While movies and novels tell stories in very different ways, some screenwriters have made the transition to prose and back again. Take Irena Brignull, who wrote the screenplays for the movies Skellig, The Boxtrolls, and The Little Prince — all of which, interestingly, were based on books — but is now better known to fantasy fans for her last year’s The Hawkweed Prophecy. With that book newly released in paperback, and the follow-up, The Hawkweed Legacy (hardcover, digital) also just out, I asked Brignull about what inspired this series, how writing scripts influenced these books, and why she won’t be scripting the planned adaptation.
To begin, what is The Hawkweed Legacy about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book in this series, The Hawkweed Prophecy?
The Hawkweed Legacy is about finding your purpose in life, despite what might have happened in the past or any expectation — or even prophecy — about the future. It’s about how nothing is set in stone. The story picks up where The Hawkweed Prophecy ends. Poppy, Ember, and Leo’s story continues, but is interwoven with a past story that reveals much about their present.
Like The Hawkweed Prophecy, The Hawkweed Legacy is a fantasy novel. But is there a fantasy sub-genre to which it belongs?
I was never really conscious of writing in a particular genre. I just had an idea for a story and wrote it the best I could. Then, as I showed it to people, I began to hear it described as YA and fantasy. Recently the book was called urban fantasy, so perhaps they might fall under that sub-genre? They’re certainly set partly in the real world and partly in the world beyond the town where a coven of witches lives deep within the forest.
As you mentioned, The Hawkweed Prophecy and The Hawkweed Legacy are considered “young adult” novels. But “young adult” novels seem to fall into two categories: novels written for young adults and novels written for all ages. Where do you see these books and why?
I hope that they are for all ages. I certainly didn’t write them to exclude anybody. So far, they seem to have readers that span a few generations, which is really lovely. There are also characters of many ages within the stories, from the elders in the coven to the teenage protagonists and their mothers. I’d love to think that their different perspectives and relationships have something to offer a range of readers. There are some shocking and dramatic moments in both books, but they are not gratuitous and are very much character-driven. I hope I’ve handled them sensitively for all readers. Again, that seems to be my writing style, rather than a planned attempt to fit a mold.
Why did you decide to write The Hawkweed Prophecy and The Hawkweed Legacy in such a way that they’re for everyone? Aren’t you worried by not making it sexier, bloodier, or more adult you might lose some people?
This might be terrible to admit, but when I’m writing, I’m really going where the characters take me and not looking back over my shoulder to what a potential readership might think. It’s like I’m writing for the story, not for anyone else, even myself. So if the description isn’t sexier or bloodier, it’s because the story doesn’t warrant it. Or at least that how it feels to me. The writers I admire have their own voice. They don’t try and mimic any other style or tone. That’s what I aspire to.
Are there any authors, or specific books, that you feel had a big impact on The Hawkweed Legacy, but did not have as much of an influence on The Hawkweed Prophecy?
That’s a tricky one. I’m never that conscious of my influences, though I read all the time so I know there must be many. I recognize that books from my childhood inspired the Hawkweed characters: from classic fairytale characters, to the white witch from The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the three witches from Macbeth, Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, and other stories about outsiders.
The year I wrote The Hawkweed Legacy, I particularly loved Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff, A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and the Elena Ferrante novels. While I was editing, I was blown away by the quality of writing in Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. I guess these wonderful novels probably prompted me to try and up my game and attempt a more sophisticated story structure and a more complex set of relationships.
What about non-literary influences? Are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you feel were a big influence on The Hawkweed Legacy?
I wish I had a better answer for you, but I enjoy the TV shows and films that everybody else is enjoying: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Friday Night Lights, Game Of Thrones, and loads more. And with films, I watch so many every year, as I vote in the Baftas. The year I wrote The Hawkweed Legacy, I most remember The Revenant, Room, Amy, and The Lobster. But I can’t say that they’re direct influences. I’d never set out to try and write something similar. But a stunning landscape, some great female characters, something very strange and surprising, they must have sunk in somewhere.
The Hawkweed Legacy is the second book in this series. What can you tell us about this series as a whole?
I think this is it for now. I’d love to return to these characters at some point, but only when I have a story that I really believe is worth telling. I have a few inklings, but I also have so many other stories I want to write. I have a picture book coming out, and have started a middle grade novel. And I’ve sold another of my YA ideas as a TV series, so I’m excited about that.
Aside from these novels, you also wrote the screenplays for the movies Skellig, The Boxtrolls, and The Little Prince, and were the script editor on Shakespeare In Love and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Do you think writing and editing screenplays had an influence on how you wrote The Hawkweed Prophecy and The Hawkweed Legacy?
Now this is one influence I can definitely confirm. Writing and editing screenplays really was my training in storytelling. I like to think that my experience in film has given me a sense of structure, pace, and character. In screenplays, you don’t have the benefit of describing inner thought, so you have to be very deft at motivating character through dialogue and action; what characters say as well as don’t say, do and don’t do. It was such a pleasure to write prose after so many years of writing screenplays. But I hope that my novels have a cinematic feel to them. I certainly loved writing visual detail and big set pieces.
So why did you decide to write The Hawkweed Prophecy and The Hawkweed Legacy as novels instead of as movies?
It was all because of timing. My youngest child had been very ill in hospital, and we were recuperating on a holiday when the idea for The Hawkweed Prophecy came to me. Writing a novel was something I’d always wanted to do, but I always felt too busy or too unconfident to try. I guess the events that new year made me stop, take stock, and give it a go.
Of course, the irony of my question is that the film and TV rights to The Hawkweed Prophecy and The Hawkweed Legacy have been bought. What can you tell us about the adaptation?
Yes, it’s very exciting but it’s early days. The deal’s just been done, so I’m waiting to find out more. The producers are very passionate about the material, though, so I feel like it’s a good fit.
And will you be writing the script for it?
At the moment, it looks like the producers are going the TV route, so I won’t be adapting them. It’s partly location — I’m based in the UK — and partly because my experience is so movie-based. To be honest, I’m writing another screenplay right now, and another novel, so I’d rather the producers pressed on with finding a show-runner. I’m so keen to hear what other talented people will bring to these stories. I’m going to be an executive producer on the project, so I’ll be helping in whatever way I can.
As you know, producers never ask the writers of a novel who they should cast in the movie or TV show. But if they did, who would you like to see them cast in The Hawkweed Prophecy and The Hawkweed Legacy TV show?
With the teenage characters, I think it would be great to get some new faces. But with Charlock, Raven, and Betony, to get an actress like Jessica Chastain [Interstellar], Emily Blunt [Edge Of Tomorrow], Amy Adams [Arrival], Rooney Mara [The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo], or Jennifer Connelly [Dark City] would be a dream.
Finally, if someone has enjoyed The Hawkweed Prophecy and The Hawkweed Legacy, what would you suggest they read next?
If they haven’t already, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Poisonwood Bible, Wuthering Heights, Beloved, Eleanor And Park, Practical Magic, and a collection of Grimm’s Fairytales. I could go on and on but those were the books that immediately came to mind.