Debut novelist who has come a long way
- Credit: Simon Weller
The old adage that there's no such thing as overnight success is certainly true for Hackney author Karen Raney.
After a life-long “apprenticeship as a writer” her debut novel, All the Water in the World, was shortlisted in November for the 2020 Costa First Novel Award.
As Karen says when we speak on the phone, this was both “a very wonderful surprise and a huge confidence booster." But it was far from the book's first accolade.
The native New Yorker began writing the book during an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, and in 2017 it won her the annual Pat Kavanagh Prize awarded to an outstanding graduate of the course.
“It was a sign that you’re writing something that people actually want to read and appreciate and that the quality is high enough to be taken seriously. I’ve been writing all my life without a lot of that, so it really does help.”
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The novel follows the dual perspective of Maddy, a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer, and her mother, Eve, as they grapple with Maddy’s illness.
It was published in January to acclaim and has been optioned by Monumental Pictures/Lionsgate for a film. Karen describes the big screen adaptation as being; "at the screenwriting stage, so there hasn’t been a huge movement, but it’s still a going concern.”
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Asked how she captured the perspective of a girl with cancer, she’s candid about her process. “My approach to research is to do it afterwards. I started writing this novel in a very organic way, as if I’d written it while sitting by a lake. And then the characters emerged, and I worked out what I wanted to do with them. At the beginning It evolved from paragraph to paragraph, page to page. Then at one point, I consulted an oncologist to check out various facts and make sure I was on the right track.”
Both Maddy and her love interest have a passion for the environment and are deeply invested in the climate crisis.
Karen explains: “I wouldn’t say I’m active, but I’d find it hard to write from this current time period without some reference to the climate crisis. It came in quite naturally and seemed to me logical that someone in Maddy’s situation might get involved or see it dovetailing with her own predicament. So, I was kind of playing with that back and forth between the crisis facing the planet and the crisis facing Maddy.”
Born in New York, Karen lived in California, Ohio and North Carolina before settling in Hackney.
"It’s where I landed when I first came to this country. I came with a British friend who I met in America and she was returning to the UK. We stayed with her old friend who lived in Hackney. I’ve lived in other places in London since but I think where you first land in London… that’s your London. So, Hackney feels like my London.”
Past careers have ranged from working as a nurse in a San Francisco county jail, an education officer for Arts Council England and editing an arts journal.
But writing has been a constant. “My other careers and paths kept me from publishing for many years,” she says. “There’s never been a period of my life where I haven’t written, whether it’s journals or short stories, and I’ve been part of writing groups. So, writing’s been a big part of my life. It's only recently that it’s become public.”
Cautious not to reveal too much of her next project she adds: “It’s quite a different process. It’s interesting how each writing project has its own shape and needs. You can’t necessarily transfer what happens with one book into the development of the next.”
All the Water in the World by Karen Raney is published by Two Roads. The winner of the Costa First Novel award will be announced on January 4. Visit Karen’s website at.