I’m so thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview author Trilby Kent! Trilby’s debut novel Medina Hill, was released on October 13th and I had a great time talking with her about her journey to publication and her writing process.
What is Medina Hill about? Set in 1935, Medina Hill is the story of 11-year-old Dominic Walker, who has stopped speaking. Life with an ailing mother, an unemployed father, and unanswered questions about the war that haunts his family have led him to retreat into a world of silence. But everything changes when his Uncle Roo invites Dominic and his little sister Marlo to spend the summer on the Cornish coast. Dominic soon finds himself taking a stand for justice and the victimized Travelers community, armed only with a treasured copy of Incredible Adventures for Boys: Colonel Lawrence and the Revolt in the Desert. In doing so, he learns what it truly means to have a voice.
I’m always so curious about authors’ writing processes, and I think the tale of how Medina Hill was created will definitely interest those of you out there doing NaNoWriMo. No, Trilby didn’t write Medina Hill for a previous NaNoWriMo, but she very well could have!
I also ask sone of my favorite questions: plotter or pantser? Revision process? Writing quirks and habits? Trilby answers all!
TK: I spent a couple of years working on my first children’s novel while I was at university. It was actually three books squashed into one, with storylines ranging from fifteen-century Venice and Egypt to nineteenth-century India and present day New York. Because I really didn’t know anything about the children’s market at that stage, I ended up with a beast of a book: it was about 400 pages too long and a structural nightmare. I had enough encouraging feedback from a couple of agents to know that the writing wasn’t bad, but it soon became clear that The Travels of Maris Fauré was destined for the bottom drawer. It was a really useful apprenticeship, though.
I spent a couple of weeks grieving before starting work on Medina Hill. Within a month, I had a first draft; a few months later, I started sending it out to publishers. I didn’t have an agent at that stage – it would be another three years before I signed up with Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton – and I knew that the chances of having a book picked up from the slush pile were incredibly slim, so I’d almost given up hope when I received an email from Kathy Lowinger at Tundra asking if we could talk. The rest, as they say, is history.
MsBookish: You chose an interesting time period in which to set Medina Hill: it’s 1935, on the Cornish coast. What drew you to this time period?
TK: I find the interwar years absolutely fascinating. There’s a delicious dichotomy at work: people were still coming to terms with the horrific losses of the Great War by the time the Depression hit, and yet there was also an incredible outburst of creative expression, a weird exuberance that accompanied groundbreaking social change. By 1935, you also have the dawning realization that another global conflict might be just around the corner, so there’s a real tension in the air. The long, hot summer before the storm has been a popular motif for many writers over the years, because it’s so ripe with creative potential. It’s a great time in which to set a coming of age story.
MsBookish: In addition to being set in 1935, Medina Hill also involves the story of Lawrence of Arabia, whose adventures serve to inspire your protagonist, Dominic. It’s an intriguing storyline. How did the idea for the novel come to you?
TK: I’d been interested in Lawrence ever since I saw David Lean’s epic 1962 film as a teenager, and I was already toying with the idea of writing a piece of fiction about the Arab Revolt when the idea for Medina Hill cropped up following a trip to Cornwall. By that stage, I knew that I wanted to write in the voice of a child with selective mutism. Somehow, these rather disparate ideas converged, and the book was born.
MsBookish: Whenever I think about writing historical fiction, the first thing that comes to mind is the research. Could you describe your research process? How long did you spend on research before you began writing your first draft? Was there a moment when you knew you had everything that you needed, or did you find that you continued to research even after you began writing?
TK: I love research. Typically, I spend a lot of time reading around a subject before putting pen to paper, but the research also continues throughout the writing process. Now and then, I’ll hit a point where I simply can’t continue until I’ve managed to clarify some historical detail, and it’s incredible how often I’ll start to look into something and discover some bit of information that throws a whole new light on things, or provides the inspiration for an unexpected plot twist.
I can’t remember how long I spent on research before starting to write Medina Hill – I wrote the book four years ago, and I’ve done a lot of unrelated research and writing since then! – but it was probably a few weeks in total.
Shortly after returning from a few days in Cornwall, I saw a documentary on selective mutism, and things started to come together very quickly after that. I make notes all the time, so I already had quite a few ideas in store that were waiting for a home. The idea for Birdie’s character was already there, for instance, inspired by an artist called Madge Gill whose work I’d discovered months earlier.
MsBookish: How long did it take you to complete Medina Hill, from the very beginning of your research to finishing your final draft?
TK: I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, but very little time at all. The book came out in a great whoosh over a couple of weeks – I was only able to write in the evenings in weekends, so that concentrated me even more. It’s pretty atypical for me, actually. I spent a year researching my first novel for adults, and two years writing it. I’m currently revising another novel for children which took a year to write, and several months to research. To be honest, I’d love to get back into the “whoosh” style of writing, because I think there’s a lot to be said for working with that kind of momentum.
MsBookish: Some writers are plotters, and swear by outlines. Others start with a spark or an idea, and write to see how the story ends. Where would you place yourself along this continuum?
TK: Oh, I’m a plotter. Definitely. Partly because I enjoy it, and partly because, if I’m going to dedicate loads of time to a project, I’d much rather know that I’ve got a watertight plan at the outset, rather than start to discover leaks when I’m already 50,000 words into the thing. That was the lesson I learnt from my first failed attempt at a children’s novel. When I’m writing short stories, I’m much happier to start with an idea and see where it leads.
MsBookish: I’m fascinated by the writing process. Could you talk a little about your writing process during the writing of Medina Hill? Did you have a writing routine? Particular writing quirks or habits? Favourite places to write? How would you describe your revision style?
TK: When I wrote Medina Hill, I was working full-time, which meant that writing was pretty much limited to evenings and weekends. I believe quite strongly that there’s a lot to be said for having limited time to write, because it focuses the mind. I’ve been writing full-time for almost four years now (first as a freelancer, now as a PhD student), and I find it absolutely crucial to have a structure – otherwise there’s a real risk of wasting an entire morning on YouTube (this always starts as “research” but can quickly devolve into watching the entire first series of The Lawrence Welk Show).
I’ve always written on the computer in my study, surrounded by loads of books – reference material, but also novels that inspire me to be a better writer – and various fond possessions, such as my 1910 tabletop letterpress, a pink seashell from Juno Beach, and a silver samovar from a friend who lives in Oman.
MsBookish: What are you working on now? Is your writing process any different now that you’re working on a second book, with your first one now published?
TK: Since finishing Medina Hill, I’ve completed a novel for adults, a few short stories, several articles, and another two novels for children (one is now with my editors at Tundra; the other is sitting in a drawer). I’ve recently started a PhD, which will require me to produce another novel as well as a critical commentary, so I’m starting to write in a much more systematic way; at the moment, I’m working with a target of 500 words a day. Otherwise, the process hasn’t changed very much – it’s just intensified! I’m having a lot of fun, and I feel very lucky indeed to be where I am today.