So, as part of the wonderful UKYA Extravaganza that’s going on with Waterstones Birmingham High Street, I was asked if I wanted to be on of the stops on their blog tour! Of course, I naturally said yes – being right up in the North of the country means I can’t often get to a lot of UKYA events. I was given Clare Furniss, the wonderful author of the emotionally charged The Year of the Rat, and here’s some of the things we talked about…
Hi Clare! Such a pleasure to have you on the blog as part of the UKYA Extravaganza. Could you tell us a bit about your debut novel?
The Year of The Rat tells the story of Pearl, a teenager whose mum has died giving birth to the baby sister Pearl blames for her mum’s death, who she nicknames The Rat. Pearl’s lost. She’s got all the normal teenage stuff going on – exams, friendships, her stepdad who’s also struggling, relationships – while trying to deal with her grief. All she wants is for her mum to come back – and then she does, although only Pearl can see her… She’s no ethereal ghost, she’s the same as she always was: stubborn, funny, swears a lot and likes a cigarette. But does the fact that she’s still around make things easier or more difficult for Pearl? You’ll have to read it to find out! It covers some pretty serious issues, but I also wanted it to have some humour running through it, so hopefully it’s funny as well as sad.
There isn’t a lot of books that deal with grief out there for teenager, and The Year of the Rat looks at the uglier sides of loss – the blame and the anger that come with it. Where did the idea for the story come from?
That was really important to me. I think it’s important to be honest about the fact that grief – or any situation that puts us under a lot of emotional pressure – can bring out a lot of difficult emotions. If someone grieves by crying and asking for help, we know how to respond. But not everyone can do that. Some people keep their emotions locked inside and cut themselves off from the world around them because it’s too hard to let those feelings out. Some people feel very angry or guilty. Grief and depression can be extremely lonely and self-destructive. I wanted to explore the idea that there isn’t a ‘right’ way to feel when you lose someone. Everyone reacts in a different way – and not always as they might expect. It’s not an autobiographical story – my own mum is alive and well and I’m an only child – but as a young adult I did experience grief when a very dear friend died. I think that the death of someone young makes you ask a lot of questions about what the meaning and point of life is. These were the questions I really wanted to explore in the book.
Pearl is so well rounded, emotionally – how long did it take to develop her character? And what inspired you when you were creating her?
I felt I knew Pearl pretty well from the start, but it took me a while to be brave enough to let her do things that I didn’t want her to. I think you feel naturally protective of your characters and your natural instinct is to want to show them in the best possible light so that everyone will like them. But I knew I couldn’t do that if I was going to write the book properly, because no one is lovely all the time, especially when they’re in Pearl’s situation. As I wrote I got to know Pearl better and to let her act in a way that felt true to her character. I guess some of her comes from me, remembering how it felt to be a teenager. But I also read and listened to accounts from young people who had lost a parent and this helped me to feel confident that what I was writing was believable.
If The Year of the Rat was made into a film, who would you cast? Would you like to play a role yourself?
Oh, that’s tricky! I really don’t know who should play Pearl – in a way I feel it should be someone unknown because the whole point about Pearl is that she’s very normal… Finn (who is the will they?/won’t they? love interest in The Year of The Rat) I imagine looking a bit like a young Ben Whishaw. And yes, I’d love to play Stella (Pearl’s mum) – she gets all the best lines AND has red curly hair which I’ve always wanted.
How long have you wanted to write for?
I’ve always wanted write really. I loved creative writing at school, it was definitely the thing I was best at. But I never really believed that I could do it as a job, so I ended up with a career in media relations – which involved a lot of writing, but not really the kind of writing I really wanted to do. I was always making up stories in my head, but it wasn’t until I took a career break and had my children that I plucked up the courage to try writing one of them down. That story was The Year of The Rat!
Do you write full time, or do you juggle a job too? How do you manage your writing load?
I’m lucky enough to write full-time at the moment, although I have three children who are still quite young so I only really only have the school day, and then it’s a question of fitting it into the evening or getting up early – which I find impossible in winter! I’m really not a morning person.
What books inspired you growing up?
Oh there are so many! I honestly could list a hundred books that inspired me. The great thing about reading as a kid is that you read so widely – you’re not bound by any idea of genre. But the books that I can trace back as an inspiration specifically for The Year of The Rat include The Secret Garden, which is essentially a book about grief; Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty, a beautiful story about teenage pregnancy; I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which is one of my all time favourite books and taught me how captivating a strong voice can be; and a book which is now out of print called Enough Is Too Much Already by Jan Mark, which is one of the first ‘UKYA’ books I can remember reading as a teenager. It tells everyday stories of a group of teenagers in England, which was very unusual back then. The stories are told entirely through dialogue and it showed me how much character, action and humour could come from well-written dialogue.
When a lot of us were growing up, there wasn’t exactly such a thing as Teen or YA fiction. What did you read when you were a teenager? Did you dive straight into adult books?
There were a few ‘teen’ books around when I was growing up but not many. In my younger teens I loved Judy Blume’s books. I also loved Jane Gardam’s books Bilgewater, Crusoe’s Daughter and A Long Way from Verona, which I think were published as children’s books, and are basically what we would now call YA. I Capture the Castle I’ve already mentioned, which is a UKYA classic. Other than that yes, I read adult books – I loved Margaret Atwood, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf – all sorts of things.
What YA books do you think have helped define the genre?
If I was to name one book it would probably be Junk by Melvin Burgess. I think Melvin basically invented UKYA! Before that, most books that were recognisably YA were American. Junk really encapsulates everything that’s brilliant about UKYA: it’s well written, it’s told in a very ‘British’ way in terms of the setting and dialogue, it deals with difficult and controversial issues unflinchingly, honestly and movingly, and it doesn’t patronise teenagers. It’s what UKYA continues to do so well across all genres.
You’ve written about an incredibly difficult time in a young person’s life – what subjects would you like to see tackled in YA books more often?
Not all books have to be about serious subjects, but I do think books are a great place to address issues that teenagers may be facing. It’s really important that teenagers can find characters who are like themselves in stories. Books can be a great way of realising you are not the only person who’s ever felt the way you do, or faced the difficulties you’re facing. I’m particularly pleased that mental health issues are being addressed in YA books, and also issues around gender and sexuality. There’s talk of books for teenagers being too dark, but I totally disagree. As long as a subject is dealt with sensitively, reading a book about it can be a safe way of confronting or exploring an issue. And the fact is these issues are a very real part of many teenagers’ lives.
Which authors do you think are doing fantastic things right now? Who needs more recognition?
Keren David is an author who’s doing fantastic things – Keren and I did an event together last year and Keren read a bit of her latest book Salvage – it was so gripping and well told I went straight out and bought it! C.J. Skuse is another writer I think deserves heaps of recognition. She has a really unique voice – funny, clever, original and authentically teenage in a way that’s hard to pull off. Sarah Benwell, whose debut Last Leaves Falling came out in January, is going to do great things – a very talented writer. And I’m looking forward to reading UKYA debut Eve Ainsworth’s book about bullying, Seven Days.
The UKYA community has become such a phenomenon in the last few years, how does it feel to be part of the community?
It feels incredible. It’s such a vibrant, generous, supportive community and everyone – from authors to bloggers to readers – is passionate about YA books. There’s so much energy and dynamism – it’s very inspiring!
The YALC and now The Birmingham Extravaganza, how valuable do you find these big YA events?
I think it’s fantastic to be able to get together and celebrate books together. For the authors I think it’s really important that we get to meet and chat with our readers, to hear their feedback and input. Writing is inevitably a bit of a solitary business so I love getting out there and meeting readers and other authors. And I think the fact that we’re all so passionate about books and reading makes these kind of events really special.
Do you find the online network (Twitter/Tumblr/Goodreads, etc) a great way to communicate with other authors, and readers?
I think social media is brilliant for linking authors and readers who are scattered all over the country (and indeed the world!) and making us all feel part of a bigger community. I love hearing from readers and it’s great to be able to connect with other authors. It can feel a bit like a virtual office sometimes – the equivalent of having a chat by the water cooler!
What one person should we all follow on Twitter RIGHT NOW?!
I’m going to cheat and tell you about TWO friends of mine who both have brilliant UKYA debuts coming out in July this year – Lu Hersey (@LuWrites) whose book Deep Water is a dark, gritty story with elements of the selkie myths woven through it, and David Hofmeyr (@dhofmeyr) whose novel Stone Rider is just brilliant – fans of The Hunger Games and Blood Red Road will love it.
Would you rather fight a hundred duck-sized horses, or one horse sized duck?
DEFINITELY a hundred duck-sized horses. They sound cute! I’d want to tame them and keep them as pets. One horse sized duck sounds terrifying. Seriously. That’s going to give me nightmares.
If they made a Clare Furniss action figure, what accessories would it come with?
Chocolate. A VERY big cup of coffee. A laptop with headphones (I have to listen to music while I write). Lipstick. Several pairs of impractical shoes. Books, of course. And more chocolate.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve actually been doing a lot of reading for my next book which I’m currently writing, How Not To Disappear. It has a road trip in so I’ve been reading as many books with road trips in as possible for inspiration! My latest is Last Orders by Graham Swift. But my next two UKYA reads that I’ve got lined up are Salvage by Keren David as I’ve already mentioned, and Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill – I’ve heard it’s inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale which I love, so I’m really looking forward to that one.