My Kind of Heroine, a blog post by Elizabeth Knox
June 10, 2013 | Comments: 2 Comments
When I first met my husband he had a cartoon hanging above his desk. It was by the Australian cartoonist Patrick Cooke, and it showed the Three Graces dancing in togas with beauty queen sashes saying ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’. They were followed by a fourth, slinky, beady-eyed Grace whose sash read ‘Rat-Cunning’. When I consider Mortal Fire‘s heroine I think of that cartoon, and of Veronica Mars, living by her wits, and Tove Jansson’s fierce, experimenting Little My.
I enjoy heroines who are brave and resourceful — the weapons-carrying, kickass girls. But I’m not sure how one of them would have lasted in the Zarene Valley, with its orchards and beehives and kids hoeing gardens, and a few close-mouthed and tricky adults managing them all, a place with defences that are less threats and dangers than illusions, confusions, mazes and frights — but not much you can whack with an axe or shoot an arrow through. So — I came up with a heroine the story seemed to need, the cunning Canny Mochrie.
I didn’t want to write a book about someone trying to save the world, or even just her world. A number of very tough things happened to my family when I was writing this novel, and I was thinking a lot about the impulse we all have to save, or at least to do our best for, the people we care about. And how, sometimes, there’s very little we can do.
When I came to people Mortal Fire I wanted to start with a smart, energetic heroine who couldn’t to do the one thing she really wanted to do, which was to help her friend Marli, who has been crippled by Polio, get better and out of the iron lung she is trapped in (the book is set in 1959). Canny can’t do anything to free her friend, and has almost stopped expecting to. But it’s her job to hope. And she does expect to be allowed to spend the summer visiting Marli every day, and reading to her. But instead, she’s packed off with her stepbrother and his girlfriend, who are on a history research trip.
That’s how the book begins. And the things that happen after that set-up, the engines of the plot, aren’t calamities. Things happens because the heroine makes them happen. She pokes her nose where it isn’t wanted, and stirs things up — all because there are unfathomable things she discovers, and immediately desires.
When Canny Mochrie gets to the Zarene Valley, it is obvious to her that all of its people are living unusual lives, and hiding things, and discouraging anyone from asking questions. There are puzzles she needs to solve. The more opposition she meets, the more she digs in to her investigation. There’s a place she’s forbidden to go, there are skills she finds which feel as if they should be hers — as if they were always hers. Knowledge she’s denied, so has to steal. And there’s the mysterious Ghislain, whom she wants to be with, and to save.
Canny is a person who already has big three problems when the story opens. She can’t face losing Marli. How to live with that is the problem. The second problem is her mother’s fame. Canny’s mother is a war hero, and Canny will soon be the same age Sisema was when she performed her famous deeds of courage. Canny is going to get to eighteen and won’t have done anything as spectacular, or as real. That bothers her. And it bothers her that Sisema’s story is one that everyone knows, that the nation treasures, so Canny never feel as if she owns it, as if it’s a family story at all.
Canny’s third and ultimate problem is to be puzzled by herself — how good she is at some things and how terrible at others. Good at maths, but useless at everyday conversation about boys and clothes and movies. (She isn’t indifferent to boys and clothes and movies, but she’s not good at chatting about them.) Canny isn’t a classic clever girl; she might be good at maths, but she’s not passionate about it. People praise her skills, but algebra and calculus and geometry feel like a shadow of something more mysterious, and more practical.
So, my heroine is a smart girl who is bored with school, who doesn’t quite know how to please anyone but her beloved friend — and someone who is kind of frozen.
The Zarene Valley and its secrets and troubles give Canny things to want, rather than fear, flee or fight. She isn’t threatened; she’s beguiled. Canny is the kind of person who, whenever she sees an obstacle looming, will try to sneak her way around it, with wit, and cunning, and unscrupulous dishonesty if necessary. Canny keeps running rings around the adults who want to rein her in, tell her no, and look after her. She evades all authorities, confuses them, tells lies, sets people against each other. She climbs out windows in the middle of the night, hides things, blackmails people, and generally behaves in ways that don’t qualify her for being a heroine at all. But she never does anything with malice, or entirely without shame. Canny has an appetite for knowledge, experience, and mastery. She reaches out and takes hold, even when doing so is deadly difficult, and means putting her hand into a fire. She isn’t greedy, and doesn’t just grab. When she does take hold — of the Zarene magic, and the mad, bad, sad Ghislain Zarene — she holds fast, and makes promises. For, if Canny’s first defining characteristic is her cunning, her second is her loyalty. She’s a kind of modern Odysseus.
It was enormous fun writing Canny. It was fun because her manoeuvring, her lies and her theatrical machinations are a humorous highwire juggling act, a suspenseful spectacle. And it was really fun when, inevitably, she dropped all her balls, and fell off the high wire.
Elizabeth Knox is the author of the Dreamhunter Duet, which Stephanie Meyer called “like nothing else I’ve ever read.” Dreamquake was a Printz Honor novel. Elizabeth lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Mortal Fire is on sale tomorrow!