All The Water In The World by Karen Raney

Published by Two Roads

Thank you to Jahan Hussain for kindly sending me a copy of this book.

For a first novel this is pretty darn good. Maddy is 16 and just like any other girl her age, she has crushes, great friends, fun times and is close to her mum. She also has cancer. Maddy has no relationship with her father, he wanted a career, not children but following some encouragement from her grandfather she makes contact with him and the pair develop a secretive email relationship.

What I liked about this book is the alternate points of view. The story is told from the perspective of Maddy and her mother, Eve. Whilst Maddy wants to experience everything life has to offer, at the heart of each decision she makes is her illness. Maddy is a strong and quite profound character and has been written so well that you connect with her on every level. She is kind and emits a lovely warmth and tenderness that the bond between reader and character becomes quite strong. On the other hand, Eve feels guilty and is vulnerable to Maddy’s illness, she is trying her best to come to terms with everything and is coping the best she can but she can be quite a prickly person. The bond between mother and daughter is very close knit and between them they get by. For Maddy, she wants to experience life in that moment, life is to short to hold grudges and not have fun.

This is a very tender, thought provoking read that has the ability to break your heart. It deals adeptly with love, friendship, pain and grief. Karen Raney has written such a wonderful book that will stay with you long after you have finished it.

I was very lucky to take part in a Q&A session with Karen Raney and you can read her thoughts below.

  1. Where did the inspiration come from for the book?

The storyline of this book was built from scene to scene rather than being planned in advance.  It began with a woman’s thoughts while 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 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 and Eve were characters 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.  These were the wellsprings of the novel. I am fascinated by the way young people both accommodate and resist their parents’ world.  Maddy has to take control and pull away from her mother at a time when she is increasingly dependent on her.  She does this by finding love and keeping secrets. For Eve, the crisis re-shapes every relationship in her life.

2. How difficult was it to write about a 16-year-old with cancer?

During the writing itself, the effort to get the scenes to work shielded me from the emotional impact of the subject to some extent.  It was when I re-read it later that it could upset me, almost as though it had been written by someone else. 

I think the key is to be close but not too close, both inside and outside of the emotion.  Actors and musicians do this all the time.  They are able to access extreme emotional states while remaining detached enough to practice their craft and render the emotions for others.  

To write this novel, I drew on my experience and fears as a mother, but I never equated Maddy with my own daughter who was roughly Maddy’s age at the time. I saw them as entirely separate people.  I could never have written the book otherwise.  In the same way, my friend’s tragedy gave me the courage to write about something I had not experienced, as well as the drive to understand it, but the story is not my friend’s story and I never perceived it as such.  

3. How would you describe Maddy?

Maddy is someone whose world is opening up just as it is in danger of closing down. Her illness intensifies all the usual concerns and challenges faced by someone her age.  She is a deep-thinking teenager with artistic drive who is forced to grow up fast.  For me, Maddy’s voice is a mix of wisdom and naivete, seriousness and wit, frailty and determination.

  1. The book is very moving, how do you switch off when you’re not writing?

I play the piano, which is a wonderful way of getting out of my head and into a medium other than words.  Apart from that, job and family keep me absorbed when I’m not writing. 

  1. What challenges did you face when writing the book?

Partway through the novel, I remember feeling I had to be careful with the character of Eve. Because 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 elements of her prickly character and her life as a single mother are alien to me, I wasn’t sure if she was plausible.  Plausibility is important to me on many levels.  With Maddy, it was a question of making her inner voice sophisticated enough to articulate complex thoughts, while still being the voice of a sixteen-year old.

One of the challenges was writing about something so extreme and emotive that I myself had not been through.  Not only did I worry about getting it wrong, but I worried that I had no right to write the book in the first place.  Although the story is not my friend’s story and the characters are not her family, I was concerned that she would feel I was exploiting her tragedy for my own ends.  Happily, when she read it she felt that that I had given her something rather than taking something away. 

  1. What message would you like your readers to take away from reading the book?

I tend not to think in terms of messages, as a novel is so complex.  I would be happy if readers of All the Water in the World ended up feeling things that perhaps they hadn’t felt before, or understanding something new about parenthood, childhood, families, loss, music or the consolations of art.

  1. What other authors do you admire/take inspiration from?

I often find myself gravitating to American writers, though I have made my home in England.  I also love short fiction. This may be related to the fact that I am a visual artist.  In a painting, as in a short story, shape and structure are paramount, and all the parts are more or less visible at once.  I am a fan of the short stories of George Saunders, Edith Pearlman, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Stafford, Tobias Wolff, Frank O’Connor, V.S. Prichett, Colm Toibin, David Malouf and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie.

  1. I note that you were a nurse and art student prior to writing, so, what made you become a writer? 

I have always written, from when I was a child, with greater or lesser intensity at different times in my life.  As I went down various career paths, working as a nurse, a painter, an editor, a teacher and academic, fiction writing was always a constant in the background.  I guess now is the right time to bring it to the foreground.

  1. How long did it take to write the book?

Four years and four months, with a full time job and a family.

  1. What tips would you give to someone wanting to take up writing?

My five top tips are as follows: 

1) Write to find something out. If you follow your genuine curiosity about the world and other people, your writing will surprise you and carry the freshness and authenticity of a search.

3) Keep a notebook.  Carry it with you.  Put whatever interests you in it – thoughts, overheard conversations, descriptions of people and places, ideas for stories, reactions to books you read. Once you start writing a story, you will find that magically everything you see and hear seems relevant to what you’re writing.  Use the notebook to collect any offerings from the world that might be of use to the story.  As you get deeper into the writing, this notebook will also catch the edits and corrections your unconscious mind comes up with while you are doing other things. 

3. Show your work to other trusted people. Your perception of your own writing is distorted by everything you know about the characters and places you’re writing about.  What you think you have written is not necessarily what is on the page. When the time is right, you need to check and make sure that what’s needed to bring the story alive for readers is there in the words themselves.

4. Choose who you show it to and when.  There are times when you need to be immersed in what you’re writing and let it spill out without judging.  If you share it too early, this can de-rail you before you’ve had a chance to explore the depths of your story in private. Then there are times when you need to step back and look at what you’ve written with a cool, external eye, as though it had been written by someone else, and the best way to do this at first is to use the eyes of other trusted people. Knowing when to work in private and when to reveal your writing to others is something you learn through experience.

5) Write by 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.

Many thanks to Karen Raney for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly.