Hello everybody! Today, I’m so pleased to be welcoming Hannah Durkan, the lovely author of 2022 debut Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale, for an interview. Onto the post!
1. Hi Hannah, thank you so much for being here today! To start off, can you describe your debut Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale for us in 5 words?
Adventure, fantasy, friendship, steampunk-inventions and flying-whales. (Hopefully hyphenated words aren’t considered cheating!)
2. I was looking back at my review of the book before writing these, and something I mentioned there was that I loved how unique your world was, while having echoes of writers I love like Vashti Hardy and Sinéad O’ Hart. Where did the initial idea for the world of the book come from? Were the parallels between that world and our one intentional?
I’m certainly inspired by the work of others but also get a lot of my ideas from the real world. For example, the initial idea of the flying whales was inspired by a podcast about the Voyager Golden Record, where sounds of our world, including the first recording of whale song, was sent into space. There was a bit of a “space whale” art trend in the 1970s which got me thinking about how the vast expanse of our skies is a bit like an ocean. In my book, the world is heavily polluted with thick smog, which was inspired by pictures of the Great Smog of London in the 1950s. This, in turn, lead me to play around with the scale of whales in my story. If people could travel in airships – might they escape the pollution using these flying whales? In Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale, the rich in society can afford to live in hotels the size of cities, which have been built on the backs of giant flying whales.
3. And to follow on from that, but in a separate question so 2 isn’t the biggest block of text to ever be written… what writers would you say have inspired you as you’ve started your own writing?
I love to read anything with a steampunk, fantasy, dystopian or alternative history vibe – bonus if it has all of the above! Growing up, I really enjoyed the Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve and Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. More recently, I was also inspired by authors such as Vashti Hardy, Peter Bunzl and Padraig Kenny after reading their books with children at the primary school where I work. Children (and adults!) are instantly captured by worlds that are a little bit like ours, yet different in strange or fantastical ways. It catapults you into the story because as well as being interested in the characters, you also want to figure out exactly how the world around them works.
4. Something else I loved in the book was the quite complex, but eventually lovely, friendship between Zeina and Jackson. Why did you want to write them as initially being quite averse to each other, if it was an intentional choice?
Interestingly, in my first draft, they were friends to begin with! As their characters evolved, I quickly realised that the Zeina and Jackson at the beginning of the story are so different from each other that they had to start out as adversaries. Through the story they learn from each other and gain a perspective on the world they live in, and it’s only through this journey that they can become friends.
5. Now, I hate to be shallow and all judging a book by it’s cover, BUT yours has such an amazing cover that totally sums up the vibe of the book! I’m putting you on the spot here, perhaps, but I’d love to hear about some of your favourite book covers in 2022?
I know! When I heard George Ermos was doing the cover art, I was so excited. It’s just so beautiful and eye-catching. I feel very lucky. There’s been so many gorgeous book covers this year, it’s really hard to choose. The cover of Andy Sagar’s book Yesterday Crumb and the Storm in a Teacup, instantly grabbed me when it was revealed – I preordered and was not disappointed! I was also blown away by the covers for Festergrimm by Thomas Taylor and Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan. Both of these are still in my TBR pile – I’ve got more in the series to read before I can start Festergrimm.
6. I’m very nosy and love reading things like blurbs and bios and press releases, so I saw that you’d won an award in 2020. What was that experience like? And do you think it’s changed your publication journey at all?
I won the Hachette Children’s Novel Award, which is part of the Northern Writer’s Awards by New Writing North and it totally changed my journey to publication! I had written Zeina Starborn a year before, entered it in to a few competitions for unpublished writers with some success, but never imagined I would win the Hachette Children’s Award! The prize was publication with Hachette, so it’s all thanks to NWN that Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale is out in the world!
7. One of my favourite things about the book was how descriptive and well done your worldbuilding was. What tips would you give to other writers trying to build their own unique worlds that really come to life?
I think every writer will do this differently but for me, I have to draw and collect images. I have lots of different Pinterest boards for the different locations in my story, as well as the characters. I love to draw maps too. Another tip would be, no writing is wasted, even if it gets cut! My first draft went into completely unnecessary details about the history of the world, the different types of jobs people have, how the airships work – I even wrote a science textbook entry about the sky whale! Ultimately none of that was needed for the story but through writing it, I worked out how the world worked. If you go off on a tangent it’s fine – that’s what I tell myself anyway!
8. Also on the theme of writing, what’s your writing routine like, if you have one? Do you have any unusual habits or quirks?
I have two small children so there’s not much of a routine! I drink a LOT of tea and coffee when I’m writing and love to eat snacks too – especially cake!
9. Finally, before a couple of quickfire questions, can you tell us anything about what to expect in Zeina’s next adventure?
I can’t tell you too much but you can expect a new action-packed adventure for Zeina and Jackson next Summer! There will be new places to explore, new truths to be uncovered and lots of twists and turns!
Favourite ice cream flavour?
Rum and raisin
Song you have stuck in your head right now?
Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights. After watching Stranger Things (like everyone) we started playing some Kate Bush around the house and my 4YO has become a big fan of the music video! She knows all the moves!
Favourite species of whale?
The Sky Whale (obviously 🤣) Who knows, maybe there’ll be a new species to meet in Zeina 2!
Top 3 books you’ve read in 2022 so far?
Yesterday Crumb and the Storm in a Teacup – Andy Sagar
Rebel Skies – Ann Sei Lin
Sadé and her Shadow Beasts – Rachel Faturoti
3 2022 releases you haven’t read yet but are excited to?
Festergrimm – Thomas Taylor
The Secret Wild – Alex Evelyn
Legendarium – Jennifer Bell (A friend told me I would love this, but I still need to read Wonderscape first!)
Thank you so much for reading! Have you read Hannah’s book, or is it still on your TBR? What’s been your favourite book cover this year? I’d love to chat in the comments!