Award-winning author Kiran Millwood Hargrave is reimagining Bram Stoker's classic tale Dracula in her new novel for Bellatrix, Hachette Children's Group's new YA feminist series. She talks to us about writing The Deathless Girls below.
What can readers expect from The Deathless Girls?
An adventurous tale of sisterhood and making your own fate, The Deathless Girls is dark, lush origin story for the so-called 'brides of Dracula', bridging the gaps between myth, history, and magic. It's about persecution and strength, power and hope, and like all my books, a lot about love too.
How and why did you become involved with the Bellatrix list?
The series editor Helen Thomas approached me about Bellatrix in March 2018, and I was adamant I didn't have time. I was working on my first novel for adults, and final edits for my next middle grade book, and was looking ahead to a busy year of further writing projects and edits. It was also a commission, which I was nervous about having never written to demand before, and for a young adult novel, a discipline very different to writing for kids or adults. I was at the Emirates Literary Festival, so held off sending my 'thanks but no thanks' email to my agent due to the time difference, and slowly, my resolve began to wane. I kept re-reading Helen's email, about how Bellatrix aims to give marginalised characters in male-authored classics a voice, how the authors could have complete creative control, and how vital and dynamic they wanted the list to be—and I knew I couldn't let the chance to work with Helen and Hachette on such an ambitious project pass me by. It felt like an opportunity to say something important to a new audience—a chance to challenge myself and grow my work.
This is your first YA novel—were there any challenges involved in writing for this new audience?
Many, most of all tone. YA is a genre and skill all its own, and so I turned to the work of YA fantasy writers I admire—Natasha Ngan, Louise O'Neill, Laini Taylor, Mel Salisbury (and so, so many more!)—and looked at what made their stories tick and shine. I worked and re-worked the opening chapters many times, telling it in third, from different perspectives and places in the narrative, but it wasn't until Lil, one of my twin Traveller sisters, stepped forward to become the narrator that the story started to sing. Walking the line between light and dark is a challenge I face in all my writing, but in YA the lines must be more carefully trodden. The ambition in the book is something I had to give myself permission to expand, inspired by some of the wonderful YA being written today. I found it a very freeing experience, but not without limits—a bit like writing a poem in a strict form, you can often find your rhythm through rules.
How did you go about reimagining Dracula? Did you have any concerns about taking on such a well-known story and characters?
From the beginning, I knew I didn't want to write a retelling. I didn't want to slot my ideas and characters around canon, and feel at every turn I was being restricted by the original text. So this is not a retelling, it's an imagining of what came before Dracula, of how the 'dark sisters', mentioned only briefly on the page, came to be. By writing their origin story I was liberated from feeling beholden to Dracula, and could lift them out of the perhaps more-expected vampire tropes, and make them human. I returned to the folklore that inspired Stoker, looking for new ways in, and interpreted the 'dark sisters' as women of colour. Kizzy and Lil are Romani Travellers, a much persecuted culture hailing from Northern India, where my own family are from. Travellers were enslaved throughout history, and I wanted to look at the impact of this, the identity that was lost, the agency that was fought for. How people become monsters. As ever, I wanted to de-centre whiteness, and allow marginalised narratives to the fore: those of women of colour, persecuted classes and races, queer love stories.
Do you have plans to write more YA?
Absolutely. YA, especially in the UK, gets a lot of stick (as is common for anything where teenagers are the primary consumer) but it's a vibrant community where bold, brilliant stories are being told in bold, brilliant ways, and I want to remain a part of that as writer as well as as a reader. I adored telling this story and have a few ideas ticking away, but first I have books for adults and middle-grade readers to write. I like to let ideas settle and check they stick before committing to them, but I know The Deathless Girls is only the start of my education in writing YA.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut YA novel The Deathless Girls is published by Hachette Children’s Group on 19th September. She is also a judge for the BBC Young Writers’ Award 2019 with First Story and Cambridge University, which reveals its shortlist on 22nd September.