Interview with Hayley Chewins

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Author Bio: Hayley Chewins is the author of THE TURNAWAY GIRLS, which was chosen by Kirkus as one of the best books of 2018, and by the ALA as one of the best feminist books for young readers. She studied classical voice for a year before switching to a degree in English and Italian, dabbling in law, and completing an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. Hayley lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her husband and a very small poodle. Her next book, THE SISTERS OF STRAYGARDEN PLACE, is forthcoming from Candlewick Press in fall 2020.

Hastags: #middlegrade #middlegradebooks #fantasy #feministbooks #strongfemalecharacters #candlewickpress #debutnovel #interview #authorinterview

Author’s social media accounts:

Twitter: @hayley_chewins

Instagram: @hayleychewins

Alessandra De Zubeldia: The world you created in The Turnaway Girls transported me to a completely different reality, a place of magic, wonder, and darkness.  What were your sources of creative inspiration for constructing this fantastical world in which music can produce gold and birds can be brought to life from stone?

Hayley Chewins: I listened to a lot of music throughout the drafting and revising process—artists like Agnes Obel and Susanne Sundfør—and the climate of Blightsend is inspired by a place I visit every year with my family, which is in the middle of nowhere in the Western Cape, South Africa. But so much of the worldbuilding and magic came from the language itself. I thought of the term “turnaway girl” before I knew what a turnaway girl was. Same with “tongue-fruit” and “cloisterwing.” I love language and I really believe it’s a living thing. I don’t think of the act of worldbuilding as primary, with the language superimposed upon it. Instead, the landscape—and its magic—spring from the language. Of course, many books inspired me, mostly unconsciously. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is one. Jane Eyre, too. And The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley. And Skellig by David Almond.

AD: Delphernia, the protagonist, has a strong, mature voice and perspective.  Did you consider writing The Turnaway Girls as a YA novel?  What drew you to the Middle Grade genre?

HC: I actually never considered writing The Turnaway Girls as a YA novel. It was always a middle grade book in my mind. As soon as I knew I was interested in writing for younger audiences, I wanted to write middle grade. I was completely taken by other books in the category—books like Skellig by David Almond and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell and Coraline by Neil Gaiman—and I feel deeply connected to the girl I was at the ages of 10, 11, and 12. It’s such a fascinating age, I think, because you’re very aware of the world around you, of the dark stuff out there, but you’re also not jaded yet. You still have hope. At the moment, I’m working on a draft of a YA book, and I want to write a book for adults, too. But I will always, always return to middle grade. It’s where my heart resides.  

AD: Your writing in TTG is wonderfully lyrical; I highlighted an embarrassing number of lines throughout.  When writing, do you naturally focus on language on a sentence-level or do you tend to focus more on narrative structure and plot?  In other words, what does your writing process look like?

HC: Thank you so much! That’s so wonderful to hear. I’m always thinking about language, even in first drafts. It doesn’t have to be neat in the beginning, but it does have to have a rhythm or a style or an energy. Once I can hear the narrative voice in my mind, I feel like I can move ahead. I love Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and I’ll usually do a rough beat sheet before I start a first draft. But, inevitably, something will happen on the page—in the language—that changes the plot of the book. When that occurs, I’ll let it unfold, and I’ll continue writing. Then I’ll go back and outline some more when I get stuck. I keep going back and forth until I have a readable draft. So the language is always a part of it, but I do try to keep plot in mind. Story structure is such an art.

AD: Do you write daily?  Do you have a writing schedule?

HC: Yes, I do. I find that works best for me because it keeps me in the story. I do try to take weekends off, though, otherwise I end up feeling drained and empty. I love reading on days off and watching films and TV. I set deadlines for myself constantly, and then work backwards from that, figuring out how much time I need for drafting and revising. So far, I don’t think I’ve ever missed a deadline, even one I set myself. I take them seriously. It’s a good way of getting things done.

AD: The silencing of women, especially young girls, and the importance of speaking up are prevalent themes in TTG.  Did you grapple with similar issues at Delphernia’s age?  What influenced you to write about these issues for a young audience?

HC: Definitely. I think almost every twelve-year-old girl in the world has dealt with situations where she feels silenced, or as though her body doesn’t belong to her. When I was 11 or so, I had a music teacher who would pat my leg when I was playing the piano. Sometimes he would pat me on the bottom, too, and once he tried to look up my t-shirt. I remember acutely how powerless I felt. And that sort of thing happened frequently with boys my age, too. I remember the feeling of wanting to say something, wanting to say, “No,” or, “Go away,” and not being able to. I think it’s important to talk about the way girls are silenced from a young age—and not only with teenagers. Because it doesn’t suddenly begin when you’re fifteen; it’s there from the beginning. We need to be talking to girls and to boys about it, right from the start.

AD: Do you recommend any Middle Grade novels that also focus on female empowerment?

HC: Oh, yes! I love The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, which is a book about mothers and daughters and rage as much as it is about magic; Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eagar, which features an eleven-year-old girl who is an explorer and inventor; The Spinner of Dreams by K.A Reynolds, which is about a girl wrestling with anxiety who overcomes actual and metaphorical demons; The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, which is about a girl who rides wolves through Siberia; The Cartographer’s Daughter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, which features a girl-cartographer on a journey to rescue her best friend; The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan, which is such a poignant rumination on what it feels like to be a pre-teen girl; Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, in which the a girl saves a boy (and the world) from sure peril; and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, which is one of the most beautiful books about being a girl I can think of.

AD: What scene or character did you struggle to write?  How did you get through it?

HC: It took me a while to get to the right ending, and the final sequence of events was something I worked on over and over to get it right. If I had it my way, my characters would sit in pretty rooms and have interesting conversations all day. Action is really hard for me to write. Luckily, I had my brilliant editor, Miriam Newman, to guide me through it!

AD: If you had a book contract to write a spin-off novel of any of the characters in The Turnaway Girls, which character would you choose and why?

HC: Oh, this is such a fascinating question! Probably the Childer-Queen. I’d love to write about what it was like for her to grow up at Sorrowhall with Mr. Crowwith. . .

AD: So far, what has been your favorite part of becoming a published author?

HC:There have been so many. A little while ago, I got a message from a reader who said, “I have been drowning from a lack of words. This book saved me.” That really touched me. And recently, The Turnaway Girls was published in South Africa, where I live, and I got to have a book launch. It was so amazing being surrounded by family and friends and getting to talk about my book and share it with others. And seeing it in a bookshop for the first time was incredibly surreal, too!

AD: What can we expect to read from you next?

HC: My next book, The Sisters of Straygarden Place, is a middle grade fantasy novel about three sisters who are cursed with insomnia and abandoned to the care of a magical mansion. When one of them falls grievously ill, they must unravel the mystery of their home’s origins and their parents’ disappearance before she is lost forever. It’s going to be out with Candlewick in fall 2020. I’m working on edits now and I’m so proud of this book. I hope readers love it as much as I do.

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