stuffed her fingers back into the gloves, looked behind her, held her breath, and listened. No howls. No sounds at all over the wind. No low grey figures running through the waist-high mists of whirling snow. The cabin was long gone—vanished into the horizon. But she couldn’t see far. And they were clever. They might well be hunting her silently. Or merely waiting for her to tire and fall.

She set her jaw, lifted her aching legs, and set off again, this time keeping the low sun more or less on her right, to the south. It must be close to midday now. She stuffed down thoughts of panic and replaced them with anger. Yes. Rage would keep her warm. She untied the makeshift spear she had on her back and clutched it in her right hand. She wasn’t going down without a fight.

At the end, the sun was passing behind her, hovering on the edge of the horizon, the landscape all frozen shadow, and there was still no sign of human habitation. Why hadn’t she tried the mountains? She could have climbed a tree and rested. Her head was ringing. She had to hold herself upright. If she turned quickly or tilted her neck, the horizon spun round. She couldn’t feel her toes or fingers. She knew she should stop and eat more snow, but she feared if she squatted down, she’d tumble over and never get up again. She plodded forward, her legs numb with pain, her head reeling, using the spear as a walking stick.

Occasionally she thought she saw a light, heard a voice, but then it would vanish. She really was imagining things. Maybe everything was in her mind—the snow, the ravenous howls, the endless tundra. All she knew for sure was that she had no compass and night was falling. And the frozen earth was hard as rock—no way to make a snow cave, no wood for a fire.

It was then she heard them. Not the long-accustomed desolate howl—rather a chorus of joyous yips and barks.

They’d found her.

She ran, staggering wildly forward, trying to stay upright, as their hungry cries came closer and closer. She felt nothing but ache, saw nothing but grey whirls of snow, heard the eternal wind that grew and grew in her mind with the throbbing beat of her heart. Louder and louder, filling her head, like a relentless engine.

Suddenly she felt a stab of pain, glimpsed the grey mouth clamped on her leg and knew they’d got her. She fell, skidding forward. Immediately she felt a massive weight on her back. She screamed, her head reeling. She couldn’t move, spasms of agony in her leg, explosions of noise all around, that screaming roar in her head.

Then, nothing but black.

Bishop opened her eyes. Everything had turned still and white. So, what she’d heard was true—this was what you saw before you died.

Then she became aware of her throbbing leg and pounding head. And something else. That long-familiar hushed vibration underneath her, the smell of disinfectant and filtered air. She closed her eyes, wished she was back in the cabin. Out alone on the tundra, even. Anywhere but here.

“Congratulations, Bishop. The Committee felt that was a pass.” The voice was neutral, impassive.

She turned her head painfully. He was sitting next to her bed. His face, pocked with old acne scars, his green uniform, the pulsing, blueish screen in the upper corner of his wire rim glasses.

“Ingenious to mark the perimeter with urine. Unfortunately, they only respect that if you’ve eaten mice.” He didn’t look at her, didn’t take her hand. It was as though he didn’t even know her.

“What?” Bishop’s throat was painfully dry.

“You have to eat mice—that’s the wolf diet—in the arctic, that is. They smell it in the urine. That’s what keeps them away. I told you that. You didn’t remember?”

She stared at him. “There weren’t any blasted mice.”

“No mice?” He glanced at his watch. “Dear me. I’ll make a note of that.” His left eye flicked left and right, and a miniscule line of text rolled across the lens of his glasses.

Bishop wondered how the Committee would feel if she throttled him.

“In any case, no time for regrets. I suggest you prepare for stage two. You’ll have a week or so for…” He gestured at her injured leg with distaste. “And then…well, Bishop, we’re hopeful Spring may go a bit better. In the meantime, at least you’ve passed Winter.” He showed his teeth—his version of a smile.

Bishop stared at his yellowed canines. He was mistaken about the mice. It wouldn’t have made any difference. There was no escaping real wolves.

Anne has a Masters in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Her first novel, ‘Lobster Wars’, is a thriller about two boys who find a dead body on a small island off the coast of Maine. Her second, ‘Dark Sun Rising’, is about a girl accused of murder at the time of the American Revolution. You can keep up to date with Anne by visiting her website or following her on Twitter.

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