“I love the idea of someone with wonderful magic inside them but unaware of how to use it or even if they believe it…”
We had a lovely time delving into a magical, Victorian London in Karen Foxlee‘s newest novel for young readers, A Most Magical Girl. We spoke to Karen about writing the novel, balancing light and dark, and the children’s books she loved.
KF: Kindness, resilience and friendship are some of the themes in A Most Magical Girl but I think the most important part of the story for me is Annabel Grey finding out about herself. She goes on such an incredible journey and in the end she is true to herself rather than true to what is considered the norm which I think is an important message. But all themes aside this is an adventure and I hope children just go on a fantastic journey with Annabel and Kitty.
BRK: Annabel grows into one very brave (and powerful) little lady by the end of the book. Tell us more about creating the character of Annabel Grey.
I think the process of creating characters is quite magical. I was lying on my sofa thinking about a recreated Victorian era street I once saw in a London museum. I imagined a carriage arriving on that street and a girl stepping down. She was a pretty fair-haired girl, quite well-to-do, and I knew straight away that her name was Annabel Grey. I decided rather quickly she’d been to Miss Finch’s Academy for Young Ladies. She could play the piano and embroider and dance like most proper young ladies but I sensed she also had a secret. Her carriage had stopped in front of a glass window where the words Miss E & H Vine’s Magic Shop were printed.
Magic, girls with secrets, Victorian London. I like this, I thought. I’m going to start writing and see where I go. I love the idea of someone with wonderful magic inside them but unaware of how to use it or even if they believe it. I love Annabel’s essential goodness, her politeness, her respectability. I love how much she changes and grows and learns about herself. It all sounds very simple and of course it wasn’t. I wrote in a hundred different directions and it took forever to find the story but the character Annabel – a good, polite young lady with a very magical secret – remained a constant as I searched.
As per the previous answer – in a messy round about way. I’m not a plotter. I just had to start writing what I thought might happen after Annabel arrived at the magic shop. It took me in many strange directions. In the beginning I knew quite quickly that Annabel’s great-aunts were witches. I then wrote their entire history for a few months. I discovered wands in the aunt’s back story and an early incarnation of the character Kitty. I also found the beginnings of the character Mr Angel, dark magic and an inkling there might be shadowlings. It’s through rewriting and writing that the magic rose to the surface and I could start to organise it.
BRK: The streets of London come alive in this book – why did you choose to set Annabel’s story there?
I think, quite simply, because I love London. One of my earliest childhood memories is of the image of Big Ben at TV finishing time as God Saved the Queen played. There are all the stories as well that have filled me over the years; from nursery rhymes to Dickens, Barbara Vine to Hilary Mantel, Sherlock Holmes to Jekyll and Hyde.
It is the most fascinating city in the world filled with history and whenever I go I am astonished by this history afresh. Also I just love to wander its streets imagining.
BRK: Many of the characters have experienced grief and sadness, which Mr Angel tries to exploit in his evil machine – how did you balance light and dark in this book?
It is true; there is lot of grief and darkness in the story. I was particularly fascinated by the Victorian era mourning rituals and paraphernalia when I started write about Mr Angel. These were the things I had him feed to his dark magic extracting machine first. Tear catchers and black bordered handkerchiefs and jet mourning rings. It got progressively darker from there. But I wanted the machine to be really quite terrifying and I wanted the sorrow and loneliness to be palpable.
I think the balancing act comes through writing and rewriting. In the beginning darkness is always pretty heavy handed in my books. You pare away in places. Add more in others. Characters help as well. As they grow and develop through drafts they bring the light. Annabel’s goodness grew as well as Kitty’s wonderful magic and even grumpy Hafwen is a balance to Mr Angel’s darkness
It is a tremendous privilege to write for young people so I always feel terrible when I then say I write for myself first. If I thought about an audience I don’t think I’d ever write a single word. I’d be so frightened. I think I try to write the books I’d have loved as a child but that also have the capacity to please me as an adult. One of the great things though about writing stories that end up being for young people is meeting young people. It is a great part of the job, chatting with young creatives, and I always come away very inspired!
BRK: What were the books and authors that you loved as a child?
My first memory of books are being read fairy tales from a large white book of Hans Christian Andersen tales by our mother. We loved those stories; in particular The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen. I also remember loving Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series and adoring George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. But like many children of my age I grew up mostly on a steady diet of Enid Blyton. I spent many hours weaving involved fantasies about how I could become one of the Famous Five.
BRK: What’s up next for you?
I have a queue of stories in my brain. I’ve sent a manuscript away recently which deals with a boy who grows very big, an encyclopaedia set and a large number of beetles. But there are more magical stories I feel too, waiting to be told.