Novelist Janet McNally’s latest book was inspired by her love for fairy tales and ballet.
In The Looking Glass, Sylvie Blake’s older sister Julia disappears, leaving Sylvie struggling to live up to Julia’s legacy at the National Ballet Theatre Academy. With the help of their old storybook, Sylvie sets out to find her sister and ultimately learns that “the damsel in distress is often the only one who can save herself.”
The novel has already received much high praise.
Kathleen Glasgow, New York Times bestselling author of Girl In Pieces, has described it as “gossamer woven with gold and glass… an absolute beauty of a read, and Emily Henry, author of The Love That Split The World, said, “Reading this book feels like standing in a sunbeam and watching the dust glitter. McNally transforms the mundane into the extraordinary, expertly pairs life’s bitter with its sweet…”
This is due in no small part to the sundry topics McNally weaves together, some heavier than others.
In addition to fairy tales and ballet, McNally’s book explores the more serious subject of addiction, which she called “one of the most upsetting issues in our country right now.”
“It’s also something that has come up in my personal life,” McNally explained. “Someone I loved struggled with addiction. I wanted to write about what it’s like to love someone who is hurting in that way.”
McNally said her daughters are a big inspiration to her.
“Maybe that’s why I keep writing about sisters,” she said. “The Looking Glass started with the idea of two sisters, one of whom was gone. The ballet came into it soon after, and [then] the fairy tales. For me, novels build themselves as they go, and I have to wait for the story and the characters to feel real to me. There are always moments where I feel lost, but I find my way eventually.”
Still, the novel— McNally’s second— was not an easy one to write.
“[Sophomore novels] are notoriously hard,” she said. “All of my writer friends agree on this. Something about writing a rough new book while watching your polished first book go out in the world is really difficult.”
McNally also lost her dad while she was writing this book.
“That made it even harder,” she admitted. “So I sure didn’t think it was easier than the first time. But it’s probably never easy to write a novel, and I can imagine that it might just be different every time. I’m working on books three and four now, so I’ll let you know.”
Though this is her second novel, McNally is no newcomer to storytelling.
“I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid,” she said. “I used to make books on the computer printout paper my dad would bring home from work. I’ve always been a storyteller, so it’s a dream to be able to do this as part of my job.”
McNally said her favorite part of the writing process is “when a project is new, or medium-new, when it feels totally open.”
“It’s harder as you get closer to the end of a first draft or even later drafts, when you have to fix all the problems that have come up while writing,” she said.
She also loves the way that characters she has created “totally from scratch” come to feel “so thoroughly real.”
In addition to being a novelist, McNally is an award-winning poet.
Some Girls, her book of poems, was chosen by Ellen Bass as winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize in 2014.
McNally said that her poetry and fiction definitely influence each other.
“Really, poetry for me is just another way of telling stories,” she said, “one where you don’t have to fill in all of the blanks. And my fiction has been described as lyrical, which I think means that I’m interested in language and imagery. I love being able to do both things.”
McNally said that she is inspired, among other things, by her writer friends.
“People like Kathleen Glasgow, Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Lucy Keating, and so many others,” she said. “Reading great novels and stories and poems always inspires me too. Reading helps me write, because it sparks my brain in the right direction.”
Currently, McNally has new poems, another YA novel, and an adult novel in the works.
The Looking Glass hits shelves in the U.S in August 2018.
Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.