I'm pleased to welcome to the Inkpot Morgan Keyes, whose debut mid-grade fantasy, Darkbeast, is in stores now! The premise of this novel - that every child has an animal companion he or she must kill before reaching adulthood - fascinated me as soon as I heard about it, so I leapt at the opportunity to ask Morgan some questions. And best of all, there is a giveaway for a free copy of Darkbeast - just comment to enter!
1. In your novel, every child has a darkbeast who takes his or her negative emotions – and who the child then kills before reaching adulthood. As a mother of three, I have to admit I can’t imagine a child without strongly-expressed negative emotions! How are the children in your book different from children we know, and how does that affect the world they live in?
In many ways, Keara is a typical twelve-year-old girl. She has strong feelings about the world she lives in, about all the injustice she witnesses (both not being allowed to eat all the sweets she wants and being required to sacrifice her darkbeast.) She is on the cusp of assuming responsibility for her actions, for the day-to-day choices that she makes, even when they affect others in the world around her.
At the same time, Keara is different from many of the children in my real-world life. She lives in poverty, constantly on the edge of going without necessary food and clothes. In fact, her mother has hidden her from the Primate's tax collector for the past year, because the family cannot pay her annual head tax. As a result, Keara has a deeply-rooted awareness of societal expectation – she knows that every one of her choices will have an impact on her family, her darkbeast, and her village – on all the people she truly loves.
2. Your main character’s darkbeast, whom she loves too much to kill, is a raven. Ravens, of course, have a long history in fantasy… was your choice of a raven deliberate?
Darkbeast grew out of a short story that was originally written for an anthology where all the stories involved children and animals. Alas, when I spoke with the editor for that anthology, my first-choice animal (a griffin) was already taken. Ultimately, though, I'm thrilled to have chosen a raven.
I continue to be surprised by the number of ravens that appear in fantasy literature and by their extremely varied personalities. In just the past month, I've read works with ravens that are harbingers of doom (Poe's totemic raven, reread for approaching Halloween), single-minded guards intent on murdering anyone with a hint of magic (Tiffany Trent's Raven Guards, in The Unnaturalists), and something rather more complicated (Jonathan Auxier's birds in Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes, which begins with the image of an infant whose eyes have been plucked out by ravens.)
Caw has the wit and wisdom of many of his brethren. He's a combination of pride and humility, guiding Keara even as he is bound to follow her. Of course, Caw might be the hungriest of all ravens in literature; I very much enjoyed layering in that aspect of his personality.
3. The idea of an animal companion who forms a part of a person’s soul will, I suspect, inevitably draw comparisons to The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. Did Pullman’s book have any influence on your work? How do you feel about those comparisons?
Of course, I've read Pullman's His Dark Materials, and I loved Lyra and Pan and all the other human/daemon pairs in that series. As I wrote Darkbeast, though, it never occurred to me that I was writing a story that some readers would compare so directly.
Pullman's daemons are meant to complete their human companions, providing a solidity and balance for life. That "completeness" is represented by the animals' physical beauty and by the gender opposition of animals and humans. Daemons are a physical expression of a spiritual soul.
My darkbeasts, on the other hand, are despised creatures who represent their hosts' most negative impulses. Humans cannot wait to be freed from their bond, released from the constant reminder of their weaknesses and their failings. Darkbeasts have far more in common with the Biblical notions of "scapegoat" than of "soul."
Pullman's novels are magical; when I first read them, I was fully drawn into his words. I can only hope that the readers of Darkbeast experience the same sort of awakening to a world that might have been, some other place, some other time.
4. Your main character joins a group of traveling performers… and I know that you used to work as a stage manager. Did any real-life acting escapades make it into the book?
I feel fortunate that none of my theatrical productions was ever shut down by the authorities. And I never needed to flee town because people disliked my shows.
But I folded my real-world theater experience into the sense of wonder that Keara feels when she watches the Travelers perform. She sees theatrical tricks (a fire that burns bright but does not consume the stage, a whisper that can be heard at the far end of a village green), and she allows herself to be carried away on the tide of excitement from those productions.
Keara's enchantment survives the moment when she learns some of the hard truths of theater – there are costumes to be repaired, sets to be built, blocking to be memorized and changed and memorized again… When I stage managed plays, I always hoped that the audiences would leave the theater somewhat transformed. I wanted them to think about what they had seen, about what the play meant, about how it was performed. And I think that Keara wants all those same things.
Many thanks to Leah and the Enchanted Inkpot, for allowing me to visit and tell you about my Darkbeast. Due to the generosity of my publisher, Simon & Schuster, I will give away a copy of Darkbeast to one commenter chosen at random from all the comments made to this post by 11:59 p.m. EDT October 31.