This week we’re delighted to welcome Kiran Millwood Hargrave to Gobblefunked. A poet, playwright and author, Kiran has just released – yesterday in fact! – her stunning debut book for young adults, The Girl of Ink & Stars. Here, Kiran tells us about finding her creative voice and letting the world hear it.
I never meant to write a book.
It seems ridiculous to say that now, but it’s true. I always loved reading – perhaps this is an understatement – I lived to read, but I was too risk-averse to ever want to write myself. I studied English, Drama and Education at Cambridge University, with every intention of either teaching, or doing a law-conversion. I was clinically depressed throughout my undergraduate degree, and all I wanted was to feel safe, to have a future where I was secure and satisfied reading other people’s stories about other people’s adventures.
But then, I met someone: an artist, making a living painting huge, magical images. And I realised I was more than just admiring: I was jealous. So when my director of studies (DoS) mentioned my college was hosting a major Shakespeare conference, I put my hand up and pitched an ekphrastic project. My partner would make images in response to Shakespeare, and I would write poetry in response to the images. My DoS said yes.
“… all I wanted was to feel safe, to have a future where I was secure and satisfied reading other people’s stories about other people’s adventures.”
Now I had a problem. I had never written a poem before, let alone a pamphlet, but while I often bemoaned my impulsiveness, I secretly knew I could do it. Thanks to my family, poetry wasn’t some highfalutin, inaccessible corner of literature. It was vital. I grew up on Eliot and Plath, Larkin and Hughes. My father had wanted to be a poet in his youth, and my mother read me Beowulf. Not loving poetry wasn’t an option, and as I embarked on the Shakespeare project – which we titled Scavengers – my first step was to read more, and read contemporary. Then, I wrote.
Scavengers was flawed, but it was a start. We toured the resulting pamphlet and exhibition to Tokyo, and did a few literary festivals. This brought me to the end of my final year at Cambridge, and it was clear to me that I could not pursue law, or teaching, or anything except writing. This came as a surprise to precisely no one but myself. The plan had always been to take a year off to work through my mental health issues, but it also became the year in which my first full collection was published, my second and third were written, and ended with us moving to Oxford so I could start the Creative Writing MSt there.
I came as a poet, but the course also required us to write fiction and plays. A tutor set the task of writing two pages in a genre we had never worked in before, and I wrote about a girl being chased through a forest. When it came to our end-of-year project, I dug it out and thought, ‘what happened before this?’ Six months later, I had also written what happened after, and was left with the first incarnation of The Girl of Ink & Stars.
For me, writing – be it poetry, plays, or novels – is ultimately about storytelling. With a poem, the story is often a snapshot, or a movement around a fixed moment in time, but it still goes somewhere. Novel-writing gives you more space, more narrative detail, more time to tell a story, but I am a great believer in not using more words than you need to. Perhaps this is why I find it relatively easy to slip between one form and the next: it is not a transition, but rather a process of translation.
Moreover, writing The Girl of Ink & Stars has made me a better poet. I don’t think I ever considered writing 10 drafts of a one-page poem before I did 10 drafts of a two hundred-and-one page novel, but now it is second nature to second-guess my first attempt.
“It’s been said a thousand times but bears repeating: reading is the best training if you want to write. It teaches you what works, what doesn’t, and what you can bring to the spaces between.”
Rigour and patience are useful tools for any writer, and have allowed me to translate my stories into whatever form best suits them. My third poetry collection, Splitfish, became a play that debuted at Theatre N16 last year. I have sometimes started a poem and realised it’s a novel-in-waiting – more often, though, it’s vice versa.
Most importantly, the difficulties posed by working in multiple genres are eased by the fact I have always read everything. Poetry, books for children, books for adults, books that are so good it doesn’t matter who they are written for, or in what form. It’s been said a thousand times but bears repeating: reading is the best training if you want to write. It teaches you what works, what doesn’t, and what you can bring to the spaces between.
So really, when I say I never meant to write a book, it’s still true. But I was silly not to realise it was always going to happen.
About Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a poet, playwright and novelist. An alumni of Oxford University’s Creative Writing MSt, Kiran’s debut novel The Girl of Ink & Stars is released this month by Chicken House Books and is set to be released in the US in July under the title The Cartographer’s Daughter.