She grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, in a house so full of books that she learnt to read by accident. She’s fond of telling people that she writes books about magical girls with secrets (even if that’s not an actual genre). Her books are literary fantasy, surreal fairy tales, or weird magic. (Or: all of the above.)
Her debut, The Turnaway Girls, was a Kirkus Best Book of 2018 and made the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer List of Best Feminist Books for Young Readers. Her second book, The Sisters of Straygarden Place, is forthcoming from Candlewick Press on September 15th, 2020, and has already been called “superb, spooky, and unforgettable” in a recent starred review.
Hayley lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her soulmate/husband/fellow coffee addict, Liale, and their toy poodle, Darfer.
She is represented by Patricia Nelson at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.
Please tell us about your book.
The Sisters of Straygarden Place is a dark middle grade fantasy about three sisters—Mayhap, Winnow, and Pavonine—who live alone, abandoned by their parents, in a magical mansion surrounded by silver grass. When the eldest sister, Winnow, falls ill and starts to turn silver, Mayhap and Pavonine must unravel the mystery of their parents’ disappearance before they lose her forever.
Your writing is incredibly atmospheric. I once read you pick three elements (I think that was the term you used!) for each of your books. Can you explain a bit about this part of your writing process? What were the elements you picked for Straygarden Place?
Thank you! The more I talk about my writing process, the more I realize how disorganized I am. I don’t really have a system for anything. Having said that, you’re right that I do like to have a sense of the texture of a book before I start writing, and recently I noticed that I’ll circle back to a handful of textures. The Turnaway Girls was stone, sea salt, and gold. The Sisters of Straygarden Place was velvet, marble, and poodle fluff (because the story features magical, poodle-like creatures called droomhunds). But it’s not that I consciously decide this beforehand. It’s more that I discover it as I go (draft after draft) and I aim for it, in a general sense, as I revise. Like I said, I’m not very organized!
Sisterhood is a key component of your book. Can you talk about its importance to the story — and in your own life? (Your dedication made me curious.)
Of course! I’m fascinated by sisterhood, and I’m definitely exploring the complexities of sister-relationships in this book. I have three sisters. I’m the second eldest, so, in many ways, my experience has been Mayhap’s experience—navigating the ground between the eldest sibling and the younger ones. And I did have—and continue to have—an extremely complicated relationship with my older sister. I think it’s really normal in sister-relationships to have a big mix of love and jealousy and hatred—deep admiration and closeness combined with profound frustration and isolation—and I wanted to write about that.
I think sometimes we idealize sisterhood, but, just like all relationships, sister-relationships can be messy! And, I guess, increasingly, I’m interested in writing about characters—in particular, young girls—who don’t always make the right choices, who aren’t always kind or helpful, and who sometimes hurt others as a result of their own pain. My hope is that each sister in Straygarden is complex—developed enough that you understand her, even if you might not agree with her actions. I don’t have answers about any of this—my goal is more to ask questions, to explore sisterhood and family.
Straygarden Place reminded me of Coraline with a dash of Diana Wynne Jones. What stories and authors would you say influence your work?
Oh, wow! That’s so lovely to hear. Probably the most direct influences for The Sisters of Straygarden Place were Claire Legrand, Laini Taylor, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Karen Foxlee. And then, in terms of films, Crimson Peak (2015) and Little Women (1994).
Your book deals with love and loneliness and loss. What do you hope young readers might take from Mayhap’s story?
I don’t have any particular lesson or idea that I hope readers will take from my book, but I hope it’s a story that inspires conversations around what it means to love and forgive others and ourselves. So much of how we treat others is wrapped up in how we treat ourselves. I hope young readers feel comforted and transported by the story, and I hope it makes them think about their own relationships with others. I’m much more interested in evocation than education. I prize questions over answers.
Anything you want to talk about that I missed? Please add it in!
You didn’t ask me about music, which is always a big part of my process when I’m writing. I often listen to the same song on repeat. While writing The Sisters of Straygarden Place, I listened to “Mother” by Tori Amos obsessively, as well as Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score for Season One of The Crown. My favorite track was “The Letter” and I listened to it over and over and over!