Q&A with Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Q&A with Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2017 winner Kiran Millwood Hargrave talks about writing her second novel for children.

What is The Island at the End of Everything about?

Set on Culion Island in the Philippines, it follows 12 year old Ami. She lives with her mother, who has leprosy. They are happy and at peace, but this changes when a malicious government official, Mr Zamora, arrives with a team of masked doctors. Culion is to become a leper colony, the largest in the world, and all healthy inhabitants are to be subject to mass migration. Ami is taken from her mother to an orphanage, where she meets a mysterious, honey-eyed girl. Together, they plan to return to the island at the end of everything. It’s about friendship, family, wildness, and hope.

What inspired the book?

The Island at the End of Everything is based on real places and events. About four years ago, I was at a poetry reading and someone read a poem about Culion Leper Colony, and I suppose it was morbid fascination that led me to Google it when I got home. What struck me was both the process of Culion becoming a leper colony - the mass migration and forced separation/segregation of ‘healthy’ and ‘sick',  and my reaction to it. I began to question my interest - the morbid fascination driving it - and realised it was problematic. I wanted to explore the story further, but do it in a way that did not sensationalise illness. I wanted to tell a human story, so I placed a young girl at the heart. Ami herself is loosely based on my husband as a child. He saw, and sees, the world in a very unusual way. He was, and is, intensely kind. Ami needed that kindness, that slant-wise way of making sense of what happens to her. She was a fascinating character to write.

What message do you want readers to take away from the book?

To beware of things sold as being ‘for the greater good’ - the human cost is often severe. Also that reducing people to, and defining people by, only one trait - their illness, religion, gender, race - makes it too easy to dehumanise them. Look deeper, don’t simplify, and see what you can learn - even from your enemies. I also think that classic trope of children’s literature, kindness, is key.

Has your background writing poetry helped you to write children’s books?

It certainly hasn’t hurt. Poetry is about distilling thoughts, feelings, experiences into their most precise form - it’s a process of translation. I aim for my prose to be a balance of lyricism and pace: to not reach for the most obvious word, but for the one that best describes what I’m trying to communicate. Poetry has also taught me not to be precious - I’m a brutal editor of my work and enjoy being edited brutally. I also err towards brevity, which suits children’s books in particular. I enjoy getting to the point, and using unusual language to get there.

How has winning the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for your debut The Girl of Ink & Stars affected your career?

Immeasurably. For a start, The Girl of Ink & Stars is Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month again, which is the greatest gift to sales any author could hope for. It means visibility: window displays, events, increased and lovely correspondence with booksellers and readers. But most of all, it has given me confidence that I have written something worth people’s time. As someone who struggles with self esteem, that has been the greatest joy of all, especially as it was so unexpected. My ambition has grown further: I aspire for my best book to always be my next book.

Is it daunting to release a second book after the amazing success of your debut?

The Island at the End of Everything is so entirely its own thing, I couldn’t really worry about people comparing it to my first. They are both female-led adventure stories set on islands, but Ami and Isabella are as different as two girls could be, and their stories are too. The scale of The Girl of Ink & Stars’ success took me entirely by surprise, so it’s impossible to assume that The Island at the End of Everything will have success in the same ways. Personally, I prefer it: it’s quieter but kinder, smaller-scaled but bigger-hearted. I can only hope people love it as much as I loved writing it. I hope it finds its readers.

How is writing a second book different to writing a debut?

I actually wrote the first draft of The Island at the End of Everything while The Girl of Ink & Stars was on submission to publishers. My typing was punctuated by the ping of my email notifications, bringing me rejection after rejection. It was fuelled by it, too - I wrote the draft in three weeks. So at that time I didn’t even think I had a debut - only a first story that would end up in that famous first-manuscript drawer you hear authors talking about. In a way, I’m having second book syndrome now, with my third. It’s easier because you’ve done it (finished a book) before, harder because you expect it to be easier. You also have deadlines, and an editor waiting - though knowing that helps me.

What are you working on next?

Poetry-wise, I have my fourth collection coming out with Bloomsbury in Autumn, and I’m starting to write poems regularly again. I’ve started my third children’s book three times, and so far it’s third time lucky! Set in the dark ages, in a Slavic wilderness, in deep winter, it follows three sisters going on a dangerous journey to save their brother’s life. I’m working to find the balance of myth and truth - The Girl of Ink & Stars fell squarely on the fantasy side, whereas The Island at the End of Everything is reality based. I think this wants to be magical realism - I’m writing my way into it, listening out for its voice. It’s wonderful, the moment your story finally tells you want it wants to be, rather than the other way around. It’s a sort of magic.

The Island at the End of Everything (Chicken House) is out now.