Contained within Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White are rules for writing a fantasy novel. Madeleine, a girl living in the recognizable world of Cambridge, England, informs her correspondent, Elliot, a boy living in the fantasy kingdom of Cello (whom she doesn't quite believe in), that, “You've got to get your science figured out up front!” and “You're way too hokey and sweet. You need an edge.” Then she worries that maybe he plans “to rip off Philip Pullman's Northern Lights.”
“Fantasy was a new genre for me and I was very conscious of giving myself a challenge,” Moriarty says on a recent trip to the U.S. from her Australian home. “I tried to read as much fantasy as I could. I don't like following the rules; I wanted to break the rules. But you can't break the rules without first finding them out.”
Moriarty took several years to figure out how to break these particular rules, and the result in A Corner of White is an intensely imaginative experience. “The Kingdom of Cello came to me about 10 years before I started writing the book,” she says. “I was still working on my Ashbury/Brookfield books, and I was living in Montreal at the time and I went to the cafe on snowy winter day to work, and, being from Australia, I still found snowy winter days extraordinary. A friend of mine had just given me a new notebook and I opened it up and discovered it came with these little colored pencils inside. I started drawing pictures of a magical kingdom instead of doing my real work, and named it Cello because I like the word cello.”
The book took so long to ripen because, Moriarty says, “It just never worked for me until one day I realized what was missing. My favorite fantasy books are hinged in the real world, so I thought I needed a starting-off point to make the Kingdom of Cello real for me, to give it context.” Then she needed to figure out which part of the actual planet Earth should house the Kingdom of Cello. “I had spent three years in Cambridge and it was like a dream world for me,” she explains. “In that way, it matched the Kingdom of Cello and contrasted it at the same time.”
Cambridge through the eyes of 15-year-old Madeline is rather dreamy, partly because Madeleine herself is dreamy and slightly chaotic, in an endearing way. “I tried writing her in lots of different forms and that one seemed to work,” Moriarty says. “It felt to me like she had more potential–she's not complete yet, she doesn't know herself yet.” Moriarty laughs when she explains that she's put some of her own personality into her character of Madeleine. “That's what I'm like, a bit chaotic and dreamy, so that's why it bothers me when people say 'I don't like her!'”
Madeleine may be living in the lovely, dreamy city of Cambridge, but she isn't quite happy. She misses her father, and her new friends don't quite trust her yet, and her mother is increasingly addled. When Madeleine discovers a letter from Elliot in a parking meter, the Kingdom becomes a distraction from her current misery. But all distractions, even sweet-sounding fantasy worlds, have their own inherent dangers. In the Kingdom these dangers manifest in the form of colors that attack, economic hardship and fathers who practice infidelity.
“I did think about that, about how often people think of running away to a small town where life is simple, where you learn how to make apple pies and you meet the handsome local mechanic and everything is solved,” Moriarty says. “But each place you run to has its own complications. You bring your own issues with you. Every place you turn to will still have villains; villains in the real world and in the fantasy world, too. It's kind of sad to think there's no real escape, isn't it? But I do think it's important to explore the dark side of a fantasy world.”
Moriarty's worlds–both real and fantastical–may be dark, but they are still inviting. And for all Madeleine's chaotic dreaminess, she's an intriguing and effective character. “She hasn't crystallized yet and she's deliberately not allowing herself to,” Moriarty says. “And I'll explain more in the next two books!”
Andi Diehn is a freelance writer living in rural New Hampshire. You can find her at andidiehn.com.