The YA Shot Blog Tour – Interview with JENNY DOWNHAM

When I was asked to take part in this year’s YA Shot Blog Tour, naturally I jumped at the chance – it’s always good fun to take part in community events like this. Then, when I was told the author I had been given I nearly exploded – JENNY DOWNHAM. JENNY FREAKING DOWNHAM. Author of the outstanding Unbecoming, You Against Me, and Before I Die, she’s one of the best YA novelists working in the UK today – if not the world. I was lucky enough to interview her, and you can read her answers below…

jenny-d-2

1. Hello Jenny! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this little interview – I’m a massive fan of your books so it’s a huge honour to be talking with you. Maybe we could start with you telling us a little about your latest book, Unbecoming?

Katie is seventeen and in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, is uptight, worn out and about to find her past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, is back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything,’ despite suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Every morning Mary runs away. She’s desperate to find something, says it’s imperative, but when questioned, can’t be more specific. Katie wants to know what Mary’s looking for. She also wants to know why her mother seems to detest Mary. What was the nature of their original estrangement? It makes Katie question everything she thought was true about her family.

So – three women at different stages of life bound together by a web of lies that only the youngest can untangle.

Oh, and it’s a love story too…

2. Unbecoming covers so many themes – from mental health to sexuality. Did you set out to cover so many topics, or did they evolve natural as the story progressed?

I don’t really think in terms of themes or topics when I begin a project, I’m more interested in characters and the stories they have to tell. I start with them and see where they lead me.

Pinter said a writer’s job is to ‘arrange and listen.’ He believed that characters arrive at their destination through their own impulses, rather than being manipulated to suit a pre-ordained plot. I love writing this way, although it can be time-consuming!

It’s usually about a year or so into a project that I begin to see what I might be writing about.

3. You’ve mentioned in interviews that a lot of Unbecoming drew from your own mother’s Alzheimer’s. Was it taxing to write about a subject so close to your heart, or did you find it cathartic to put it on the page?

Unbecoming is undoubtedly the most personal of my books. I have been a teenager, a mother and a carer and a lot of my own experiences are in there. But perhaps most importantly, yes – my own mother had Alzheimer’s and became very unwell and died while I was writing.

I found it very cathartic writing the book. I used to care for my mum during the day and then I’d go home and try to imagine what it might be like to ‘be’ her. I like to think that writing about the erosion of memory from a sufferer’s perspective made me a better daughter and carer in my mum’s last months.

unbecoming-3d-pb-cover

4. You talk about some very intense subjects in all your books (Terminal illness in Before I Die, Sexual Assault in You Against Me) – Do you feel it’s important for YA literature to look at these ideas?

When I’m sitting inside the story writing it, I don’t think about themes or ideas, I just get drawn to interesting characters and dramatic situations. My job is to ensure the characters are emotionally truthful and then I find that they lift off the page and begin to tell their stories themselves.

As for what’s ‘important.’ I want to take readers on a journey, rather than give them a message to take away. Books can address difficult situations and confront social issues and help readers deal with real-life challenges. They can transport you, make you think, move you… the list is endless. I hope my readers shift allegiance over and over again with the characters in Unbecoming. I hope they empathise with teenage Mary in her claustrophobic 1950s town and teenage Katie with all her problems at school and home. I hope readers wonder, “What would I do if that were me?” And I hope, by the book’s end, the reader feels they’ve been somewhere and seen some things and that perhaps the world looks slightly different now.

5. YA has been accused of being “too dark” in recent years – do you think that’s true? Are there any subjects you don’t think teenagers and young adults should be reading about?

The LIVES of children and teens are full of tough things. It’s illusory to think we can keep them safe by only allowing them access to certain books. We need to find the joy among the difficult stuff, rather than ignoring the difficult stuff. I don’t think there’s a single subject that can’t be tackled in YA, so long as the author handles the material truthfully and with respect and takes account of all the complexities.

6. Do you have a favourite out of your characters?

I love them all after spending so much time with them – even the difficult ones! But perhaps Tessa in Before I Die has a particularly special place in my heart because her story doesn’t continue beyond the page. I’m very aware of her death date each year and I think how old she would be had she lived.

Dakota Fanning in the movie adaptation Now Is Good

Dakota Fanning as Tessa in the movie adaptation Now Is Good

7. How does a new story start to unfold for you? Do you plan meticulously or start writing and see where it leads?

I never plan. When I’m in the middle of a project and every day I’m throwing thousands of words in the bin, I wish with all my heart that I could be the kind of writer who could follow a path. However, when the book is complete, I’m rather proud that I didn’t need one. At that point, I think it’s exactly the best kind of writing habit and fully resolve to do exactly the same for my next book!

8. Do you treat writing like a full time job? Is your writing day structured or do you only write when the mood takes you?

When I know where a project is going (so about 18 months in), I can write every day and be quite disciplined. Before that, while I’m still exploring, I idle my way in. Most of my writing in the early stage gets chucked, but I find I return again and again to the things that preoccupy and eventually I begin to see what the book might be about. It’s a slow process. And involves lots of coffee and day-dreaming.

9. Why do you write YA?

Because young people are on the cusp of adulthood and that interests me. A teen protagonist can do almost everything an adult can, but because they are boundaried by adult rules and expectations, they have to be far more creative to get what they want. It’s much more exciting to tell a story when there are lots of obstacles in the way.

Also, YA is a happening gig! There are so many books being published in the UK and Ireland that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in past years and would still not be published in many other places in the world. More readers are seeing their own lives represented within stories and this enables them to think not only, ‘What would I do if that happened to me?’ But also to think, ‘That is happening to me.’ Books can sometimes give you the very thing you need – the clue to solve a problem, the strength to keep going, the laughter that makes things more manageable and, perhaps most importantly – the feeling you’re not alone.

10. Who are some of your favourite authors, YA or otherwise?

As a young reader I devoured poetry, folk and fairy tales (Grimm, Andersen), and stories from the Arabian Nights and Ancient Greece. Now I love Raymond Carver, Donna Tartt, Denis Johnson, Ali Smith, Toni Morrison, Maggie O’Farrell, Tove Jansson, John Irving and Kate Atkinson amongst many others. I try to read as a writer might – with one eye and half my brain looking for just how this author make this character so believable, or that sentence so beautiful, or this story such a pageturner…

11. If they made a Jenny Downham action figure, what three accessories would it come with?

Assorted disguises, working wings and a mini espresso maker.

12. Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

I’ve started something new, but it’s very early days. All I have are voices at the moment and I have no idea where they’ll take me. If I had to sum it up so far I’d say it’s about a girl who is furious! She wants her life to be very different and is determined to make it happen.


And that’s your lot! I’d like to thank the YA Shot Team, Carolyn at David Fickling Books, and of course – Jenny herself, for helping put all this together.

You can pick up a copy of Unbecoming just here.

ya-shot-banner-side

Advertisements

UKYACX Blog Tour! Partners in Crime – A word from authors Kate & Liz Corr…

This one’s a guest post from sisters Kate & Liz Corr, who write together, on the positives and negatives of writing together. Their debut novel, The Witch’s Kiss, is out now – and a sequel (The Witch’s Tears) is on the way in Januray, published by Harpercollins!


29984535

“Writing with your sister? That’s strange. If I had to work with my sister [or brother, or other relative] I’d have killed her by now.” That’s what people often say when they hear that we write books together. And yet, we’re both still alive. So far…

We started working together about four years ago. What began as an exercise in mutual support for our solo writing efforts quickly turned into a collaboration: it was just more fun. And it’s easier. No need to try the patience of your friend / beta reader / editor. With a sibling co-author, there’s always someone else available who cares just as passionately about the fictional world you’re currently inhabiting as you do.

Of course, it helps that we get along really, really well. Our writing styles are similar, and our strengths and weakness complement each other. One of us is better at dialogue, the other at constructing scenes. One of us likes our characters to have happy endings, the other one… not so much. And then, there’s a big overlap of stuff that we both enjoy in terms of books and films. Science fiction and fantasy (obviously) are dear to both of our hearts. Growing up, we were particularly drawn to books that included a strong family dynamic: The Dark is Rising, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, Pride & Prejudice, Little Women. Books where the family, even if it was slightly dysfunctional, was important.

In a way, we’ve written what we know. Our mum was ill for a lot of our childhood and she died relatively young, so we’ve always relied a lot on each other. It’s this sort of closeness that we wanted to reflect in The Witch’s Kiss. There is romance in our story, between Merry (the unwilling teenage witch) and Jack (the Anglo-Saxon prince who is our sleeping beauty). But romantic relationships aren’t,

obviously, the only significant ties in people’s lives. At least as important in The Witch’s Kiss is the bond between Merry and her elder brother, Leo. They bicker, they dislike each other’s friends and they challenge each other’s actions. But at the same time they are utterly supportive of each other. They have each other’s backs, and they make each other laugh.

And that’s what we do, too. It’s a rare writing or editing session that doesn’t see us collapsing into laughter, even if we’re only communicating over the phone or via text message. Sometimes we argue. But that’s ok, because we both know we can say what we like; the other one isn’t going to take offence and storm off, or lapse into passive aggressive silence. We have to be organised – much easier now, with everything stored in the cloud – and we have to compromise. But it’s worth it. Like Merry and Leo, or salt and pepper, or chocolate and strawberries (at least in our opinion), we’re better together.


ukyaxblogtour

The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

When David Fickling Books are publishing a new title, it’s something to take note of. The publishers have released the last two year’s best books for me (The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, and Unbecoming by Jenny Downham), so I already know that their calibre of YA is pretty high. So when The Call came to me, I was very curious indeed – A YA horror/thriller with deep roots in traditional Irish folklore? I’m in…

The Call

Set in a desolate Dystopian Ireland in a world where all teenagers must survive The Call – 3 minutes and 4 seconds in which they will be transported to the hellish Grey Lands to fight for their lives against the twisted and beautiful Sidhe (pronounced “Shee”) people – the malevolent fairies of legend who where banished there thousands of years ago by the descendants of the modern day people of the Emerald Isle. Time moves differently in the Grey Lands, and 3 minutes becomes 24 hours there, whilst the Sidhe hunt their prey – and if you’re lucky you’ll be transported back at the end unharmed. If you’re lucky they might only kill you. But the Sidhe like to play with their victims if they catch them early enough… Twisting human flesh into grotesque art. If you’re unlucky, what they send back might not resemble anything human at all. Nessa, the story’s main character, is at a training college that educates and prepares the nation’s teenagers for The Call. No-one expects her to survive – there’s no way, not after polio ravaged her legs as a child. She can barely run without the aid of crutches, and the Sidhe won’t let her take anything like that with her. Her death is a certainty, and everyone knows it. Except Nessa – Nessa is going to prove them all wrong…

image

Despite such twisted writing, he seems so nice!

Talk about PACING. I’m a pretty slow reader (it bugs me a lot), but I flew through The Call in about a week, which is not bad going for me. Peadar expertly pulls the story along by using short, punchy chapters, each one ending on just the right hook to pull you into the next one. It’s these choppy chapters, filled with action and mystery which keep the book pounding along through its story, combined with the way he jumps from Nessa’s plot to the short, often violent lives of those Called to the Grey Lands. It’s these little snapshots of the brutality of the Sidhe realm that up the tension for the characters left behind, and as they are Called one by one, the pressure becomes monumental on those who remain. Peadar also uses a Clive Barker-esque feel of horror in his writing, by twisting the familiar to make it unsettling or outright upsetting (in the way all good horror should be), and the punishments and the games of the Sidhe are wonderfully creative and horrifically dark and cruel. The Grey Lands themselves are a suffocating alternate world which the author describes in scant, disturbing slices, but it’s the bleak and ruined Ireland that really feels the darker setting of the two. Only 1 in 10 teenagers survive The Call, making the country a crumbling ruin of what it once was. The adults are strained, hopeless and desperate, and the teenagers range for confident and arrogant to nihilistic, and the clashing this creates makes the characters really stand out – none more so than Nessa. A physically disabled protagonist in a YA novel is virtually unheard of, and one in a fast paced survival horror is even rarer. Nessa might even be the first, to my knowledge. Her resolve and quiet determination are at odds with the usual “strong female character” trope that we see so much in the genre. She has fears and hopes, loves and hates. She isn’t an unstoppable badass – she’s a girl who everyone else has written off already, and the bitterness of a life being told she’s as good as dead quietly weaves its way through her actions.

The Call uses mythology and modern horror ideas to create something really unique and absorbing. As someone with no knowledge of the Sidhe and Irish folklore, I’d love the backstory to be investigated a little more and fleshed out – perhaps in a sequel…? I’ll be the first in line…

Thanks For Reading,

D

Unboxed by Non Pratt

Unboxed is a short novel by the brilliantly talented UKYA author Non Pratt (author of Trouble and Remix), published by the wonderful people at Barrington Stoke who specialise in shorter books with intelligent and articulate plots designed to encourage reluctant readers without talking down to their audience. They also use fonts and paper colourations designed to help dyslexic readers. They really are superb – check out their website.

25648276

Even the jacket makes me emotional

Unboxed is the story of four friends, who when they were younger created a time capsule of their perfect Summer. Time has passed since that Summer, and the friends have now drifted apart, in contact mostly through social media and memories. When they made the box, there was five of them, but stomach cancer claimed Millie a few weeks ago. So despite the wedge driven between them, they meet up once again to open the box and peer into the past, to a simpler, happier time. It isn’t easy – everyone’s changed in ways both huge and small. Alix has told none of them about her girlfriend, afraid they wouldn’t understand. The whole night promises to be a mess of dredged up emotions and awkward silences, but it was what Millie made them promise to do. You can’t break a promise to a dead friend.

I’ve said it before, and I am certain I’ll say it again – Non Pratt is hands down the most authentic voice in YA fiction. You can keep your poetically lyrical teenagers, Non’s characters swear and screw up, they’re awkward in ways that are frustrating as opposed to endearingly charming – she just writes real characters in a way I’ve never come across in YA elsewhere. Unboxed is no exception – from the very plot outline I knew it was going to break my heart (and I finished it on a train, naturally), but Non captures the teen atmosphere perfectly. It’s all there – the sense of hope, the frustration, the nihilism, the fear of alienation from your friends. The fear of not fitting in. Unboxed dredges all these ideas up and mixes them into a short, punchy story that aims directly for the heart and nestles in there for life. I’m never ever getting this story out of my head. Alix is the perfect narrator for the story, hesitant and filled with regrets, but each of the four friends are perfectly portrayed and effortlessly nuanced. In just 140 pages we get a brief snapshot of these people, of who they used to be, who they are now, and where they might going. It’s a masterpiece that absolutely encapsulates the fears and dreams that come with being on the cusp of adulthood. It’s achingly real, smart, and honest. It’ll take you an hour to read and it’ll change you. Give a short book a chance.

Thanks for Reading, as always.

D

P.S. You can pick up Unboxed, and all of Non’s books right here.

A small letter to YALC…

This year I was lucky enough to be working at YALC, the Young Adult Literature Conference held as part of London Film & Comic-Con. I know, I’m showing off more than I little bit. Victoria Schwab gave me a cookie (it was delicious) and I fan-girled meeting Malorie Blackman. It’s a far cry now from the first YALC I went to – the very first one in fact, crammed somewhere in the back of Earl’s Court, besieged on either side by the usual LFCC crowd. It earned its nickname that year as the literal hell on earth, so warm and overwhelmingly stuffy, with no boundaries to help keep things in one place. I had fun, but it was still a bit of a sensory explosion that left me a little fractured. The shift to Olympia has made all the difference. Us YA lot now have our very own floor, and the atmosphere change that comes with it is so very welcome.

Oh, the atmosphere of YALC… It’s so wonderful to be in a place surrounded by other book lovers. Everyone there loves books, and so the empathy in the room is palpable – a sense of joy and understanding that you can taste on your tongue. When I was a teenager, I’d have longed for the chance to chat to other bookish teens, to sit and watch talks by my favourite authors, and to get an insight into the publishing industry, so for I felt so honoured to be a tiny part of this year. To talk to others in the book world and to engage with the passionate young readers and talk to them about their favourite books, it’s why I fell in love with this whole wonderful YA community in the UK in the first place. The open-hearted love is real, and it’s wonderful to behold.

I do hope publishers, literary agents and authors where watching and listening to those fans this weekend. I hope they saw the joy the books they make can create. I hope they saw the amount of teenagers there in head scarves who aren’t seeing themselves in the books they read – yet. I hope the UKYA community continues to strive towards full representation of our wonderful multicultural world. I’ve always believed books create empathy, and it the light of all the stuff 2016 has flung at us so far, we need all the empathy towards one another we can get.

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgewick

The Ghosts of Heaven is a hugely ambitious and original work of YA fiction, and it’s been languishing on my shelf for a good long while. Last month, I finally got round to giving it a try – and two days later I was done, having read one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The Gorgeous Hardback Cover

The Gorgeous Hardback Cover

Told through four different stories, the book channels different characters and time periods in each quarter, all linked through a theme of spirals. We open of the dialogue sparse pre-history tale of a nameless teenage girl, part of a hunting party who use shapes painted on cave walls to summon good luck and strength to aid the hunt. The second story tells the tale of a girl accused of witchcraft, and a quiet country village under the grasp of a tyrannical reverend. The third quarter is a tense story of a psychologist and his highly intelligent patient in a cliff side Insane Asylum. The final story in the book is set in the far-flung future, aboard a sleeper ship filled with dreaming people destined to colonise a new planet, and follows a solitary sentinel who watches over them in a lonely vigil as their ship spirals through space.

This Book. Seriously, I cannot begin to describe how swept up in these four interwoven narratives I was. The first quarter, told eerily through fractured stanzas that bounce along poetically, is filled with hope and bitter-sweet melancholy. The second is stiflingly oppressive, painfully and blisteringly unfair, whilst the third is so wonderfully windswept and Gothically HP Lovecraft, unfolding with a spiralling sense of madness and chaos. The final quarter is a cold, uneasy science-fiction tale that pulls through the whole story and links each narrative together, like a needle and thread spiralling through four patches of fabric to create one whole blanket.

The Paperback Jacket

The Paperback Jacket

Sedgewick is such an outstanding writer – each story has its own feel and style, but they’re all part of a greater whole, and it’s done with such clever skill that flows naturally. None of the stories feel discordant with the others, despite their massive differences in time periods. Plus, the four parts of the book can be read in any order, giving a different experience depending on how you read it. It’s honestly mind-blowing, and by the time you get to the last quarter it all starts to pull together in a way that staggers you. The Ghosts of Heaven is a book that I’m going to return to again and again, a perfect balance of genres, filled with twisting unease and suspense, reading flawlessly and beautifully. It evokes something wonderful just remembering it.

Thanks for Reading,

D

If The Ghosts of Heaven takes your fancy, you can pick it up here.

Eden Summer by Liz Flanagan

Whenever Phil Earle over at David Fickling Books asks if I want a proof of something, I know I’m going to be reading an outstanding YA Novel. The publishing house is responsible for heavy hitters like The Art of Being Normal and Unbecoming, so it goes without saying that their books come with emotional depth and intelligence, and Eden Summer is a perfect addition to their roster.

28572095

Jess’ best friend Eden is missing. Ever since her sister died, Eden’s behaviour has become more and more erratic and unstable, and over the Summer Jess and Eden’s boyfriend Liam have been trying desperately to keep her head above the waters of grief. But now she’s missing, and Jess and Liam have no idea where she’s gone. Her behaviour has been deeply concerning, but is there something deeper and darker going in Eden’s past? And Jess has her own past trauma to work through as well… Can anything ever be truly normal again for the three teenagers?

Eden Summer is a stunning début, weaving themes of guilt and regret with an honest and beautiful friendship between its main characters. Eden is a whirling mess of emotion and chaos, and the way she gradually falls in on herself whilst pushing desperately outwards creates a tragic character arc to follow. Inside she’s blackness but on the outside she’s frantically grasping to all the things she thinks will make her better. Her progression mirrors Jess brilliantly, as Jess goes from fragile and skittish to resourceful and determined. In a way, Eden’s disappearance is a catalyst to help her face her own past and start to mend the wounds that affect her psyche. I think the most enjoyable character in the book is the setting though – Liz manages to use a much less known part of the country (Yorkshire) to create a sense of drama and bleak desperation to the plot, and she does it with knowledge and passion.

Eden Summer uses beautiful language to create a lyrical sense of unease and tension, which pushes the plot along, accelerating as it goes, and Liz’s use of flashbacks creates a wonderful discord between happier memories, chaotic memories and the harrowing present day. It’s through these flashbacks that we slowly unravel the darkness of each character’s backstory, and the fragments of secrets are revealed. The book really reminded me of Tanya Byrne’s Follow Me Down, and it’s an excellent thriller with vibrant, emotionally driven characters and a superbly written backdrop for it all.

Thanks for Reading!

D

Eden Summer is published this July. You can pre-order a copy here.