Writing By Car Light In Chiswick
Caroline Gammell interviews a local author creating a world of witches
Shifting uncomfortably in the front seat of her car on cold, dark evenings, Irena Brignull would spend hours hunched over her laptop, searching for the right words.
Turning on the ignition every now and then to warm up her chilled, stiff limbs, she would tap away developing the plot and characters of her debut novel.
A few lines of dialogue here or a plot twist there was progress. Night after night the 45-year-old screenwriter worked on her first – and now highly successful – book, parked up around the streets of Chiswick.
It is not, perhaps, the way most novelists would choose to go about their work, but with three children, now aged 13, 11 and 8, all wanting to be in different places at different times, Brignull had little choice.
“I did a lot of sitting in my car, I really did write it on the side of football pitches and tennis courts,” she said. “I would take my lap top with me and push the seat right back. Even writing eight lines, that was progress. I had to see the chiropractor from sitting in my car so much.”
The result was The Hawkweed Prophecy, a fantasy book focused on the lives of two teenage girls, Poppy and Ember, who both never fit in. Their lives are defined by an ancient prophecy, interweaving the real world with that of witches, magic and covens. It does not shy away from heavier themes of ambition, death, cruelty, abuse, homelessness and of course, love.
But Brignull resists the comparison with Twilight: “I have never read Twilight and I didn’t know much about the young adult audience but knew I was writing for older children.”
Brignull started her career as a script editor for wildly successful films such as Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin before moving on to screenwriting.
With the success of works such as The Boxtrolls and The Little Prince she managed to make the jump to author relatively smoothly.
She decided to try her hand at writing when her youngest son Phoenix, now 8, fell very ill.
“He was quite sick for a few weeks and they kept giving us antibiotics. He wasn’t right so I took him off to hospital and it turned out that he had asthma of the most severe type.
“He was in the high dependency unit for three weeks. I have very scary memories of him full of tubes – it was quite a shock
“I needed to be around, I wanted to be around. I wanted to be here and not having to take lots of meetings. I do think I wanted life on my own terms.”
Even now, she and her husband Billy keep a close watch on Phoenix as even the common cold can make him very ill.
Previously work had always come first – so much so that when her waters broke in the middle of the night while pregnant with Phoenix, she slipped out of bed to finish the screenplay of Boxtrolls before waking her husband.
“I had to finish my script. It took me about three hours and I was having contractions throughout. I finished it, pressed send. I think the film makers were just grateful they got anything at all…”
Brignull was determined to write a book, not a script, but has already been offered the film rights to Hawkweed. She wrote the first 100 pages in six months, squeezed in around daily life in west London. She then found an agent – who had approached her years before about writing a book – who loved the idea and took her on. “I really, really enjoyed writing it,” she said. “The whole thing took me about a year.”
Irena moved to Chiswick with her family in 2004 and says she has no intention of moving.
"We moved partly because we could drive out west easily and reach my parents and the countryside quickly.We love living here - particularly walking the dog in Chiswick House, the shops and restaurants on the high road and Friday nights fives at Rocks Lane and Dukes Meadows for the kids."
The book has been published in the USA by Weinstein Books and was translated into five languages. It has also enjoyed success in the UK after first appearing on the bookshelves here in the summer.
She is now putting the finishing touches on the second installment in the series, The Hawkweed Legacy, which is due to be published next June. But unlike JK Rowling, there is not a series of eight books centring on the lives of Poppy and Ember.
“I always wanted to write two books, that was the idea I had. I think possibly a third might be there as well.”
Her children loved the book – even her teenage son Theo, now 13, who had to be nudged to read what could be seen as more of a girls’ book.
“Once he got into it, he read it really quickly,’ said Brignull. “He even had a little tear in his eye by the end.”
The Hawkweed Prophecy by Irena Brignull, published by Orchard Books