Ten Questions with Trilby Kent

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Ten Questions with Trilby Kent

Trilby Kent has written for the Canadian national press and publications in Europe and America; her short stories have appeared in such magazines as Mslexia and The African American Review. She now lives in London, England, where she is about to embark on an English PhD with a focus on Creative Writing. Open Book talks to her about reading, writing and her novel, Medina Hill (Tundra Books).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Medina Hill.

Trilby Kent:

The story is set in 1935 and is told from the point of view of a boy with what is now known as selective mutism: that is to say, he’s able to speak, but he clams up in front of strangers. Because their mother is unwell, Dominic and his little sister, Marlo, are sent from their home in London’s East End to spend the summer at an artist’s colony run by their uncle and aunt in Cornwall. It’s here that Dominic develops a fascination for Lawrence of Arabia (the memory of the Great War hangs over much of the book; Dom’s father fought at Passchendaele, while his Uncle Roo was a conscientious objector). When he finds out that a local band of Travelers are being persecuted, Dominic immediately starts to see parallels between what’s happening in this Cornish coastal village and the Arab Revolt. His emerging friendship with a Romany girl cements his resolve to do the right thing – and so he begins to learn what it really means to have, and to use, a voice.

The book has its dark moments, but is also fairly whimsical: the boarding house where Dominic and Marlo stay is peopled with a crew of likeable eccentrics – including an American clairvoyant and a potty-mouthed priest – not to mention a decorated carrier pigeon, known as The Baron.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote Medina Hill?

TK:

I tried to write the sort of book that I would have enjoyed reading when I was a kid: something with a little grit to it, but also a dash of the absurd.

OBT:

Which books made a great impression on you when you were a child?

TK:

I had an eclectic taste in books: Enid Blyton was my comfort reading when I was very young, as were the Sherlock Holmes stories a little later. I loved anything grounded in history, whether it was I, Claudius or A Girl of the Limberlost. The Chronicles of Narnia, too – partly because the Pevensie children had escaped the Blitz, and I loved anything to do with the Second World War. I also enjoyed books with a Gothic bent, such as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

From an early age, I didn’t really distinguish between stories about children and stories for children, which meant that I stumbled across The Turn of the Screw and The Lord of the Flies rather earlier than perhaps I should have!

OBT:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

TK:

Besides student gigs – I deputy edited both The Cherwell and The Isis at Oxford – I think that my first “real” publication was a piece for Macleans in 2001. It was an account of Fresher’s Week at Oxford in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

TK:

Start as close to the end as possible. Conflict is story. Describe the coffin, not the grief. Write what you don’t know, but make the reader believe that you do. Take time.

Some of the best tips I’ve picked up come from The Paris Review Interviews.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

TK:

Somewhere within reach of life (museums, galleries, cinemas, bookstores): I don’t find the rural idyll terribly helpful when it comes to writing about people, human drama. Perhaps it would be different if I wanted to write a book about cows. Somewhere foreign, somewhere strange – because I find dislocation very exciting and inspiring. A garret in Calcutta, maybe!

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

TK:

Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries
Nino Ricci, The Lives of the Saints (I’d have included the entire trilogy, but that would be cheating…)
Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

This is hard! I think, if I could, I’d have separate lists for non-fiction (headed by Northrop Frye) and for children’s (which would lead with Kit Pearson), as well as a sub-genre of books inspired by Havergal College, my old high school – namely, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s Skim and Susan Swan’s The Wives of Bath.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

TK:

Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country. What I wouldn’t give to write like that! Also, Le Grand Meaulnes, which I felt rather guilty about never having read before. I’ve just finished Apology for the Woman Writing, by Jenny Diski, which I loved, and am now really looking forward to starting Cape of Storms, by Andre Brink.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

TK:

Read. Read. Read.

Don’t take rejection personally. If you’re lucky enough to receive feedback, listen and learn what you can from it. The publishing world often seems to move at glacial speed, so try to be patient. Don’t send out work until it’s really, really ready.

Read.

OBT:

What is your next project?

TK:

I’m polishing up another novel for children, set in South Africa during the Boer War. The main character is a 12 year-old girl who embarks on a grueling trek with her mother and brothers across the battled-scarred Transvaal. A friendship with a Canadian soldier, the loss of an African friend and the tragic consequences of the British concentration camp system all play their part in her coming of age.

My second novel for “grown-ups” (the first is going through submissions right now) will form the basis for a PhD I’ll be starting this month. It will be a parallel narrative ranging between sixteenth-century southern Africa and an experimental boarding school in Guernsey in the 1950s.

I’m also toying with an idea for a children’s opera, which will be completely new territory for me!


Trilby Kent was born in Toronto, Ontario, and grew up in cities on both sides of the Atlantic. After completing degrees at Oxford University and The London School of Economics, she worked in the rare books department at a prominent auction house before turning to writing feature articles for publication in Europe and North America. She now lives in London, England. Medina Hill is Trilby Kent’s first novel.

Please join Open Book: Toronto on Monday, November 2 as Nathaniel G. Moore kicks off the Medina Hill blog tour!

For more information about Medina Hill, please visit the Tundra Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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