I’m delighted to be hosting Karen Raney in my hot seat chatting to us today about her debut, All the Water in the World.
Watch out for Alice-Jane’s review coming soon!
All the Water in the World by Karen Raney is published by Two Roads and available to purchase in digital, hardcover and audiobook formats. Paperback publishing 9th July 2020.
Maddy is sixteen. Deeply curious, wry and vivacious, she’s poised at the outset of adulthood. She has loyal friends, a mother with whom she’s unusually close, a father she’s never met, devoted grandparents, and a crush on a boy named Jack. Maddy also has cancer.
Hungry for experience despite living in the shadow of illness, Maddy seeks out her first romantic relationship, ponders philosophical questions, finds solace in music and art, and tracks down her father, Antonio. She continually tests the depths and limits of her closeness with her mother, while Eve has to come to terms with the daughter she loves and only partly knows, in a world she can’t control.
For fans of Celeste Ng and John Boyne, All the Water in the World is the story of a family doing its best when faced with the worst. Unforgettable and singularly moving, with voices that range from tender to funny, despairing to defiant, this novel is a poignant testimony to the transformative power of love, humour and hope.
Hi Karen, welcome to Jera’s Jamboree.
Please summarise All the Water in the World in 20 words or less.
This story is about first love, family secrets, and the bond between a mother and daughter in the shadow of illness.
How do your characters come into existence Karen?
There’s a scene in the book where Eve, the mother, is at work early before others have arrived, and she goes through the building switching on lights: ‘Light leapt ahead to create the space as I needed it.’ That would serve as a good description of my writing process. The characters are created as I go along. I don’t know everything there is to know about my characters. I know only what is necessary for the story. But if I’ve done my job well enough, readers will fill in the gaps from their own imagination, and this probably makes the characters more real and vivid.
Please tell us about the characters in your book.
I began writing this novel from the point of view of a woman looking at a lake. That woman became Eve. As I felt my way toward who she was and what had happened to her, her daughter Maddy emerged as a distinct character. I then became so engrossed in Maddy’s story that I abandoned Eve, for long enough that I considered dropping the mother’s voice and confining the point of view to the daughter. But when I did return to Eve, I knew the two-voiced structure was important to what I wanted to do.
Maddy was a character I quickly found that I could speak through. I was once a teenage girl. I am now the mother of a teenage girl. And a close friend of mine had gone through the experience of having a seriously ill child. All of this played a part in shaping Maddy and Eve. More generally, I am fascinated by the fluid nature of adolescence and the way young people both accommodate and resist their parents’ world. Maddy is someone whose world is opening up just as it is in danger of closing down. She has to find ways of taking control and distancing herself from her mother at a time when she is increasingly dependent on her. She has to grow up fast. Maddy’s voice emerged early on as a mix of wisdom and naivete, seriousness and wit, frailty and determination.
Maddy’s mother, Eve, was in some ways harder to write. As she is in the mother role like myself, I worried about making her voice too close to my own. But at the same time, because I’ve never been through what Eve goes through, and because elements of her prickly character and her life as a single mother are alien to me, I wasn’t sure if she was plausible. Eve faces different challenges from Maddy, and the tragedy she lives through re-shapes every relationship in her life.
The other characters are Norma, a new neighbour at the lake; Maddy’s grandparents, Walter and Rose; Maddy’s biological father, Antonio, whom she never knew; her boyfriend Jack, and her best friends Fiona and Vicky; Eve’s partner Robin; and Eve’s young work colleague, Alison, who accompanies her to London.
Did you do any research for your book Karen? What resources did you use?
My approach is to do any necessary research after the story is underway. Though I didn’t want it to dominate, there is a medical dimension to this novel about a young person who has cancer. Once the book was well advanced and I’d decided on a time frame for what happens to Maddy, I consulted an oncologist to make sure the details were plausible for the condition I was writing about. One of my invaluable advisors was a friend who had lived through a similar situation to Maddy and Eve’s and could point out inaccuracies. Much of the research for the novel involved going repeatedly to the places where the book is set – particular neighbourhoods in Washington DC, a lake in central Pennsylvania, and London – taking notes and collecting details and ideas for what happens there. Occasionally I decided to abandon the reality of a given situation in favour of a fictional version, if the inaccuracy wasn’t too serious, because that’s what the story needed.
Panster or plotter?
Panster to start with, then plotter for a while, then return to being a panster to resolve the story. I start with something that intrigues or troubles me and see where it goes, what’s in it for me, emotionally and aesthetically. Once the characters of this book and the basic storyline were in place, I started to think in a more focused way about structure, plot and alternative endings. But plans only get me so far and before long I have to relinquish some control and let things take their course again. Late in the writing, I had not decided how this book would finish, some scenes were yet to be resolved, and I was still playing around with the interleaving of the chapters. It’s a strange process where you are the one guiding and shaping the thing, and at the same time you’re on the sidelines, watching. I think of the developing narrative as a kind of gravitational field that pulls in ideas that might serve and enrich it. In this way, family secrets, the climate crisis and the consolations of art, all became part of the story of Maddy and Eve.
Are there any tips you could share with new writers that have worked well for you or was there something difficult you overcame?
My two top tips are: Write to find something out, and write by re-writing. If you write to find something out, following your genuine curiosity about the world and other people, your story will surprise you and carry the freshness and authenticity of a search. I am curious about how parents and children in basically sound relationships manage privacy and closeness. I drew on my experience of having once been a teenage girl, of being the mother of a teenage daughter, and the fears that accompany parenthood, to imagine what it would be like to be in the predicament Maddy and Eve find themselves in.
The second point is that, for me, invention and discovery happens in the act of re-writing. It is through re-writing that you find out what you want to say. American author George Saunders talks about the discontent with a story that ‘urges it on to higher ground.’ I believe it is in the writer’s effort to resolve a sentence or a story structurally, that deeper meanings take shape.
Finally, have you done any writing courses that you would recommend to others?
I did an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. I would highly recommend that programme, and others like it, as a means of joining a writing community, airing your work with committed writers, and learning how to make use of the reactions of other people to what you write.
Thank you for being my guest today. Wishing you success with all your writing projects.
Karen Raney recently gained an MA in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths and was awarded the Pat Kavanagh Prize for All the Water in the World when the novel was still a work-in-progress. A painter, academic, and former editor, Raney teaches Fine Art at the University of East London. She grew up in the US and lives in London.