Interview with Rachel Nightingale

InterviewsIssue Three

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By Sophie Meyers

What motivated you to start writing?

I decided to become a writer at the age of 8. I can’t really remember why now, but I know I got an old hardcover diary and wrote in that because it looked like a real book. I thought that’s how books worked. My Dad, Bob Larkins, was a published author and a brilliant wordsmith. He introduced me to amazing authors like Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl from an early age, and never thought any book was too old for me so I became a voracious reader early on, which always helps.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Don’t do it! No, I’m glad I stuck with it now but there have been times through my life where it didn’t always feel like it was worth the sacrifice to be a writer – you spend a lot of time alone honing your craft, and sometimes people are suspicious of you because they think you’re going to put them in a book. Writers can often feel torn in two between needing to live in the real world and wanting to spend more time in the world they have created. I think the key advice I’d give, which luckily was given to me by a dear friend, is don’t give up!

What genres of books do you like to read and do you feel as though you draw inspiration from these books for your own writing?

My favourite all time author is Ursula Le Guin. Fantasy can be an incredibly intelligent genre – it can say important, deep things about our world, and Le Guin is the master of this. I nearly failed my first year of university because I spent swot vac reading The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The way in which she takes myth and makes it believably real in a historical context is a huge inspiration for me. I read a lot of fantasy at one point, but after a while I found them formulaic and without deeper meaning, so I stopped reading them for a while. I think there’s been a rebirth in fantasy now – there are some brilliant writers out there with original ideas. When I was a kid I loved ghost stories, and I’m hoping I can write something chilling and haunting for readers one of these days. I also love crime fiction when it’s done really well. I like intelligent books that have really planned well and woven threads together so that when you get to the end you can see why everything was included and feel satisfied. J.K. Rowling is incredible at this – the amount of foreshadowing and forward planning in her books astounds me. I hope I’ve achieved some of this in my books – so people can get hints of the final book in the first one. But no spoilers!

What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

For me research is a constant. Some of it happens before and some of it happens during. I can look at Harlequin’s Riddle and see so many different threads in it that have come from so many places: my theatre background, things I’ve read, images I’ve seen, a gift I was given as a child, a stray comment, life experiences… Writers are like bowerbirds, picking up shiny items and bringing them all back home, then sitting with them until something emerges. Some of the research process is deliberate, of course. For the Tarya trilogy I called on my experience researching, making and wearing Italian Renaissance clothing, which was really practical, real world research. I also bought the ‘bible’ on the Commedia dell’Arte, a detailed text by John Rudlin. I looked up Italian names. I wanted to travel in a horse drawn wagon but my son got sick the day before our trip, so that’s all from my imagination! The research process is different for different projects though – for a play I’m writing about a historical figure I need to do a lot more book research to discover sequences of events, character names and so on.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Writing. I love editing – for me that’s where the craft really comes into it. That’s where you can really shape things, refine them, polish them and make them do what you want. But facing a blank page and convincing myself to put words down, knowing the first draft is going to be a long way from what I want to say, takes a bit of self-motivating. But I can’t edit until that draft exists, so it’s got to be done!

What inspired you to start writing Harlequin’s Riddle?

Harlequin’s Riddle grew out of an article I read about the Broadway revival of Cabaret. Alan Cumming, who was playing the emcee, spoke of the moment before you step on stage as being a ‘moment between’ where anything was possible, like the Hindu idea of heaven, or Turiya. Hence the idea for Tarya was born, a realm that artists enter when they are in the flow of creating their art. The fun part was working out exactly what becomes possible in this realm.

As this is the first book of a trilogy, how far along are you with the next two books?

The second book is complete and I’m in the process of editing it at the moment. Nadia Turner, the artist who has done the incredible cover for Harlequin’s Riddle, will be the first to read it so she can start designing the cover for the next one. I’ve written just over two chapters of the third book and it’s fully plotted, so once the launch of this one is over I’ll be able to immerse myself in the world of Tarya again and bring Mina’s story to its conclusion.

What sets your protagonist apart from other characters in their world?

On a really practical level Mina has abilities that none of the other characters do. All artists can enter the realm of Tarya when they are in a state of flow whilst creating their art, but Mina is able to go much further within that realm than anyone else can. Unfortunately that makes her a target for those who want to be able to do what she can do. Personality wise, Mina is not a dreamer. She’s quite happy with who she is. In the world of Tarya it’s actually pretty dangerous to have big dreams, of wanting to achieve something or be someone different to who you are. This is one of the themes of the book – in our world marketing tries to convince us that we are inadequate and that we need to be constantly improving or buying the right things to become someone better. In Mina’s world this manipulation looks different, but the consequences are similar.

If you could choose one person (author/personal hero) in the world to read and your book, who would it be?

Ursula Le Guin!