Carole Barrowman admitted on Facebook that she squealed when she saw the cover of her first young adult novel, Hollow Earth. Many first-time novelists might have a similar reaction, but Carole is not your typical author. Her previous non-fiction books have made best seller lists. Plus, her co-author (and brother) is entertainer John Barrowman. If anyone should be used to the spotlight or even blasé about success, it’s these siblings.
However, Hollow Earth isn’t just any book. It may be the Next Big Thing in young adult (YA) literature. Two days before its UK release, the novel was in the top 40 and rapidly climbing Amazon UK’s list of best-selling children’s science fiction/fantasy books. With the authors’ February schedule filled with book signings around the UK and television and radio interviews, Hollow Earth gives the Barrowmans plenty of reasons to celebrate—and their fans to squeal in delight.
The story behind Hollow Earth begins in summer 2010, when the authors spent two months developing the plot and researching the book’s island and London settings. Again, this collaborative approach might seem typical for a first novel, but it became complicated because Carole lives in Wisconsin; John, the UK. When Carole returned home, she wrote a draft, and John provided more input—a process repeated in following months. Carole thinks “it took longer to write [this book] than anything I’ve done to date because the process was a bit more stretched out from our initial pitch (in spring 2010) to publication date.”
Anyone who has watched Carole and John tease each other in public, or has read about the Barrowmans’ upbringing, as told in their previous autobiographical collaborations Anything Goes and I Am What I Am, might wonder how they get anything done, even when working on the same continent. Some kids, it seems, never grow up. ”Oh, we both revert to childhood on most of our projects together, but this one even more so because we were continually asking ourselves what kids would like in a book, especially one with monsters and lots of adventure. Writing Hollow Earth gave us an excuse, if nothing else, to be kids again — well, more kids than usual,” Carole acknowledges.
The plot revolves around 12-year-old twins Matt and Emily Calder, who, working together, have special powers, such as the amazing ability to bring art to life. When villains seek to use the twins’ powers to access Hollow Earth, “where all the demons, devils and creatures ever imagined lie trapped for eternity,” the Calders flee their London home to an island off the Scottish coast. Nowhere, however, is safe, and the twins—and readers—are in for excitement and danger.
“We named the island Auchinmurn Island,” the Barrowmans’ imagined version of Cumbrae Island. “The name was to honor the memory of our gran, Murn, who we were really close to as children and young adults. The abbey’s housekeeper is a kind of composite of Murn and our Auntie Jeannie (her sister), who was also important in our lives.”
The family connection is further reflected in character development. Carole explains that “Emily is my middle name and the name of my other grandma, and Matt is a name John and Scott [Gill, John’s partner] love. I think there’s probably some of John and me in the twins, but, unfortunately, we do not share their drawing abilities. John and I both have active imaginations and we love art, but neither one of us has learned how to draw very well.”
They excel at writing, however, and Hollow Earth gives them a chance to create the kind of story that they have always enjoyed reading. “John is a huge superhero and comic book fan, and I spend a lot of my reading and writing time in the mystery. The best mysteries are full of moral ambiguity and deep conflict. In fact, Ross MacDonald, a literary hero of mine, once wrote that mysteries in particular and popular fiction in general can ‘describe new modes of behavior, new versions of human character, new shades and varieties of good and evil, and implicitly’ can critique them. I think that’s why I’m drawn to them.”
YA fiction, especially fantasy, often creates a mythological world for its characters, and Hollow Earth benefits from Carole Barrowman’s interest in myth. She is “fascinated by the way in which myths shift meaning and significance at different times in history and across different cultures. In this first novel, in one obvious way I think we’re trying to create new myths about art and artists while at the same time weaving myths from some of the great art of western civilization (at least in this book) into the world we’ve imagined. Solon’s story, which is set in the Middle Ages and which readers flash back to throughout the novel, is going to be significant in the creation of some of the myths that the twins come to realize are shaping their lives in the present.”
The Barrowmans’ next literary project takes them away from Hollow Earth and into the familiar territory of their first fiction collaboration, “Selkie”. This comic book story, based on the television series, Torchwood, also allowed them to incorporate myth and a Scottish setting in a tale of danger. Their current writing project is a Torchwood novel, but the collaboration “is different again for us because John [who is internationally renowned for his role as Captain Jack Harkness] has such an intimate relationship with our novel’s main character and because we’re adding to a rich canon and a highly successful franchise.”
Carole’s future includes yet another novel, her “Civil War mystery with Walt Whitman and Clara Barton as detectives.” That book is in the revision stage, but this prolific author has to juggle writing projects with teaching at Alverno College. Sometimes her busy schedule relegates a wonderfully creative story like this to “my back burner for far too long,” even if her thousands of Facebook fans look forward to reading more.
Right now, however, Hollow Earth takes center stage. When asked if she, like the twins, could have a special power, what it would be, Carole recalls that “as a kid, I wanted to be able to time travel. Now, I’d settle for the ability to hold back time—or to fly.” Having the ability to fly, especially transatlantic, would certainly help the collaborative process. Not only are more books in the works, but there’s the possibility of a television series based on Hollow Earth. At this point, all she will reveal is “we’ve had some initial conversations.”
Carole E. Barrowman
Carole emphasizes that she and John “both love TV and we love books!” But it’s not the excitement of publication, the upcoming publicity tour, or even the possibility of a TV show that means the most to this author. “When we started imagining the story, we decided that one of the great thrills of this project would be if a child who hasn’t read much, or who thinks she hates reading, would read Hollow Earth, enjoy it, and then ask for other books similar to it to read next. Now that would be awesome.”
Hollow Earth is published by Buster Books (a division of Michael O’Mara Books) in the UK and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US.