A New Release from A.J. Hartley!
October 12, 2011
Thursday October 13 marks the much-anticipated release of Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact, by my good friend and fellow Magical Words contributor A. J. Hartley. I have read an advanced copy of the book and I can tell you that it is going to be a big hit. It’s written for middle readers (9-12 years old) but it will appeal to readers of all ages. I could tell you more about it, but I think I’d be better off leaving that to A.J. himself. Let me warn you though: He’s British, and so tends to be disturbingly eloquent and charming…
So you’re a kid: a boy of about 11. You’re in the mall in an unfamiliar city, feeling lost, alone and a bit home sick. You look up and you see a bird in one of the plastic trees. You like birds, so you watch it, trying to figure out what type it is. Then there’s a shadow overhead and the little bird gets hits hard by something much bigger, something hawkish but with leathery bat-like wings and the face of… well, if it wasn’t for the cruel-looking beak, you’d say it was the face of a man.
This is how Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact begins, though the voice is different, and oddly enough, it’s how the story began in my head. It was a half dream, I think, a series of images that popped into my head before I fell asleep proper. I liked it. I had no idea where it went from there, but I liked it, and quickly connected it with another idea I had already had, about a boy looking into a mirror and seeing something inside, something beside his own reflection. I put the two ideas together and added a transitional sequence in which the boy chases the strange winged creature through the mall and into a curious shop selling still more curious (curiouser?) mirrors into one of which the flittercrake (for that is what it’s called) has just vanished…
Darwen is my first middle grades book (and will be followed by at least another two in the series). After publishing 6 adult novels, I decided to revisit my roots, remembering what it was like to lose myself in a story that didn’t centre on what I used to call (not so much hopefully as merely inaccurately) grown-ups. I’m not done with adult fiction, but this is more than a change of gears for me: it’s a lot like coming home.
Q: How would you characterize the fantasy world of the story?
A: Silbrica is a series of linked locuses, all different, though they tend to the natural, particularly forests. The links are mystical portals like great shimmering mirrors, but there are other connectors—strange, steam-punky trains which move between smoky, deserted stations, for instance. It’s a magical world, but one with echoes of our own, and it’s in crisis.
Q: Who is your target readership for this book?
A: The official answer to that, I guess is, 9-12 year olds, but I expect the readership to be quite a bit wider than that. It’s a fairly dark fantasy, and I think it will push into the YA and even adult crowd as Harry Potter did. The protagonist will age with subsequent books, as I hope my readers will.
Q: Is it pure fantasy?
A: Nothing ever really is, is it? If it was we’d either not see the point or not understand it at all! No, it’s grounded very much in the real world and in the attendant problems of the real world, perhaps more so than a lot of fantasy which catapults the hero into a new world and leaves him or her there for the duration of the story (as in the Narnia books, for instance). Darwen is a twenty first century school boy, and the world of Silbrica is something he can visit only occasionally. Of course, the worst aspects of that world also want to get into ours, so that creates a different problem…
Q: You’ve written — successfully, I might add — thrillers and epic fantasy. You also write scholarly works when wearing your other professional hat. What was the hardest part of making the transition to writing fantasy for middle grade readers? What did you find most satisfying about that transition?
A: I think the hardest thing for me was becoming confident that I had a viable story that people much younger than me would find exciting. I don’t think I knew that I had that till my agent made the sale. Till then it was very much a leap of faith, and I still find myself watching the few kids I’ve seen reading the book very closely indeed. As for the most satisfying part of the transition, I think I was pleasantly surprised by how much smaller the gap between the books I had written for adults and the book I was writing for younger readers really was. I’d find myself writing a suspense scene or a chase and suddenly realizing “Oh, wait, I’ve done this before and it’s pretty much the same!” Very liberating. That also helped me at the level of theme and emotional realism because I couldn’t think “oh this is just for kids.” That kept the stakes high and made it easy for me to imagine the characters’ predicament for myself.
Q: Like Darwen, you are a Brit living in the states, and were, for a while in Atlanta, yes?
A: 9 years, yes. Well, they say you’re supposed to write what you know, right? Atlanta has so many transplants (as does Charlotte, where I live now) and it sometimes feels like hardly anyone feels completely at home there, though in many ways it’s a wonderful city. For me it’s a backdrop against my character’s rootlessness, his sense of always being out of place. I’ve lived in a lot of different places and that’s a feeling I know very well. It can be very isolating, though that can be a good thing for the hero of a novel: makes him responsible for his own life and actions.
Q: What else are you writing these days, when you’re not working on new adventures for Darwen?
A: I’ve been tinkering with a YA novella about a ghost, which I hope to edit for submission shortly, when I’m finished with Darwen II. I’m also winding up a performance history of Julius Caesar for Manchester University Press and a book on Shakespeare and political theatre for Palgrave. You know, keeping busy…
Q: When will the next Darwen book be out?
A: Fall 2012. The precise date is still being nailed down.