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>> A midnight world

A midnight world

A midnight world

Fern and her twin brother Ollie hate each other. Then they find themselves in the world of Annwn, with fantastical dreams, wonders - and nightmares. A world where everything is turned on its head...

Debut author and film developer HOLLY RACE tells us more about her work in film and writing her debut novel, MIDNIGHT'S TWINS:

Q: Your 'day job' is working in film / television development - can you tell us a bit more about it?

A: I started out as a script reader. This involves reading scripts and books for production companies, and telling them whether I think the story would be of interest to that company. From there I became a script editor. I worked on a BBC1 crime show called Death in Paradise, which was an amazing experience.

I worked with the scriptwriters, producers and executives to juggle all the different elements of that show. It looks like quite a straight-forward show, but there's a ton to juggle: serial storylines for the detectives, an Agatha Christie style crime, and a very specific tone.

That's experiences has definitely informed the way I plot my books. After that I worked more in development, which is all the stuff that happens before a show gets commissioned by a broadcaster: finding stories and writers and working up outlines and scripts.

Q: What has been your path to writing for young people? And why did you want to write a fantasy novel?

A: There wasn't really a path, to be honest; more of a stumble through bracken and undergrowth! I've always loved reading fantasy, YA and MG fiction, so it wasn't so much a decision as - this is the kind of genre I love. I don't think it works to be cynical when it comes to creating art; people can always tell if you've written something to try to fit a market trend. The best thing you can do is to write what you would like to read and hope that you're not alone.

Q: Has being involved in film impacted on how you write?

A: Not consciously, but a lot of people who've read Midnight's Twins have commented on how filmic it is. There's a lot of action. When I write I do tend to see the scenes before I see the words, so maybe that's why. I'd also like to think that having worked as an editor, that I was more receptive to my own editor's notes - but only she'd be able to tell you whether that's true or not!

Q: Can you tell us a bit about Midnight's Twins, your fabulous debut?

A: It follows 15-year-old Fern King, who discovers that the mother who she believed died in her sleep when Fern was a baby, was actually part of a secret army known as the knights. The knights protect us from our nightmares, because when we dream we enter an alternative universe called Annwn, and if we're killed by our nightmares, we die in real life as well.

When Fern's hated twin brother Ollie is recruited into the knights, Fern does everything she can to prove that she belongs there too - and to find out what happened to her mother. It's set between our world (sans pandemic!) and the world we enter when we sleep, and explores what happens inside our imaginations when we dream, and what happens when people try to use those dreams to influence us.

Q: Why did you decide your protagonists would be twins - Fern and Ollie - for this story - and that they wouldn't like each other much?

A: As an only child myself, I've always been fascinated by sibling relationships. I think there are a lot of brilliant fantasy books out there where the protagonists are only children, and given my interest in siblings I thought it might be interesting to give Fern a brother. And what could be more intense than a twin relationship?

In early drafts, Fern and Ollie were pretty good friends, but that was just a bit boring! Also, it didn't necessarily feel truthful - so many of my friends have really complex relationships with their brothers and sisters - they love each other but they definitely don't always get on, and in the end I decided to try to be truthful to that sort of complicated love/hate dynamic - just take it to extremes!

Q: You also explore extreme bullying, why did you decide to introduce this to the storyline and was it an area you felt you needed to research, especially the impact bullying can have?

A: There's definitely a bit of me in Fern - in particular the intense loneliness I felt for large tranches of my teenage life. I never experienced anything like what Fern went through, but I definitely had some very toxic friendships (I suspect a lot of readers who have gone to all-girl schools will relate to this).

I still remember breaking down in tears one evening, begging my parents not to make me go into school the next day. They moved me to a different school after that, where I was much happier and with the exception of my boyfriend, had much healthier relationships! It was important to me that Fern had those experiences because of the journey I want to take her on across the trilogy: she needed to be a bit broken, very cynical and extremely misanthropic. I won't say more because that would give away what happens to her!

Q: How long did it take to create the world of Annwn, a parallel world to contemporary London?

A: Annwn (pronounced Ann-oon) means 'Otherworld' in Welsh mythology. There's a lot of Gaelic and Celtic mythological influences running through the book, and I've spent quite some time researching that, as well as little known Arthurian stories.

The process of creating the world has been lengthy - the world was the first thing that I knew about the book, so I spent some time fleshing it out before even thinking about characters and plots. But it's been quite a slapdash process: at times I've tried to consolidate all my notes, but in the end I found that the most useful thing was to write the story then come up with a world-building element when the plot demanded it.

Q: If you could travel to Annwn, where would you want to go?

A: Good question! Well, in London I'd definitely want to visit Tintagel, the knights' castle. Elsewhere in Annwn, I think it would have to be New Zealand. Annwn is a place powered by dreamers' imaginations and memories, so I reckon I'd be able to meet some Lord of the Rings characters out there. Hello, Aragorn...

Q: Which were your favourite creations in Annwn?

A: This is going to sound a bit odd, but I'm really proud of the treitres, which are half monster, half assassin. They're very beautiful, graceful creatures made of metal, and I had a lot of fun working out their backstories and the way they're created.

Q: The political leaders in your London leave a lot to be desired - through them you explore the importance of qualities including our imaginations, but are you using fantasy to comment on today's political leaders?

A: In part, yes. I've been very troubled in recent years by the way we treat certain political leaders and celebrities: either despising them or putting them on a pedestal. Once we do that, it's impossible to ever either question them or find the common ground we often need to make progress.

I think this tendency to treat normal human beings like gods, above reproach, is really unhealthy - it abdicates our own voices and responsibility for what goes on around us.

Q: Can you give us a glimpse into what's next for Fern and Ollie?

A: They have a very urgent quest to undertake in book two: their mother left something for them that could help them in the struggles ahead, but they have to find it first. They'll also begin to understand who they are a little more - and perhaps start to accept themselves. One of them even gets a boyfriend...

Q: When is your favourite time to write, and where do you prefer to write? What are you writing now?

A: I'm trying to be more disciplined, but I have quite a scattergun approach to writing. On an ideal day I'll get up at about 6am and write for an hour or so before my daughter wakes up, then how much I work for the rest of the day is dependent on whether she's in nursery or not. I definitely prefer to write in cafes - I need white noise and the feeling of energy around me to focus properly. If I'm at home the temptation to bake something or tidy up or pick up a book is too great.

Right now I'm focused on writing book two, but I'm also writing a few scripts.

Q: Has 'lockdown' been good for writing time, or not? What have been your favourite escapes from your desk?

No! Lockdown's been terrible for writing time. It was the right thing to do to protect the vulnerable from Covid-19, but it's been very difficult for my husband and I because we've had no government help, which has meant that we've had to keep working while looking after our two-year-old. Luckily we have a garden and with the weather mostly being rather lovely, we were able to take it in turns to take our daughter outside to play while the other one got some work done.

We live in Cambridge, so when things relaxed a little and it felt safe to do so, we've been taking our daily exercise on bikes around the city - I've never known central Cambridge so empty and peaceful before.

My favourite thing to do over the last few weeks has been to take my daughter on the bike to a wonderful takeaway place called Jack's Gelato, and then sit on the wall in front of King's College sharing some chocolate ice cream with her.

Q: What will be your top destination once we're out of lockdown - City break or country? Shop or restaurant? Or something else altogether?

A: Honestly? I will just be very happy to spend time with my friends in Cambridge in some of our favourite cafes and parks. At the start of the year I went travelling around Asia with my husband and daughter. We were supposed to be travelling for 10 weeks but ended up coming home after a month in part because we were worried about getting stranded abroad. But having had that month-long break, I don't feel a huge desire to go abroad again immediately.

I'll be very happy to just spend quality time with my loved ones instead of waving at them on Zoom. Oh, and also going to all of the bookshops in Cambridge to see if they've got Midnight's Twins in stock, of course!

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