My name is Hillary Taylor-McCaffery, I’m a second-year MA Creative Writing and Publishing student at West Dean School of Arts and Conservancy, in Chichester, and I am writing my first novel, Box of Sparks. My novel is set on Vancouver Island, Canada, and follows a young girl, her best friend, and a darkly-eccentric taxidermist, trapped in a bunker together following a devastating earthquake.
What made you choose this genre?
I didn’t set out to write a YA novel, but as Box of Sparks grew, and my plot and character development progressed, I kept hearing feedback from my MA tutors and fellow classmates that the novel had a distinctly-YA feel. I wouldn’t say this influenced my narrative style or voice, but it helped me focus on market placement and pitching of Box of Sparks. I like the idea that I can explore a bit with YA; I feel younger readers tend to be more accepting of magical elements, and it gave me an outlet for some long-buried teenage angst!
How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
Before I gained some confidence as a writer, my plots and characters were developed very much in line with academic expectations, and I found they ended up feeling flat and forced. It took me some time to ‘relax’ into my environment, to make some space in my head for characters to appear. I also had to overcome the awkwardness of sitting down and listening to the voices in my head, convincing myself they were characters and not a symptom of mental illness…although that conclusion is still debatable… I also remember something one of my tutors recommended in the first year of my MA: if you want to write beautiful things, you need to surround yourself with beauty. I try to get out and experience new things whenever I can; you never know where inspiration or influence are going to spring up.
If, as a one-off, (and you could guarantee publication!), you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot in mind?
I have always been interested in magical realism, ie: Gabriel Garćia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I think it takes great talent to balance believable narrative with the mystery of the unknown, and to achieve this balance whilst holding the interest of the reader. I think most people construct fantasy within their everyday life; these fantasies can be hidden and never acted upon or can evolve into delusions with serious consequences. The abilities of the human imagination fascinate me, and I would like to be able to reflect that need for escape within a cleverly-balanced narrative. I think these interests will always influence my work.
Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously?
Writing is something I have always kept on the backburner. I was praised for my writing talents in school, and won a few prizes in youth competitions. After reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, I was inspired to keep a diary, and have an entire drawer full of them now, going back to the mid-90s. Despite a large amount of material, and a dedication to the craft, I didn’t take writing as a serious career option until, in my early thirties, I decided to undertake an MA in Creative Writing and Publishing, telling myself it was ‘now or never’. It was humbling to realise how little I knew, not only about the craft of writing itself, but about myself as a writer.
I was given a book, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, as a pre-teen, and it has stuck with me through many years, many situations, and many moves, even my emigration from Canada to the UK. I dip into it now and then, reminding myself that although I write, I am still on the journey to becoming a writer. I’m not sure at what point the journey ends!
Marmite: love it or hate it?
Marmite was one of those ubiquitous ‘English’ things that Canadian children spoke of in mock giggles, usually paired with terrible posh accents and the miming of lifting a teacup to one’s lips. I didn’t taste it until I moved to the UK and made the rookie move of sticking a dipped finger of it into my mouth, instead of spreading it delicately on toast. A few years after this initial moment of disgust, I was reintroduced to it by a monk who lived at the monastery where I was staying on a retreat. We tasked me with making soup, and when it was finished we both sipped from the same spoon and declared that something was missing. “Marmite!” was the monk’s answer, and he proceeded to stir an enormous spoon of the stuff into the pot. Despite my reservations, it was delicious, and I now keep a little yellow-topped pot of it in my spice drawer for when my soups lack that certain “something”.
Other than writing full-time, what would be your dream job?
I used to be very ashamed of my haphazard CV, boasting (?) myriad roles from barista to fluid technician to care worker to housekeeper to pharmacy supervisor, and so on, but now I realise that all of those experiences have influenced the kind of writer I am, and have given me some excellent character studies! One common thread through all of my past jobs has been the act of helping people. I am particularly interested in the role of creativity in the treatment of mental health, and if I had to create my own dream job it would be empowering disadvantaged people to realise their own creative potential, mastering it, and using to help others. Healing the world is up to us, the people, and we need to heal ourselves before we can help the planet. I think there is a correlation between the lack of or complete obliteration of arts funding, and the rise in mental illness and stress, and I think we need to re-realise the importance of creativity, art, and expressing ourselves in a constructive manner.
Coffee or tea? Red or white?
I’m going to admit to being really boring, now. I don’t drink enough tea to earn my honorary British citizenship, and when I do drink it, it’s usually herbal (rooibos with a bit of milk and honey, to be exact!). I also don’t drink alcohol anymore. I made a choice in my early thirties to stop drinking, as it had been an unhealthy coping mechanism for my struggles with mental illness. I now have a better grasp on my wellbeing, and a lot more time to write!!
Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like or they spoil the plot?
I definitely try to ignore characters that are demanding of my time, but it never works! I find that if a character is begging to be seen or heard, they usually have a really good story, or something integral to add to the plot, so I’m learning to set aside time to listen. Easier said than done, because I have many ‘real life’ people that are also demanding of my time, and much more likely to be offended if I ignore them! Characters are patient, luckily, and usually they will find a nice little corner of my brain in which to curl up and wait.
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
I think this happens in real life as much as it does in novels. One of the buzzwords of the moment is ‘post-truth’; it’s getting increasingly difficult for people to determine what is real and what is influenced or distorted by the media, and this can be frustrating, isolating, and confusing. I think novels are a safe space to explore themes of truth and honesty; a way to make people think about the real world. Novels have huge potential to influence ways of thinking and being, and they are presented in a medium where the reader still has a large degree of control, which is becoming a rare thing.
Instead of clearly-defined lines between fiction and non-fiction, bestsellers lists are now often topped by books that blend information into a beautiful narrative. I think this is a great strategy by which to make information more accessible and easily-consumable.
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
I have definitely used elements from real people when building certain characters, usually traits or habits that ignite a spark of emotion in me, whether that be the cadence of one person’s speech, or the way another person exhales smoke, or even the absence of a person, the way they keep you wanting more long after they’ve left.
I’ve found it interesting to hear other people’s reactions to my characters. In the development phase of Box of Sparks, one of my tutors routinely expressed her blossoming love for one of my protagonists, which I found interesting as the character as I knew him was very dark and somewhat threatening. I found that I wasn’t writing what I knew of him, instead I was writing what the character wanted to reveal, which told me a lot about his personality and psychology.
I think writing is a brilliant medium through which to present problematic or ‘unlikeable’ characters. When you meet someone in real life, you are basing your perception of them on physical factors, your emotional response to what they choose to reveal. In a novel, you usually see a more complex picture of a character; you see them as multifaceted, and often you can empathise or relate to one of those facets, which makes you at least care about them and their narrative arc, even if you don’t particularly like them.
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I lean towards non-fiction most of the time, and tend to read fiction when I want to give my overly-analytical brain a rest. I am interested in human behaviour, psychology, mental health, and various natural sciences. I’m not much of a ‘name-dropper’, I don’t tend to read what is popular or what is recommended on reading lists, (sorry, West Dean tutors!!). I choose books more instinctively: initially, by the visual impression given by the cover, the title font, and the design layout. I always, always read the blurb on the back, and have been known to put very-well-regarded books down because I can’t identify with the description. This is a tricky thing for writers, as well. How do you condense the entire world and mood of your novel into a few sentences on the back? That takes skill.
What are you favourite authors?
Because I’m so fickle and flaky with my reading choices, I cling more strongly to individual books than to the authors themselves, and their bodies of work. Saying that, I have enjoyed almost everything by Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami, and Ben Goldacre. Books that I’ve carried with me, that have worked their way into my subconscious in some creative way, have been: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garćia Márquez, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.