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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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…

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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

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.

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.

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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.

The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury

Melinda’s debut, The Sin Eater’s Daughter, was last year’s best selling UKYA debut – a tragic mix of dark fantasy and rich romance that I thoroughly enjoyed. Shot through with a twisted “princess in the tower” idea, but much more sinister, the book hinted at a larger, older and fully fleshed out universe that I was really eager to get more from, always bleeding into the edges of the story but not quiet showing itself. Yeah, well The Sleeping Prince steps it up a gear or five.

Another hypnotically beautiful cover.

Another hypnotically beautiful cover.

Following a new set of characters in a different part of the world, and shortly after the events of the first book, The Sleeping Prince is the story of impoverished apothecary Errin Vastel – the sister of the first book’s character Lief. She lives a meagre life, scraping together potions to sell on the black market to attempt to keep herself fed and with a roof over her head. With her father dead, and her brother away working to try and bring in some extra coin, Errin has to support not only herself, but also her mother, whose rapidly deteriorating mental health is starting to become more and more taxing – and dangerous. War in Lomere, with the mythical Sleeping Prince soon starts to spill across the border and threatens to shatter Errin’s already unstable world, and soon she finds she has no choice but to flee her home with her mother, relying on the help of one of her customers – the mysterious and enigmatic Silas, who she has been selling potions and poisons to. She’s never even seen his face, as he stays constantly cloaked and shrouded in darkness. But who else can she turn to? As the Sleeping Princes army starts to murder and burn its way across Tregellan she must flee, and if the officials found out about her mother’s conditions they’d lock her away in an asylum. Errin can’t lose the only member of family she has left.

ALL BOOKS NEED A MAP.

ALL BOOKS NEED A MAP.

If I ever had one thing that I struggled with in TSED, it was a heavy romantic plotline – it’s not my usual thing. The Sleeping Prince moves in a very different direction though, examining the rapidly unravelling threads of a family in complete crisis. Errin is a brilliant lead, resourceful and smart, she’s filled with fear and doubt, but she constantly pushes through with the weary determination of someone who has nowhere else to turn. Her world, and the underhanded desperate measures she takes to survive make her feel a much rougher and more worldly main character than Twylla, filled with shades of grey and a ruthlessness that fills her decisions and actions with a manic sense of drive.

Where the first story is the slow burning tale of political subterfuge, book two is an out and out war novel, and it pulls absolutely no punches. Melinda uses the plot to examine the true horrors of war in a fantasy setting, but she never lets it be viewed through a rose-tinted lens. The horrifically brutal war crimes of the Sleeping Prince are told through hushed, terrified rumour, and the painfully close-to-home treatment of Lomere’s refugees that Errin sees on her travels is a stark echo of current events. The whole book is driven forward with the frantic pace of an invasion, with the swirling out of control sense of being just one person swept up in something so huge and impossible to fight against that the whole book is beautifully chaotic.

I stole this photo from Mel's website but it's okay. She thinks I'm all right.

I stole this photo from Mel’s website but it’s okay. She thinks I’m all right.

The Sleeping Prince was everything that I wanted the next step in this saga to take – it builds on the rich mythology that clearly Salisbury has been developing for years, and it ramps everything up to eleven – the drama is more dramatic, the violence more visceral and animated, and the characters are more ambiguous, cut-throat and determined. This is a world at war, with characters desperate for survival and success, and a story filled with so many twists and dead drops that it’s breathlessly compelling.

Well done, Melinda, you terrible, beautiful Queen.

All hail!

D

P.S. You can follow Melinda on Twitter here, and you should because she’s a wonderful human.

One by Sarah Crossan

One is one of those books that it seemed everyone was raving about last year. It’s been on my tbr pile for ages as one of those “Oh I really need to get around to reading that!” Books. Well I devoured it in two sittings – It’s an outstanding novel. Believe the hype.

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Grace and Tippi are twins. Conjoined twins, in fact – they both merge into one single body below the waist. Life as conjoined twins is hard though, especially in America, where health care eats up most of their parent’s income. Eventually, home schooling stops being an option for the twins, and they have to attend a regular school. It’s a huge transition for them, but as their father’s alcoholism increases, and their sister spends more time at the local dance studio, the twins are desperate to get out of their stifling home atmosphere. School presents a huge amount of challenges, but Grace and Tippi soon make two great friends and start to settle into a new life full of possibilities. As money becomes more of an issue, they need to decide whether or not to let a documentary crew into their sheltered lives – to let millions of people become a part of their daily struggle to be a part of the world. Will it be worth it, to help give something back to their family who have sacrificed so much for them?

One is something else. In the scale of YA novels, it’s something very special and totally different. The contrasting personalities of Grace and Tippi work brilliant together – Grace is soft, a reader and a deep thinker, where Tippi is brash and outspoken, and the two of them balance each other as the story examines what it means to truly never be alone. Their extended family is vibrant and damaged, difficult to read about but utterly engaging and real; and their school friends Yasmeen and Jon are fantastic – flawed but so honest and blazingly fierce, and the way they take the twins under their wing is inspiring and heart warming.

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One of the things that makes this book stand out so much is the writing style, though. Told using poetic stanzas in short, dramatic and lyrical chapters, the whole book flows from Grace’s mind in haunting broken verse. At points it’s aching, and at others it bounces like a song, all the while creating a huge emotional charge like an electrical storm within the narrative. The use of metaphor, of Grace’s quiet observations on the world around her, makes the book an absolute joy to read, and really makes it stand out in the YA sphere by introducing such a captivating combination of poetry and prose.

One is uplifting, outstanding, and made me cry buckets. I strongly urge people to give it a try, it’s something totally unique and special.

Thanks for Reading,

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

So for those of you who maybe don’t remember – Alice’s debut, Solitaire, was one of my absolute favourite books in 2014. It was a smart, witty, apathetic coming of age story, a Perks of Being a Wallflower for the Tumblr generation or whatever. It was a great book. So when I was lucky enough to be emailed a final manuscript of her highly anticipated second novel, Radio Silence, I pretty much screamed. Out loud. On the shop floor. Which in a bookshop is frowned upon.

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Frances Janvier is Head Girl. Frances Janvier is a straight A student. Frances Janvier is on the fast track to an Oxbridge English Literature degree. She studies as often as she can, sleeping little and not really forming any friends – everything sacrificed for the hope of a place at one of the best universities in the country. The only creative outlet Frances allows herself is fan art for a podcast series called Universe City, where the androgynous Radio Silence battles a collection of horrific monstrosities in an inescapable science fiction landscape. As Frances steadily becomes more and more stressed out by her approaching exams and her entry interview for university, she starts to become more engaged in the fictional Universe City world. When she discovers that the mysterious Aled Last, who she’s lived across the road from for most of her life is also a massive fan of the podcast, she finally discovers what it means to have a true friend and starts to understand that life is more than academic achievement. But Aled’s life is a lot tougher than Frances realises, and while he helps her to grow, she starts to see the cracks in him. He needs her help, but he could never say it out loud – but his time is running out.

It’s better. Radio Silence is better than Solitaire. I KNOW. Big words, but I mean them 100%. Frances and Aled’s friendship is absolutely everything I want in a fictional friendship ever, and Alice deliberately allows their friendship to never bubble into a romance, which was SO REFRESHING. Frances is fraught, confused and passionate – all angles and manic energy, where Aled is softer, creative and submissive. I have a lot of feelings for Aled, and a lot of empathy to how he seems to drift along with life doing things that are decided for him but never truly grasping what he really wants. Their co-dependent friendship is flanked by some excellent supporting characters too, Raine being a big favourite, especially as she represents the opposite of Frances’ academic obsession. Daniel too is stony-faced, but his unravelling as a character is really sweet.

Still love you though, bae.

Still love you though, bae.

One of the biggest themes in Radio Silence is the idea that going to university is not the only route available to young people – and it’s such an important subject that is never tackled enough. There’s so much pressure on teenagers to start attending higher education, when no-one is willing to admit that there are plenty of other roads in life to take. Alice lets her own scepticism towards the education system flow through the story, making it clear that happiness can be achieved through all sorts of less “traditional” routes. One of the other amazing things about the book is that it is SO DIVERSE. Not a single character is 100% straight, but no character is defined by their sexuality either, and she even touches on ideas of asexuality too. And it’s racially diverse too, proving that there really is no excuse to not write with inclusivity. AND it touches on mental illness with honesty and care. Seriously, it manages to wrap up so many themes with a fun plot driven by beautiful dialogue that made Solitaire feel for real and down to Earth. Alice has the perfect YA voice.

Plus, as a massive fan of Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast theme was absolutely amazing! Universe City feels dark, vibrant and perfectly crafted, the excerpts really breaking up the story beautifully with pieces of hugely lyrical writing. I want it to be a real podcast. Alice if you’re reading this let’s make Universe City. Please.

It isn’t out until later this month, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. She knows what she’s doing, and she makes it look effortless. This is Young Adult Fiction done flawlessly.

Hey, Thanks.

D

P.S. – You can pre-order the book RIGHT HERE so you should do that thing.