On writing fantasy – interview by Mary Vensel White

This interview first appeared on the website of top US author Mary Vensel White. Find out more about Mary from her website here

This week, a third book was published under HarperCollins’ new Authonomy imprint. I am rarely tempted by the fantasy genre, but this one looks fantastic. It’s called Brotherhood of Shades and the author, Dawn Finch, has agreed to field a few questions from a fantasy novice such as myself. The book is also classified as YA but like much YA, it will appeal to adults as well. Here’s the book’s description:

From the chaos of Dissolution rose a secret order, a Brotherhood formed to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Adam, a streetwise homeless boy in modern London, knows nothing of the fantastic and precarious world that exists just beyond his reality until he dies cold and alone on the streets of London, aged 14. But he is important and the Brotherhood needs him. His recruitment to their Order takes him on an adventure that spans the worlds of both the living and the dead, traversing time itself as he and a living girl (14 year old witch Edie Freedom) battle to solve a prophetic riddle and save the world. This thrilling and macabre fantasy is set in London, from Tudor times through the Great Fire of London and up to today.

And Dawn’s bio from her website:

Dawn grew up on a London overspill council estate and spent much of her time in libraries. Books were important in her family and she used them as a means of escape and became an obsessive reader. The careers officer asked her, aged twelve, what future she would like. Dawn she said that she wanted to work as a writer and a librarian. She was told to “stop pointless dreaming or you’ll only live to regret it.” A typing course was recommended together with a future in a typing pool.

In an academic publishers in central London, while sorting the unsolicited submissions, Dawn learnt something about how not to prepare a manuscript. Later she worked at St Albans Cathedral as a Research Assistant for the Education Office. This essentially involved taking school children for tours of the Abbey whilst dressed as a Benedictine monk. Dawn later began working in public libraries and helped to establish a large library at her daughter’s school…soon the head teacher convinced her to leave public libraries to run the school library. Since 2003 Dawn has been School Librarian for a large and buzzy primary school taking care of 10,000 books and the children who love them. She also works as a library and reader development consultant and is a member of the London and South Eastern committee of the School Libraries Group and the Society of Authors.

Dawn, congratulations on your first published novel! You seem to have worked a variety of jobs, many of them book-related. Have your employment experiences affected your writing? Will writing become your main job now?
Thank you, it’s all very exciting and still doesn’t feel quite real yet! I suppose when you’ve dreamt of something for so long it is a bit hard to take it in when it finally happens. My past jobs have indeed affected my writing a lot, especially my time working at St Albans Cathedral. A good proportion of Brotherhood of Shades is set there during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, and so I have drawn on my personal experience of the building. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and so have aimed to stay employed in related occupations. One of my first jobs was as an office go-fer in an academic publishers and this taught me a lot about how not to submit a manuscript as I was the one passing them on to readers and editors.

I love working in libraries and have worked in them for almost twenty-four years. Just under a decade ago I moved from public libraries to school and never looked back. I love working with children and it is very rewarding working with an age group that is just finding its feet in the world of books and reading. Spending time with a reluctant or less able reader, and helping them to jump the hurdles to become a happy and enthusiastic reader is the most magical thing.

It would be wonderful to just be a writer and to be able to spend all of my time doing that, but I feel that I would probably miss being around the joyful and enthusiastic kids that I work for.

Who are some of the authors who have influenced you? What are you reading now?

When I was a child I was a huge fan of authors like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken…and I still am! I read a lot of gothic authors like Poe and Stoker and they have influenced me a great deal as I do love a good spooky story. I am a total fraidy-cat with what most people would call “real” horror and I don’t read (or watch) anything along those lines, but I do love a ghost story with plenty of suspense and jumpy moments. As a children’s librarian I tend to primarily read children’s authors as I’m not comfortable recommending books that I have not read… that and they are generally better (no offence!). My current favourites are Marcus Sedgwick, Chris Priestley and Joseph Delaney, and I do enjoy Rick Riordan too for the historical thrill-ride! I read grown-up books in the holidays and was recently bowled over by Alice Hoffman’s Red Garden (I’ve read all of her books and can’t fault her, she’s just amazing) and Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (which is stunning).

As a writer who deals mostly in “realistic” settings, I’m intrigued with the nuts and bolts of the writing process when you create a completely new world with different rules. What were some of the challenges and benefits of working outside an entirely realistic setting?

Ah, working outside reality, now there’s a question! Well, the main thing is to set rules for your world and keep them. I have a style sheet that tells me exactly what my Shades can and can’t do, and that is my bible. This means that no one suddenly ups and does something that will make the reader say “hold on, in chapter four they couldn’t do that!” The beauty is that they are my rules, I can bend them, never break them, but I did set them in the first place! For example if I have a good reason why my character can’t travel over water, then I’d better not put them on a boat in chapter seven unless I’ve invented a solution in chapter six.
The benefits are that if I want to conjure something dramatic up that is beyond the bounds of reality, I can, however I also work in an historical setting and so I have to weave this into a realistic fantasy world without actually changing history!

Brotherhood of Shades seems to have an historical fiction aspect to it as well. How did you research the book?

I have a great passion for history and have grown up in an area rich with history stemming all the way back to the Roman occupation of Britain. I was taken to castles and ancient sites right from babyhood and it has stuck with me.

My job title at St Albans Cathedral was research assistant and I helped to write and research educational material for children (as well as running workshops dressed as a Benedictine monk!) and so I honed research skills there. It is part of a successful librarian’s job to know how to conduct research and to know how effective research is carried out and to impart that knowledge to others, and so I’ve had a lot of practice.

What do you think attracts readers to fantasy, to other-worldly scenarios, to super-human elements in stories?

I’m not a huge fan of sword and sorcery type fantasy and so that does baffle me a bit (I always forget who everyone is with all the mad names!). Personally I prefer to read and write about the world out of the corner of your eye – the secret world that might exist without us knowing about it.

I think that younger readers are drawn to these stories because they still believe in a world where anything is possible. Even when they feel quite grown-up they still have a glimmering little part of their mind where something magical could happen. I think a lot of us grown-ups have that too.

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a dystopian teen book with a co-author, but I can’t say much about that at the moment as our agent has us under a strict shush-code! I’m also working on the last bit of the sequel to Brotherhood. It is set on a remote Scottish island and has a distinctly Steampunk feel to it. I have always wanted to write something featuring glorious Victorian engineering but with a macabre twist, and so that is at the core of Brotherhood 2.

I’m hoping to be doing a lot of lovely festivals and school visits in the coming year and am currently in the process of confirming the first of those.