young adult book reviews & more

Interview with Gill Arbuthnott

I recently had to opportunity to interview author Gill Arbuthnott about The Keepers' Tattoo, the first of her novels to be published in the US.

What’s it like to have the first of your novels be published in the United States?
It’s fantastic! I’ve had three novels published previously in the UK, but to be published in the USA opens up a huge new market for me. I visited the USA for the first time last year, with a trip to New York, and I stood in Barnes and Noble on 5th Avenue imagining a book with my name on it on the shelves there… And now there is one! I just hope it’s the first of many.

Where did your ideas for The Keepers’ Tattoo come from?
I spend a lot of time eavesdropping on other people’s conversations – a great way to get ideas!

I overheard two teenage girls discussing what they were doing for the weekend one day on my way home from work (I teach Biology). I misheard one of them (at least I hope I did) who seemed to me to have said, ‘The Shadowmen are coming for me.’ Wow! I thought. Shadowmen don’t sound like good news. Who is the girl and why are they after her? A couple of weeks later I overheard two young men talking about getting tattoos on their heads. From these two conversations the plot was born.

Obviously though, lots of other things fed into it, and the whole idea of the Keepers and the drowned island of Thira is based around the myth of Atlantis. I love to work bits of folklore and myth into my fiction.

A lot of fantasy stories for young adults nowadays practically come with a central romance as standard. Why did you choose to avoid this in The Keepers’ Tattoo?
I’m not sure I was consciously avoiding it, it’s just not something I’m particularly interested in writing about. I was quite surprised when a bit of romance did creep in between two of the characters! (Don’t want to give anything away here.) I suppose I also thought that too much romance would make the story less attractive to boys, but I don’t suppose many teenage boys are going to pick up a book with a cover like that anyway – though I do love the cover. Maybe it should have come with male and female covers in the same way that Harry Potter comes with child and adult covers!

How did you come up with the names of your characters?
I wanted to avoid obvious ‘fantasy’ names but to keep them a bit unusual. Nyssa had been bouncing around in my head for a long time, but I couldn’t think of a name for what was going to be a fairly minor character who hides Nyssa for a couple of days, so I just left her name blank as I was writing. Then I met a girl at an event I was doing, whose name was Aria. I thought that was the perfect name for my character, and asked her if I could steal her name. Once Aria had her name, she wouldn’t go away, and ended up as one of the four main characters in the book. I still wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met the real Aria…

Which of your characters can you relate to most and why?
I’ve scratched my head about this for ages! I admire the way Nyssa copes when her world is turned upside down. She’s very practical and very brave, whereas most people, including me, would just curl up and howl faced with what she has to deal with. But that’s not the same as relating to her, exactly.

Sadly, I think the person I most relate to is the harassed mother of the eleven year old heroine in my first two Scottish novels, since that’s what I am in real life. Very boring.

What was the most enjoyable part about writing The Keepers’ Tattoo?
The landscapes of the islands where much of the action takes place is based on the Greek islands, especially Crete, which I know and love. I really enjoyed being able to put the sounds and smells of the Greek countryside into the book, and many of the characters’ names and place names are Greek too. The tombs on the island of Drakona are based on a burial site in Crete where you can walk down into these incredible stone tombs. The light and the noise disappear, and you’re suddenly conscious of just how ancient the site is. They make you wonder if you’ll be in an altogether different time when you come out again. It was terrific to have something that atmospheric to use in the plot.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while writing The Keepers’ Tattoo? (This can be about yourself, about writing, or anything at all).
I learned to be much braver about my writing and to try new things. When I started Keepers’ Tattoo I had already written three children’s fantasies set in Scotland. It would have been easy to keep doing that, but I wanted to set myself some challenges. I wanted to try to write a fantasy with no supernatural element at all, to create a really appalling but totally human villain, and to set the story in an imagined world that would seem completely real to the reader. I also wanted to try my hand at a longer story, and one that was aimed at young adults instead of children, so that I could explore some darker themes.

What is the most rewarding part of being a young adult author?
Apart from the obvious ‘dream come true’ thing of seeing a book with your name on it in a bookshop, I love doing events: school visits and book festivals. The feedback is fantastic, and unflinchingly honest, which is terrifying but wonderful! I get so many good ideas from meeting my readers, and their criticisms really make me think about how I write, so I can try to improve with every book.

Also, I think you have more freedom with your subject matter as a YA author than as an adult author. YA readers are willing to give anything a go, if you make a good enough job of it. I think sometimes that adult readers are a bit more conservative.

If there was one thing you could change about The Keepers’ Tattoo, what would it be?
I know a lot more about the Priestesses of Rushiadh and their temple than made it into the book. There’s a very sinister labyrinth under the temple, and a legendary golden room….  I would have loved to put in more about them, but it just wouldn’t fit into the plot. Maybe that’s another book for the future.

What are you working on next?
I’m just about to start editing a new novel, which at the moment is called ‘Dark Horse’. It’s a fantasy, set in a northern country and in the present day. It’s based round the legend (found in Scotland and other north European coutries) of the Water Horse. Having said all that stuff about romance earlier in the interview, romance does play a larger part in this story, but of course, nothing goes smoothly, and at the moment, I don’t quite know how things will end for Jess, my heroine.

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