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…

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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.

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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.

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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!


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“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.


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UKMG Interview with SF Said – Author of Varjak Paw & Pheonix

This year, after the massive success of last year’s UKYA Extravaganza, is the very first EVER UKMG Extravaganza! For those of you who maybe don’t know, MG refers to Middle Grade fiction, more commonly in the UK known as 9-12, but it can straddle the line into Teen Fiction too, so more the 11-14 bracket in many cases. The UK has a wonderful history of books for this age – maybe even the best of all time, Harry Potter, and much like the UKYA community has picked up momentum in the last few years, the UKMG movement is just starting up right now online and through small events. For this blog tour, I’ve been locked in a steel cage deep underwater with SF Said, author of two Varjak Paw novels, as well as the Superhero-esque Phoenix. (Watch the book trailer HERE)

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Bonjour, Hola, Konichiwa and welcome! Thanks ever so much for coming and letting me fire off questions at you with all the intensity of a million stars. Why don’t you tell us a bit about your books?

Thank you! I’m looking forward to questions with all the intensity of stars, because Phoenix is all about the stars!

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The main characters in Phoenix are a human boy who has the power of a star inside him, and an alien girl who is the most brilliant fighter in the galaxy. It begins with the boy dreaming that the stars are singing to him, and it ends with the two of them facing the end of all worlds. So it’s a great big space epic, on the scale of something like Star Wars.

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The Varjak Paw books are built on a smaller scale, but I think they also have a superheroic element. They’re about a cat wants to become a great warrior. In his dreams, he learns a secret martial art known only to cats. And this helps him to survive on his own in a dark and dangerous city.

What made you first start to write books for younger readers? Was that something you actively went for?

I always knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, but I never found literary fiction very satisfying. Then at university, I read and re-read lots of books for young readers, like Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and the mythic stories written by Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.

These were exactly the kinds of books I wanted to write: hugely powerful page-turning stories with brilliant characters, richly-imagined worlds, and big questions about life and how it should be lived. Books with a lot of depth and levels, which could be read at different ages in different ways. Modern myths, really. So that was what I set out to write.

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Varjak Paw is such a phenomenal character! Where did you dream up this idea of a martial artist cat?

Thank you! I have to admit, Varjak Paw didn’t begin with the idea of a cat doing martial arts. It began with me watching my own cat as he went outside for the first time, as a kitten. I started to write a story about a kitten going out on his own into a dangerous city. What was he going to need, to survive? The idea of a martial arts for cats evolved from there.

This martial art is called the Way of Jalal. There are seven skills: skills for hunting, skills for fighting, skills for stealth, and so on. They have names like Shadow-Walking, Slow-Time, and Moving Circles. They developed as the story developed, in response to the story’s needs. Story generally drives everything in my books.

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How was working with the massively talented Dave McKean? Did you have ideas for his illustrations in the book, or was it all his own work based on your words?

Dave McKean is one of my heroes, and has been ever since I read the comics he made in the 1990s. So on Varjak Paw, I was a bit in awe of him, and couldn’t quite believe he was working on my story. I just gave him the text, and it came back looking like it does in the finished book. All the incredible things he does – not just with pictures, but with design, typography, even the use of white space – all came from him.

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While I was writing Phoenix, though, we were having all sorts of adventures in Hollywood, trying to make a Varjak Paw movie. (Which still hasn’t happened, but if anyone out there has $15 million to spare, we can find a good use for it!) Anyway, we became friends and collaborators while doing this, so the process of making Phoenix was different.

This time I gave him all sorts of stuff to work with. Everything from space photography made by the Hubble Telescope, because Phoenix is set in space, to images of gods and goddesses, because the story makes connections between astral science and ancient myth. He told me later that the most useful thing I gave him was a CD of Sigur Ros music. I thought it sounded like the stars singing, and I told him if he could make illustrations that looked like the music sounded, they’d be perfect. Incredibly, he did – and they are!

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Phoenix is a bit of a change, and a bit of an older piece of fiction, where did that stem from?

I don’t think about ages when I write. I like the idea of books for everyone: stories that anyone can enjoy, whoever they are, however old they are, whatever gender they are. I’m aiming to write modern myths, as I say, and I think myths are ageless and timeless. They transcend all categories.

But I was definitely setting out to do something bigger and more ambitious with Phoenix; I wanted to take a step up in my writing. Because the story is all about the stars, the scale had to be huge. So it ended up three times the length of Varjak Paw.

That might make people think it’s older. But I’ve met 9 year olds who read Phoenix in a day, and teenagers who’ve done the same. It’s a big story, but I hope it’s a page-turning, thrilling story too.

Was it a challenge to create this alien universe to try and work within, or was it all fully formed in your brain tank?

It was a huge challenge, and it took me a long time! It took seven years to get Phoenix as good as I possibly could, which is always my aim with each book.

The hardest part was the mythic background to the story. The aliens in Phoenix believe that all the mythological gods and goddesses are really stars who come down from the sky. They take different forms in different times, but they’re always the same immortal beings, returning again and again through history. They call them the Twelve Astraeus.

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Originally, I wrote lots of material about the Twelve Astraeus, to explain this background. But it was impossible to write prose powerful enough to describe them. After all, gods and stars should be mysterious and awe-inspiring beyond words! Then I decided to describe them through illustrations. I gave Dave a list of the Twelve Astraeus, with their names and attributes in different mythologies (Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Mesopotamian etc.) The images he created have exactly the sense of mystery and awe that I wanted.

I also wrote song fragments to go with the pictures, which give you hints about them. So when readers encounter the Astraeus Of The Sea, for example, they can work out for themselves that this is the being who’s been called Poseidon, Neptune, and so on. Even if they don’t, they’ll feel who he is, without being told. I find that much more powerful and evocative than ordinary prose – but it took me a long time to work out the best way to do it!

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How do you decide what things you can tackle in MG, and what’s best left for the YA sphere?

I’m probably not the best person to ask, because as I say, I don’t think about ages. I just try to write books that everyone can read.

I personally don’t see a vast difference between different categories of fiction. A great story is a great story. I read across all categories myself, and did when I was a kid. As soon as I could read on my own, I wanted to read EVERYTHING. And so now as a writer, I put everything I care about and everything I love into my books. And anyone who wants to read them is welcome.

Why is MG such an important age bracket of young readers? Why do you think it’s such a vital part of a child’s reading evolution?

I think the books we read when we’re young shape us and stay with us forever. So while I’m not a big fan of categories, I do think those books are the most important books of all.

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Watership Down is a book that changed my life. I read it when I was 8, and thought it was the best book I’d ever read. I remember thinking that one day, I wanted to try and write something even half as good as it. I re-read it when I was 35, and I thought it was even better! At 8, I’d seen a thrilling adventure story about rabbits; now I saw politics, philosophy, mythology, all working together on different levels.

It was amazing to realise how deeply it had shaped my own imagination. I can see the roots of everything I want to do as a writer in that book. So it changed my life, and I think most of us have had similar experiences in childhood. What could be more important than that?!

For the love of all that is pure, WHAT ARE YOU WRITING NEXT?!

I’m writing a book called TYGER. I can’t say too much about it, as my books always change a lot as I work on them. But I can tell you that it’s partly inspired by William Blake’s amazing poem The Tyger!

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If they made a film of any of your books, would you try and cast yourself in them?

Good heavens, no! I don’t even have pictures of myself on my books. I’d rather people engaged with the story without the writer getting in the way.

Tell us about your ideal writing environment. Is writing a full time deal for you?

Writing is very much a full time deal for me. I write in my local library. There are no distractions there, and everyone else is working, so I just get down to work. If I try to write at home, the temptation to look at the internet is just too big. Especially Twitter. I can always justify it as ‘research’. But if you really want to write, you need to immerse yourself in writing, and not do anything else.

Have you always wanted to write?

Yes. I’ve always loved books and stories, and I’ve always wanted to make my own.

What does the UKMG community mean to you? Is it exciting to be there to watch it as it takes its tiny first baby steps?

I think it’s a wonderful thing. I’m so excited about UKMG Extravaganza, and I would be even if I wasn’t taking part! When I started out, being a children’s writer was quite a solitary thing. Sometimes I’d meet other writers at publishing events, but that was about it. In everyday life, I didn’t meet many other people who loved children’s books or even took them seriously.

Now, I’m in constant conversation with them. I love the fact that people who love children’s books are talking to each other in events like UKMG Extravaganza, and on places like Twitter, through hashtag chats like #ukmgchat. And this isn’t just writers, but readers, bloggers, vloggers, booksellers, librarians, teachers – there’s no end to it. It’s brilliant being connected to such a thing, because it makes you feel like you’re not alone. There are thousands of other people who love books just as much as you do!

What UKMG authors make you happy? Who’s books should we all be rushing out to grab from shelves right this second?

So many! In terms of classics, I love Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit, CS Lewis, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper…

More recently, I’d have to mention Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, Peter Dickinson’s The Kin – an epic sequence about human origins that I think deserves to be as well known as widely read as Michelle Paver’s Outcast books – which I also love! I think Jonathan Stroud is a fantastic writer. Francesca Simon’s The Lost Gods and Kate Saunders’s Five Children On The Western Front are two books that I think of as classics already. I could go on. And on…

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What books did you read growing up that inspired you as a writer and as a reader and as a human being?

Ursula Le Guin’s books inspire me in every possible way. The Earthsea books showed me that children’s literature could be great literature. The Dispossessed became a key book for me; I still re-read it every few years. Its portrayal of a society built on anarchist principles inspires me, as does its depiction of relationships built on equality. So it doesn’t just inspire me as a writer; it’s a book I aspire to live by.

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Do you get much fan mail? What’s your best response you’ve had from one of your readers?

I love hearing from readers. I’m a lot better at replying to comments on my website than I am to actual letters, for some reason. But any time anyone tells me that one of my books meant something to them – that’s amazing.

When I hear from people who say they didn’t like books before, but then they read one of mine and now they can’t stop reading – that’s just mind-blowing.

And when I hear from people who read one of my books as a child, kept it through their whole childhood, and now still enjoy it as adults – well, I don’t have words for that.

One of the nice things about MG is how engaging and excitable children are at that age – do you get out to many events with kids? Is that something you enjoy getting involved in?

I visit a lot of schools; about one a week on average at the moment. I visit both primaries and secondaries. I do enjoy it – it’s always good to meet readers, and see what they’re interested in. I always ask for book recommendations, and have found some great reads that way.

What would your Patronus be?

A librarian?

If they made an SF Said action figure, what accessories would it come with?

Portable tea mug to take to the library. Vellum paper and fountain pen with Havana ink for first draft. Laptop and printer for subsequent drafts. Headphones and iPod for all-important writing music. (The Cure for Varjak Paw; Sigur Ros for Phoenix; Godspeed You Black Emperor for Tyger!)

If you could be ANY mythical creature, what would you want to be?

A writer who can write a great book in just one go. Because that is a TOTALLY mythical creature!

Would you rather fight one-hundred duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?

I like the idea of tiny horses. I would want to be friends with them. Whereas I find the idea of a horse sized duck a bit threatening. That’s a very big duck.

What’s on your To-Be-Read pile?

There isn’t a To-Be-Read pile. There’s a To-Be-Read mountain. There are so many books I need to read, and I’m a slow reader, so realistically, I know I’m never going to read them all. I could never even list them all!

But some books currently in the mountain were written by other authors taking part in UKMG Extravaganza: Allan Buroughs’s Ironheart, Emma Carroll’s In Darkling Wood, Jo Cotterill’s Looking At The Stars, Abi Elphinstone’s The Dreamsnatcher, Candy Gourlay’s Shine, Julia Lee’s The Mysterious Misadventures Of Clemency Wrigglesworth, Helen Peters’s The Farm Beneath The Water, and many many more!


 

Thanks for being on the blog SF Said! Don’t forget to check out the #ukmgchat for more great recommendations and discussions about Children’s Literature.

And thanks for reading,

D

UKYA Extravaganza interview with Lucy Coats, author of Cleo

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…

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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?

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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.

I assume it was more than Googling pictures of Pyramids.

I assume it was more than Googling pictures of Pyramids.

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.

Charming.

Charming.

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.

YES.

YES.

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.

BIG_LIE_B_PB3

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)?

AAAAAAAAAARGH

AAAAAAAAAARGH

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.

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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?).

Chiron

I am all ABOUT the Centaurs!

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.

No-one ever says duck.

No-one ever says duck.

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).

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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!

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