“I wanted to make sure no one was sparklier.”
Kirsty’s debut novel The Gracekeepers has just been released, and is – it’s been agreed – the most gorgeously designed book ever. Ever. Before delving fully into the discussion, and after complimenting the sparkliness of Kirsty’s launch outfit, a little context on the book is needed.
I was lucky enough to read The Gracekeepers at the tail end of last year, so I’ll pinch my opening paragraph as context:
The Gracekeepers, at its core, follows two tales whose paths cross from time to time; Callanish, a Gracekeeper who lays the dead to their final resting place, and North, a performer on the floating, travelling circus, who entertains with her bear. The former has exiled herself to pay for a past family mistake, the latter earns a living in exchange for her entertainment, being born into the show.
So, asks Peggy Hughes, where did the idea come from? “It came together piecemeal,” explains Kirsty. A year after her dad had passed away, she was out on a boat, and mourning and grief were on her mind as she sat, daydreaming. The idea struck then as she looked at the buoys, and “sat in the back of my mind since.”
She then had the idea of a flooded world and circus, and it needed contrast. North lives in a crazy, claustrophobic world; Callanish is lonely and sad. They’re both performing, in the circus and rituals of death respectively – they’re opposites but with so much in common.
But how did she research? Was it a tour of all possible circuses? “Lots of books at the Mitchell Library,” she says. For about three months she was there most days. “I read the entire folklore and fairtytale section, and animal training.” It turns out that bears, as suggested in the book, are the hardest to train.
PROTIP: Don’t have a pet bear.
“Everything I write is inspired by folklore.”
“There’s strange old English folk rituals and customs, too,” she says. “I didn’t go to any actual circuses, I just read books.”
So, why the circus? “The underworldy-ness. The sense of a marginal place. I like to write about marginal people.” The boat was a compromise in life, neither here nor there, moving beyond a binary. “It’s more interesting to write about those who have no power or select power.” She explains that North is technically powerless, not in control of where she goes, but she’s the only person who can control her bear, so it’s her own unique power.
The cast is rich and varied: “It is like a puppet show playing with your characters,” says Kirsty. Turning briefly to Avalon, who featured in her earlier reading, she adds, “She’s awful. She’s my favourite.”
As for the circus, she hates clowns, so it wasn’t difficult to make them horrid. They’re hypersexual, anarchic type clowns, walking the tightrope of being extreme and shocking people, and bringing traditional entertainment. They make themselves scapegoats to allow an outlet for the audience.
A note of interest is that the book is without a set time. “I did want to do that. If there was a huge apocalypse, I think people wouldn’t remember. So, if this is the future, they wouldn’t know why. It could be an alternate world, future, past – I’m happy for people to interpret their own way. I think we as people don’t dwell, we focus on what we know.”
“Everything I write is inspired by folklore,” she continues. There’s so much to play with, the opportunity to explore gender and sexuality is endless. In naming her characters, she fell to places in the UK with mystical/religious connections for the most part.
She loves it because there’s so many connotations; in the initial reading there’s reference to an apple as something important, and even that can have many takes. The clowns, portraying bankers, are named after slang terms for money. In regards to North, there’s an important point: “This was before Kanye West!”
“Have an achievable goal and make sure you do it.”
“You don’t [get rid of them],” she admits, as chat turns to characters inhabiting their author. “I spent a year talking to them inside my head. You need to know them and spend a lot of time with them.”
Her writing process is simple: 100 words a day. “It’s better to achieve a small goal than fail at a large one. I’d think ‘If I fail to do [5000 words], I’ll be sad’,” so she always aimed for the little ones. “Some days I’d be sitting with 99 words saying ‘Come on!’. Have an achievable goal and make sure you do it.”
One audience question focuses on the marketing difference between her first book and this. “The two publisher experiences were really different. [Salt] don’t have the marketing budget; they get it into bookshops but the marketing is down to you. They do the best that they can.
“Harvill Secker had its own Gracekeepers team, with teams within that. It was a very different experience. I’m a bit of a control freak, so I liked organising my own things. Now, I have to remind myself ‘No, that’s not your job!’. The reach they have is huge.” She adds that she has billboards, which is particularly mind-blowing.
What’s your 16 year old inner self saying at all this? “Eeeee!” she laughs. “Excited. Can’t believe it.” Though, she has a concession: “I was raised with incredible self-belief. I was told work hard, be polite, don’t take no for an answer and it would happen.” She always believed she’d have a book published, but “never imagined on this scale. It’s a strange experience. You feel quite distant from the book. It’s not yours anymore. But the audiobook brought me back to the text; it wasn’t just a thing that I was selling anymore.”
Is she self-conscious that authors are now brands themselves? “The writer has always been a brand,” she says. “You can’t get away from that. You have to accept and know yourself; you need to know early on who you are and what you do and don’t want people to see on social media. Your public persona is never a lie, but it’s not all of you.”