Kirsty Applebaum is the award-winning author of books including The Middler, Troofriend and her latest novel, The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke (Nosy Crow Books).
Kirsty was born in Essex and grew up in Hampshire. She has had a wide variety of jobs including bookselling, railway re-signalling, picking stones off conveyor belts, putting lids on perfume bottles and teaching Pilates. She now lives with her husband on top of a hill in Winchester.
The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke (Nosy Crow Books)
Lonny Quicke is special, he is a 'lifeling'; someone who can give the gift of life, but at a terrible cost to themselves. Lonny's family must go to extraordinary lengths to help keep him hidden... or he will be left with no life at all.
Kirsty Applebaum tells us more about her new book, The Life & Times of Lonny Quicke.
1. What sparked the idea for your new book, The Life & Times of Lonny Quicke, and what is the story about?
The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke began life as a competition entry in 2014. The competition was to write the opening of a children's novel. I had just read a screen-writing manual called Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, which recommends having a scene near the beginning of a film in which the main character performs an act of kindness (such as saving a cat!). This, it suggests, will help to get your audience on the side of your main character. So, for my competition entry, I decided to write a character doing just that - only I had him saving a rabbit instead of cat.
The book tells the story of 12-year-old Lonny Quicke, a lifeling boy, who can restore life to dying creatures with just the touch of his hand. But there's a price to pay. Every time he saves a life he has to give a little of his own life in return - so he grows a little bit older.
2. How do you know when one of your ideas is good enough to become a novel?
When I have an idea that I think will work, I get what I can only describe as a tingle! If I get the tingle, I know it's an idea worth pursuing. Next comes the hard work of trying to craft it into a story plan - and only after that can I really be sure it's good enough to become a full novel.
3. Are there certain themes that draw you as a writer?
For me, the story always comes first, then the themes arise from the story. I strive to write a gripping story with truly believable human characters - and when a writer does that I think big themes always rise to the surface. So I don't really feel that I choose the themes - I feel that they choose me! That said, I do think some themes come up repeatedly in my writing, even though I don't start with them. For example, the importance of independent thought is often central, and learning to look at things from another's point of view.
4. Was this one a hard book to write, as it covers some difficult themes and ideas?
This book was SO hard to write! I was very ambitious and wanted to achieve a lot with it. For example, I wanted to write a story about a character whose problems were due to difficult circumstances, rather than due to an evil opponent. And I wanted to write a book which had stories embedded within it, which would help to build tension and compel the reader to turn the next page. And yes - it was also hard to write because some of the themes and events are quite tough, and I wanted to make sure that each part was written appropriately. For example, the embedded stories use a 'story-telling' narrator's voice, which allowed me to write difficult scenes while retaining a certain amount of emotional distance for the reader.
I have started books that I haven't finished - but nothing is ever wasted. Often, on returning to those unfinished stories months (or years) later, I can turn them into something different and more workable. Or parts of them can be taken out and used in other books! Sometimes, it's enough just to see that they were a necessary part of a journey - a stepping stone to something else.
5. What drew you to your main characters in this book, Lonny and his little brother Midge?
When I first started writing The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke, Midge wasn't in it. All I really had was Lonny's voice in my head. I tend to learn about my characters by just writing. I don't plan them out or write character sheets or get to know them much at all - I simply start writing, and the characters develop as I go.
It actually took me some time to get Lonny out of my head and onto the page - he seemed so angry! Once I'd written for a while and found his voice, I then began to plan the story. That was when Midge appeared. He's absolutely key - there just wouldn't be a plot without him, and it's wonderful that lots of people who've read it say he's their favourite character.
6. Why did you want to explore the idea of Lifelings and how did you develop the 'rules' of being a Lifeling?
When I wrote that first opening scene of The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke, although the concept of the lifeling had started to take root, it wasn't very well thought-out. But I did strongly feel that the idea was worth pursuing (it gave me that tingle!) - so when I really began to write the book seriously, I had to figure out exactly what it meant to be a lifeling.
At first, I did this by just writing. For example, I wrote scenes from Lonny's very young childhood which didn't make it into the final book; and I wrote several lifeling fairy tales, which did make it in. As my knowledge of the lifelings began to grow, I realised I needed to make rules, so that the story kept an internal consistency. I spent time considering how much of his life Lonny would need to sacrifice in return for saving another's, and whether that would vary depending on what creature's life was being saved. I also considered what circumstances would need to be met in order for him to be able to save a life. I tried to make as few rules as possible, so as not to over complicate the book. Lastly, I threaded these details throughout the story, so that the reader doesn't have to read them all at once and remember them - they're just absorbed as the book is read.
7. How did you go about developing the folklore around Lifelings, and at what stage did these stories within the story become an important part of the novel?
I actually created the folklore very early on in the writing process and then built the rest of the plot around it, so from an early stage it was clear that those tales would be a really key part of the book.
It was great fun developing the folklore - I really enjoyed writing in that story-telling voice. It's completely different from my usual writing style, which is quite an intense inside-the-main-character's-head sort of style - so it felt very refreshing to write something completely different.
I love fairy tales and folklore, so I didn't really do much research for that part of the book - I just dived straight in and wrote them, drawing upon all my memories of hearing and reading this type of tale throughout my life. They were probably the most enjoyable part of the book to write.
8. Your settings - in this novel Farstoke and the woods - feel very real. Do you like to base them on real places, or do you work them out carefully before you start to write?
My settings are often inspired by real places, and Farstoke is no different. Farstoke is an old town with narrow streets, surrounded by tall walls with four points of entry - the Northgate, Southgate, Eastgate and Westgate. It's inspired by my home town of Winchester, an ancient city which used to be surrounded by walls, with six gates. Our Westgate still stands at the top of the high street, and the streets are narrow, just like the ones in Farstoke.
On top of each of Farstoke's four gates stands a large statue of an animal - a stag, a goose, a wolf and a bear. These, too, are inspired by a real place. Not far from Winchester there's a manor house called Charborough Park. It has a large gate with a stag on top - if you search for the Charborough Stag online plenty of pictures of it will pop up. I've driven past it many times and always wanted to put something like it into a story.
9. How have you found writing during lockdown?
The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke was completed before lockdown - I was just finishing my edits as we entered the first lockdown in April 2020 - so it didn't really affect the writing of this book at all. I have found it quite hard to write to long fiction over the last year, so instead I've been focussing on some shorter stories for younger children, which have been lots of fun to write.
10. Where and when do you prefer to write? What are you writing currently?
I usually write at home and, before lockdown, I used to like writing in cafes too. During the first lockdown we turned our spare room into a writing room for me, so now I have a very nice sunny space to work in. I'm very lucky! My favourite writing time is in the middle of the day - but when a deadline's coming up you can find me working late into the evening too!
Right now I'm working on a series for younger children, and I'm also brewing up a fourth middle-grade children's novel in the back of my mind. I have a cast of characters for that, but no plot as yet.
11. Apart from your computer, what's on your writing desk at the moment?
At this exact moment these are the things on my desk: two pens; a notepad; a copy of Save the Cat (by Blake Snyder); a copy of Holes (by Louis Sachar); a copy of The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke (by me!); a TrooFriend bookmark; a mouse; a mousepad, a keyboard and - for some reason - one small paperclip!
12. What have you found the best escapes to be during lockdown - and what are you most looking forward to doing once it's over?
The best escapes for me have been walking in the woods; listening to audio books and decluttering the house! When it's all over I'm looking forward to sitting in cafes; catching a train to London; and going on the holiday I had to cancel last year.
Thank you, Kirsty, for joining us on ReadingZone!