I was sent a copy of Black Snow Falling by Scotland Street Press in exchange for an honest review — I’m thrilled they reached out; I loved it.
In 1592, a girl with spirit is a threat.
Ruth has secrets. An old book of heresy belonging to her long-absent father. A dream that haunts her. And love that she and Silas hide from the world.
When she is robbed of all she holds true, her friends from Crowbury slide into terrible danger. Hope is as faint as a moonbow. Dare Ruth trust the shadowy one who could destroy them all?
This is a story about hope overcoming evil, written with satisfying moral complexity. Ruth’s devastation breaks apart time. She sees that her hopes and dreams are a visceral halo of rainbow colours spinning to white… and that evil dream thieves are severing these halos from sleeping victims, many of whom she knows. Those disturbing dreams of black snow lead Ruth to a perilous discovery: one dream thief is connected to her past.
For young adults and up.
Before I even opened the book, I was hooked: secrets, heresy, black snow, a girl with spirit, dream thieves, hope. The premise felt simultaneously new and fresh as well as deeply rooted in the past — no small feat!
A time slip novel, the story opens with Jude’s dream being stolen, with dire consequences for his life, before transporting us to Ruth, some fifty years in the ‘future’ (it’s difficult to call 1592 the future). Ruth lives with her stepmother, stepsisters and an array of servants. Her father is off on an exploration. Yes, there’s a nod to Cinderella motifs, but it’s a nod more about the saturation of such material within our collective consciousness — a passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a quote from Queen Elizabeth I paratextually frame the story — than it is about telling *another* Cinderella tale. The way in which MacWhirter handles the many, many threads of story is the treat of this novel.
So, in lieu of my ramblings, let’s have Liz tell you a bit more about Black Snow Falling (as well as a few cheekily requested recs!)
For those who haven’t yet read Black Snow Falling (BSF), could you tell us a little bit about it — without giving anything too important away?
In this Elizabethan fantasy, 15 year-old Ruth is betrayed and trapped by monstrous sexism. Her devastation splits apart time itself, where she encounters dream thieves coming to steal her hopes and dreams.
Dreams, dream thieves, black snow – what inspired BSF?
The idea came to me a long time ago in 2002. I was volunteering for a charity in Glen Etive in the north of Scotland with young adults who had all suffered a very hard start in life. One was telling me how much he wanted to become a gardener. I was struck by his strength. He’d faced more trauma than most of us will ever have to cope with, and yet he still had hope. I found myself wishing that nothing would ever happen that could snatch this away… a chilling What If? struck me.
What if our hopes and dreams were actual physical entities that could be stolen from us? A physical dream, I thought, would surely be close to our minds, where we imagine and think. They could look like the halos in old paintings, which symbolised purity… a white dream halo.
William Wordsworth called Glen Etive ‘the land of rainbows’, because of the many waterfalls and incredible light in this dramatic valley. Rainbows are an ancient symbol of hope. I imagined a rainbow arcing in the sky then plunging down into dark, hard places and out the other side, a circle. White light refracts into the colours of the rainbow. So a dream halo would start as a tiny circular rainbow and spin to white as it started imparting its goodness to the sleeper.
I loved the idea. I knew I had to write about this. Ruth and her haunting dream of black snow came to me later.
Given the timeslip elements – but also not through them alone! – there’s a deep sense of history, an embeddedness in place, and almost mythological feel to the novel. How difficult was it to weave the strands of story together? (or, did they perhaps weave you?).
Good question, thanks Leah. The idea felt so simple but the weaving together was a challenge. I think the creative process is often like this. It can start with a simple idea, then you have to write through the complexity until the story starts to feel simple again, as though it has always existed.
I felt the idea would best work as magical realism, placing my characters in a real setting where they could lose all hope. This would have happened more easily in the past when there was no safety net in society. So I chose the time of the Tudors for all its fascinating dynamics – it’s early modern Britain grating against tradition, which traps my characters, Ruth and Jude. I loved the research, finding documents such as the medical records and personal letters of Elizabeth I in a very old book in a second-hand bookshop.
What’s the publication story? I feel like I read (maybe on your blog?) that the novel was a project of love.
It took 16 years from first idea to publication! For most of those years, I was a lone parent working as an advertising copywriter. So I wrote in the margins of the day and couldn’t have persisted unless I completely loved the story. The novel inched forwards.
Around 2007, I had lunch with a lovely editor with a major publisher, who suggested making the time slips closer. Ultimately the rewritten MS didn’t receive an offer. The rejection, while ‘positive’, I found discouraging and had to set the story down. I started another novel set in WW2 Paris, spent over a year researching it and writing three chapters, then had to set it aside while writing a 30,000-word website for a client. When I returned to the WW2 novel, the urge to write it had vanished, although I may return to it one day. I re-read the manuscript for Black Snow Falling, completely loved it and saw exactly how I wanted to restructure it.
Another major publisher then considered it. Their feedback was that my writing was ‘very strong’ and the concept was ‘fantastic’ but sometimes overshadowed the main character, Ruth. I rewrote it, adding in another point of view: Ruth’s secret love, Silas. At the end of the process, for the first time I felt that the novel had reached that ‘simple’ place, where it just felt real. Sadly, it didn’t make acquisitions. The editor commented that I had cracked it, but that it was ‘too serious’ for their list at that point. The publisher who made a firm offer, Jean Findlay at Scotland Street Press, said that it’s that very seriousness that she loves.
After so many rewrites, it was ready. My agent was willing to take it to Bologna, but I felt that Jean ‘got’ the novel and I decided to go with this small traditional press. They may be tiny but they have seriously invested in its production. It’s a beautiful hardback with debossed silver foil. It looks gorgeous! I am so proud of it.
BSF is effectively a book about hope, as well as its absence, across centuries. Do you feel that’s a particularly important narrative for contemporary culture?
Yes, I feel hope is such an important narrative. There are so many things that can take hope away – the modern monsters of today – especially for young people. Some monsters are faceless, such as the climate crisis, the tyranny of the beauty myth for women or masculine stereotypes that won’t allow men to be vulnerable or fail, or bullying amplified by social media. Other monsters have faces, a politician, teacher or relative.
Perhaps by reading shadowy stories about myth and monsters, we can connect with our fear, and somehow, following the narrative, move through it. Once we do that, we can do something about it, like Ruth in Black Snow Falling. Whatever is frightening us, by facing it, we ask ourselves if it’s okay? If it’s not, we can make the first small step and do something about it. Even a small step makes a difference. Taking action creates hope – hope that things could be better in the future. Going on a climate protest march, or voting with our feet and leaving an abusive relationship, or telling someone about a bully. Otherwise, we can get stuck, and hope shrivels away.
BSF has been published as YA. Did you set out to write it as YA? Did it just happen? Did someone suggest it?
I’ve worked as a copywriter in advertising for years, so I have a fairly good nose for ideas and audiences / ages. When the idea came to me, it ‘felt’ like YA… a spirited girl coming of age, where hope is the driver for the story. I love writing YA.
When the manuscript was under submission, we had lots of feedback saying that they felt it was genuine crossover with adult fiction. Perhaps this is why it took a while to find the right publisher.
Could we have a few recommendations? Books, Netflix…
Stranger Thingson Netflix, for the upside down world. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for making Cromwell and the time of Henry VIII feel so real. More than This by Patrick Ness for compelling science fiction.
Finally, anything else we *need* to know? About Black Snow Falling? About any works in progress?
Black Snow Falling is nominated for The First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. If you love it, please vote for it! My first ever book event was there on Saturday, Feisty Fantasy with Alice Broadway.
There’s a follow up bubbling away, but I’m currently writing a love story set 100 years earlier. There’s also a contemporary thriller set in a mining town in the North of England.
Thanks for interviewing me, Leah. I loved answering your questions.
L.J. MacWhirter was born just outside London, grew up in the North of England and today lives in Edinburgh with her husband and family. After studying English Literature she went on to become an award-winning creative copywriter. Black Snow Falling is her debut novel for young adults and up. @LizMacwhirter