If you have been following my blog posts or Instagram, you would know that I recently read and reviewed The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney which is set to be released on 16th November this year. I have to admit this was the first book by Brian Keaney that I have read. I must also admit that to say I enjoyed the book is a gross understatement. I fell in love with the characters, the story and more importantly the writing style of the author. It was only natural then that I had a bucket full of questions that I wanted to ask but politeness dictates one not to ask a bucket-full of questions. So here are the questions I finally asked Brian and he was kind enough to take out time from his busy schedule to give insights into his world.
Here is the synopsis of the book before we delve into the interview:
In 1802 Thomas de Quincey, a young man from a comfortable middle-class background who would go on to become one of the most celebrated writers of his day, collapsed on Oxford Street and was discovered by a teenage prostitute who brought him back to her room and nursed him to health. It was the beginning of a relationship that would introduce Thomas to a world just below the surface of London’s polite society, where pleasure was a tradeable commodity and opium could seem the only relief from poverty. Yet it was also a world where love might blossom, and goodness survive.
The lives of a street girl, an aspiring writer, and a freed slave cross and re-cross the slums of London in this novel about the birth of passion, the burden of addiction, and the consolations of literature.
Q: What made you want to tell the story of Thomas De Quincey?
A: Some years ago I was wandering through a junk market in London when I came across a copy of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey’s account of his struggle with addiction. I had heard De Quincey’s name before but knew nothing about him so I bought the book and took it home. As soon as I began to read, I was gripped.
The book describes how one night, when he was about eighteen and living rough on the streets of London he collapsed in Oxford Street where he was discovered by a young prostitute called Anne who took him back to her room and looked after him.
As he recovered he became infatuated with her but then one day she simply vanished and he never saw her again, despite spending weeks looking for her. But he could not forget her. Even years later he could not find himself in a crowd without scanning the faces in the hope that he would catch sight of her.
That is one of the mysteries in The Confessions but there is another. Years later Thomas was living in the Lake District when a solemn, dark skinned man dressed in oriental clothes turned up unexpectedly on his doorstep. Thomas describes this visit but he is very vague about the details and it is not at all clear what the visitor wanted or what he was doing in the middle of the English countryside so far from any city or port.
I wanted to solve both these mysteries: the fate of Anne and the identity of the enigmatic visitor. So I set about doing so in the only way I knew – I wrote a novel.
Q: Why the name “The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire”?
A: Thomas was a sensitive young boy who was brought up in a very strict household. At some point in his childhood he heard a version of the story of Aladdin and it made a huge impact on him. In particular, he wondered how the magician in the story had chosen Aladdin, out of all the boys in Baghdad, to fetch the magic lamp. He came up with a surprising answer. He decided that the whole of nature must be a kind of magical language; the magician was able to read that language; and it told him that Aladdin was the boy he was looking for. That was typical of Thomas. He was always fascinated by language. He was, for example, a gifted scholar of Ancient Greek and Latin. When I began to study him more closely it struck me that what he was doing, above all else, during those lost weeks he spent living in the slums of London was struggling to decipher the language of his own heart.
Q: How do you develop your main characters and which characters in “The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire” did you particularly enjoy writing about?
A: Creating a character is a bit like a piece of voodoo. You find out as much as you can about the realities of that person’s life: what they would have eaten, what they would have worn, what they would have believed in. You bundle all this together but – and here’s the bit of voodoo – in order to bring it to life, you have to put something of yourself into the mixture, some part of your own experience. That’s what provides the engine; that’s what makes it walk and talk. It’s not actually as hard as it might sound. I may not be a teenage prostitute or a freed slave or a nineteenth century drug-addict but we are all human beings, after all. As for my favourite character in this story, it’s Anne. She’s the one I can’t get out of my head. If I’m not careful I’m going to end up like Thomas, looking for her face in every crowd.
Q: There are several instances throughout the novel when books and/or literature are shown as the uplifting force, an invisible strength. Is this something that you draw from your personal life?
A: Certainly. I am the person I am because of all the books I have read and all the stories I have been told. My mother was a natural storyteller and my most vivid memory as a child is of standing next to her in the kitchen, stealing pieces of pastry and listening to the endless unfurling of her narrative, most of which was about Ireland, the country and the people she had left behind in order to come and live in London. Then, when I was eleven years old I was sent to a very strict school run by Jesuit priests. There was lots of corporal punishment and lots of bullying. I hated it. So I looked for some way to escape. The obvious place to go was into books. Literature became my country. Its characters became my people.
Q: You explore many social issues in this book, including the slave trade, prostitution and addiction. Are these issues the driving force behind your writing of this particular book?
A: No. They are very important, of course, but one can read text books about the slave trade or about prostitution but a novel is something different. It offers the opportunity to put yourself inside another person’s skin. That is what really matters to me – creating characters and living inside them.
Q: How did the journey from Fantasy for Young Adults to Historical Fiction for Adults happen?
A: I began writing when I was in my late twenties. At that time I had children of my own and I was working as a schoolteacher. So I knew the juvenile market very well. Once I had got into writing for young people, however, I found there was a certain amount of pressure to continue to write for that market. So, although I managed to write about half of The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire in between my other books, I kept putting it to one side. Then one day my daughter (who was a grown woman by this time) picked up the manuscript and read it. You have got to finish this, she told me. Well, obviously, when your daughter gives you a direct order, you have no choice but to obey.
Q: Being an author whose work is translated into more than 20 languages, what would you say makes a good translation?
A: The idea of translation presupposes that there is a story which is independent of the words and can thus be delivered in a different language. But I think the story is the words. Change one word and you change the story. So I don’t think anyone ever really translates a story. They just tell another story in their own language, one which is as close as possible to their understanding of the original. What that means, I would suggest, is that a translator is first and foremost a storyteller and his/her translation is only as good as his/her storytelling.
Q: What is the one book that you think every one must read at least once in their life time?
A: If I was forced to name just one, it would have to be Homer’s Odyssey
Q: What is your one piece of advice for aspiring authors?
A: Read and read and read and read and read and read and read. And read.
Q: What are you doing when not writing?
A: We have a family house in the West of Ireland. It’s on the smallholding where my father grew up. It’s very wild there, just rocks and rushes and a great big sky overhead. You can often find me sitting on the hillside above the house watching the wind blowing through the heather.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: At the moment I am researching a particular circle of writers based in London at the end of the nineteenth century. Some of them were very talented but, with a few exceptions, they seem to have fallen between the cracks of history – a bit like De Quincey. That’s what I’m most interested in, I suppose, the ones that rolled away and fell between the cracks.
Brian Keaney is an award-winning author, best known for his young adult and children’s fantasy novels Jacob’s Ladder, The Hollow People and The Magical Detectives. For a number of years he was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Goldsmiths College and at the London College Of Fashion and he taught creative writing on the Pembroke College Cambridge summer programme. He has a house in the west of Ireland where he spends as much time as possible. His writing has been translated into twenty languages, and several of his books have now been bought by US Film Companies.
Big thank you to Brian for his wonderful, open answers. The book The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is scheduled to be published on 16th November, 2017. You can read its reviews on Goodreads or can pre-order it on Amazon.
Do let me know what you think in the comments below.