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Kelly Reilly On The Magical Possibilities Of Sinkholes

by on September 11, 2017

Kelly Reilly’s debut novel, The Ordinary Adventures of Hannah Alexander, centers around the geology-obsessed Hannah Alexander. Left under the care of her enigmatic grandmother for the summer, Hannah has settled down for a mundane three months until a sinkhole mysteriously appears in her backyard. In short order, mystical insects fly out of the hole and Hannah’s grandmother is kidnapped by an agent from an otherworldly realm. Hannah and her two best friends follow in hot pursuit, and find themselves embroiled in the politics of a magical world, battling an evil regime while uncovering long-lost family secrets. Fans of young adult novels will delight in Reilly’s thoroughly realized world and twisty plot, and find in Hannah an unusually grounded protagonist. Reilly spoke to Brendan Dowling via e-mail on September 6th, 2017.

This book is such a fun, high-fantasy adventure. I was wondering what were the books that were important to you growing up? Did any of them inspire your creation of Hannah’s world?

Absolutely! Before I started writing I spent a lot of time trying to think about what was important to me as a kid. I ended up rereading a lot of things that I remember loving when I was young (and was happy to find out that I still loved them). It was a lot of fearless, sometimes misguided, characters and fantastical all-encompassing worlds—the more bonkers the better. As far as standouts go, there are a few.

For a birthday one year, I got this gorgeous illustrated copy of Anne of Green Gables, and I must have read it two dozen times. I was convinced that Prince Edward Island was my spiritual home and Anne my secret twin. She was eager to prove herself, up for anything, very excitable, just so over-the-top dramatic (that last one was definitely me as a kid), and wonderfully sincere. As I started building out the characters for my book I looked to Anne to spark that spirit of adventure and friendship.

I remember a teacher of mine who read a chapter from a Roald Dahl book every day for the entirety of third grade. It was the best—an entire year of made-up words and crazy situations that characters would treat as fairly normal. Everyone just saying, “Tour a mysterious chocolate factory that’s run by a suspicious and eccentric chocolatier? Sign me up!” I love that sort of mixing of bizarre and mundane, casual with ultra formal. I’ve always tried to take that with me and it definitely came in handy while building out Hannah’s world.

I also have really vivid memories of watching cartoon movies that were based on books like The Lord of the Rings, The Last Unicorn, and Watership Down. Looking back, I think a lot of the scary things in those movies went way over my head, but the stories opened my eyes to the seriousness that exists right alongside bunnies and unicorns and magic rings.

Hannah is such a vivid character and the world she visits, Roon, is such a fully realized place, complete with mystical creatures and political intrigue. Did writing the book start with the idea of Hannah and then create the world to fit around her, or did you start with the idea of Roon?

It kind of started somewhere in between. I had read about a giant sinkhole that appeared in someone’s yard somewhere, and I thought how awesome it would be if that lead some place magical, so that was the start of Roon. And pretty much immediately after I thought about there being a place, I started to wonder—what kind of a person would even go to that place?

That’s when Hannah appeared. Once I started to figure out who she was, I started detailing the ins-and-outs of Roon. I knew Hannah had to be getting herself involved in something big, much bigger than she could even imagine. A lot of the other characters started popping up along the way as I developed them both. Hannah needed a connection to Roon that was deep, she’d need enemies there, and she’d need a lot of allies to help her along the way. There was a lot of back and forth between developing one and the other, they really went hand in hand.

Hannah’s joined by her two best friends, Gwen and Joel, who join the pantheon of memorable support systems in YA literature. What were the qualities and characteristics that were important to you when creating these two in terms of filling out Hannah’s team?

I wanted friends who wouldn’t necessarily want to do everything Hannah wanted to do, they had to have their own opinions and ways of doing things. Hannah might have her name in the title, but her friends would have to be as important to Hannah as Hannah is to the larger story. Her friends had to be relatable but also unexpected and very real.

Gwen arrived in my brain first. Hannah needed an accomplice who was brave, intelligent, caring, and a little bit high maintenance. And once I’d hashed out Gwen’s relationship with Hannah, I couldn’t imagine a pair like that without someone like Joel. He’s a little bit of a pushover and a scaredy-cat, but that just makes him all the more valuable because he’s often the only one that’s like, “Wait, guys. Should we even do this?”

I think between the three of them, they can get just about anything done.

The ending of the book allows for more adventures for Hannah and her friends. Do you have plans to turn Hannah’s world into a series?

I do! There was actually a very early draft of the book where a lot of loose ends were tied up very quickly. While that felt good, it felt really unexplored. There were so many stories I discovered while writing that I knew I had to make a story that could continue to grow.

I’ve just started researching and prepping for writing Hannah’s next adventure. Hannah, Gwen, and Joel have lots more to do and lots more to discover.

No dates to share yet, but it’s in the works.

You’re also a performer and improviser. How does your background in acting affect your writing process?

It really affects just about everything. I talk to myself a lot when I write. I read things aloud, I’ll chat in a character voice, I’ll make faces and gestures as I’m imagining or staging a scene. It would probably make me look a little crazy if you spotted me out in the wild while writing, but it works!

It all comes from my improvisation and performance background. If I’m trying to figure out what happens next, I’ll put myself in the character’s shoes to figure out how they might react and where that might lead. Performance and improvisation also make me braver in person and on the page, because I know that there’s really no stopping you once you get going. If I run into a block somewhere there’s a way around it, even if it’s starting again. It’s the cornerstone of my creativity.

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

I don’t know where I would have spent most of my young life if not for a public library. My mom took us to the library constantly. We spent whole weekend days just picking out books and reading. It was always the most magical of places where I could find just what I wanted in one section and then discover something completely new and wonderful in another. I used to love finding the perfect spot to hide away in the stacks and read.

As I’ve gotten older, the library has stayed a sanctuary. Somewhere to go and just be surrounded by books? I’ll take that any day, thank you very much. I’ll even drop into libraries when I’m traveling—just to take a look and see what’s happening.