With her debut novel, Between The Trees, Australian-born author Ayn O’Reilly Walters presents a winning combination of historical facts and enthralling fiction for young readers.
Drawing upon her fascination with British history, Ayn’s aim with the novel is to inspire children (and adults) to learn more about our incredible heritage by venturing on a thrilling time-travel adventure packed with twists and turns.
We speak to Ayn, who now lives in the UK, about what to expect in Between The Trees, her own writing journey, and much more.
Q. How would you sum up Between The Trees to a new reader?
A. Magical adventure meets historical time travel. A historical novel whereby two young children find themselves mixed up in another time as they race to get home. Along the way they uncover dark family secrets that span over five hundred years. It’s filled with themes of love, friendship, family and courage as well as shady villains that we love to hate.
Q. Where did you get the idea for a time-travelling adventure?
A. It all began as I was playing with my children in our local park. We played a game where we placed our hands on the trees and someone became the tree, which had magical properties. I then had a ‘lightbulb’ moment that it would be amazing if trees were actually magic and thought of writing a story about it.
Q. What periods of time will the novel transport young readers to, and what can they expect to see?
A. The story begins in modern-day London and my two young protagonists accidently end up in 1851. They see the characters and the events that are happening in London during the Victorian era and experience a completely different way of life to modern-day standards.
Q. Why did you think it important to share your love of British history with young readers?
A. I think education is really important, especially for young people. While it’s great to see young people reading, why not get them reading about British history at the same time? Britain has been at the centre of the world for over 2,000 years and everywhere you go in England, it’s filled with of stories of past kings and queens, battles over land and power, inventions and innovations that have helped shape the world to what it is today.
Q. When did you first realise you wanted to become an author?
A. I’ve always wanted to write stories, going back to when I was at school. Over the years I got carried away with the humdrum of everyday life. All of a sudden I felt like I had lost 20 years working for big corporate companies, and when I had my first child I was able to fulfil my dream of completing a degree in English Literature which enabled me to get my creative juices flowing.
Q. As a debut author, what has been the greatest writing challenge you have faced, and how did you overcome it?
A. My biggest challenge was getting as much detail into the story as possible. For example, writing about the Great Exhibition of 1851. Over 100,000 exhibits from around the world were on show and it was really challenging selecting a few of the exhibits that would end up in my book. I could have written about many inventions and every influential person who attended but that would have taken up the whole book so it was difficult narrowing it down to a few that would be central to the story.
Q. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
A. Keep it interesting by introducing characters that will challenge others; for example, good versus evil. Characters that we can love and characters we love to hate. If a reader loathes the bad characters in my novel then I’ve made the reader feel something. Also, keep the secrets till the very end.
Q. If you could pick one historical figure to meet, who would it be and what would you ask them?
A. Jane Austen. We mostly know her for writing stories about young women of the upper class whose mission is to be married off to wealthy aristocrats but I see her as a champion for women choosing their own path in life in a male-dominated era. Author Charlotte Bronte went under the pseudonym of ‘Currer Bell’; likewise George Eliot was actually a woman. This shows just how difficult it was to have any sort of career for a woman in 18th and 19th century Britain. It’s definitely a thumbs-up for women’s empowerment and how far we’ve come since.
Q. How does it feel releasing your debut novel?
A. It’s wonderful to finally have it published and see people reading it. The feedback has been the best part, especially when adults tell me they absolutely loved it. This means that I’ve been able to write a story that children and adults both enjoy reading.
Q. How has the novel so far been received by young readers?
A. I’ve had some really great feedback. Some of the students at my daughter’s school are reading the book and it’s been lovely when they tell her they are really enjoying the book. Some students have said they can’t put it down.
Q. Just how much work went into writing the novel?
A. For me, I wouldn’t have been able to include all of the historical events had I not completed my English degree. I learnt about English history from the eyes of the authors and how they lived from the Elizabethan to post-modern eras. I had to get the attention to detail right and a huge amount of research went into this.
Q. Who are your own literary role models?
A. People who have made a difference to society. Charles Dickens is on the top of my list as he took a real interest in the lower classes and helped make a better life for the poor in the workhouses. These horrible conditions are reflected in his novels such as Oliver Twist. He was an advocate for children’s rights and spent years lobbying to give them an education and a better life. I also think Angela Carter of the post-modern period was instrumental in how well she blended magical realism with feminism. Nights at the Circus is a novel I enjoyed, with her protagonist, Fevvers—a beautiful, winged half-woman half-bird—who performs at the circus. She’s feminine, knows who she is and I can totally relate to her in so many ways.
Q. You didn’t begin writing your first novel until you were in your early 40s. What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?
A. It’s never too late to follow your dreams. It’s so easy to get caught up in the rat race that becomes part of our lives but if you have a moment, just sit back and question yourself: “Is what I’m doing in my life making me happy? If not, what can I do to change it?” Then change it. We all deserve to be happy and we are here to enjoy and celebrate life—so enjoy and celebrate!
Q. Between The Trees is the first novel in a planned trilogy. What can we expect in the next book in the series?
A. Between the Trees introduced the Pritchard family. We learnt who they were, became part of their family turmoil and felt their pain when they uncovered family secrets going back 500 years. Future books will explore the origins of the magical elements and examine the question, how important is power? Is it more important than love? Family? At what cost?
Q. What other periods in history would you like to feature in your novels, and why?
A. All of it! If you look at British history, it’s rich with stories and tales dating back to the Romans. There were so many power wars over land, plots against kings and queens and religious wars. Just think of the English kings who died on the battlefield. Could you imagine a modern-day monarch doing this? Each of my stories will focus on a different era in British history.
Between the Trees by Ayn O'Reilly Walters (Grosvenor House Publishing Limited) is out now on Amazon in paperback, priced at £8.99, and eBook, priced at £3.99. For more information please visit www.aynauthor.com.