As publishing schedules so often dictate, it’s one of the hottest days of the year when I meet Kiran Millwood Hargrave in Oxford to talk about her new, autumn scheduled, middle-grade book The Way Past Winter. The weather is in sharp contrast to the book’s icy setting of Eldbjorn Forest and its "winter that came and never left". When Mila’s brother disappears, she believes he has been taken by the Bear, a hooded stranger of legend. Mila and her sisters follow his trail into the frozen wildlands of the north, to find a way past the eternal winter and bring their brother home. Rich in folklore and magic realism, it’s a captivating adventure with the love of sisters at its heart, and Millwood Hargrave’s most accomplished novel to date. Chicken House will publish in a high-spec gift hardback in October, pairing her once more with illustrator Helen Crawford-White for the striking cover and chapter heads.
Millwood Hargrave confesses she had "second-book syndrome" with this, her third. "I knew I could write a book but this was the first time I’d thought, ‘What do I want readers to take from this?’" she tells me. After several false starts, she "finally got into her stride" on the Isle of Harris, reading about northern islands. "I knew I wanted it to be about sisters because my female friendships are important to me, and I wanted it to be cold, partly because I’ve written two books set in warm places," she laughs. She looked to modern classics like The Wolf Wilder and Northern Lights, "icy books with such warm hearts, that’s what I wanted to do". An environmental theme was important. "I wanted readers to realise about our habitats, the wildness in our world and how we shouldn’t try to tame that."
Magic realism is the genre Hargrave draws most inspiration from "with the language I use, the style of storytelling", and it permeates the story. Northern myths and folklore, from Scandinavia to Russia, informed much of her research. "There’s such texture to them and they’re so dark." She read about the island of Thule, a legendary place in classical and medieval literature, which became a byword for the island furthest north. "A place beyond imagining is how I came to think of it." She needed to create characters who could imagine this place. Her protagonist Mila came through very strongly once the writer realised Thule would be her worst nightmare. "All she wants is to be at home, and in that way she is the most like me of all my heroines. I always felt safest and happiest at home, and preferred my adventures in books."
The best adventurers, she admits, are those who are not content at heart, so to have Mila—so deeply rooted in the forest and family—at the centre of her story offered an interesting challenge. She’s not a natural heroine but "when she’s forced to be brave, for family, she does it". Mila struggles to understand the choices those around her make. "It’s difficult when you’re a child and the world is so much bigger than you want it to be." Mila’s journey becomes a metaphor for leaving childhood behind. "Out in that world, she sees things she could never have seen in the forest. She sees a horizon for the first time." She comes to understand there is "always light and shade in any situation". Showing empathy, "and that the world is different for different people", is key to her writing.
The theme of reuniting family is a thread running through all her work. "It’s about trying to give people the happy ending that I’ve always had. It might be quite a naïve thing to say, but I always think that any children’s book needs an element of hope and family is where I draw the most positive energy from." Sisterhood, and the dynamics between Mila, Sanna and Pipa, is the beating heart of The Way Past Winter, a way of writing about the female friendships so vital to Hargrave’s own life. "In among the tangle of fierce love," she says, "there are insecurities and jealousies... I really wanted to show all that but within the safety net of sisterhood."
Sense of place is vividly realised throughout Millwood Hargrave’s fiction, becoming a presence akin to a character. "It always starts with a map," she tells me. "For The Way Past Winter, I literally drew their path from the forest up to the north." In the age of Google Maps, she says, "we’re constantly trying to push what’s unknown to the edges." She finds this terror of getting lost "fascinating" and relishes throwing her characters into "managed chaos". Islands feature in all three novels, and in her forthcoming adult book. "It’s an accident," she laughs but they do serve her structurally. Islands offer a unique and isolated space and "a person moving through that towards something they need".
The editing process
Our venue is the pub where she wrote her mesmerising début The Girl of Ink and Stars. She began writing poetry in her final year at Cambridge University, going on to a creative writing degree at Oxford. Three poetry collections were published, including retellings of myths and responses to Shakespeare, but she gradually realised that "I wanted to tell stories that were my own, not necessarily about me but ones that were of my own imagining". Her début was rejected by 21 publishers before she got the call from Barry Cunningham of Chicken House. "It did need a lot of work," she admits, and praises editor Rachel Leyshon for her patience as she worked through 10 drafts. She’s keen to talk about that journey of rejection and rewriting to give perspective to what might be perceived as overnight success. The book was a bestseller and multiple award-winner. "A complete shock, a complete haze, but very wonderful. It’s such a testament to what Chicken House was able to do, creating a buzz and such a beautiful package." Her second book The Island at the End of Everything swiftly followed, attracting similar acclaim. Set on the real life leper colony of Culion, it’s "a much quieter book" and she was surprised by the attention it received.
Despite this success, Millwood Hargrave very much sees herself as still learning her craft. "I’m always hoping the next book is the best book. I’m trying to do new things each time. I’m realising what I want from a story, what my reader wants." Her career has developed at whirlwind pace, and shows no signs of slowing. She’s finishing a fourth book for Chicken House and is working on a YA project for Orion, where the brief is to "take a male-authored classic and rewrite it from the perspective of a marginalised character." This spring, she signed a two-book deal with Picador and edits begin on her first adult novel, Vardo, next month. The process of writing for adults is proving liberating, enabling her to "be a little more self-indulgent. In writing children’s books, the character all comes from plot, they are showing you who they are constantly." Adult fiction is more about "subtle moments. You can go into those moments, flex your writing muscle and people will stay with you." But it’s the scope for imagination that will always pull her back to writing for kids. "Middle grade," she says "is my first love and my greatest love."