I’m delighted to welcome author Sheena Wilkinson to the blog today as part of this year’s UKYACX celebrations. UKYACX (short for UK Young Adult and Children’s literature Extravaganza) is a regional book event designed to bring books and authors to readers. All my questions are in bold, all answers from Sheena in plain text. Occasional [square bracketed] comments and gifs are excitement from me.
Sheena Wilkinson has been described as ‘one of our foremost writers for young people’ (The Irish Times, March 2015). Since the publication of the multi-award-winning Taking Flight (Little Island) in 2010, she has published several acclaimed novels for young adults. Grounded won the overall CBI Book of the Year in 2013. Her most recent novel, Name Upon Name, was set in 1916 Belfast. In 2013, she was granted a Major Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, its highest award for artists of national and international importance. She has two new books coming in 2017; one contemporary and one historical.
Hi Sheena! We’ll start with one of my favourite questions: why do you write and love YA?
I love YA because you can deal with really big issues from the point of view of characters who are dealing with them for the first time. It’s all very intense! I love how the genre [cue muffled “YA IS A CATEGORY!” yelling from somewhere in the distance] makes you focus on character and story, which are for me the most important elements of a novel as well as, of course, good writing.
Your books tackle a whole range of subjects, from teen life to class tensions, from horses to history, and often, pursuing what you love. What’s your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser? How do you approach research?
I’ve certainly written about all kinds of things – my forthcoming novel is all about music, which is a huge part of my life. In my twenties and thirties I ran a folk club with some friends. I don’t just write what I know, but I do always write what I’m passionate about. For example, my historical novels (Name Upon Name and a new one due at the end of next year) are both set around the time of WWI, which has always fascinated me.
I’m part plotter, part pantser. I do a lot of research and planning, lots of notes on character and story, but the story changes as I write – it’s like there’s always something which you can’t plan for or ‘make up’ until you start writing and hear the characters speak.
I love research and do whatever I have to. It starts with books, usually, and, depending on the subject, may range through museums, talking to people, visiting places, watching films, or even learning a new skill. When I wrote my first three books, I had a pony, Scarlet, so all the horsecare stuff was based on experience (people said you could really smell the dung!). For my next book, I set myself the challenge of learning guitar, as the narrator is a guitarist. I’ve always loved singing and performing, but this was a new challenge for me. Two years on, I’m a lousy guitarist, but I’m getting better every day, and it’s definitely added something to the book.
This year’s UKYA Extravaganza sounds so exciting. How did you get involved? What are you most looking forward to about the event?
I feel very lucky, because I did last year’s Nottingham event, and therefore shouldn’t have been eligible to do another UKYA Extravaganza so soon, but they needed a last-minute substitute and I was in the fortunate position of being able to make a quick decision to go to Newcastle! I used to live in Durham so I’m combining it with visiting friends. It’s the day after I deliver my new book, so I’m looking forward to celebrating with lots of writers and readers.
UKYACX is all about bringing books and authors to readers in a friendly, accessible setting. How important is an approach like this for you as an author? How can the book world get better at outreach and bringing great books to readers who need them?
This is massively important to me. As a Northern Irish writer it can be easy to feel marginalized by the Irish and UK book scenes, and I work very hard to be part of both. A lot of events are very London-centric, so I love UKYAX’s mission to get out into different regions. [Let me just interrupt here to say “YAAAAAAAAAAAAS!” to this.]
I also love the fact that it’s not about seeing the same people all the time, which can’t be said for all book events. The book world could do a lot, I think, to be more diverse and more daring. They say they want more diverse books but many publishers seem nervous about producing anything which isn’t a safe commercial bet. That’s why initiatives such as Leila Rasheed’s Megaphone, which mentors aspiring BAME writers, are so important.
In a past life (before all the award wins and book events) you worked as an English teacher. What has writing YA taught you?
What a great question! I was going to say that it’s taught me to be brave and honest – but I always have, I hope, been both of those things! Giving up a safe full-time job to write full time, with most of my income coming from school visits, workshops and residencies, has taught me the importance of following a dream but also of being realistic, an attitude which I think can be seen in my books.
Just for fun: your top three books of 2016 (we’d never ask for just one!) so far?
So many of my friends write great YA that it’s torture to be asked this question, NOT FUN, and you know, if you ask me tomorrow I might come up with three totally different answers. Two YA books I’ve really enjoyed this year are Broken Sky by L. A. Weatherly and Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan, both talented writers and lovely people. The most stunning book I’ve read this year – though it was published last year – is Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins, which I know I will go back to again and again in awe and delight. Brilliant storytelling, memorable characters and intelligent, humane writing. I couldn’t put it down and felt completely bereft when I’d finished. I used to feel that about books very often, but it happens less now, so when it does happen it’s very special.
And finally, what can readers expect from you next?
Not sure how much I’m allowed to say, as these titles aren’t announced yet, but there’ll be two books in 2017 – the first, as I’ve mentioned, is about music, love and reinvention; and the other is historical, set in 1918, about feminism and the aftermath of war. One in April, one in October. Phew!
I’m also 90,000 words into an adult historical novel, set in 1919, so it’s been a busy year even though I haven’t had a book out in 2016, and next year is looking even busier – but that’s the way I like it!
You can find out more about UKYACX (which takes place on September 17th) here. In the meantime, be sure to check out the rest of the blog tour for more author interviews, guest posts and giveaways.