What is your elevator pitch for The Turnkey?
The Turnkey is set in the middle of WWII in London and is about Flossie Birdwhistle—the eleven-year-old Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery. As Turnkey, Flossie is in charge of keeping the dead happily at rest. When Flossie spots a twilight Nazi spy on the streets of London, she knows he isn’t supposed to be there and sets out on a quest to find out what he’s up to.
Flossie’s adventures in London and her mystical journeys into other countries are vividly described in The Turnkey. What kind of research did you do into the cemeteries of London and the other locations in the book?
I lived in Cambridge for a year not too long ago and was lucky enough to take many weekend trips to London. This definitely helped in getting the right feel for the setting of The Turnkey. I was able to draw upon my visits to several of the cemeteries mentioned in the book, as well as the fact that I’d visited the Churchill War Rooms, St Paul’s and so on. I used a historical researcher for the finer research details (for example, were the cemeteries in question bombed during the Blitz? How badly?).
This will probably sound very strange indeed, but I don’t see The Turnkey as a paranormal story. I know it falls squarely in this category, but to me it’s a story of a girl who happens to be dead who is living a whole new life in the twilight world. Her world is just as real and vivid to her as her previous life in the land of the living. I found I was influenced more by my favourite books from childhood than by particular paranormal books. These included: Rumer Godden’s The Doll’s House, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly-Molly-Mandy series and Noel Streatfeild’s “Shoes” series.
You have written for both younger readers and teens. When you begin writing a story, do you have an audience in mind, or does the story guide you?
This is an interesting question, as when I first started thinking about writing The Turnkey, I envisioned it as a Young Adult story. As I started piecing it together, however, I saw that there were several factors that made it more suitable for a Middle Grade audience. This included the fact that I was desperate to include a talking fox (there are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but you do tend to find more talking animals in books for the younger years than in Young Adult up). Also, the plot seemed straightforward and quite simple—Flossie had to find out what the Nazi officer of the twilight was up to in London. While it would be a trying task, it wasn’t a journey that would open her eyes to the adult world, or force her to grow up from child to adult. I knew then that The Turnkey needed to be a Middle Grade story.
What do you hope young readers will take away from reading The Turnkey?
I hope they see it as a tale of friendship and selflessness more than simply a ghost story. One lovely compliment I received from an early reader gave me hope that this might be the case for many young readers. She said that she was worried that the book would be scary because it was about ghosts. Instead, she found it reassuring to see that while Flossie missed her family, she was, essentially, happy in death. She’d made a new family and a home and a life for herself in the twilight.