I was privileged recently to have a long chat with one of my favourite writers, Janet Allison Brown, author of The Walker’s Daughter, about writing, belief, magic… and birds.
How did you come to write The Walker’s Daughter? Where did the story come from?
I was a dreamer as a child, convinced that the reality I could see and touch was only part of a whole, and that there was another energy buzzing underneath.
I wondered: how did I know I was me? What if, at night, I became somebody else, and they became me, and when we both woke up in the morning we were none the wiser, and went about our business thinking all was as it should be?
And I used to play this game, particularly on long bus journeys, where I would stare at the back of someone’s neck until they turned around. I was always certain I could make them turn around, by sending my thoughts out to tap them on the shoulder.
The Walker’s Daughter plays with the meanderings of my childish mind. It assumes, as a matter of fact, that there is a spirit world behind the material world, and that some humans are able to separate their soul—their Self—from their bodies, and experience this spirit world at will. It’s an urban fantasy—my characters live in a very real, contemporary world; they just happen to have this extra dimension to them.
But it’s also a story about a woman, Cora Bloux, finding the courage to truly be herself. As a little girl, Cora is wholly herself. Early experiences teach her that she’d better become something else, and quickly, or suffer the consequences, so she transforms into an alien thing, pretending to be ‘normal’ so she’ll fit in. As an adult, a whole new set of experiences jar her into becoming herself again. I think this is a journey we all make, whether consciously or not.
But you know what? This whole explanation is really only so much guff. I wanted to tell an entertaining story about people who can fly, like I can in my dreams, and who discover that love is really all that matters. That’s all.
How much of your own background influences what you write? Is it homage or therapy?
I hope it’s neither homage nor therapy, although I do think writers generally tend to write out their own experiences and preoccupations. I went through a long period of trying to write like all the authors I admire. Even after I’d found a ‘voice’ of my own, and had learned some of the technical craft of writing—even then I struggled for something to write about, something that amounted to more than just describing a feeling or an experience—a story, in other words. It took me a while to have the confidence to stop trying to write “Something Important” and just write something entertaining.
We interpret the world through stories. You can never have too many of them. When all else fails, we light the fire in the darkness, gather around, and tell each other tales that show us where we’ve been, who we are, and where we might go next.
You have distinctly magical and paranormal elements in your books. Would you prefer to live in a world with magic?
Ah, you see, I already do! I think we all do. It’s all about perception. I read an article in National Geographic (my favourite mag) very recently. Scientists were curious about why, in some species of bird, the female was so plain and unadorned, while the male was gorgeously plumed. They discovered that the female is only plain in human eyes. The birds themselves see through a different lens: colours and shades and iridescence that our brains don’t register. Isn’t that fantastic? For humans, imagination is the lens that makes all things possible, and gives us a way to see things differently. Over the years, things we thought incredible in the past have been explained by science, and that process is likely to continue.
It’s a tricky path, obviously; you have to keep a firm hold on mainstream reality in order to safely navigate your way through the imagination. For me, that’s the beauty of urban fantasy: the urban keeps you safely anchored, and the fantasy sets you free to explore any possibility.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I loved writing the relationship between Cora and her daughter Grace. That relationship is my love letter to my own daughter. And I really enjoyed imagining what my characters would see when they spirit-walked—how that would feel, the insights it might give you.
What drew you to your MC? What qualities do they possess that made them fun to?
Cora is very cautious and covert and has to learn how, and who to trust. What I like best about her is that she has all these wonderful qualities—she can spirit-walk, she paints, she can really love—but she remains down-to-earth and real. Just a normal woman going about her business. I’d like to think we’re all a bit like that.
What’s most difficult about being a writer?
Well, writing isn’t brain surgery or coal mining. But it takes tenacity. Everyone has a story inside them, but sitting down to write, day after day, with little hope of reward or even readers when you first begin—that’s an act of faith. It’s a little microcosm of life: you get up every day and do your best, and sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it really isn’t, but you keep going, because… that’s what you do.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m working on an early draft of a new walker novel, about a walker in the nineteenth century, and making notes for a third story about walkers, in which all my protagonists will come together.
In the meantime, I have a very different novel coming out towards the end of 2014, called Tales of the Revolution. The style of the story is influenced by my love of manga and Korean drama, and looks at the fine line between myth and history. It’s about a schoolgirl, Hana Takahashi, who lives half a life: between sunrise and sunset the world is hers, but at twilight her nocturnal mirror takes her place, dressed in Hana’s clothes and wearing Hana’s perfume. Everyone lives this way: this is the system of government rigorously imposed for generations by the City Fathers. In the end individuality, curiosity and opposition are eradicated, so no force is required to keep the system going. Then Hana falls in love with a charismatic nocturnal boy, and suddenly the ‘other’ becomes the same, and the theoretical becomes personal. When she ventures into the nocturnal world, Hana discovers broken people, wasted by the darkness, brittle-boned, underfed and ripe for revolution.
In this story, I wanted to play with some big themes: is love enough to change the world? And it’s all very well to tear down a repressive society, but what are you going to put in its place? And when you’ve done your best and paid the price, what will history make of you?
The Walker’s Daughter is available at Amazon and other major outlets, in Kindle or paperback. http://amzn.to/1rV7SAa (USA) or http://amzn.to/1mS4e4S (UK).
Tales of the Revolution will be released later this year.
May all your journeys be sweet…