New author Gillian Murray Kendall talks books, apocalypses and who she's excited to see at this year's Book Expo America.
Here in the Raven(stone)’s nest we’re already getting really excited about the launch of The Garden of Darkness in July, from talented new novelist Gillian Murray Kendall; and with author Jane Yolen (of The Devil’s Arithmetic fame) enthusing ‘a believable post-apocalyptic world, and children reliably on their own, make this a wonderful page-turner that cannot be put down,’ can you really blame us?
Not only will Gillian be signing copies of The Garden of Darkness at Book Expo America on May 31st ahead of its publication (check out the full details below to get your hands on a copy before your friends!), but here she takes time out to talk Shakespeare, pop music references and apocalypses with us. We’re in love – read on and you will be too!
It seems fair to say that, both as an academic and now here in The Garden of Darkness, you are somewhat of an expert in post-apocalyptic literature. What is it in particular that draws you to this genre?
I’m drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction because it offers a fantasy of survival against terrible odds, a fantasy of being able to start over – and maybe this time get it right. My students and I have a penchant for the cozy catastrophe – like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids or Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, in which a small group of survivors band together to cobble a lost world back into existence. These books often, like Shakespearean comedies, end in marriage (or the equivalent). But the more intellectual and harder journeys are undertaken by loners – as in Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, and Dog Stars by Peter Heller. In Riddley Walker even language, 2,000 years after the apocalyptic moment, has been shaped and degraded by time and event, and we are in a world where puppet shows morph the political scene. Riddley Walker himself, seer and outcast, takes us on a hallucinatory journey in a world in the iron age but on the cusp of the age of gunpowder, where people dig in the muck for metal left behind by the past. It rains a lot. The book is a hard book. A painful book. One that brings us close to the face of darkness. The Road, however, is the darkest post-apocalyptic novel of our generation, and one that does not offer hope, but only brilliant language to set off a world where the biosphere is dead.
We’ve heard a rumour that you are keen gardener; how important was the role of nature when creating the world found in The Garden of Darkness?
I’m an ardent gardener of flowers, but my flowers are rather like the characters in The Garden of Darkness; they struggle desperately to survive. Certainly, however, the natural world is a theme in my book. In Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), I was struck by his descriptions of a lush nature – mussels as big as your head, abundant crabs – and I loved the idea of the resiliency of nature. In The Garden of Darkness, which my editor, Jon Oliver, once called “apocalyptic pastoral” I think of nature almost as another character – another survivor, but one that, with human beings largely out of the picture, quickly flourishes.
The Garden of Darkness has a very large and diverse ‘cast’ of characters, but we were particularly interested in your exploration of both gender and social stereotypes in the main characters of Claire and Jem. How important do you think confronting traditional stereotypes in YA literature is and what affect do you see this having in the wider genre community?
Gender and social stereotypes annoy me, although they are hard to break. Before the advent of SitkaAZ13, the plague in The Garden of Darkness, Clare and Jem are part of the gender-typing machine. As a cheerleader, Clare, who is so much more than a stereotype, is hemmed in by her ability to do back-flips. Jem, as a chess player, has always had to fight the nerd stereotype. In the new world, however, all bets are off. Clare and Jem must find their unencumbered selves. In so doing, they are able, finally, to find each other. YA fiction can and should have an enormous effect on social stereotypes—YA fiction can make it cool not to be cool. One of my favourite moments in TGOD is when Jem is butchering a moose, and Clare is silently wishing a few of the football players (who found chess club members nerds) could see it. And Clare, when she is attacked later in the book, overcomes her assailant with no help from Jem. Clare and Jem don’t have the luxury of allowing their lives to be passively dictated by stereotype. And this turns out to be a good thing.
Unsurprisingly for a Professor of English Literature, there are a lot of literary references throughout The Garden of Darkness – were there any books or authors in particular that you found you drew inspiration from when you were writing the novel?
As I wrote TGOD, a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (sung by Feste, the Fool) kept running through my head. The first stanza ends “Journeys end in lovers meeting, / Every wise man’s son doth know,” and the second stanza is
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty.
Then come and kiss me, sweet and twenty;
Youth’s a stuff will not endure. (2.3.44-52)
I quote a little bit of the song in TGOD. A carpe diem poem seems suitable for a post-apocalyptic novel. I also thought a lot about Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (does anyone remember the group Jefferson Airplane?) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Writing is a little bit like falling down a rabbit hole.
Without wanting to give too much away, as well as the more classical references (Shakespeare, Carroll and Tennyson, to name but a few) there also seemed to be a lot of small nods to some of the current themes in YA literature and culture – are there any authors currently writing in this genre that you are particularly excited about?
In Katniss Everdeen, Suzanne Collins has a nurturing action heroine who can take care of herself, but who can take care of others too. That’s exciting.
You’re going to be signing at Book Expo America on Saturday May 31st – apart from yourself, of course – who are you most excited about seeing at the show?
I saw that John Green, author of Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns and The Fault is in Our Stars will be at the BEA. I’d love to meet him. Perhaps we will get stuck in an elevator for an hour, and I will overcome my shyness enough to talk about writing – about realism – about his thoughts on post-apocalyptic fiction – about when the darn elevator is going to be fixed.
Finally, if you had to sum up The Garden of Darkness in five words (they don’t have to be connected!) what would they be?
Plague. Survival. Betrayal. Friendship. Love.
Gillian will be signing copies of The Garden of Darkness
at Book Expo America in Rebellion Publishing booth, #2752 on the floor plan, on Saturday May 31st from 11am.