Risingshadow has had the honour of interviewing Paul Kearney about his new fantasy novel, The Wolf in the Attic (Solaris Books, 2016).
Information about Paul Kearney:
Paul Kearney is the critically-acclaimed author of The Monarchies of God and the Sea Beggars series. He has been long-listed for the British Fantasy Award. In the eight years subsequent to the publication of The Way to Babylon, Kearney lived in Copenhagen, New Jersey, and Cambridgeshire, but at present he makes his home a stone's throw from the sea in County Down, with his wife, two dogs, a beat-up old boat, and far too many books.
Information about The Wolf in the Attic:
UK ISBN: 9781781083628
US ISBN: 9781781083628
1920s Oxford: home to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien... and Anna Francis, a young Greek refugee looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work around them.
Anna Francis lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer's wine-dark sea.
But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half-forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is.
That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know.
AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL KEARNEY
Could you tell us something about yourself in your own words?
Well, I’m from Northern Ireland, my father was a butcher and my mother a nurse. I grew up in the countryside, riding horses from an early age, running amok from dawn to dusk. I come from a large family, (my parents had thirteen siblings between them), and there were always a lot of people around, growing up. I spent a lot of my time with a multitude of cousins, getting up to mischief on my grandparents’ farm and in the woods that surrounded it, Despite it being one of the bloodiest periods in my country’s history, it was a pretty idyllic childhood, one that now seems to have more in common with an earlier century. The farm I wrote about in A Different Kingdom was an almost exact portrayal of the place I grew up in. Rural, conservative, generous and judgemental at the same time.
At eighteen I was offered a place at Oxford University, and off I went to study Anglo Saxon, Old Norse and Middle English (Tolkien’s influence). I had written an appalling full-length novel at the age of sixteen and was determined to become a writer, and all through Oxford and after, I was scribbling.
As far as a career went, I was equally determined to be a soldier, and gained my commission from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst after Oxford, becoming an Infantry Lieutenant; but writing was my true vocation, and when first an agent and then a publisher evinced interest in my work, I dropped the rifle and picked up the pen full time. That was in 1991, and I’ve been writing ever since (the soldiering became a weekend thing for a few more years).
I lived abroad for many years, in Denmark and America, before finally coming back to Ulster to settle down. I now live about ten yards from the sea with my wife and dogs, in a remote corner of Ireland, and will probably leave my bones here.
- How did you become interested in writing fantasy fiction?
It was not a choice - truly. I read The Lord of the Rings at twelve, and went on to devour fantasy books by the fistful. It’s hard to believe now, but back then Tolkien was not well known, not where I grew up anyway, and no-one else I knew liked the same books I did. When I first began writing, it seemed only natural to try and create a world for myself the same way Tolkien had – I too tried to create my own languages and histories, and filled endless hardbacked notebooks with vocabulary and chronologies and genealogies. It was doomed to failure, but remained an abiding hobby. Only when I stopped caring about the minutiae of dates and names did I actually begin to think in terms of plot and character, and start to write a real book, which when it came out owed more to Stephen Donaldson than anyone else.
- Your new fantasy novel, "The Wolf in the Attic", will be published soon by Solaris Books. What inspired you to write it?
It was a series of things. I had been to Turkey some years before, and went to Ephesus – I’ve always been interested in Classical Greek history – and as I read up on the more recent history of Asia Minor, as it once was, I came across the story of the Sack of Smyrna, one of the most shameful episodes of the twentieth century, all but forgotten now. It was a gripping story, but one which I did not think I could bring into any book I was then writing, so I put that idea, that knowledge to one side, where it percolated at the back of my brain.
Then a few years ago my father died, and that was a major blow. My brother and cousin and I went on a walking trip along the Ridgeway two months or so after his death. I had been there before, several times, but as those long miles rolled past under our feet, and as we wild-camped on the high chalk downs in the night, the countryside suddenly seemed more significant to me, at the same time more elemental and more poignant.
And one day, while walking the dogs on the beach, I suddenly came up with the character of Anna. She just leaped out of my mind fully created – and right there and then I saw a way to tie all these things together. It was as though they had all been waiting for me to make the connection.
- The events in this novel take place in 1920s Oxford. Did you do any research when you wrote about Oxford?
I lived in Oxford for five years, and I know the city and the land around it pretty well. I have slept out in Wytham Wood several times (though that’s not, strictly speaking, legal). And when I was at the University there, I knew people who had known Tolkien and Lewis, and who regarded them as mere academic colleagues. At the time I was at Oxford, the city still had a lot in common with the era just gone by; it had not changed as much in the intervening years as it has in the last twenty or so. I used to drink in the same pubs which the Inklings frequented, walk the same paths, dine in the same college halls. So it was not too big a leap to imagine the Oxford of the 1920’s.
- Could you tell us something about the protagonist, Anna Francis? What kind of a protagonist is she?
She is, perhaps, the daughter I would like to have had. Precocious, bright, stubborn, high spirited, and courageous. And she and I read many of the same books growing up – E Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, Jules Verne, Kipling. She, too loves the woods and the moonlight, and the open country away from everyday life.
- How does this novel differ from your previous fantasy novels?
I’ve never written a novel in the First Person before, or for that matter in the Present Tense – but as soon as I found Anna’s voice, it seemed entirely natural that this was the way in which the story would be told. Also, this book is on a far smaller stage than most of my earlier work. There are no marauding armies, or attacking empires. The story is at its heart a fable, a fairy tale, and as such it is told on an intimate level, for all that it is concerned with big, eternal themes of good and evil, right and wrong, grief and love.
- What was the most rewarding part of writing "The Wolf in the Attic"? And what was the most challenging part of writing it?
The two were the same. Writing as Anna, an eleven year old girl – getting inside her head and imagining how she would see the world and how she would relate not only to it, but to the people within it. Getting that voice right was key, and when I felt that I had mastered it, it was a tremendous feeling – the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my career. I love the characters from my earlier books, but Anna is far and away the best character I have ever written.
- Is this novel a standalone novel or will there be sequels?
Now there’s a question. The truth is, that I would like nothing more than to keep telling Anna’s story; the book is a stand-alone, but it hints at more things to come, and I for one am incredibly keen to get back into that world, to explain more of the mythology which we were still getting to grips with when the story came to a close, and to follow Anna as she grows older and begins to find out who she really is.
But, publishing being a business, the writing of a sequel depends purely on the success of the first book. If Wolf does not do well, then there will be no more like it. That story will have ended forever.
- Is there anything you'd like to add?
Yes – somebody buy this damned book, because I am keen as mustard to carry on with this story!
And thanks for having me.