Author Spotlight: Michelle Kenney (BOOK OF FIRE)
Michelle is a firm believer in magic, and that ancient doorways to other worlds can still be found if we look hard enough. She is also a hopeless scribbleaholic and, when left to her own devices, likes nothing better than to dream up new fantasy worlds in the back of a dog-eared notebook. Doctors say they’re unlikely to find a cure any time soon. In between scribbling, Michelle love reading, running, attempting to play bluegrass and beach treasure-hunting with her two daughters (dreamers-in-training).
le holds a LLB (hons) degree, an APD in Public Relations and is an Accredited Practitioner with the CIPR (with whom she’s won awards for Magazine & PR work). But she’s definitely happiest curled up against a rainy window, with her nose in a book.
Book of Fire is the first in a new YA Fantasy Trilogy published by HarperCollins HQ. City of Dust, Book 2, was published October 2018 (digital) and December 2018 (paperback), and Storm of Ash, the final instalment was published in December 2019 (Digital) and February 2020 (Paperback)
Welcome to the Hive, Michelle. Let’s start with the basics: dazzle us with an elevator pitch! Why should readers check out your work?
Hi Fantasy Hive and thanks so much for having me!
‘Life outside the domes is not possible. At least that’s what Insiders are told. Twins Eli and Talia shouldn’t exist. They’re Outsiders. Their home is a secret. Their lives are a secret. Arafel is a secret. Until a chance encounter changes everything…’
The Book of Fire series follows Talia, a wild girl surviving as a hunter-gatherer in a treehouse village valley, after a biochemical Great War has destroyed most of the world. There are two communities: a sealed off scientific population who believe the outside world to be poisoned, and a treehouse-dwelling community of foragers who believe they are the only Great War survivors.
HQ Stories also called the trilogy a dystopian adventure with a medieval heart! The action is also set in and around a war-torn ruined Exeter, and with plenty of mythology, history, action and romance, it is often dubbed ‘Hunger Games meets Mythology,’ or ‘Percy Jackson meets The Bone Season’.
Congratulations on the completion of your trilogy! How does it feel having reached the end?
Thank you so much, and I think I’ve felt every emotion there is since completing the series!
Storm of Ash was a complete rollercoaster of a Book 3, there was a web of subplots to conclude, complex relationships to work through and of course, a final epic battle to navigate – and while I like action scenes, this one involved the mother of all mythical creatures! Suffice to say I had my work cut out.
But I think the hardest part was leaving my wild girl and her new world behind. You can’t write nearly 300k words about a feral character without growing a little attached, and the Talia I left behind at the end of Storm of Ash was very different to the girl who started out in Book of Fire. It was also exciting to finally pit her against Cassius and his army of myths, a fight that had been waiting for three books, and watch a new world emerge…
But part of writing is also knowing when to leave the room, and it was the right time to move on to something new, without entirely closing the door.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Talia is a feral, tree-running wild girl with a serious talent for tree-flying (running through trees) and using a sling-shot, so she’s far cooler than I’ll ever be. But if I did end up in such a reality I would be a Ranger, warrior of the wilderness, specialising in hunting the monsters that threaten the edges of civilisation! I would also use any available sorcery to boost my speed and agility with my broad-sword (weapon of choice).
We wouldn’t want to tangle with you, Michelle!
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (For example, in silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Intense planner or is your system more organic?) Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I’d love to play music as I write, and I’m in awe of writers who do this, but for me the rhythm of notes interferes with the rhythm of words. But I definitely write to plenty of coffee and Maltesers!
I also have a trusty notebook in which I draw out a rough ‘plot plan’ for the next 10k words, but there’s a lot of room for manoeuvring between points. I also draw relationship plans and make a note of key character attributes because eye colour tends to wander if I don’t! Ultimately, I’m a bit of a ‘plantser’ (mix of plotter and pantser).
When I’m drafting I try to cover 1000 words a day, but I don’t worry if I’m having more of a thinking day. Equally, when editing, I can edit up to 4/5000 words a day, but again I don’t push myself if one scene requires extra work. I think it’s better to focus on the work that is needed, rather than get too hung up on word counts.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy influences?
I have so many! I was a bookworm as a child, and loved all kinds of books including those by popular authors such as Anne McCaffrey and Ursula Le Guin. But perhaps the most influential book for me was Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah.
Z for Zachariah was the very first dystopian novel I ever read at the influential age of 13, and at that time it felt as though it changed everything. Before then, I’d read a range of popular childhood authors including CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and a lot of Enid Blyton! But this one story turned everything on its head – a reimagining of a world after an apocalyptical war, where the race for survival is uppermost and no-one is who they first seem, felt so exciting and unique. Afterwards, I actively sought books that gave that same thrill. I think part of the reason I love YA Fantasy, is that it’s brave and unafraid of taking chances, or of asking the difficult questions.
Are there any writers or creators whom you’d love to collaborate with?
Oh this is such a tough question! There are many authors I admire hugely including Victoria Schwab, Madeline Miller, Natalie Haynes, Samantha Shannon and Katharine & Elizabeth Corr – but my own process is pretty insular, I don’t tend to share a world until I’ve explored it completely, so I think the collaborative process might be quite a challenge for me. However, I would love to be a fly on the wall and watch how these (and many more) writers work and create. I also really like the idea of mixing worlds, for example, to introduce one of my feral characters to eg Bex Hogan’s Viper world, and watching what happens next!
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I go easy on myself. I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer to feel under pressure to produce the same number of words, within a set time, every day. Some days the flow is there, others it isn’t and those are the self-care days for me. I tend to slash my word target dramatically, work on something else or go for a walk, whatever my head needs most that day. This becomes harder near deadline, but as book writing is a marathon and not a sprint, it’s important to maintain healthy rules for yourself.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you for your trilogy? Was there a particular aesthetic for each book you hoped they’d portray?
I was very lucky with my book covers, HQStories did a brilliant job!
For Book of Fire, the team researched the medieval ‘Voynich Manuscript’ within the story and actually used some of the drawings for the burning book which really impressed me.
For City of Dust, the blue door represents the gates to the city of Exeter which features a lot in the second book, albeit two hundred years in the future!
And for Storm of Ash, the tree is the same Great Oak Talia climbs at the beginning of Book of Fire to look at the domes, and all marks the final resting place for one of her closest friends (no spoilers).
I love the fact the Publishers really tried to represent some of the key features and themes throughout the series, and that the covers work well as a series too.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I’m Devon-based so very lucky with the environment I have right on my doorstep – it’s a source of great inspiration, and escape too when needed.
Usually, if I have a self-care or ‘between edits’ day, my husband and I take our girls (11 & 9) either to the local beach for some treasure-hunting or to Dartmoor, both of which are favourite thinking spots too. We also like to spend time in our garden, weather-allowing, and our latest project is building a rustic fire-pit for summer evening marshmallow roasting!
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
After spending three books writing ancient mythological creatures, I think I would choose a Draco-Chimera. In Storm of Ash, the mother of all mythological creatures is a Draco (dragon) Chimera hybrid and very intelligent. She is pretty formidable and just the sort of creature I’d like to call my steed – and friend – in battle.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but under appreciated or obscure.
The Method by Juli Zeh: a dystopian world in which oppressive mass media controls, personal choices incur fines, and being attracted to someone with the wrong genetics is a crime! It’s conformism dressed up as utopian progress, and made me think long after I finished it.
Finally, can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’ve just submitted a draft to my agent (hooray) so it’s currently at fragile, newborn stage.
However, for Book of Fire readers: ancient history and mythology definitely play a role in my new wip, as do a gang of feisty, independent characters! They have definitely kept me on my toes the past few months so please keep everything crossed, and keep watching my social media channels for news..
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thanks so much for having me, I’ve had a great time! 🙂