Interview: Jenny McLachlan talks Wuthering Heights and writing teenage romcoms

Earlier this month, I reviewed Jenny McLachlan’s Truly, Wildly, Deeply – you can read all about it here – and this week, I’m delighted to host Jenny on the blog for an interview! My questions are in bold, with Jenny’s answers in plain text marked JM.

ujyeymoe_400x400Jenny McLachlan did English at university as an excuse to spend time reading, and fell into secondary school teaching for much the same reasons, only this time with more funny teenagers. Amid all this, she got married, travelled the world, had two children, went swimming in the outback and was chased by an angry elephant (and a pack of dogs), though not necessarily in that order. Her first book, Flirty Dancing, was published by Bloomsbury in 2014. It was followed by three sequels, known as the Ladybirds series, and her first standalone, Stargazing for Beginners, in 2017. She is represented by Julia Churchill at A.M. Heath.

36178510Hi Jenny! To start with, if you had to entice a new reader to pick up Truly, Wildly, Deeply using fifty words or less, what would you say?

JM: When Annie starts college she knows that the freedom she craves is within her reach. But then Fabian appears (all six foot two of him) and turns her carefully controlled life upside down – and spinning towards the Yorkshire moors…

All of your books can be considered funny contemporary fiction for younger teens. What draws you to this particular kind of YA?

JM: I began writing this type of YA because the students I taught at a secondary school were always asking me to recommend funny ‘realistic’ books. There weren’t a huge amount around – at the time, there was a trend for quite serious issue-led stories for teens – so I decided to write one. It helped that I can vividly remember being a teenager and it was a time in my life that was full of comic potential. Also I was a shy teenager. I spent a long time watching my peers, unwittingly conducting research for my future books!

Truly, Wildly, Deeply’s protagonist Annie not only has a disability but is half Greek, while love interest Fabian is Polish. Did you always intend to feature heritage and culture in the book? And more broadly, how did you approach research?

JM: My previous books have featured a range of young female protagonists that I hope my readers can identify with. They’re all romantic comedies, and I wanted to write a rom-com where the lead character was disabled, but where the plot did not revolve around her cerebral palsy.

As a privileged able-bodied woman writing about a disabled teenager, I was aware that I must question all my decisions about Annie. Of all my characters she is the one who changed the most during the planning and writing process. For example, when I planned the book, Annie used a wheelchair because although she could walk, she was self-conscious of how she looked. But as I started writing, this struck a false note. Annie is confident, witty, and challenging. Being embarrassed of her walk didn’t sit comfortably with her character, plus this was an assumption I had made as an able-bodied person that fed into the comforting ableist notion that ‘normal’ is desirable. Before I began to write the book, I spoke to teenage girls who have cerebral palsy, read books written by disabled women – articles and fiction – and watched films made by teenage vloggers who have cerebral palsy.

Fab was inspired by a student I once taught. He wasn’t Polish, but he did move to the UK from another country in Europe and, like Fab, he appeared exceptionally confident and happy in his own skin. My sister-in-law is Polish so I was able to quiz her about being a teenager in Poland (basically it’s the same as being a teenager in the UK!), Polish food and weddings. I asked her a lot about the weddings!

28502699Your début Flirty Dancing and its sequels focused on four girls. Truly, Wildly, Deeply features one key female friendship (Annie and Hilary) but noticeably more boy-girl friendships (Annie and Jim, Oli, Mal, and Jackson). How and why did you go about focusing on those friendships in particular?

JM: I think this was because Truly Wildly Deeply begins when Annie starts college. Starting sixth form was the time when my friendship group changed and I made a lot of friends who were (very funny) boys. I loved this time of my life and I seemed to laugh all the time. Like Annie, I finally felt able to be myself. It’s a shame girls and boys sometimes drift apart as friends during secondary school. I think all-girl friendship groups can be a bit intense!

Annie and Fabian are in some ways very different teenagers – Annie is witty and defensive, Fab is exuberant and generous – but the building of their relationship, and finding common ground, is central to their story. What was your favourite thing about writing their romance?

JM: For a romance to work, you need two characters who are particularly appealing to the reader, and a very good reason for why they can’t get together. Every romance is a basically a version of Cinderella and a lot of the interest for me is seeing how far I can manipulate the genre. Fab’s love of romance and Annie’s suspicion of it is at the heart of the story. Annie and Fab’s romantic journey was particularly fun to write because right from the start they are clearly drawn to each other, but never at the same or the right moment.

One of the big debates in Annie and Fab’s English class is over Wuthering Heights – specifically whether the book should be considered sweepingly romantic or dangerously volatile. Where do you fall on the argument?! (I personally am Team ‘Heathcliff Can Get In The Bin’…).

JM: When I read Wuthering Heights as a teenager I was Team Heathcliff all the way! I somehow glossed over the terrible abuse he dished out to characters. Rereading it as an adult, I’m much more aware of both Heathcliff’s shockingly cruel treatment of his wife and the abuse he suffered as a child. But annoyingly, I’m going to sit on the fence with this one, as I think Wuthering Heights’ brilliance comes from Heathcliff’s complex and contradictory personality; Emily Bronte’s ability to make the reader love and hate him at the same time is fascinating.

Annie’s mother has commendable taste in television. Did you find that copious amounts of research was necessary for this particular story detail…? 

JM: Annie’s mother’s taste in television is closely aligned to my own. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a man in a big floppy shirt standing on a cliff. It should be noted that my husband comes from Cornwall, although he does not own any big floppy shirts (yet).

tumblr_orlgo9gcZc1rfypuoo3_r1_500

And finally, can you tell us anything about what readers can expect from you next (or failing that, what’s next for any of the characters in the book)?

JM; I can tell you what happens next to Annie and Fab: Annie takes Fab to meet her nan in Greece. Can you imagine?! Unfortunately there are no plans to put this holiday in a book, but it all exists in my head! Recently I’ve been working on something completely different and it’s been a lot of fun to write.

And there you have it! Thanks to Jenny for the fabulous interview – if you enjoyed it, feel free to comment down below!

NameTag2.fw

Advertisements

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain // début leaps – and sticks the landing

Today on the blog, we’re taking to the trapeze with this début novel…

ftipsAuthor(s): Kelly McCaughrain
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 1st March 2018
Genre: contemporary
Category:
upper MG, teen fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: own
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage twins Finch and Birdie Franconi are stars of the flying trapeze. Circus tricks are practically in their blood.

But when Birdie suffers a terrifying accident, Finch must team up with the geeky new kid, Hector, to create an all-boys double act and save the family circus school. Teetering on the high-wire that is school social hierarchy while juggling the demands of family, first love and facing up to who they are is a lot for two confused clowns to handle. Will their friendship, and the circus, survive?

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds was another of those pleasant surprises in my spring reading this year. It’s again from that spot between fiction for older children and for early teens (11-14s), making it particularly suited to those looking to take more steps into the YA section. There was a spate of circus books in YA in 2017, but they all seemed to have a supernatural – Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Pack by Kate Ormand – or dark thriller edge – Show Stopper by Hayley Barker, even Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield, which is also about a trapeze double act and a new acquaintance who alters two siblings’ lives – but with Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, Kelly McCaughrain manages to draw together both storytellers’ evident fascination with the circus and a much-needed lightness of touch.

When trapeze artists Finchley and Bridget Sullivan are in the air, they become Finch and Birdie Franconi, the latest in a long line of circus performers, including high wire walkers, barrel riders, jugglers (and one very health and safety conscious dad). While their ancestors flung themselves over Niagara Falls and travelled the world, their parents have opted to run a circus school just outside Belfast – though it still means having a mother who can tightrope walk, a little brother who wants to be a fire eater and a foul-mouthed grandmother, Lou, who used to walk across the ridges of roofs to freak out the neighbours.

Birdie and Finch have inherited a taste for daring. They dress flamboyantly and find themselves subconsciously juggling nearby objects during everyday conversation. But with Birdie starting to wonder if there could be life outside the circus and Finch struggling in her absence, they are believable. New boy Hector is enthusiastic but clumsy; at first the student of a reluctant Finch, his friendship becomes invaluable, and I really liked the exploration of their changing relationship. Elsewhere in the cast, there’s Freddie, known as Py (“Fire dancer, fire juggler – you name it, I’ll put lighter fluid on it”) and Janie, a foster kid and aerialist who’s so good at dangling from reams of silk she finds it calming.

McCaughrain’s prose is straightforward and fairly unshowy, though she conjures evocative details – the thrill of heights, the calluses on circus performers’ hands, even sitting in the safety net beneath the trapeze to get your breath back – and handles setting with subtlety, focusing on the circus warehouse as an adopted home for its eclectic residents. Finch’s narration cleverly interspersed with distinctive blog posts from Birdie, and there are moments of incisiveness (“Be that as it may” is “adult for ‘whatever'”; there’s “something lonely about an empty spotlight, like a big white hole in the world”). One of her major themes is what it means to stand out, but she also touches on things like found family and school struggles. She balances not-unrealistic elements of homophobia with quite a sweet coming-out story, too.

On the downside, there’s little urgency or pace to an already fairly standard plot, though it revolves around what you’d expect to be quite an urgent matter, that is, trying to save the circus school from closing. Some of the conflict gets resolved with very little action from the protagonists. I would’ve liked there to have been more actual trapeze scenes in the first half – we often hear more about it than see it take place – and there’s almost no character depth or development to Birdie and Finch’s other siblings, leaving them effectively faceless for the length of the book.

However, the most surprising feature of Flying Tips for Flightless Birds for me was its sense of humour. That was what kept me reading, whether it was in lively asides (“We’ve put a lot of effort into taming Jay, but we think it’s unfair to do it to more intelligent creatures”), mining humour from strife (“the only difference between a playground punch-up in Year Eight and one in Year Eleven is that everyone’s a bit taller and has better hair”), or quips in dialogue (Finch’s parents on marriage: “Ah, crap, I knew there was something we forgot to do.” “Do you think we should return all those gifts?”). It livened up the prose and turned this solid début into a really enjoyable one.

4stars-fw

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is unexpectedly funny, often enjoyable and, at its best, oddly moving. This is a début which juggles the sweet and the sombre, and is ideal for 11-14 readers. I’m intrigued to see what McCaughrain writes next. 

NameTag2.fw

YA Shot Blog Tour // An Interview with Karen Gregory

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m playing host to YA Shot panellist Karen Gregory.

YA Shot is an author-run, one-day book festival for children and teens held in Uxbridge, London. Founded by Alexia Casale, the third annual YA Shot will be held on Saturday 14th April 2018. This year’s line-up feature authors such as Holly Bourne, Lauren James, Samantha Shannon, Katherine Webber, Chris Russell, Cecelia Vinesse,  Sita Brahmachari and more. You can find all the details on YA Shot (including the full list of panels) or buy tickets, whether for yourself or as a gift for young people from the local area, here.

As ever, my interview questions and mildly excitable contributions are in bold or occasionally [bracketed], while Karen’s answers are in plain text and marked KG. 

mb4ma8vv_400x400Karen Gregory is the author of YA novels Countless (Bloomsbury, 2017) is out now and Skylarks (Bloomsbury, forthcoming, May 2018). A graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, she’s a project manager by day who’s become adept at writing around the edges (strong coffee and a healthy disregard for housework help). She wrote her first story about a mouse called Bantra at the age of twelve, then put away the word processor until her first child was born when she was overtaken by the urge to write. She lives in Wiltshire with her family and is represented by Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge & White.

A: We’ll start with one of my favourites: what drew you to YA?

KG: Great question! I think it was a mixture of several things. Your teenage years and early twenties are such a visceral time, when you’re encountering new things and learning how (and how not) to deal with them, while trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world. It’s such a rich area to explore. I don’t think those challenges necessarily go away as you get older; many people continue to struggle with big questions throughout their lives, so perhaps it’s also that which draws me to YA. And of course, there are so many brilliant YA authors out there, which I find massively inspiring!

Speaking of fellow YA authors, you’ll be chairing panellists Sara Barnard, Orlagh Collins and Tamsin Winter in talking literature and living well with mental illness at YA Shot. How did you get involved with the event? For readers who are unfamiliar, can you tell us more about it?yashotblogtourbanner1

KG: Sure! YA Shot is a day-long festival in Uxbridge, London, celebrating UK YA and Middle Grade fiction. It supports readers through partnerships between authors and local schools and libraries, includes the UKYA Blogger awards and runs blogger and vlogger workshops, and this year has a theme of human rights. I actually had tickets to go last year and then tonsillitis (my nemesis) intervened, so I was delighted to be invited to be one of around fifty authors taking part this year.

Like a lot of UKYA, your début novel Countless dealt with some serious issues and hard-hitting themes. Do you think YA writers have a duty of care to their readers in how they approach issue-driven stories?

KG: It’s a really tricky area. I do believe YA writers need to be mindful of their intended audience. At the same time, it’s important not to patronise readers and to recognise that awful things do happen in some young people’s lives. These stories need to be written too.

In terms of Countless in particular, given the subject matter I was concerned about the potential for the portrayal to be harmful to vulnerable people. I worked hard through the editing process to try and ensure there weren’t things in there which didn’t need to be for the story, for example specific numbers around weight and calories. I felt it was important to try and show the incredibly difficult emotions and thought processes around Hedda’s illness. I hope I got the balance right, but I’m always learning.

What did you hope teen readers would take from Countless when they’d turned over the last page?

KG: I’m going to sound incredibly cheesy here, but I guess I hoped readers would take away the sense that even for the most seemingly intractable problems, there is the possibility of change and hope that things can be different in the future. And that love, especially learning to love yourself, is a powerful and healing force.

Of course, for some authors it’s hard to turn over that last page on a book – are you the kind of writer who feels the book is done once you’ve finished writing or editing, or do you wish you’d done anything differently?

KG: I’m a ‘prise it out of my hands’ sort of writer! There are always things I want to change and it can be really hard to let something go. However, there comes a point in revising and editing where you’ve taken the book as far as you can. I try to remind myself that as long as I know I’ve put in as much work as I could and written the best book I’m capable of, then in the end that has to be enough. Eventually you need to let the book go, or you’d never write anything else!

If you had name three of your favourite YA books from the last year, what would they be and why?25310356

KG: Argh, this is a very cruel question as I read so much amazing YA last year! I think I’d choose We Come Apart, by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. It’s about Nicu, a recent immigrant to the UK from Romania, and Jess, who is from a chaotic and disadvantaged background. I loved their story, which is told in alternating perspectives and in beautiful free verse. Jess in particular has really stayed with me since I read the book.

[A: I’ll second this recommendation – you can read my review of this bittersweet book here on the blog!]

KG: I also loved Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows. It’s a slight cheat as I got it for Christmas and actually read it this year, but it was a 2017 release so I think it counts. Set during the English Civil War, it’s a mixture of historical fiction, magical realism and mystery. Hardinge has one of the most unique voices out there and this book completely sucked me in.

I’m thirdly going to pick a book which is technically MG, but can be read by all ages: Tamsin Winter’s Being Miss Nobody. Main character Rosalind has selective mutism, and the book follows her as she struggles to literally and metaphorically find her voice during her first year at secondary school. It’s an incredibly warm book with a big heart – it had me crying towards the end.

dv_sgdsumaavf-qAnd finally, what can readers expect from you next? Can you tell us anything about your new book?

KG: Yes – I’ve got a new book out in May called Skylarks, which is about figuring out how to stand up for what you believe in and looks at social justice, the poverty gap and activism. It’s set in a fictionalised area of the Marlborough Downs and the occasional real skylark does make an appearance! I so enjoyed writing it and I’m really looking forward to sharing Joni and Annabel’s love story.

The YA Shot Blog Tour runs from 1st March to 12th April. be sure to check out the other stops, which will feature author interviews, guest posts, giveaways and other delightful stuff!

NameTag2.fw