When Days Tilt by Karen Ginnane

On writing When Days Tilt by Karen Ginnane

This book had the gestation of a small planet and it assumed various forms during its long development. However, a few conceptual structural beams have remained unchanged, such as: 

  1. London as character.
  2. Time, and how people use it. Filling your own time on this earth as best you can (or, identity.)
  3. Living in Victorian London was like being in Blade Runner.

When Days Tilt is an historical fantasy that follows 14-year-old Ava, a reluctant watchmaking apprentice, through London in 1858 London – the biggest city the world has ever seen. It’s fast, furious and often brutal. The latest terror is that people are disappearing into thin air – when they return, they are damaged. Their souls are torn. One day Ava stumbles across a shocking revelation that turns her life upside down. Ava has to discover who she really is and how she is connected to Donlon, a twisted, mirror version of London – and with the mysterious disappearances in London. We also follow Jack, who is a metalworker apprentice in Donlon – he’s a gentle boy with the gift of deep sight, toughened by a hard life. Their stories become intertwined and the chapters alternate between the two.

I’ve always loved magical realism, fairy-tale and fantasy where you glimpse strangeness between the shutters of the everyday. I wanted this book to be as strong as possible in its historical setting, to anchor the magical elements, which are inspired by historically accurate turning points. I have folders bulging with information from the research Warren I spent months down, in total.  At one point I could have recited the timeline of watch and clockmaking development in Europe and England (in its heyday, English clockmaking was so technically advanced that King Louis XIV banned the import of English clocks into France in 1711, to protect the French trade) and walked you through the long and fascinating history of Greenwich, and why it became the centre of time and space for the world. My current reading might have been quantum mechanics and head-splitting theories of time and being in two places at once. Along the way I somehow collected other essential facts, such as prawns can see more colours than we can and time passes more slowly for flies.

Place has always been central to my writing and this story was birthed by London. It wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t lived there for years and absorbed its stories, felt its ghosts, wandered its old streets where people have walked over millennia. Australians grow up in young cities on old land, which had been built for conditions on the other side of the world. There has been no dialogue between city and country and we grow up with this stand-off feeling normal. It wasn’t until I went to live in London, which has had centuries to settle into itself, that I experienced a city that felt embedded in the very earth. Land, city, story, people; all intertwined, all feeding unceasingly into each other.

I was struck by the sheer presence of some pockets of London; how different parts of the city had their own distinctive character. It was a very short hop from that to personifying London as characters – which was so much fun! These characters came as easily as breathing – the Green Witch, the Shepherd, the Knights of the Bridge, the Hams, the Black Friars, and so on. They’re still in the book now, having grown and deepened with the story, in much the same way as London has settled comfortably into the land. The Green Witch was central right from the start, which brings us to another motif of the story – time.

We’re all familiar with Greenwich Mean Time, which was established in 1851. London became the centre of global time due largely to its strong naval tradition and a publication called the Nautical Almanac, which collated the data needed to take a lunar distance at sea, and used the longitude at Greenwich as a baseline for calculating time. That doesn’t sound like a hit bestseller but that’s what it became among navigators, who quickly got into the habit of using Greenwich longitude as the basis for measuring time. Long story short, Greenwich became the centre of global time and space in 1884; and that was an irresistible concept for this writer.

Time. What even is it? Isn’t it just – there? Reader, let me warn you against innocently Googling ‘what is time’ because it gets dizzyingly complex very, very quickly. You stumble into arguments between physicists and find yourself in the world of quantum mechanics, which looks at the very tiniest particles in the universe and seemingly impossible ideas like being in multiple states at the same time. Happily, I emerged from my deep dive unscathed and armed with some very juicy concepts, which are re-imagined in When Days Tilt, where people have individual timelines that are entwined with their souls, where wasted time can be recycled and where people’s living time can be stolen and used.

Serendipitously, it turned out that Victorian Londoners were also obsessed with time. Their world was fast – until this time, the greatest velocity a human had ever reached was the speed of a galloping horse. Now there were railways connecting distant towns and the telegraph (which was the Victorian internet) that flung words across the world in seconds, making communication instant across miles. Public time was standardised for the first time ever, initially so that railway timetables could work, and Greenwich announced the time each day.

Today we peer back at Victorian London through a Dickensian lens; all mutton chops, urchins, top hats and nostalgia. Living through it, though, would have felt like a futuristic dystopia – more Blade Runner than the BBC’s The Old Curiosity Shop. It was the biggest, most overcrowded, fastest, most technologically advanced city in the world. It was probably also the filthiest.  I wanted to get that frenzied energy onto the page; that dizzying sense of possibility and fear, the opening up onto unknown horizons. Science and the occult sat side by side and the edges of what was known were blurred. I deliberately used contemporary dialogue to keep this feeling of immediacy – historically accurate dialogue would make it feel ‘back then’ when I wanted the reader to feel, ‘this is now.’

I’m also passionate about voices that have been historically silenced, which give us new ways of seeing old stories. Stories we think we know come alive in new and surprising ways when we hear a different viewpoint. This story is told by a young, feisty girl, frustrated by the limits of her life, and a damaged, sensitive boy – unprivileged views that would not have had a voice at that time.

Basically, I wrote the book that young Karen would have loved to read. I clearly remember the intensity of every new thing I encountered at that time. At that age, you’re opening up to the world and finding your own place within it. There are flashes of magic everywhere, every day, and a book can be so vivid that it sears into your memory permanently. Books can change a person forever; but especially a young person.

It’s an incredible privilege to write for this enquiring, curious, open minded, receptive age group. This is a rollicking adventure with vivid characters, magic and mystery, but it’s also about truth-finding, the importance of connection and kin – found family and friendship as much as blood ties – and finding the best way to use your own precious time on earth. The fun is built on ideas I take seriously, like the mountain of research that you will never see – but which hopefully seeps quietly, and almost invisibly, onto every page.

Karen Ginnane’s website

When Days Tilt at Penguin Books

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