Kiran Millwood Hargrave on ‘The Dance Tree,’ her spellbinding new novel

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Set 500 years ago but remarkably prescient, The dancing tree is the latest immersive and captivating novel by best-selling author, Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave knows how to put readers at the heart of a scene, no matter how far removed from their current situation. Recently she took us to the arctic north of Norway in the breathtaking The Mercies. In his last, The dancing tree (Pan Macmillan), the place is Strasbourg, the year 1518.

Despite its inherent distance in time and space, the world created by Millwood Hargrave is not simply the one you observe: you live inside. We spoke with the award-winning British author about the centuries-old connections she made between this historical period and today, choreomania and the power of poetry in the publishing process.

Strasbourg, France: The set of ‘The Dance Tree’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

JOYFUL: To like The Mercies, you went back in history to find inspiration for The Dance Tree. What inspired you in Strasbourg in 1518? And how do you see it in relation to our time?

KIRAN: Every novel I’ve written so far has started with a strong image that came to mind: a girl walking through a swarm of butterflies, a woman standing on the edge of a cliff, moments of arrival or flow and always full of strangeness. This one started when I read a Dark Atlas article on the dancing plagues.

He described Frau Troffea starting to dance and the match was struck – I had an image: a woman dancing in a market place. The bizarre nature of the episode was quite intriguing, but the fact that a woman started it all hooked me. What prompted her to dance?

The parallels between Central Europe in the 1500s and today are all too foreboding. We live in a time of hyper-connection, and alienation is its companion. The printing press proliferated information in Strasbourg – the sudden overexposure to details of war and ruin added to the hysteria of the time.

Then, as now, there were battles between ideologies and religions, panic over mass immigration and the racism that comes with it, and climate change that brought famine and Drought. It is historical fiction with modern concerns.

Choreomania
A depiction of choreomania or a “dancing plague”. It’s a phenomenon that figures prominently in ‘The Dance Tree’

JOYFUL: Can you shed some light on the research process? Was it hard to keep the narrative on track without disappearing down a fascinating (and potentially distracting) historical rabbit hole?

KIRAN: I am in awe of writers who do all their research up front and are able to not stuff their stories with tangential information! I’m very careful in early drafts to focus on my characters’ experiences with the worlds around them – writing from the body. It allows me to access a time and a place in a human and universal way – we all know what pain, lust, fear feels like.

From the second draft, my research expands and I look at the details of what they wore, ate, drank, did day to day. But my character focus allows me to first take the research lightly and focus on what matters to the story and the reader, rather than getting distracted.

JOYFUL: At a time when women had so little agency, you created pockets of sanctuary and freedom for the incredible protagonist, Lisbet. I was particularly struck by his relationship with his bees, for example. Can you tell me how his character evolved?

KIRAN: I’ve never had a character switch under my fingertips like Lisbet did. As the writing process progressed, she went from a naive, petulant girl in her first pregnancy to a woman rocked by repeated pregnancy losses, seeking solace in her skill with bees. This reflected my own experience – while writing, I lost six pregnancies.

As you say, women had little agency and their money was tied to their motherhood and education. I became interested in how a woman would move through the world if she had this seemingly inherent purpose taken from her. Lisbet does not feel moored, except when she works with the bees.

But her grief has also given her access to a new outlook on the world: the Church says that her children are damned because they have not been baptized, and that she is not a mother because none of them lived. But she feels a different truth in her heart, and it forges her.

JOYFUL: Your writing is scintillating and sensual, even when describing household chores. For example:

“Lisbet removes the sheets, fingers rough with dust, and sweeps the floor, finding soft little blackbird feathers, empty snail shells, their glittering streaks polished with heat.”

There is a pervasive textural realism that puts the reader at the heart of every scene. Does it flow naturally, or does it come back time and time again to these passages and engraving in the finer detail?

KIRAN: It’s an integral part of my writing – I want to elevate the everyday experiences of women, servants, to something worthy of attention. So many women lived inside the house, but these were no small lives – they were full of passion, disappointment and drama. I want to imbue every moment with this weight. It is a conscious rebellion against male emphasis.

book cover of The Dancing Tree

JOYFUL: Is the process of making a children’s book very different from that of an adult book? Likewise, does your poetic spirit inform your writing of fiction?

KIRAN: The process is the same for me. I start with a strong visual, a sense of place and time, and the first drafts consist of situating my characters within this framework. I’m not plotting – I have an idea of ​​where I’m going but not how my characters will get there. That’s what makes it interesting to me, and you see them start to get real and make decisions that I never thought I’d make for them. My books usually take about six months to write and then another year to polish.

Poetry absolutely imprints my work, not only in the choice of words but also in the brevity – my books are always getting shorter! Poetry also taught me to be a ruthless editor, which is very useful in prose.

JOYFUL: Finding evidence of “dancing plagues” in the history books must have been like finding gold for a storyteller. Are there any other historical adventures for you on the horizon?

KIRAN: Yes, but I really don’t want to be pigeonholed as a writer. I have taken care in the career of my children’s books to move from the fantastic to the historical, from the mystery to the contemporary. In fact, I don’t consider myself a writer of historical fiction, rather the stories that found me are set in the past!

That said, I am passionate about history and will return to it again and again, I’m sure. My next adult novel is set in the British Raj, and I’m only just tentatively beginning to stretch my fingers out to ideas about it.

The dancing tree is now available through Pan Macmillan.


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