Author Interview: Celine Kiernan

Celine Kiernan is a fantastic Irish author whose books have won may awards. Her biography states that she has spent a lot of time working in the film business and moving between USA, Germany and Ireland. Her Moorehawke trilogy is particularly awesome and her newest book, Into the Grey, recently won the 2013 Readers Association of Ireland Award. You may find her here.  Her books can be bought at any good bookstore.

  1. 1.         Tell us about Into the Grey. How would you categorize it? Are the target audience teenagers or is it a crossover novel that will appeal to both adults and adolescents?

 I never write with a specific audience in mind, so when writing Into the Grey I didn’t think, ‘yes, Teens will like or appreciate this’ or ‘oh, I’d better tone that down a bit for a younger audience.’ I actually always write to explore themes that fascinate or bother me (which, I think, is probably why all my books are so different to each other)

The way in which I explore those themes though –through fantasy, featuring mostly young protagonists, and using all the adventure, horror, sci-fi, mythology stuff that I myself adore—seems to appeal to teenagers, and in fact I think the themes themselves do too. In my experience teenagers are far deeper thinking than is regularly portrayed. Through my work I come in contact with many kids, from all walks of life, and they are, for the most part, hungry for discussion and deeply questioning—after all, your teen and early adult years are possibly the most questioning and fascinated period of anyone’s life. If you could read some of the astounding e-mails I’ve received from young adults, and hear their passionate engagement with the deeper side of what it means to be alive and be part of this world, your heart would soar.

But in answer to your question, I think this kind of duality to the writing – the mix of chewy genre stuff and exploration of personal thematic interests – might be what gives Into the Grey its cross generational appeal?

SO, long answer short,  Into the Grey  = YA/ADULT cross over!

2. The theme for this month on our blog is Horror and Halloween. Do you find it challenging to write stories that are truly scary in the age of cynics and disbelievers?

 Well, I don’t ever set out to scare (and indeed, it always surprises me to find that my work is considered scary! The idea, for example, that Into the Grey would have kept folks awake at night, or caused them to only read it during the day astounds me! (But also it kind of makes me rub my hands together in glee a little bit. How very cool!)

But I love  the grit and thrill of writing about the supernatural and the many options this gives for a sidelong glance at the bigger themes of mortality and fear and humanity’s tinyness in the face of history/death etc So in a way ghosts and werewolves, and the like, are a way for me (and therefore the reader) to explore life’s big terrors without having to look them directly in the eye.

I think possibly that’s the answer to why  even in this age of cynics and disbelievers— (long may they thrive)—some supernatural stuff continues to prompt a reaction. If a scene reaches down inside you and grabs you in the place where your real fears and insecurities hide, if it pokes your brain in the places you’d rather leave sleeping, then its going to invoke a reaction in you—regardless of whether or not you believe in ghosts. What those fears may be differs greatly from person to person, of course, and so you can’t write to the audience, you have to write to your own disconcertions, and hope they  also resonate with someone else, somewhere, somehow.

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3. Traditional children’s literature seems to have protected children from the harsher realities of life. Some of the examples would be Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars which is about the holocaust but it is approached in a rather tame manner and famously, The Hobbit where several important events occur when Bilbo has fainted. As a writer, would you write conscious of your audience or do you think it is important to be true to the story no matter what the age group of the readers?

 Well, I won’t address this question in relation to Lois Lowry’s work which I haven’t read, nor to the Hobbit as I think my Hobbit loving daughter and husband would kill me. So in relation to my own work — as I said, I don’t write for a specific audience (very frustrating for my publishers, I’m sure) consequently  I’ve  never felt the need to censor myself in the writing of anything. But it’s also true that over the course of five large books, all of which have dealt with heavy heavy stuff and complicated characters, I’ve only been asked to remove one thing as having been inappropriate to the publisher’s intended audience. At the time I was concerned that I wouldn’t be capable of dealing with the themes I wanted to without that scene. But when I realised those themes could be dealt with and handled another way (in fact a much better, far more accessible way) I was OK letting it go.

I don’t like the idea of disturbing or frightening people purely for the sake of it (I hate torture porn, for example) but I think  if you’re going to handle difficult subjects, then depicting the truth of those subjects is important . I don’t know why one would bother if  you weren’t willing to do so.

So when I depict violence, for example—which I do regularly because violence is inherent to this world— it is real violence, with real consequences and not the cartoon violence that regularly features in kids TV shows or in books.  To me showing ‘pretend’ consequence-less violence is a terrible, damaging thing.  When violent things happen in my books, the protagonists are physically damaged and they remain damaged until the time it takes for wounds to heal; they are also mentally damaged.

Wynter spends a good deal of time in The Crowded Shadows afraid and uncertain of herself after having narrowly escaped an attempted rape, for example. This is reflective of how I felt after something similar happened to me (I spent a lot of time locked in bathrooms and with the curtains drawn afraid for folks to know I was home) It shook me to find myself like this, and prior to it I had considered myself a strong person. I literally didn’t recognise myself. Wynter’s reaction to assault is a realistic (and for some, therefore, unpalatable) depiction of how violence can affect strong people. When threatened with violence, some people are shaken and derailed. Suffering  through that fear, being paralyzed by it, and somehow continuing on and getting things done  is as much an act of bravery as picking up a sword and facing your attacker. (as an aside, in the genre world’s justifiable hunger for ‘strong female characters’ I wish this quieter type of strength was acknowledged and celebrated a little more. )

Also, when my characters live in violent worlds they become violent. Christopher, Razi, Jonathon and Alberon are all in one way or another unconsciously violent men due to the manner in which they were raised—and this affects their lives and their relationships in a multitude of ways. This, again, is realism which some readers find hard to parse in context of what a ‘hero’ is supposed to be.

I’d also much rather read a book that shows the reality of war, than the warnography of much of the combat literature which is available. I include fantasy, sci-fi  etc here. Whether it’s on another planet or in an elfin kingdom or in modern day Afghanistan, a war story is a war story is a war story and we need to be mindful of what we’re conveying when we written them—and often what we convey is too far from the truth. On a personal level there’s nothing manly or redemptive or healing about war –  the sooner young people learn this the sooner they may learn how to settle our many differences without recourse to the fist or the gun.

So in short, I feel sometimes that while  today’s young adult and children’s literature often feels like it is handling ‘dark’ subjects, it is sometimes in a reductive manner which (in my opinion) does little to improve  young people’s understanding of the subject in question. Certainly for younger readers things need to be softened slightly and presented gently, but I don’t believe you have to lose nuance or veracity in order to remain accessible.

4. In the same vein of thought and as evidenced by current children’s literature, do you think contemporary society defines children differently than the past which saw children whose innocence need to be protected from reality?

 I think I’d need a far broader understanding and knowledge of children’s literature to answer that question with any authority! I’m not going to bullshit you by offering any kind of  literary reply. But I’ll just say, my grandparent’s generation and those who came before mostly left school at 12 (if they were lucky enough to be there at all) and entered the harsh realities of the workplace where they worked, often in terrible conditions and for bad pay for the rest of their lives. There are places and societies all over the world today where children’s lives are a non-stop grind of labour, war, famine and  desperation. What golden age of the preservation of children’s innocence are we harking back to here? And which decidedly small group of privileged children are we looking to protect, and from what?

I love the fact that books can be pure entertainment and fun and sparkle and mindless buzzing happiness –  it is good to have that gift and joy. But if books are also a doorway to the wider world, then maybe we should be brave enough to treat them as such. When we’ve decided to tell the truth in a story, we should tell good, strong versions of it, proper versions that kids can do something with. As adults we don’t have all the answers and very often we’re scared of the very subjects we’re supposed to be guiding kids through, because what if the truth hurts them? and what is the truth anyway? The world is so shifting and filled with shades of grey and who are the good guys? and what is the right way to live? and how can I get kids to understand any of this when I can’t understand it myself? I think that might be what scares us most – what if I’m asked a question I don’t have the answer to? What if there IS NO ANSWER? – but surely the honest exploration of unanswerable questions is, in and of itself, a kind of discovery? Far better than silence anyway. Far better than empty pretence.