Fantasy & Fact: C.A. Hartley on ‘The Primal Key’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m in cyber conversation with Cathy (C.A.) Hartley.

Cathy is the author of The Primal Key: The Plight of the Plexus (Styxers Entertainment)—the first book in The Primal Key series for middle-grade readers. Despite having dyslexia, she developed a voracious love of storytelling and, eventually, books. Her interests include art history, the mysteries of the universe, and fantasy. Cathy practices Kung Fu and Qigong, and credits her son with keeping her young in body and spirit. She and her family make their home in New Jersey.

Author C.A. Hartley.

Praise for The Primal Key:

“I’ve waited a long time for a book like this to come along. My kids love it and so do I. We’ve had great discussions. For once a girl is a true hero and, while her brother is also a hero, she’s the one who shines. Like most kids, she’s growing up in an adult world she does not fully understand. Unlike other kids, though, her sci-fi world spans both ancient times and the future. Kids reading this book will learn a great deal about history, art and science. More important, they’ll learn about themselves …”—Amazon Customer

From the publisher:

Alex Clarke trains for one thing — finding the broken bits of Grandmother’s Carnelian Tablet. The relic, if mended, could reveal the location of The Primal Key — the key to unlocking parallel dimensions. His family duty and his path are preordained, foretold centuries ago until . . .

Anne Clarke’s curiosity gets the best of her. She opens a storage box, the one thing Mom insists she leave alone, and prematurely unleashes suppressed talents — dangerous skills that can’t be curbed once released. Worse, she accidentally leads Seth Barthony, Grandmother’s murderous adversary, to the family’s safe house. Seth’s agents destroy their home and abduct Mom. As ransom, Seth insists Grandmother hand over the Primal Key

As Alex scrambles to uncover clues to the Key’s last resting place, Anne learns her new talents could help rescue Mom. But Anne’s shaky and untested skills could, if forced, kill her and those she loves.


Now, C.A. Hartley reveals the fantasy and facts behind her debut …

John Valeri: What inspired you to write The Primal Key: Plight of the Plexus – and how did the experience of writing your first book compare to your expectations?

C.A. Hartley: My inspiration for The Primal Key came about ten years ago when I took “a break” from my corporate career to spend time with my two-year-old son. During his naps, I spent time with one of my favorite painters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His painting Netherlandish Proverbs fascinated me—what were all these crazy people doing, and what was Bruegel trying to tell us about them? I imagined climbing inside the painting to ask them. But what if, once I struck up a conversation, I became part of their upside-down world? Over the next several years a story grew in my mind, and as William Faulkner (one of my favorite authors) said, “If a story is in you, it has to come out.” I took another break from work, this time to write The Primal Key, the first book in my series, The Plight of the Plexus.

My writing experience differed from my expectations in a few ways. I thought I would need a special place and time dedicated to writing. Instead, I discovered that taking fieldtrips helped my creative process. However, when I edited my prose, I preferred a block of two or more hours at a desk.

Going into the process, I knew I needed a good editor to help tighten my story. That said, I didn’t expect them to gut and rewrite over a third of a draft that I thought was solid. I took most (over 90%) of the feedback, and moved plot elements between book one and two.

Besides hiring an editor, I asked six readers between 10- and 12-years-old to read chapters for me. Their insights were great, as expected. Beyond my expectations, their comments inspired and motivated me, and even helped staved off writer’s block.

JV: How do you see this book as satisfying as a standalone novel while also serving as the launching point for a series?

CAH: For my series to work, I needed compelling main characters that my readers would want to spend time with, and a plot that twisted and turned as the series unfolded. Before writing The Primal Key, I outlined the series, wrote the last chapter in book three, and created character maps for every person and being in the story. I did this to keep my plot points and character traits consistent and provide me with foreshadowing material to include in book one. In The Primal Key, I set the stage for the series’ overarching challenges, dilemmas and risks, but provided plot closure for Anne and Alex’s primary desire — which is to save Mom. Each book in the series is self-contained with its own inciting incident, plot, crisis and resolution.

JV: Tell us about your protagonist, Anne. How is she representative of an everyday girl – and in what ways does this adventure allow her to discover the potential that lives within all of us?

CAH: For most of her life, Anne has been told, “Your talents are limited.” She is mentally and emotionally unprepared when she discovers she possesses dangerous powers—talents that put her entire family at risk. She is scared to death, but overcomes her fears and trains to harness those powers because she is committed to using those talents to help others. Although her attempts to use her new-found capabilities are imperfect, she keeps trying new approaches until one works. Anne also discovers she has a mind for strategy and tactics, and she is not afraid to act on her ideas. Even though she has been living in her twin brother’s shadow for years, she looks for ways to work with him to save their kidnapped mom. Anne knows she isn’t perfect or even comfortable in her “new skin,” but she is committed to doing the right thing.

JV: What are the unique challenges in writing for a young audience – and are there specific books that you would you credit with sparking your desire to do so?

CAH: You need to get inside your young readers’ head and learn what they know. Also, get the responsible adults out of the way early in the story and keep them at bay! Like real kids, your protagonist(s) are not served well by helicopter parents (unless dealing with these types of adults is the basis for the story).

Whenever I found myself wanting to save or protect my heroes, I placed them in more difficult situations. Story length is also important, and keeping to the 30- to 50 thousand word count (it can even get up to 65 thousand for fantasy novels) can be challenging, but ruthless editing helps. The Primal Key draft one topped 100 thousand words before settling down to 53 thousand in the final manuscript.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis influenced my decision to write for middle-grade readers.

JV: Some of your own interests – such as the mysteries of the universe, Renaissance paintings, and fantasy – factor into the book. How did your own fascination with these subjects help to sustain the creative process – and what did you find to be the key(s) to balancing entertainment and education?

CAH: When a middle-grade reader picks up a fantasy novel she, or he, expects to be transported into an exciting new world filled with wonder and adventure, not a school textbook wrapped inside a fictional plot. I use educational material to add realism to my fantasy world and story without making it feel like a textbook in a novel. For example, string theory, which many physicists believe is a theory of everything, provided a construct for the Plexus — the liminal world that binds and separates all parallel dimensions. I used Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Kinderspiele as a dangerous passageway between worlds. Grandmother’s gemstone tablet are based on artifacts from real, ancient civilizations. Even the ancient scripts are authentic.

I had studied art, history, and physics before, but winding facts about these cultures into a work of fiction required me to dig deeper. I’ve been told, “Write what you know,” but I write to discover. For every hour I spent writing The Primal Key, I spent at least an hour researching—and loved every minute.

JV: Leave us with a teaser: what comes next?

CAH: There are three books in The Plight of the Plexus series. In book two, look for more fast-paced adventures on Earth and in the Plexus; Alex taking a greater leadership role; surprises when the powers of the Primal Key are unleashed; Seth’s nefarious plot to thicken; and plenty of new works of art to explore.


With thanks to C.A. Hartley for her generosity of time and thought and to Larissa Ackerman of Claire McKinneyPR, LLC, for providing this interview opportunity.

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