Interview: Kit Whitfield

During a time of great upheaval, the citizens of Venice make a pact that will change the world. The landsmen of the city broker a treaty with a water-dwelling tribe of deepsmen, cementing the alliance through marriage. The mingling of the two races produces a fresh, peerless strain of royal blood. To protect their shores, other nations make their own partnerships with this new breed–and then, jealous of their power, ban any further unions between the two peoples. Dalliance with a deepswoman becomes punishable by death. Any “bastard” child must be destroyed.

This is an Earth where the legends of the deep are true–where the people of the ocean are as real and as dangerous as the people of the land. This is the world of intrigue and betrayal that Kit Whitfield brings to life in an unforgettable alternate history: the tale of Anne, the youngest princess of a faltering England, struggling to survive in a troubled court, and Henry, a bastard abandoned on the shore to face his bewildering destiny, finding himself a pawn in a game he does not understand.
Yet even a pawn may checkmate a king.

Let’s get to the interview, shall we? 

-What was the hardest part about writing In Great Waters?

It was a difficult book to write, really; at the time it felt like I was trying to ride a thrashing snake. The reason, in retrospect, was that it was ambitious: it was entirely different from the first book I’d written, it had two protagonists rather than one and the action took place in two different locations, and I’d started them in such dire situations it was hard to think of where to take them next! On the other hand, the more I write the more I realise that that’s the only way to do things: if you don’t keep challenging yourself your brain gets bored and produces bad results. It was a hard book to write, but I think it’s the better for it. 

-What/Who was your inspiration for your main character and their relationship with each other? (In In Great Waters)

I don’t draw inspiration directly from life, so I can’t exactly point to any tidy influences. It was more that I started writing them and they gradually started clicking for me. I began with Anne’s story, and it was going okay but not brilliantly; I originally conceived of Henry as a secondary character, but when I started to plan scenes with him I realised I’d have to think about what his life before Anne was like just to make him feel real to me. So I began sketching out some background for him, and it suddenly all came alive at once: Henry felt incredibly real and his life was unfolding on the page all over the place. I realised he needed to be a central character, which meant changing my plans for Anne; I went back to her and started over. Often the best way for me to get a character to come alive is to have a single sentence that sets the pace for them; I found one for Anne, which was ‘Erzebet’s intermittent attention dazzled Anne’ (which I slightly rewrote in the final draft): that seemed to set her in motion, and from there, I had them both. If I drew inspiration from anywhere it was probably from having done a lot of snorkelling as a child: I knew what the underwater environment feels like and it seemed to me that you couldn’t grow up there and not be shaped by all the differences. And I watched a lot of nature documentaries about dolphins and whales. I tend to conceive of characters as molded out of their environments and pasts, so once I had those images and a few sentences to get them going, it just went from there. 

– Do you have a favorite place to write?

Well, I moved house in the middle of writing In Great Waters, and since then I’ve had a baby and my then-study is now his bedroom, so it moves around. I started the book writing on anything – my bed, the garden table, my lap on the sofa – but it’s not a very secure way to do it; what I have now is a desk with a favourite tablecloth that gets set up wherever I am. I like to make my writing environment colourful, like a playroom. It’s funny: most of the time my favourite colour is green and much of my house is decorated that way, but for a writing environment, it has to be reds and yellows. Green is too peaceful, I guess, whereas reds and yellows are energising and warm. Right now I have my little desk, made out of scrap wood by my father, covered with my colourful tablecloth, set up with decorations on the walls: postcards from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibitions and a bunch of shadow-puppets I made myself. The main thing I’d say about a writing environment is that it needs to feel right to you, and preferably fun. Sometimes I put up a postcard on the door with a picture of old-fashioned penny candies spelling out the word ‘Sweeties’ in sugar letters, just to encourage myself to get in there. 

-What advice you you have for beginner authors?

I’m going to give some advice that’s counter to what people usually tell you: don’t worry too much about getting feedback. Not at this stage. I don’t think that ‘finding your own voice’ is the right way to put it, because it sounds like you’re looking for something outside yourself, but you need to learn to hear your own voice, and that’s not always easy to do when you have lots of other voices giving their opinions every time you write something. What I did when I was learning to write was to sit down and write practice pieces, just several pages non-stop on whatever subject had caught my fancy without worrying about turning it into anything I could showcase; most of the time it just turned into mood-pieces and that was fine, every now and again it turned into something that could be made longer. That’s how I wrote my first short story. Of course, if you do show your work to someone and they say ‘For the love of mercy please use punctuation,’ don’t turn around and yell ‘How dare you stifle my voice!’, but writing is basically a solitary activity and you learn a lot by feeling things out in solitude. 

-How did you come up with the title for In Great Waters?

It’s a Biblical quotation; you can see it in the opening pages. Since religion is a major element, a Biblical extract seemed appropriate, and I liked the idea of being ‘in great waters’ since the characters’ situation was so much dictated by having no choice but to live their lives in a big political arena – in great waters, so to speak. 

Is there any music that helped you write In Great Waters?

No; I can’t write and listen to music at the same time. If I’m writing in the zone, I don’t hear things very clearly, and music’s just a distraction. I will sometimes put on something ambient; I had a DVD of a fish tank that I used to put on in the background, just tropical fish swimming around to the sound of bubbling water, and that helped relax me. Nowadays I often put on the website, or something natural-sounding that’s easy to ignore once I’ve started. Music’s a separate area for me, though. 

-How did you come up with the idea for In Great Waters?

Oh, that’s a tricky one! The trouble is, novels are very seldom a single idea; they’re more an alchemical reaction between lots of different ideas that you manage to assemble in the same place. I started thinking about it because of a joke my husband made: he said, ‘Okay, you wrote on werewolves, why don’t you write the next book about mermaids?’ I said, ‘Ha ha, very funny.’ Then I said, ‘Actually…’ and started thinking about it and noodling about with writing exercises. I added Venice just because it seemed like a logical thing to include. I was trying this and that, and after a while he pointed out I’d been watching some historical documentaries at the same time and talking about the family dynamics, so that’s where the rough concept came from: putting the two ideas together. On the other hand, a lot of the aesthetic came from swimming, snorkelling and scuba-diving, as I said, which was just something that had been a big part of my childhood. The rest of it … different places, really. When it comes to ideas, I think a novelist’s most useful skill is not so much coming up with the right ideas as the ability to spot the wrong ones before you waste too much time on them. Until I had the two central characters properly alive in my mind it wasn’t really an idea for a novel so much as a vague primordial soup of possibilities; once that happened, it started to feel like a book I could actually write.

Thanks so much for the interview!!



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