Michelle Kenney (@MKenneyPR) was on our online Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course in 2015, and this year signed a three book deal with HQ Digital for her Book of Fire trilogy. We talked to Michelle about her approach to world-building, and how she’s kept in touch with her fellow Curtis Brown Creative students since her course finished in 2015.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit more about your debut?
Book of Fire is a dystopian adventure with the medieval Voynich Manuscript mystery at its heart. It follows the journey of feral twins Eli and Talia, who live in a secret forest idyll ‘Arafel’. They are survivors of biochemical warfare, which has scarred the earth following a Great War of 2025, and known as Outsiders. Although the War has left its mark: Eli has been born into a world of silence while Talia has inherited a dangerous legacy passed down by her forefathers.
The novel opens with an unexpected forest raid, forcing Talia and Max, her childhood friend, into a desperate mission to rescue her family whilst also protecting the sacred Book of Arafel. While inside the domes, Talia makes life-changing discoveries, and an unexpected ally, in the form of Insider August, who challenges everything she believes in. With the clock ticking, Talia must decide what she is prepared to sacrifice in order to save her family.
What is it about the fantasy genre that you’re drawn to as a writer? Have you always wanted to write in this genre? I do love fantasy, and right now I can’t wait to grow as much as I can within the YA Fantasy world, if it’ll have me. I am drawn to the never-ending possibility of fantasy worlds which is why Book of Fire is a fusion of Roman history, the incredible Voynich Manuscript and the odd mythological creature (or two). I liked to put the story first, let it evolve and then decide where it ‘fits’, but it’s the endless possibility of fantasy worlds that I find magnetic.
There’s a lot of talk in fantasy writing circles about the importance of world building – how do you go about drawing radically new worlds for your readers? There is probably a very different process for each and every fantasy writer. For myself, it’s all about knowing my fantasy character. Once I’m inside her head and ‘in her moment’ I don’t find it hard to see through her eyes. And the more I look the more I see. It’s just a case then, of capturing what she sees on paper. Accessibility and relateability are always a natural check, but I think we’re all drawn to pace, dramatic settings, and colourful plots. I thoroughly loved relating the detail in Isca Pantheon, right down to a certain fluorescent cat!
Who have been your major influences and when you set out to write Book of Fire? Any authors who you feel particularly inspired by, or who have helped you work out your own writing?
I love reading right across the fiction spectrum. John Green is a huge YA inspiration, as is Sarah Crossan, Jessie Burton, Rainbow Rowell and Cassandra Clare. I’ve also had a pretty consistent love affair with the Brontes, Jane Austen, E M Forster and Ian McEwan throughout my life. Catherine Johnson also deserves a special mention here. Catherine was my course tutor when I studied with CB, and was pretty amazing both on and off the course. Although I workshopped a later novel on the YA novel-writing course, Catherine also provided advice and support when I got the contract for Book of Fire, which I really appreciated.
What stage in the writing process were you when you joined the course? How long has Book of Fire been in the making?
Book of Fire was already on submission when I started the CB course with my second novel. It took about 8 months to write and I edited it for about another 6 months afterwards before submitting it to agents. Thankfully, it seemed to touch a chord and a number of agents were interested – Chloe Seager’s offer came in pretty swiftly, and signing with Diane Banks Associates was a very special moment.
During the course at CBC How did you find the workshopping process, and your individual sessions with Catherine? How did you find the online format?
My cohort was a very dedicated, supportive writing group, and the workshopping and individual sessions were great for focusing thoughts and showing up weak areas. The online format was also perfect for me as I live in Devon with young family, so travelling to London to take part in a course wasn’t really an option. My fellow scribblers always ready to spark ideas and give that extra 10% to ensure we all had maximum feedback. If anything I almost had too much feedback, but Catherine was always great at focusing our manuscript priorities.
Could you tell us a little bit more about ‘The Scribblers’ blog you’ve organised with some of your CBC group?
One of my Scribbler friends, Stuart White, is the mastermind behind the blog, he’s brilliant at organising the rest of us! But we do all try to contribute regularly to keep the content fresh, active and relevant. It has a twofold objective – to chart our own writing journeys, and more importantly, to reach out to other writers who might be going through similar trials and tribulations to offer useful competitions, writing development opportunities and that all important hand of writerly friendship.
And what’s next for you – is there a sequel to Book of Fire in the works?
Yes definitely! I was lucky enough to sign a Trilogy deal for Book of Fire, so I’m currently working on book two, with half an eye on book three. And I can honestly say all that all the late nights, set backs and dark moments of doubt have been worth it. The moment one person believes in your story enough to offer representation/publication is so amazing, and I will be forever grateful to my fab agent, Chloe Seager, and Editor, Hannah Smith, for combining forces to pull Book of Fire into marketable shape (with just about the coolest cover I’ve seen). I really hope everyone enjoys Book of Fire as much as I loved writing it, as Talia’s feral adventure has only just begun.
Book of Fire (Harper Collins) was published in August and can be purchased here.
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