Karen Andrea is a lawyer by day and a writer by night. Her first children’s novel The Enchanted Library is a streetwise tale of a young mixed-race boy in care, combining urban realism with magic and adventure. She is preparing to appear at the Centerprise Bookshop (136 Kingsland High Street, E8) on Sunday 6th December; Xstream East radio’s Nikk Quentin Woolf met with her.
Tell us about the protagonist of The Enchanted Library.
He’s a 10 year old boy called Max Milford; he’s been bounced around from foster home to foster home after losing his parents. It’s a quest and adventure story; he’s looking for a family to love him, for permanence and stability. He feels betrayed by adults letting him down, and his behaviour is difficult as a result. Those are the social realism aspects of the story. Then we’ve got this magical enchanted library that he discovers in the house of his grandfather, who finally fosters him. The library helps him in terms of finding a family and settling down and in learning to believe in himself and his imagination. It’s ultimately an uplifting story.
What attracted you to children’s fiction and how do you make your work stand out in such a crowded market?
I’m not sure any of this was planned. For me, it’s a question of coming to terms with my creativity, my spirituality; being in touch with that childlike part of myself. The distinction between genres, particularly between adult and children’s fiction, has come to be about marketing: where things fit in bookstores and how they are going to be pitched. Years ago it wasn’t like that. You’d just have a story read around the fireplace, and the whole family would listen to it. Lots of what we now consider to be the successful children’s books from a few hundred years ago weren’t children’s books, they were just books and a lot of their readers were adults. But I think children have these shining open spirits that are less jaded than those of adults, so they’re more in touch with their imagination. I am excited by that, and that is obviously an aspect of my character.
Why did you choose these particular themes?
There are so many things that stick in your subconscious as you go through life. My work as a lawyer has inspired the foster care aspect. My themes tend to be hero stories: about overcoming adversity and rising above challenges. I was inspired to write this book a few years ago when I lived in Spain. I used to visit a bookshop there; it was the anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote and the shop was promoting Cervantes, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who wrote Shadow of the Wind. I started to think about the spirits of writers and also the spirits of books. The Enchanted Library is about reading and the life of books but it’s about the imagination as well. This child really goes on a journey where part of his learning to believe in himself is about his discovering what a wonderful gift the imagination is. It’s this porthole to him becoming a successful individual and overcoming all of these obstacles along his path: moving to new homes, new schools; failing academically because he has to lead this itinerant life.
Do you consciously avoid themes that may cross over with other writers?
Nobody is the same; our imaginations are completely different, like fingerprints, so the world of art is a very subjective place. But yes, possibly the biggest nightmare as an author is that someone else is writing your story or something similar. If you are not aware of these then there is a danger that you might inadvertently replicate already existing stories and that’s going to be a problem.
How do you balance your job as a lawyer with your writing?
One day I’ll have my lawyer head on and the next day I’ll have my writer head on. I tend to get chunks of time when I can think about writing and chunks of time when I’ve got to think about paying my mortgage. The processes are quite mutually exclusive. A child asked me once if I drift off when I am doing meetings with clients, because I was emphasising the need for writers always to carry a notepad and pen so that they can capture ideas. I try not to drift off into various portholes of imagination whilst I’m dealing with gritty divorces and childcare issues. That would be rude. But my subconscious does inform my work: there is obviously a foster care aspect, and in another novel I’m writing there is also a marriage law, so both of those things feed into being a family lawyer.
Can you tell us a bit about your next project?
My work in progress at the moment is revising a young adult magical realist book called Sea Fire. It’s a story about a quest for survival on the last land mass on earth, which is facing a cataclysmic flood. It was influenced by hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami of 2004 and it asks questions about human responses to the lack of natural resources and environmental catastrophe. So in my story I’ve got settlers who land on an island and segregate it on racial grounds. The story is narrated by twin narrators on either side of a partition wall living different existences. It has taken me a very long time. This is my labour of love.
Karen Andrea appears at Centerprise on December 6th at 12 noon. The Enchanted Library is available via Amazon and all good bookshops. The Arts Show with Nikk Quentin Woolf is Tuesdays at 3pm on XStream East radio.