The Lyrical Magic Of Words: An Interview With Hayley Chewins

thumbnail_Hayley Chewins Author Photo

I remember discovering The Turnaway Girls quite by chance in my local bookshop. I must admit, I was first drawn to the cover and out of curiosity opened the book and began to read. Twenty minutes later, I had purchased the book and had made my way to a local park where I sat beneath an old oak and lost myself in the world created by Hayley Chewins. When I had finished this book, I could not help but wonder what this amazing author was going to write next and I knew that, whatever it was, I would want to read it.

When I was offered the chance to read The Sisters of Straygarden Place, I jumped at the chance. As I wrote in my review of the book, from its opening line I was hooked: The house dressed Mayhap Ballastian in blue on the day her sister disappeared.

When I finished The Sisters of Straygarden Place I felt the same way one does coming out of a magical dream that one does not want to leave. The world around me somehow seemed less real than the one I just finished reading about. Then I did something I had not done since I was a child, I immediately re-read the book.

Now I have the opportunity to speak with Hayley Chewins and ask her about not only The Sisters of Straygarden Place and her debut novel, The Turnaway Girls, but also about her love of reading, her struggles with self-doubt, and about the books and authors she loves.

Hayley, what were your first bookish memories?

My mum is a bibliophile and she read to us early and often. When I was four, my older sister was struggling with reading, and my mum bought a Hooked on Phonics set to help her. I was completely fascinated by the whole thing and sat in on my sister’s lessons. So I learned to read early, and by accident. I’ve always found words to be thrilling and magical.

What were the books and characters who were formative to you?

I loved all the bears: Paddington, Rupert, Winnie the Pooh. I also loved Mrs. Pepperpot and Eloise. The first book I remember not being able to put down was The Naughtiest Girl in School by Enid Blyton.

Who were the authors who not only shaped you as a reader but made you want to become a writer yourself?

I always loved reading and writing, but I actually wanted to be a singer-songwriter until I was eighteen, and I wrote mostly poetry and songs until I got to my early twenties. I’d always wanted to write a novel, but it seemed like this really difficult, scary thing that I would do when I was older and wiser.

Some of the books that made me want to write a book were:

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

And then I read Skellig by David Almond and distinctly remember thinking, I want to write something like this! After that, I discovered Kate DiCamillo, Karen Foxlee, Franny Billingsley, Sarah Crossan, and Claire Legrand, and I was so inspired by their work. From then on, I knew I wanted to write middle grade.

What sparked your latest book The Sisters of Straygarden Place? Was it an image? A character?

It started with an image of sisters lying in a huge bed in some sort of manor house. I was living in England at the time and I missed my own sisters terribly. It took me a few years to figure out which story the sisters belonged in.

This is a book that is lyrical and the language of it is rich in imagery, yet you are able to deftly balance these with character and plot. How difficult was that?

Thank you! That’s so lovely of you to say.

A big part of it is that I have an editor who reins me in during line edits. She’ll say things like, “There are three metaphors on this page. Maybe too much? Choose your favourite and cut the other two.” And I listen to her. Because she’s very, very wise.

I think all writers have things that come naturally to them, and things that don’t. Language—rhythm and voice and flow—is pretty much the only thing that comes naturally to me. I have to work very hard to create plots that fit together like puzzle pieces. Likewise with characters: I write many drafts of each story, and with each draft, I get to know the characters better. It takes time. So part of it is working with my brilliant editor—and my agent, who is very editorial—and part of it is just not giving up until I get it right.

The Sisters of Straygarden Place, as well as The Turnaway Girls, are rich in atmosphere. How do you go about beginning to create the worlds you set your stories in? Certainly, in this second book, there appears to be a strong use of colors. Was that intentional?

I can’t start writing a book until I have a sense of the kind of atmosphere I want to create—a sense of the book’s tone. I realised recently that it comes down to texture. I have to pin down a handful of textures that the book sort of pivots on. So for The Turnaway Girls, it was stone, sea salt, and gold, and in Straygarden, it was velvet, and poodle fur, and marble. This isn’t really something I decide—I have to discover it through writing. But once I discover it, it sort of sticks.

The use of colour wasn’t intentional at all—but I was driven, with this book, to write something beautiful. I found myself really drawn to reading about old mansions and all the beautiful objects they contained. And I love colourful everything, so I’m not surprised that colour seeped in! To me, colour is life-giving. I love that Iris Apfel quote: “Colour can raise the dead.” I believe that. There’s something powerful about beauty, and I feel like I’m only just beginning to explore that…

What did you find most difficult about writing your second book? What did you love the most about writing this one?

The most difficult thing was figuring out the main conflict of the story. For a long time, I had the sisters and the atmosphere, but I had no idea what their story was. It took a number of drafts to get there. What I loved most was writing about sisterhood—exploring the dynamics between the sisters—and creating the world of the book (all the little details inside the house, and the grass and the wanderroot trees).

When writing, are you someone who outlines your story first or do you prefer to let it unfold as you are writing it?

I brainstorm in the beginning, but I’m an intuitive writer and I have to write a story to find out what it is. It feels more like discovering what’s there, what’s hidden, rather than inventing it from scratch. I really believe that when we’re in language—actually writing our stories—our brains are doing something very different from when we’re making mind maps or listing scenes. (I love doing those things, but they’re different to writing for me.) I try to map things out—it makes me feel less scared when I’m about to start a draft. But I usually end up keeping about 1% of the scenes I brainstorm in advance. The rest has to be felt out in language.

Do you have any writing habits or routines?

Yes! When I’m drafting a book, I get up at four in the morning. I call it the dreaminghour. I love it because my brain still has one foot in dreamland, so the writing flows better. And I usually drink black coffee when I write. Besides for that, I’m actually quite disorganised, and I don’t have much of a system. I just work until I get it right

I know there are some authors who prefer to write in silence while others like to have music playing to create a kind of soundtrack to what they are writing. Which are you? And if you listened to music, what were some of the songs that shaped The Sisters of Straygarden Place?

I love writing to music. My touchstone song for Straygarden was “Mother” by Tori Amos. I often listen to the same song on repeat while drafting.

Both The Turnaway Girls and The Sisters of Straygarden Place are rooted in magic worlds. What is it about fantasy that has drawn you to writing in this genre?

To be honest, I feel like a bit of a misfit in the world of fantasy because I didn’t grow up reading much of it. I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter until I was in my twenties. Same with Neil Gaiman and Laini Taylor and Philip Pullman. I only just started reading Ursula Le Guin this year. I still haven’t read any Terry Pratchett—I know, I know! I’m getting there! I came to fantasy late, and I’m still catching up—though, I must add, I have always loved reading fairy tales and folklore.

The book that really made me want to write about magic was The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter. It opened my eyes to the fairy tale as a space to explore the experience of being a girl in a really powerful way. Magic is so powerful because it allows you to make the abstract concrete. Sadness, terror, horror—they all become embodied. So I came to magic—and magical fiction—late. But once I discovered it, I never wanted to let it go. I think I’ll always, always write magical fiction. I can’t imagine not writing about magic and magical girls in particular. And I’m always taking recommendations for fantasy books because I know there are holes in my reading!

I see fantasy as having its origins in fairy tales and folklore. Do you yourself loving reading them and why do you think they continue to impact readers today?

I do love them! I’ll never forget the day I discovered the Fairy Tales and Folklore section in the library at my alma mater. It was like heaven! I think fairy tales are powerful and enduring because they’re essentially survival stories. They’re these little maps or metaphors for how to get through. Plus, they hint at something more—something just beyond this corner, behind that door. They provide a sense of mystery and beauty, which can be such a solace in our world. I think we need fairy tales more than ever.

With your second book, the story revolves around the sisters. Do you, yourself, have sisters or siblings that shaped the relationships in this book?

I have three sisters. I’m the second eldest. I’m really close with my two younger sisters. Things are complicated with my older sister. Sibling relationships can be so complex and difficult, and I wanted to explore that in Straygarden. There can be so much tenderness, so much longing for acceptance and love, and so much rage and fear. I wanted to write about that.

I know you write openly and honestly on your blog and in your emails, especially about the struggles you face as a writer or not being able to write. What have been the biggest obstacles for you to keep writing or overcoming writer’s block?

I don’t think I’ve ever had writer’s block—or at least, I wouldn’t call it that—but I have struggled with burnout and self-doubt, and just being stuck and not knowing what to write next, which can sometimes keep me from writing for days or weeks. I had really bad burnout towards the end of last year, and I took some time off from writing and it really helped. Self-doubt is really difficult to deal with. What I do is tell myself that I can be afraid and feel doubt, but I’m going to write anyway. I try to be gentle and firm with myself. I always find that when I shift my focus to the work itself, the doubt fades into the background, because you can’t actually doubt yourself while you’re doing the thing—because you’re doing it! It’s the before and the after that’s the trouble—the getting going. When I’m struggling with that, I’ll normally put on a timer and tell myself I only have to write for twenty minutes—and I always end up doing more than that. Or I wake up at four in the morning and just dive in before I can start criticizing or doubting myself. Four in the morning is like a magic trick.

You created one of my favorite podcasts, “For Novelists Who.” What was the genesis for this?

I’m so glad you enjoy it! I’ve always been a naturally optimistic person and when I’m down or stressed I give myself pep talks. For Novelists Who is a way of sharing those pep talks with other writers. I run on hope and I believe it’s as necessary as breathing.

Lastly, who are the authors, and what are the books that continue to inspire you as an author?

Oh, so many! But three I’ve read and loved recently are:

The Forest of Stars by Heather Kassner

Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason


Hayley Chewins writes books about magical girls with secrets. Her debut, The Turnaway Girls (Candlewick Press, 2018) was a Kirkus Best Book and made the 2019 Amelia Bloomer Book List. Her second novel, The Sisters of Straygarden Place, is forthcoming from Candlewick Press in September 2020. Hayley lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her husband and a very small poodle. She is represented by Patricia Nelson at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Visit Hayley Chewins to find out more!


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