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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Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

If you’re not familiar with Jenny Downham, you really should be. Her bestselling debut, Before I Die was an amazingly powerful examination of mortality and life that was taken to the big screen with Dakota Fanning under the name Now Is Good. Her second novel is the electrifyingly dark You Against Me, which deservedly won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her latest novel, Unbecoming, is out in September, and blows her previous brilliant pieces of writing clean out of the water.

Don't get me started in how gorgeous this is.

Don’t get me started in how gorgeous this is.

Katie’s life is complicated. Her mother is piling pressure on her to succeed in her exams, and her friends have abandoned her completely after she kissed Esme, her best friend. She’s alone in the world, her Dad with his new family, her Mum at work all the time, and her brother Chris at his special needs school most days – Katie has no control over her life, and nothing she wants to do even if she did. But when Mary turns up, life suddenly becomes much more interesting – because Mary is Katie’s grandmother, a grandmother she never really knew she had. Mary is in the early stages of dementia, and after her partner Jack dies, she’s left alone and confused with nowhere to go. Her daughter had hoped never to see her again, but Mary has no-one to turn to, and her memories are fading with each day. Katie is determined to look after her ailing grandmother, and to repair the yawning gulf that separates her elderly relative from her mother, but some memories unlock secrets, and some secrets can do more damage. Katie needs to piece together the truth from a stubborn, uncommunicative mother and the rapidly vanishing memories of Mary to try and work out the strange, omnipresent darkness in her family’s past.

Unbecoming shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t. In theory, it’s trying to do too much at once, cover too many themes. What it should be is chaotic and meandering. What it actually is, is tight and sprawling and beautifully, perfectly crafted – like a strange tangle of coloured wools that look so dissimilar, but have been woven together which such skill and talent to create something staggeringly breathtaking.

Move over, John Green.

Move over, John Green.

Katie, the main character of the novel, is a superbly written young girl, full of fire and drive, as well as open uncertainty and anxiety. She’s trapped in a world she can’t escape, but she’s starting to scratch the surfaces of what her life could be, looking at the memories of Mary and trying to escape the control of her mother. But in amongst all her burning passion for a wider world, she’s filled with guilt and a strong need to do right by her exhausted but overbearing mother –  and this mix makes her a sweet, caring and immediately engaging protagonist. Mary is absolutely heartbreaking, the parts of the book from her point of view are bittersweet and filled with pure, unrestrained emotion. The way time meanders and snaps back and forth for her is never confusing to read, but her confusion is palpable in every line, and her muddled memories are all at once heartwarmingly bright and innocent, and tinged with an edge of sadness that meant I had a lump in my throat pretty much at all times. Her carefree attitude combined with her constant need to do the right thing makes her a flickering and unique character full of passion and fire. Caroline (Katie’s mother and Mary’s daughter) is also a superb contrast of emotions and personalities, so fearful of the world and of what it could do to her children, but so full of resentment and passionate rage towards her mother. All of Jenny’s characters are brilliantly, faithfully portrayed on the page, and she never lets them be flawless heroes or two dimensional villains – Chris is emotionally articulate and loved, and Simona is firey, strident and stubborn.

So dark, so strong.

So dark, so strong.

It’s not just Jenny’s characters that shine, though – her writing style is totally flawless, lyrical and philosophical, drifting across the page like sweet incense. Unbecoming reads like a Beautiful South song, messy and heartfelt and so close to home that it sees all the beauty in the mundane and everyday. Even the horribly painful moments have a sheen to them because her writing style is so fluid and gorgeous – every word weighs with purpose and emotion, and she never wastes a single one. It’s a dozen glorious threads and every single one of them sings and vibrates in harmony to create a bigger story. There’s plot twists and darkness that’s handled with intelligence and sensitivity, as well as staggering passion for life that made my heart balloon in my chest, as well as bringing me to tears on multiple occasions. Jenny handles dementia and depression and mental health achingly well, and her look at the development of Katie’s sexuality is subtle, tasteful and expertly woven into the larger plot. Mary’s dementia is so well handled, actually, that it couldn’t help but break my heart over and over again.

Unbecoming is a powerfully important YA novel, covering three generations of women, each with secrets and vibrancy that leap and skip about the pages, examining so many vital themes of sexuality and mental health. It’s a true triumph of writing, and Jenny Downham may well be one the all time greats. This is a classic in the making.

Thanks for reading, ya’ll.

D

P.S. You can pre-order Unbecoming HERE – out in September.

As always, thanks to Phil Earle for the proof. He’s never given me a bad book yet.