Mapping Out A Novelist’s Path: Heidi Heilig and The Girl From Everywhere
Rarely do I sit up, mouth agape, after reading cover copy for YA novels, but The Girl from Everywhere was a novel that stuck with me from the first glance of a catalogue. Time travel, historical adventures, and a touch of romance, all tied together by a hapa haole (half-Chinese, half-white) heroine? This story quickly became one of my most anticipated novels of 2016, and debut author Heidi Heilig caught my attention on social media for her insightful comments on the diversity in YA discussions, and her genuine warmth and humour.
Heidi was gracious enough to talk to WWAC about her writing process, the numerous cultural and historical influences that have touched The Girl from Everywhere, and the parts of her own life that have shifted and directed the story.
Take us through the conception of The Girl from Everywhere. What sparked the idea, and how significantly did the story change from the first draft through to publication?
I’ve always loved myth and history—when I was a girl, my father read us all sorts of legends, and my mother would tell us stories about her days in the State House of Representatives where some of her older constituents actually remembered the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy. But the story really began to take shape when I read an article from a 19th century California newspaper called the Daily Alta concerning an act of piracy in Honolulu, 1884. The paper reported that a group of pirates, led by a strange man with a red beard, had stolen over a million dollars worth of gold and silver from the treasury, all without firing a single shot.
Sounds suspicious? It did to me. At the time, of course, sugar barons in both Hawaii and the United States wanted the US to take control of little island kingdom, and the descriptions of the behavior of the Royal Hawaiian Guard were less than flattering. The implication seemed to be that King Kalakaua could not protect his people—and of course, the same claim was made later about Queen Liliuokalani when the monarchy was overthrown, less than ten years later.
It seemed pretty clear that large portions of the story were made up (if not the whole thing), so I decided to tell my own version. The story that came out took a while to shape up—The Girl from Everywhere is the first novel I’d ever written—but the major elements remained the same. The biggest changes from first draft to final were the method of telling that story—tenses, or points of view, and the like. Although I did start out with a more platonic friendship between Nix and her best friend Kashmir—they let me know over time that there was more going on.
Nix is a complex and confident protagonist, and it was easy to follow her into this unpredictable world. How did the setting and time influence her characterization? Were there specific women who inspired her creation?
Nix has spent her whole life aboard the Temptation, sailing from time to place, and for many of those years, her best friends were books and maps. (I’m sure many of us can relate.) As such, her words are sometimes stilted, and opening up to others is not the easiest task. But she is a strong young woman, and she does her best to take care of the ship, and her father, too. And while she has become her own person, the real-life woman behind her is actually my little sister, who stood up to a pit bull at the age of five, who never hesitated to correct strangers when they mispronounced her name, and who looked out for me an awful lot when we were small.
The Girl from Everywhere is centered on the relationship between Nix and her father, Captain Slate, and they’re more similar than they realize. Was Slate a difficult character to craft?
Slate came rather easily, I’m afraid. If Nix was inspired by my sister, Slate is the character that most resembles me, which is why, I hope, he’s ultimately forgivable in spite of it all.
How did you decide on the places and time periods included in the story? Were there any dream locations you had hoped to include but couldn’t, or were the choices pretty obvious from the start?
Hawaii was of course the obvious choice, and while I won’t give away the last map in the book, I will tell you that I had conceived of a portion where the crew goes to the swamps of ancient Japan to skin a kitsune—the mythical shape-shifting fox, identifiable in human form only by her tail. (Since the red-bearded man in the Daily Alta article was not recognized, though he seemed to know the city well, I thought perhaps a shapeshifter’s disguise would help.) But! The idea was a bit gruesome and also would have slowed the plot.
Hawaii is a crucial place both in Nix’s personal history and the narrative in general. How much has the culture influenced your writing, and are there aspects of Hawaiian history or historical figures you might like to write about in the future?
Partially because I grew up there, and partially because my next stop was New York, Hawaii has always been a languorous and nostalgic place for me. There’s a colloquial phrase we have in the islands—“talking story”—which means hanging out and chatting with your friends and family, usually over the course of an afternoon and into the evening. Although Nix wasn’t raised in Hawaii, I tried, in places, to capture that conversational feeling in her speculation, especially as she’s discovering the place where she was born.
Hawaii is one of those places that never leaves you, even if you leave the island. It is a place rich in culture and history—Princess Kailuani is an amazing historical figure, who traveled the world to fight for her kingdom, and the Wilcox rebellion against the usurpers was brave and tragic, just to name two. Some of these might not really be my stories to tell, if that makes sense, but there are incredible stories just the same.
You’ve spoken about being hapa-haole (half-Chinese, half-white) and your bipolar disorder, and The Girl from Everywhere has characters that have those qualities. Have there been characters with those qualities that were influential in your reading/writing life?
The only hapa-haole characters I’ve ever read in fiction, I’ve read in the last year, and none of them were actually born in Hawaii, so they haven’t used the word “hapa” to self-describe. Though I wished I could have seen more hapas in fiction when I was younger, I’m glad we’re getting more now.
Bipolar characters are more common, but difficult to read for another reason—for a long time I had a very up and down (ha ha, sorry) relationship with my own particular madness. I would enjoy certain descriptions and then turn the page and become put off by what was said next (perhaps irrationally? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.) But the one bipolar character who I loved unequivocally and has influenced me very much was Warthrop in The Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey. Warthrop is never called “bipolar” (the books are set in the 19th century), but I recognize myself in him. Although I’m aware that the book does romanticize the condition a bit, and that can be “problematic.” Still. It meant a lot to me, to see my own struggles on the page.
What have been some of your favourite 2015 books, and how have they inspired your own work or perspective?
Speaking of crazy characters I’ve loved, my two most recent 2015 YA faves were A Madness So Discrete and Illuminae. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I loved the craziest characters in each (they were all secondary), and their particular, peculiar views of the world. It sort of made me realize that I’m still most comfortable with keeping the craziness at arm’s length, and I wonder if it’s because I observe parts of my own self that way.
I also read more contemporary this past year than I ever have before, and Denton Little’s Death Date and Tiny Pretty Things were two I loved—Denton for the dark, quick humor and Tiny Pretty Things for the fast-paced drama. Both are things I’m trying to improve in my own writing, and these stick out as memorable examples.