Okay! For this year’s UKYA Extravaganza, I’ve once again been unleashed on some poor unsuspecting author like hugely confusing guided missile of skin that I am. This year, the lovely LUCY COATS, author of CLEO, the first book of two about the young Cleopatra. I was lucky enough to meet Lucy at an event a few weeks ago, so she’s had a slight feel for how disorganised and sporadic my brain can be, so here goes…
Hello Lucy, and THANK YOU for being a part of UKYAX! Let’s start by getting you to tell us a little bit about yourself and your book Cleo?
Hi Darran – I’m really excited about UKYAX and also about being a guest on your fabled and seemingly not at all disorganised or sporadic blog (who knew?). About me? Well – I’ve been a publisher, a bookseller and a journalist, but my main job is telling lies – or as some people like to call them, stories. So far I’ve written 37 big fat lies for all ages from two to teen and about everything from pirates to green-toothed fairies. CLEO is my 36th lie. It’s about the young Cleopatra, in the time before she became Pharaoh, and it’s a historical with a hefty dose of paranormal. The story takes Cleo from a young girl, confused and scared by the murder of her mother, to a fledgling teenage priestess of Isis, marked out and chosen by her goddess to save Egypt from a wicked god. That’s just for starters. There are also giant scorpions, ghost hippos, man-eating crocodiles, evil priests and sisters, vengeful deities, jars full of guts – and a hunky hot librarian.
So you’ve written for younger readers a fair bit, what made you want to write YA? Was there much to learn in the way of changing style to fit an older audience?
Well, I read a lot of YA, so I’ve been wanting to write something older for a while now, just to challenge myself and find out if I could. Obviously a YA novel is a lot longer than the younger stuff I write, so thinking about that bigger story arc and pacing right it was the starting key to that challenge. Every story I write speaks to me in a different way – I guess this one just happened to have an older voice and need more space to tell it. In a younger book, there are different requirements – the story needs to really crack on, and you just don’t have enough room for the fine detail in relationship building. Obviously, the story in a YA needs to be gripping and page-turning too, but what I loved about writing this book was having that space to develop and get to know both Cleo and the secondary characters and give them room to breathe and grow.
Cleo is a historical piece, obviously – how much research goes into writing a piece of historical fiction like this? How much of it is 110% accurate and how much is artistic license to help the plot flow forward?
Oh. My. God. The RESEARCH! I did SO much research for this book (and the next one, Chosen). I’m a bit of an obsessive about getting it right, but, of course, writing about ancient history is not so easy on that front, especially when the place you’re writing about (Alexandria in 60-55BC) has been hit by earthquakes and floods and basically doesn’t exist any more. Also, there is pretty much no accurate information on Cleo herself, before she came into the history books as Pharaoh. No one really knows who her mother was, or where she was after her father went into exile in Rome – stuff like that. Essentially, her early life is a great big hole in history, which is a gift for an author, as it leaves a lot of wiggle room. So no, it’s not 110% accurate, because it can’t be. However, there was a lot of stuff I could get right by going back and reading original texts and letters from the time about feasts and palace decor and what boats would have been on the Nile, dress, weapons, weather, plants, animals, games and all that. I’ve tried to give a real flavour of Egypt in Cleo’s day without making it heavy or educational/info-dumpy (aarrgh! – such a no-no). What I always say about research is that if all my research would fill a five-storey mansion, what I actually use in the book would probably come about halfway up the basement wall. Less is definitely more as far as the reader is concerned – but I have to write from a position of actually knowing what the hell I’m talking about, even if that knowledge is only in my head.
How did it feel, bringing this iconic historical character to life? Was it difficult to keep her grounded and make her feel like a modern teenager despite her environment?
It felt a bit scary. We’ve all got our own ideas about Cleopatra, this iconic woman who we are still talking about after over 2000 years. What shocked me was to find out that actually, what we think we know is mostly wrong. After the Romans conquered Egypt and Octavian/Augustus became Emperor, they controlled the history, and they portrayed the adult Cleopatra as a witch/seductress (because, hey, that must have been the ONLY reason Caesar and Mark Anthony fell for her). In fact, she was an incredibly intelligent woman, speaking nine or so languages, an astronomer, a mathemetician and a musician. Women in Ancient Egypt were allowed to run their own lives – and the Romans (whose women couldn’t even vote or be proper citizens) didn’t like that, so they basically trashed her. What I wanted to do with my Cleo was to show a progression in her character from scared child to proper Pharaoh over the two books – to show that development into the seed of the powerful woman she finally became. Although she has help from her beloved Goddess, Isis, most of it she has to work out by herself – that was important. I also wanted her to connect with today’s teenagers. Quite early on, I decided to give her a fairly modern (though not anachronistic) voice which I know might have come as a bit of a shock to some readers. The thing is though – we have no idea how Ancient Egyptian teenagers talked. So her relationship with her best friend, Charm, is quite jokey and informal, and she’s properly stroppy with some of the adults in her life. She also has doubts and insecurities just like anyone else her age – and believing in herself and her destiny is the biggest challenge of all. I just hope readers will hitch along for the ride and see how the slightly whiny child of the beginning grows into a young woman whose battle between loyalty, love and duty will define who she eventually becomes.
There’s a book two due next year (Chosen), but what else is in the pipeline? A book three, more ya, gritty dystopian noir crime about a centaur with a missing daughter?
Yes, Chosen is coming in March 2016, and I can’t wait till this new part of Cleo’s story is revealed to the world. Naturally there are more crocodiles, but also a demon god and a terrifying army of the Burnt-Souled Dead (basically, Ancient Egyptian zombies). That’s it for Cleo though – I don’t really want to write about her as Pharaoh, too many other people have trodden that ground. As for what else is in the pipeline – well, I have two more in my middle-grade Beasts of Olympus series to write, as well as a couple of other things. For my next YA – I’m very much liking the idea of a dystopian noir with sad detective centaur dad and I may just steal that. On the other hand – I may go Famous Ancient Historical
Girl again (but in Greece), or mix myth, modern music and tragic love in the U.S of A, or go religious warfare, women’s rights and proper hanging bat vampires in a fantasy Eastern Europe. What would you guys like to see? Which of those sounds good to you, if any? (No really – I’m interested and would love to know!)
If they made a film of Cleo, do you have any ideal casting choices? Would you put yourself in there?
I’m always a fan of casting the unknown – so I’d like someone new to play Cleo, Charm and Khai, unassociated with any other character in film. You can see what I think they all look like on my Pinterest page for the books. As for me…I’d probably have a bit part as one of the Sisters of the Living Knot. I rock the priestess robe look. Or possibly a camel. I’m sure my acting skills are up to that.
Tell us about your ideal writing environment. Is writing a full time deal for you?
I mostly write my lies in the little room above my kitchen. It’s filled with books, writing mess, me and the three dogs, who lounge about on the sofa and sometimes manage to get me to go out for walks. I look out over green fields, trees, sheep and a little stream. Oh and clouds, which I stare at when the writing of lies is stalled and hope for inspiration. It’s a great sanctuary, mostly, and no one in the house is supposed to interrupt me when the door is closed and the big red rope is over the top of the stairs. Of course, they all ignore it, especially my 90 year-old mum. So sometimes I escape – to somewhere nice and free of phones and internet, preferably. In recent years I’ve escaped to Donegal (by the sea), Paris (above a patisserie – yum), Venice (on the Grand Canal), and Devon (wine brought to the room at 6pm sharp – major result). Writing is definitely a full time deal for me – but that doesn’t only mean the actual physical acts of writing, editing and proofreading, of course. There’s much more to it than that – promotion, school visits, festivals, social media wrangling, writing blogs, teaching creative writing etc etc.
Have you always wanted to write?
I’ve always written, but at the beginning (actually, till I was in my twenties) it was poetry. So, I wanted to be a poet for a bit, and to hang out on mountains waiting for a muse to come down out of the mist and infect me with the madness of genius. Sadly, that didn’t happen, and then I got a job in publishing. I’d never stopped reading kids’ books – but being an editor meant I began to read with a more critical eye, and to actually think about how a story was put together. It also made me want to write stories of my own. Once that happened, I couldn’t stop scribbling stuff down, and from that time on, I never have.
What does the UKYA community mean to you?
I think of the UKYA community as my tribe. It means a lot to me to be able to connect with people – authors, bloggers and readers, booksellers, librarians – who like the same books I do and have the same enthusiasm about them, regardless of my decrepit age. I love connecting and chatting on Twitter (and lately on Instagram too), and IRL at places like YALC, #UKYAdrinks and book launches and parties. So many people just don’t understand why anyone over 18 would read YA – but for me it’s not about labelling and genres, it’s about damn fine books – and I think some of the best and most interesting writing at the moment is in UKYA. I’m so proud to be able to say that I’m a tiny part of that community.
What books have you been reading lately?
I read pretty fast, and I’ve pulled a few late/all-nighters recently, because the books were so good I couldn’t stop. So, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve read Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here, James Dawson’s All of the Above, Sarah J Maas’s Queen of Shadows and, just now Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, which ripped my guts out. I’m currently reading a new discovery, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder – basically a futuristic Cinderella with cyborgs, which is an interesting take.
Who is out there in UKYA that you want to rave about? Which authors are doing great things?
What? You want me to PICK? There’s just so much good stuff out there to choose from, and if I wrote all of them down, your blog would probably explode from an excess of amazingness. Apart from the people above (well, Sarah J Maas isn’t UKYA, but still…). I think Lisa Williamson is one to watch – I loved The Art of Being Normal. Other books I’ve loved this year have been David Hofmeyr’s Stone Rider, Anna McKerrow’s Crow Moon, Ellen Renner’s Outcaste and Julie Mayhew’s The Big Lie. I’m also looking forward to reading Emerald Fennell’s Monsters, and for next February, I’m really excited about Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands, which I read a sample of at YALC, and immediately wanted the whole thing.
For many of us, YA is a recent phenomenon, and there were no Young Adult books when we were teens. When you were a teenager, what books were you reading?
Basically, I ate the whole library. Twice. I was a book hog – I read everything and anything, suitable or unsuitable. So, there was a lot of Lord of the Rings, but also the more romantic Anya Seton, Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Georgette Heyer and Mary Renault. There was also an encounter with John Fowles, not only The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but also The Magus, which was a bit of an eye-opener for a country girl at about 14, and led me to delve into Aleister Crowley and the whole Wiccan thing, In my thriller phase I went through Neville Shute, Hammond Innes, Dick Francis, Ian Fleming and Wilbur Smith, as well as reams of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Then I discovered Austen, and had a period of channelling Lizzie Bennett. I also read a lot of Greek and Roman stuff – mostly poetry, but also the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid as well as Metamorphoses. I really really loved Catullus. Mostly though, it didn’t matter. As long as I could crawl into the pages of a book – any book – I was ok. The world couldn’t get me and I could pretend I was a normal teenager and not the geek on the outside looking in.
Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out, who might doubt every single letter they put to a page and who curl up in a ball of anxiety and self-loathing each night (I have no-one in mind right now)?
Look – I’m going to lay it on the line here. However many books/lies I’ve written (a lot – see above), I STILL have massively long moments in the night where I curl up in a ball of anxiety and self-loathing. It’s part of being a writer. It’s not going to change. Angst and self-esteem issues are part and parcel of it, so learn to live with it. What being a writer is about is putting your ass on the chair and getting words down on the page. You think they’re crap? Never mind, don’t obsess. You can always go back and fix them later. Just get to the end of the first draft. At that point you have an actual book – something to work with. Now the real hard graft can begin. Trust me – it WILL be ok. You may have to have several goes at it, and put several failures in the bottom drawer, but you’ll get there in the end if you stick at it. Every book you write teaches you to do it better next time. And you already have a major advantage. You read – massively. You know what’s out there. Read it with a critical eye, always. Ask what works and why (or why not). Never mind writing courses and all that. Reading books is the best tutor you’ll ever have.
What would your Patronus be?
A bear, no question. My daughter calls me Mumma Bear, and my shamanic animal spirit is a bear too. Big, cuddly, warm, and sometimes growly and grouchy. Sleeps a lot. Likes snacks, salmon and honey.
If they made a Lucy Coats action figure, what accessories would it come with?
A napping couch made of very soft (non damp) moss with an optional spidersilk duvet. A magic library where you could get any book from past, present or future. A storyteller’s rainbow cloak of inspiration. A zap-gun for interrupters and intruders. A portable Earl Grey tea and triple choc chip cookie machine. A time-turner.
If you could be ANY mythical creature, what would you want to be?
You want me to say a sweet pink unicorn, don’t you? Bah to unicorns, I say. I’d rather be Chiron, the wise Centaur and Zeus’s brother. I rather fancy being the mentor to heroes, and Chiron is seriously kickass (four hooves, you know?).
Would you rather fight one-hundred duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?
Ah. The knotty duck/horse question. It’s taken some thought, but I’d fight the duck sized horses with my mad pony whispering skills and some tiny buckets full of molasses mash. Trust me, tiny duck sized horses would go mad for molasses mash. They’d also be mesmerised, and then I could get them harnessed up to my chariot and be pulled through the lanes of Northamptonshire in triumph. Victory WOULD be mine.
What’s on your To-Be-Read pile?
Too much – no really, it’s tottering! But next up is The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, When I Was Me by Hilary Freeman and Book by John Agard. Then I want to read Edmund de Waal’s new one, The White Road. Let’s not mention all the creative writing-related non-fiction stuff I have glaring at me from the corner (although Ursula le Guin’s Steering the Craft will be a pleasure to read properly. I’ve only dipped into it so far).
PS: Thanks for having me, Darran. Ace questions – I loved answering them. And I hope I’ll see some of you at UKYAX in Nottingham on 10th Oct. Come up and say hi if you’re there!