Hollowpox & the Magical Jessica Townsend

I was privileged to interview Jessica Townsend about her new book Hollowpox: the Hunt for Morrigan Crow, third in the Nevermoor series of nine books (Hachette Australia), in time for today’s book publication.

I have outlined her responses here.

Thanks for speaking with PaperbarkWords, Jessica.

Hollowpox is a magical sounding title. But what is it really and how did you create such an apt, atmospheric title in a book that features a pandemic?

Jessica explained that it was a challenge. The word Hollowpox sounded magical and interesting although neither of its components, ‘hollow’ or ‘pox’ are positive words. She already knew that Book 3 was going to be about a magical pandemic with an emptying of humanity. Its working title was Nothing Pox, which became Hollowpox.

What were you surprised or shocked to have included in your story and have since found to come true?

Jessica was absolutely shocked by the real-life pandemic after writing about one in her book. She explained that on signing with the publisher for the book series several years ago, she had to write an outline of each book and had already outlined that her plot in Book 3 would be about a disease outbreak. The writing of Hollowpox was already finished (apart from a few final edits) when COVID19 emerged.

Jessica was in the UK with family when COVID hit and she had to rush back to Australia. She found that the novel reflected, not just the overall concept of disease, but responses too close to the bone such as people pitting themselves against each other and governments. Whilst her fictional pandemic is not a mirror-image of the actual circumstances, small details are spookily on point.

Speaking with her editor, Jessica wondered if the book needed to be cancelled and rewritten in case it added to people’s fears and was seen as insensitive and hurtful. But she was reassured that it was fine and readers would find it relatable. However, her editor (who has young children) did wonder why the schools in Nevermoor weren’t closed!

Characters & World Building – the joy of your books is often in the generosity of the detail, such as the Brolly Rail, the character of Fenestra and the Hotel Deucalion. Which elements are you particularly pleased with? Which elements seem to be most loved by your readers?

Jessica replied that the most loved elements are usually the same for her and her readers. These include descriptions of the Hotel Deucalion, Christmas and the Battle of Christmas Eve, Hallowmas and Morrigan’s changing bedroom.

“There is no part of this world I don’t enjoy writing.”

Thinking more about the wonderful details in the books, at the beginning of Hollowpox the doors to Station 919 match the characters. What would your door look like?

In response, Jessica looked around her room and commented on all the bright colours with which she surrounds herself. These include a pink armchair, turquoise lounge and a rainbow of coloured clothes in her wardrobe. So she would like her door to Station 919 to be rainbow coloured and decorated with fairy lights.

You have invented several wonderful forms of transport such as the Brolly Rail, Home Train, Gossamer Line, Wunderground and railpods. Of which are you most proud or would like to ride yourself?

Instantly Jessica exclaimed, “Oh definitely the Brolly Rail!” And then she mentioned the Wunderground. The Brolly Rail was one of her first images for the story, with people on a rooftop and then flying through the air with their umbrellas like Mary Poppins. The Wunderground is like any Underground railway but is powered by Wunder and has secret detours. Plot wise, these systems are integral to help characters get around the city.

Is there a city or place that has inspired Nevermore?

The brollys and Mary Poppins imply that Nevermoor is a fantasy version of London, with extra magical elements and dimensions. It is also a mishmash of Victorian and Georgian Edinburgh, whose narrow, cobblestone, dangerous-looking streets inspired the Tricksy Lanes. The Nevermoor Bazaar (scene of one of my favourite set pieces in Book 2: Wundersmith) is inspired by Marrakesh where an undercover maze-like market is held in a big square, the scent of spice leads to the pungent smell of raw meat and the characters are encircled by veils and curtains as they pass through to a new world.

(Jessica even revealed that she is now starting to write Book 4 and it includes a neighbourhood inspired by Venice.)

It’s difficult to answer, but how do you create narrative arcs within the chapter, book and/or series? These are so important to keep people reading and are also intrinsically satisfying.

Plotting is intuitive for Jessica and involves keeping balance. “Every book is a contained story” and is resolved in “a comfortable place to end.”

She thought that by Book 3 the writing process would be more straightforward but she is still learning so much along the way.

Jessica plots in advance but has space to explore the many subplots and threads along the way. She knows that her books are going to become even bigger in size.

What plot or other elements have you included early on that have led to later tricky plot issues to be solved?

This is a situation that Jessica is aware of, particularly so she doesn’t “write myself into a corner”. Usually she is conscious of potential plotting predicaments at the time.

When plotting, she must remember what the reader doesn’t know and also make decisions about when they need to know something. “It’s difficult to know when and where to drop information.” Jessica is relying more on her editor to help here because of her particular insight into the books. In the past, Jessica needed her editor to be a blank slate but now that the nine books in the series are roughly planned out, she will suggest where hints and foreshadowing are needed.

Writing fantasy can be an advantage because a fantastical element can help the author solve a tricky issue as long it is in line with the world building and tone.

How is Morrigan growing and changing?

In Book 1: Nevermoor Morrigan was more passive and reactive in a child-like way. She was resigned to dying at a young age as a cursed child. In Book 2 she was disappointed to realise that the life that seemed so “wundrous” is not perfect.

Morrigan is now thirteen. “She changes quite a lot in this book.” Her change is gradual but dramatic. She has settled into her normal life in Nevermoor and is more confident. As a teenager she is engaging with adults and taking more of a stand against them. “I’ve really enjoyed writing her into a teenager.”

Your character Miss Cheery says that, rather than baking, she buys biscuits from the shop like normal people. How do you include this and other humour into your stories?

Jessica laughed as she described how much she enjoys writing humour and how “silly” her sense of humour is. “Every joke is there because it made me laugh!” She loves writing “silly bits of banter”.

What attributes or qualities do you value (and show in your books)?

First of all, Jessica values kindness and this features strongly in the book. Secondly, she values empathy. There are big divides between people in Hollowpox and Morrigan can be regarded by some as an “odd little duck”. She can be viewed as a bit of a “Wednesday Addams” character, partly because of how she dresses. Morrigan herself is compassionate and empathetic: able to imagine what it is like to be someone else, and a natural supporter of the underdog.

Last weekend’s Australian featured prominent Australian books being published this week. These include Trent Dalton’s All Our Shimmering Skies, Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, Craig Silvey’s Honeybee as well as Hollowpox. Preorders for Hollowpox at Dymocks (and assumedly elsewhere) have been almost double those of Trent Dalton’s new book. The first two books in the Nevermoor series have sold over a quarter of a million copies. Hollowpox preorders are the biggest so far for the Nevermoor series.

With numbers like this and with children’s books being so important and great – why can they be overlooked in the media and other forums?

Even though she is in an “echo chamber” wrapped up in her own “burrow” and world of writing, Jessica agreed that it is “a bit of a worry”. She understands that people in the industry are concerned about the disproportionate lack of review and other space for children’s books considering their high number of sales.

Jessica has many children in her extended family. She has a good grasp of what kids should and could be reading at different ages and is “swimming in the children’s book industry”. But even as an expert in the field, she would like more guidance about what children should be reading through more mainstream publicity and reviews.

Which of your many awards has meant the most to you? Why?

Immediately Jessica replied, “All of them!” and then made particular mention of heart-warming awards from small school libraries. Jessica also won three ABIAs in 2018 (including Book of the Year for Nevermoor). Jessica’s “headspace is in a certain place. I would be a hermit if I could,” so she didn’t realise what winning the ABIAs meant until she was actually at the ceremony and her publicist explained that they are the book equivalent of the Oscars. Jessica pays tribute to her publisher, Hachette, who “did an incredible job” in promoting Nevermoor and created “its moment”. She feels embraced by the book industry.

Jessica Townsend (Hachette website)

What is the source of your creative imagination?

Jessica described, “imagination is like a muscle” that must be worked and developed. She recognises that screens are useful but, growing up in the 1980s and 90s before the internet was so prevalent, “I spent so much of my childhood being bored. I had to entertain myself.” As the youngest sibling, she played by going into her own imagination and making up stories. She worries slightly about children today, noting that they “don’t spend any time in their head” and aren’t allowed to be bored.

Which other authors’ work have you loved?

John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began series, which has influenced Nevermoor. Marsden’s protagonist Ellie and her group had “so much heart and humour”. Those books built up Jessica’s “daydream muscles” and created her writing aesthetic, which she describes as “darkness, danger, sinister …  silly humour and over-the-top ridiculous”.

Jessica Townsend is creating a remarkable and enduring fantasy series in Nevermoor. Her infectious laugh and insightful, generous responses make her a delight to interview.

My review of Wundersmith in the Weekend Australian (2018) concluded:

“Nevermoor explores universal themes of identity, belonging, friendship and love. Demonstrating consummate storytelling in page-turning style, it frames a rite of passage as a magical adventure. It grapples with real-life concerns within an intricate, enchanting secondary world of “Wunder”. Nevermoor utterly deserves its success.”

My full review of Hollowpox will run in the Australian soon.

Hollowpox: the Hunt for Morrigan Crow at Hachette Australia

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