The Interview: Bookbag Talks To R D Shanks

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To R D Shanks


Summary: Ani was quietly impressed by debut author Rachael Shanks' A Reverie of Brothers and she had quite a few questions when the author popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 24 January 2014
Interviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson

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Ani was quietly impressed by debut author Rachael Shanks' A Reverie of Brothers and she had quite a few questions when the author popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

R D Shanks: That’s a really difficult question to answer! I started writing ‘A Reverie of Brothers’ when I was sixteen and for the first few years the only people that read parts of it were my mum and a couple of friends, after I begged them to have a look and tell me what they thought! So it’s hard to imagine strangers reading my book, but also really exciting too. I imagine my readers as shy, day-dreamy people, like me, who read in cosy corners on buses and trains.

  • BB: Your debut novel, 'A Reverie of Brothers has a strong theme of family against family and the distribution, use and abuse of power set against a fantasy backdrop without any sorcery. Why did you choose a fantasy setting and were you tempted to add a spell or two?

RDS: I chose a fantasy setting for the novel because I wanted to start with a blank slate. I liked the idea of being able to make up the history and geography of the Castilian Empire completely from scratch; it was a fun imaginative exercise! I didn’t fully flesh out the landscape outside of the capital city because I wanted readers to project their own visions of where it takes place onto the story. But at the same time as wanting a fantastical setting, I also wanted the characters to be real people. Even though some characters might be more villainous than people you’d meet in everyday life, they are still just as human as you or me. I also thought that having magic might make it too easy to solve some of their problems. However, I must have been building up an interest in magic while I was writing, as my next project, a book for children, is fit to bursting with spells and sorcery!

  • BB: I loved to hate Princess Ava as I couldn't find a single redeeming feature in her. (Hope you don't mind me saying that!) What did you think about her while you were writing and do you feel differently about her now she's fully formed?

RDS: A lot of people hate Princess Ava, so I don’t mind you saying that at all! I’ve always been a big supporter of villains in literature (my favourite character in Gormenghast is Steerpike, for example) and I often feel like villains are much more charismatic and interesting than the heroes. So I was curious if I could create a villain that wouldn’t inspire such sympathy in readers, and I think with Ava I succeeded. I like to think, though, that there is some good in her somewhere – maybe she would have become more self-aware when she grew up...though probably not! Writing someone that loathsome is incredibly fun, because she is so desperate for power that she’ll say or do almost anything. I also think Ava is interesting because even though she’s probably the most despicable character in the story, she still isn’t the primary villain, since she has no real power. The plot is very much moved along by people she would look down on as peasants, and she has very little control over anything. Which is probably why she tortures Acario so much, since that’s the only power she has.

  • BB: I won't give anything away, but there's a hugely important episode near the beginning of the book that shapes Princess Ava and her cousin Prince Arcario's relationship from that moment but is skimmed briefly. Does this mean there'll be a prequel to look forward to when the event and the things that lead up to it will have their own novel?

RDS: The chapter that gives the backstory about Ava and Acario’s relationship caused me lots of trouble when I was planning the novel! Originally I thought I could describe the events in a series of flashbacks, and then I thought of opening the novel with a prologue focused on the events in Oslen. The problem with that idea, though, was that I wanted to introduce the reader to the main setting of Horizon straight away. I also wanted to let Chiron take centre-stage at first, which is why he’s the focus of the first chapter, and we only meet Acario for a short while at the end of that chapter. I liked the idea that as the fortunes of one brother rose, the other would fall, so that by the end of the story, one brother has almost replaced the other as the main character. So that’s why such an important incident in Acario’s past, which is a pivotal moment in his life, is described so briefly, because he doesn’t come into his own as a character until later, when he starts to resist Ava. I do like the idea of a prequel, though, because there were a few parts of the story that had to be missed out from the novel, since they weren’t crucial to the main plot. It’d be fun to tell the story of the downfall of Cauis, Ava’s father, and I’d enjoy writing about Chiron and Acario as children in the castle, with both their parents. So a prequel might be on the cards one day!

  • BB: In this book your style of writing is wonderfully faux-historic. Is this your normal style or did you choose it especially for A Reverie? If so, why?

RDS: I think I was still developing my own writing ‘voice’ when I started ‘A Reverie’, and I was probably heavily influenced by the books I was reading at the time. I love faux-Victorian novels, for example. My writing style has changed slightly since I finished ‘A Reverie’, but I think the faux-historic language in the novel really suits the setting; it’s almost timeless, but still suits a world of castles, princes and princesses. I wanted the novel to be immersive, and draw the reader in, and it might be harder for the reader to be convinced by what is in some ways a very old-fashioned story (with sword fights and royal advisors) if the language didn’t match the antiquity of the setting.

  • BB: Although the novel is centred on teenagers, why did you want to aim it at the adult market rather than YA?

RDS: There are lots of amazing YA novels out there, but I never pictured ‘A Reverie’ as a novel for teenagers. I suppose part of the reason is the language, which makes it more accessible to older readers, and also partly because I wasn’t that aware of YA fiction when I started writing. I loved the classics, like Orwell and Huxley, and I thought that teenagers should be able to write and read whatever they want, whether it’s for children or adults. It’s funny how major a theme adolescence angst is in the novel, actually, because since I was a teenager myself when I started writing it, I wasn’t aware of how significant that was, but most people I’ve asked have described teenage angst as one of the main themes. So maybe I was writing it with teenagers in mind without realising! I guess I’d like to think that readers of any age could find something meaningful in my novel.

  • BB: You self-published A Reverie; do you have any advice or dos and don'ts for others thinking about going through this process?

RDS: I chose to self-publish because getting rejections from publishers was starting to impact on my writing – it made me feel like there wasn’t any point in continuing to do something that I love. I wanted to self-publish so I could share my story with the world and all the feedback I’ve had, both positive reviews and constructive criticism, has made me a much better writer. I also think I’m really impatient and it was much easier for me to take things under my own control. My main advice for anyone thinking of self-publishing would be to stay far, far away from anyone who wants to charge you money for publishing your book. Choosing an eye-catching cover is also important, and it’s worth asking any artistic people you know to help you out. Being the only person responsible for marketing your book is quite daunting, but I’ve definitely found it to be worthwhile.

  • BB: You also review books; how do your experiences as a reviewer affect your life as an author and vice versa?

RDS: Reviewing books helped me think more critically about the books that I read, and I think it made me a much better writer as a result. Even though I have a degree in Literature, I’ve never studied creative writing, so thinking about what reviewers and readers look for in books helped me to think about my own writing more critically. I didn’t realise how nerve-wracking reviews were, though, until I became an author myself! So much of writing involves sitting in a quiet room by yourself, alone with your imagination, that sharing your work with the world is actually quite daunting.

  • BB: If you were given access to a library that contained every book ever published, what would be the first three books you'd get out on your library card?

RDS: That’s tricky, trying to narrow it down to three! I think I’d rush towards the Shakespeare shelf and get a copy of Titus Andronicus - it’s been at least a year since I last read it. It’s a bloody, brutal play about revenge, and I once missed my stop on the train because I was too engrossed in the story. I Am China by Xiaolu Guo has been on my wishlist for ages, and I’d also love to read Letters From A Lost Uncle by Mervyn Peake (which is already on my Christmas list!).

  • BB: What's next for R D Shanks?

RDS: My first children’s book, about the boy Merlin and the sorcerer Guinevere, will be published in the next couple of months, and I’m incredibly excited for people to read it, because I’m really proud of it. I had a vivid dream last summer which inspired the story, and then I wrote it in a blur of inspiration over the next couple of weeks. I’ve also planned out the second Merlin story, so hopefully people enjoy the first one, as there’s much more to come! I also have an idea for another children’s book about a cat called Tofu. It’s tough to find time to write at the moment but it’s definitely something I plan to keep up.

  • BB: There's plenty for us to look forward to there, Rachael and thank you for chatting to us.

You can read more about R D Shanks here.

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