INTERVIEW // Take Five with Natasha Ngan, author of Girls of Paper and Fire

Today on the blog, I’m delighted to be hosting a Q&A with author Natasha Ngan as part of my ongoing Take Five interview series!

As ever, my questions are in bold, with Natasha’s answers in plain text.

20180428-DSC04172_edit-cropNatasha Ngan is a writer and yoga teacher. She grew up between Malaysia, where the Chinese side of her family is from, and the UK. This multicultural upbringing continues to influence her writing; she is passionate about bringing diverse stories to teens. Natasha studied Geography at the University of Cambridge before working as a social media consultant and fashion blogger. She recently moved to Paris, where she likes to imagine she drifts stylishly from brasserie to brasserie, notepad in one hand, wineglass in the other. In reality, she spends most of her time getting lost on the metro and confusing locals with her French.

Set the scene: Can you tell blog readers something about where you are right now? 

Natasha Ngan: I’m sitting at my desk in my little studio apartment in Paris, looking out at rooftops and a beautiful blue sky! It sounds idyllic – except there’s two different sets of works going on in my block of flats, so the air is filled with the rumble and squeal of drilling, and people are shouting angrily in French in the street below. However, I have a cup of tea nearby and am wrapped up in blankets, so I’m pretty cosy!

160701411. Girls of Paper and Fire is the start of a new series. What makes this book different from your previous books (The Elites and The Memory Keepers)?

NN: GIRLS is my first fantasy book, which is funny since that’s the first genre I fell in love with and have spent so much time since young creating various fantasy worlds to lose myself in! I also feel like GIRLS is the most personal of my books to date. It’s own voices in more ways than one – the Asian-inspired world, queer characters, the theme of sexual abuse. So it feels pretty vulnerable offering up this story to the world! But I’ve been so overwhelmed by the response so far, and to see readers connecting with something that means so much to me is just incredible.

2. What served as your inspiration for Lei’s story? What kind of research did you do to build her world?

RNN: With Ikhara, I wanted to create a world that felt completely authentic and real to me as a person who has Chinese heritage but isn’t from mainland China. My mother’s side of the family is from Malaysia, and we spent a lot of time there when I was young so I could grow up surrounded by the languages and cultures that my mum is familiar with. But I’m also half English and was born in the UK. So I really wanted a fantasy world that had all these different influences and really celebrated them.

Research-wise, I’m lucky as a lot of things in Ikhara have come directly from my own memories and experiences, so during the writing many details such as clothes, superstitions and symbolism, architectural styles, language and food (LOTS of food!) are things I’m already familiar with. While I was dreaming up the world and story, however, I did do lots of research into the history of the regions I’m drawing from and brushed up on various mythologies and folklore too.

181965163. By the time Girls of Paper and Fire releases, it will have been four years since your last book was published. What do you feel you’ve learned about writing in that time?

NN: SO MUCH! And if you ask me this question again a few more books down the line, I’m sure I’ll say the exact same thing! I love how writing is a skill that constantly evolves alongside you. Not just in style and technique, but also in topics, ideas, the whole being of writing – it’s always changing, just as we are. If I had to rewrite GIRLS today, I’ve no doubt it would come out very differently, since it’s been almost four years since that first draft!

I’ve definitely learnt more about the craft over the past few years. I’m an instinctive writer and a total panster, so I struggle to explain the hows and whys of my writing, particularly whilst I’m actually writing. But I’ve made an effort to study and explore the technique of it more, listening to how other writers work, reading craft books, watching YouTube videos that break down why good films work etc. So even if I’m not consciously applying them, my subconscious is hopefully doing it for me!

4. As well as writing for teens, you’re also a fashion blogger and yoga teacher. Do you ever feel that you’re contributing to the pressure on young women to look a certain way by being involved in the fashion industry? Does that background ever affect your writing?

NN: This is such an interesting question! I actually think blogging back in its youth moved against those pressures by showcasing different looks, styles, shapes and personalities, particularly those underrepresented in mainstream media. Sadly, as blogging has become commercialised and social media use has exploded, it’s lost that quality. I don’t really blog much anymore, and that’s a big reason for it. Now I’m happy just sharing the odd picture here and there on Instagram with little snippets of my life in Paris.

On the other hand, being a yoga teacher is all about empowering your students to look after themselves from the inside out, and becoming confident and comfortable with who they are. I’ve struggled with anxiety since young, especially surrounding my chronic genetic health condition, and yoga has helped me enormously to be at peace within myself and whatever is going on in my body. These issues definitely come into what I write. GIRLS is a lot about inner strength and reclaiming your body after others have controlled and abused you, and I hope these messages come across positively.

5. Finally, can you tell us what’s next for you (and for Lei)?

NN: I’ve just finished the first draft of book two in the GIRLS trilogy! It was an … experience. There’s still a lot of work to come of course, but I’m actually very happy with the direction the story takes and the new characters, settings and conflicts book two explores. [BLOGGER’S NOTE: What comes next is a mild spoiler for Girls of Paper and Fire. If you’re not lucky enough to have read the book yet, skip over the white out. Highlight it at your peril!] Without giving away too much, I can tell you that Lei and a certain someone have escaped the palace, and they’ll be travelling all across Ikhara in a bid to secure allies for the upcoming war.There’s a big cast of new characters to fall in love with (I hope!) and we’ll see Lei learn and grow from what happened to her in book one, as well as explore the ethical dilemnas of the dark side of what she’s got herself caught up with. I can’t wait for readers to continue her journey! 

Thanks to Natasha for this fantastic and detailed interview! Girls of Paper and Fire is out on November 6th 2018 in the USA and March 21st 2019 in the UK and Ireland. On that note, there’s a special postscript from Natasha for readers in the US: 

Oh and I’m also coming to the US on a tour in November to celebrate the release of GIRLS! I’d love to meet you and chat all the bookish things. I’ll be posting up my tour dates very shortly over on my website. Please do come say hi!

———–

39449484Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for… and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, traumatised by the loss of her mother. Now, the guards who took her mother are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after. 

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

Is Girls of Paper and Fire on your TBR? Let us know in comments down below!

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Take Five: The Storm Keeper’s Island blog tour Q&A with Catherine Doyle

Today on the blog, I’m hosting a quickfire five-question Q&A with Catherine Doyle as part of the blog tour for The Storm Keeper’s Island! You can read my review of the book, which went up yesterday, here!

As ever, my questions are in bold, with Catherine’s answers in plain text.

thumbnail_Headshot1Catherine Doyle grew up in the west of Ireland. She holds a first-class BA in psychology and a first-class MA in publishing. She enjoys movies, running and travelling. She is the author of the Blood for Blood trilogy (Vendetta, Inferno and Mafiosa) for young adults. It is often described as Romeo and Juliet meets The Godfather. Her debut middle grade novel, The Storm Keeper’s Island an adventure story about magic, bravery and self-discovery set on the island of Arranmore, where her grandparents grew up.

1. Your new children’s book, The Storm Keeper’s Island, is a big departure from your previous YA series, Blood for Blood. What prompted the leap?

The change happened organically. I had been spending time on Arranmore Island, exploring the rugged landscape and delving into its incredible maritime history, and I realised quite suddenly that I had to write a story set in this incredible place. When I sat down to begin The Storm Keeper’s Island in earnest, eleven-year-old Fionn’s voice was already firmly in my head, ready to go. His story unfurled and I went along with it.

2. The story of the SS Stolwijk and its connection with 1940s Arranmore is an important feature of The Storm Keeper’s Island. But what made you want to write it into a fantasy novel and not, say, historical fiction?

By writing the events of the SS Stolwijk into a fantasy novel, I was able to have Fionn take part in the adventure, reliving his ancestor’s bravery and witnessing it first-hand. As someone whose great grandfather was part of that rescue mission, I can’t think of anything more inspiring and exciting than being able to do this. That day was magical in its own right already – adding a little bit extra seemed like the right decision.

3. The book is set on the Irish island of Arranmore and involves Irish mythology. What kind of research informed your approach to this side of the book?

I grew up on a steady diet of Irish lore and legend. So much of it was already simmering in my head. I ended up pulling strands from my favourite myths and weaving them together with some new magic of my own making.

366347654. Did you find anything unexpected or surprising in the process of writing The Storm Keeper’s Island? What did you enjoy most about it?

I found it to be a deeply personal experience for me. Arranmore is my ancestral home and some of the historical events within the story happened to members of my family, so I felt extremely connected to Fionn’s journey, and certainly more emotionally involved than I usually am while writing books. I enjoyed the undercurrent of realism, and the historical grounding, because I think these lend their own kind of magic to what is already a fantastical adventure story.

5. Can you tell us anything about what’s next for Fionn, and for you? Do you feel that your time with YA is done? And when will readers get to return to Arranmore?!

Readers will get to return to Arranmore next July, where Fionn will be on an urgent quest to summon the merrows to help protect the island from the rising threat of Morrigan. As for me and YA – who knows what the future holds!

And now, just for you: thanks to the folks at Bloomsbury’s publicity department (especially the lovely Emma Bradshaw, though she has just moved to publishing pastures new), you can read the first two chapters of The Storm Keeper’s Island right here!NameTag2.fw

Interview: Lauren James talks science fiction, romance and what she’ll be writing next

Today on the blog, I’m delighted to be hosting author extraordinaire and cool human Lauren James! As you know, I think her books are fabulous and recommend them CONSTANTLY, so it was about time we did an interview. My questions are in bold, while Lauren’s answers are in plain text marked ‘LJ’. 

unnamed-3Lauren James was born in 1992, and graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2014, where she studied chemistry and physics. She started writing in secondary school because she couldn’t stop thinking about a couple who kept falling in love throughout history. That story became The Next Together, a debut novel which sold when she was 21.

The Next Together was described by The Bookseller as ‘funny, romantic and compulsively readable’ and was longlisted for the Branford Boase Award, which recognises outstanding novels by first-time writers. The Last Beginning, the sequel to The Next Together, was named a top LGBT-inclusive book for toung adults by The Independent. She has written two shorter stories in the series, Another Together and Another Beginning. Her third novel, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, was inspired by a space-based university physics assignment. She is published by Walker Books in the UK, by HarperCollins in the US and in translation in five other countries around the world.

Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She remains a passionate advocate of STEM further education – all of her books feature scientists. She has written for the Guardian, Buzzfeed and The Toast. You can find her on Twitter at @Lauren_E_James or her website, where you can subscribe to her newsletter to be kept up to date with bonus content and new releases.

Hi Lauren! Thanks for joining me on The Paper Alchemist today. You’ve got three books out on shelves, another out this year, and always (so it seems!) a draft or secret project on the go. How do you manage to juggle so many – often very different – projects?

LJ: I do have a ridiculous number of projects on the go! It’s because everything is always at different stages and I find it hard to wait for feedback or edits from a whole range of different people, so I start up something new in the meantime. It works out quite well, because there’s always something different to work on. I’ll send off an edited book and pick up drafting a new book, then go back to editing, etc. I think I’d find it quite difficult to work on more than one novel at a time though – I’d get scenes muddled up!

23266378The Next Together was your first novel. What do you still love about the book? Is there anything you feel you’ve gotten better at in writing since that first step into YA?

LJ: I think I’ve got better at everything since The Next Together. When I think back to writing that book, it was so difficult in every way – I was basically teaching myself to write and edit as I went. If I wrote it now it would be a very different book. But I’m really proud of what I managed to do with the concept as a complete writing novice. It launched my career, and it’s likely I’d never have been brave enough to try to write full time if I hadn’t got a book deal at that point in my life, when I was still at university, so I have a lot to be grateful for! I really love the chemistry between Kate and Matt, and their sense of humour and tenderness. It still makes me laugh when I reread parts.

24550848In The Next Together and The Last Beginning, Katherine and Matthew and Clove and Ella get along well with each other – they’ve got quite realistic and healthy relationships (despite everything time travel throws at them). Is this something you intended to focus on from the start?

LJ: I really hate when romance novels have characters who seem to genuinely dislike each other. I love a good enemies-to-lovers trope, but when characters bicker constantly and don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company, with lots of misunderstandings even when they’ve started dating, it doesn’t feel romantic to me. A partner should be your best friend, first and foremost. Otherwise what’s the point? So for me, in every book I write, I want to create really solid relationships where the characters are equally important to each other, even if the romantic tension was taken away and it was purely platonic.

You primarily write sci-fi, though several of your books have elements of historical fiction and contemporary romance, too. Are there any genres you haven’t tried or explored yet that you’d like to write?

LJ: I’d love to write a contemporary YA set at university. And a superhero book. And a regency romance with magic. And a middle grade about animals. And, and, and – I want to write everything! Hopefully I’ll be given the chance!

the_loneliest_girlIn The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, protagonist and space ship captain Romy has never set foot on Earth. If you had to explain some earth objects or activities she’s never experienced but only have heard of in theory, what do you think she’d find the strangest and what one would she most enjoy?

LJ: I think swimming would be something she’d enjoy, though it would still be strange after a lifetime of water being such a precious thing. I think a swimming pool or hot bath would blow her mind – imagine floating for the first time!

I think walking down a crowded street would probably be the strangest, as she wouldn’t know how to deal with all the people. Is she supposed to talk to them? Where are they all going? Are they looking at her? It would be tough.

You’ve spoken before about how you once felt compelled to read hyped-up or mainstream YA and struggled a bit to love reading when forcing yourself to do so. If you had to pick three underappreciated books you think YA fans would love (or that might get them out of a reading slump!), what would they be and why?

LJ: I used to, yes, but once I stopped myself reading anything because of the hype, and just read for enjoyment again, I’ve not had a reading slump since!

34593693The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein: I’m a huge fan of thirties detective novels like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, and this is a perfect spin on that – there’s murder, rich people living frivolously, dogs, Bronze age marine archaeology, bisexual characters exploring both sides of their sexuality, castles, cross-dressing cabaret shows, TREASURE-HUNTING, pearls, buried treasure (did I mention the treasure?) and river trawling. I’m so into it in every way. This is a great read for YA fans who want something a bit unusual.

Monsters by Emerald Fennell: A dark upheaval of the middle grade novel, with children who may or may not be serial killers. It’s not one for children, but it’s very Enid Blyton all the same.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: For a YA fan wanting to branch out into some sci-fi, this is a short novella that gives a perfect taste of Black Panther style afrofuturism. It’s about an African tribal girl who travels to a different planet to study maths at uni. Her dreadlocks are TENTACLES. Enough said.

Your books all have multimedia sections: articles, postcards, powerpoints, blog entries, chat messages, and in The Loneliest Girl, fanfiction. How do you approach writing these pieces (and do you have a favourite individual one)?

LJ: I’m not gonna lie, these are so tough. It’s really hard to come up with new formats I haven’t done before! It takes a lot longer to make them than writing normal prose, but they’re so interesting that I would never get rid of them. They’re some of my favourite parts of the books, and I think they’re quite enticing, especially for younger readers.

I often make lists of possible media while I’m drafting – leaflets, architectural proposals, posters, post-it notes – and when the book is complete I’ll go back through and see where those things might fit into the story. Usually they don’t cover things already written about in the text but give more background to the world to make it seem more real. And anything that’s  funny gets priority. 😉

My favourite is probably this one from The Next Together. I must have written it about six years ago now, but I still find it hilarious. I remember it was one of the first times when I was still in the early stages of writing that I realised “Wait, I might actually be funny.”

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As well as being a writer, you’re also a qualified scientist™, an ambitious baker, and the resident human to several very excitable dogs. Is there anything you can’t do?! (And, for the fans, what are you working on at the moment?)

LJ: Hah! There’s so much I can’t do. I’m terrible at driving, for a start (don’t ask me to go on a motorway). I think it’s important to do other things besides writing, because otherwise all you have to write about is writing, you know? I’ve just finished edits on my next book, which comes out this autumn, about the last boy and girl born after humanity stop being able to conceive (the title/cover haven’t been revealed yet but you can add it here on Goodreads). I like to travel as much as possible, and I’m always going to exhibitions and museums – you never know where inspiration might strike.

Thanks again to Lauren for a fabulous interview – if you enjoyed it, feel free to comment down below!

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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).

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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!

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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!

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Interview: Sophia Bennett talks artists, teenagers, One Direction, and Unveiling Venus

Today I’m delighted to be playing host to one of the most consistently fabulous writers of UKYA fiction for teens – Sophia Bennett! I’ve loved so many of her contemporary books, and her second historical fiction novel, Unveiling Venus, was published last week (I reviewed it here on the blog). Below is the full unedited text of our interview, with, as ever, my questions in bold and Sophia’s plain text answers marked SB.

UntitledSophia Bennett’s debut novel, Threads, won the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2009. She has since published six further novels for young teens, including The Look and Love Song. For her exploration of the worlds of fashion, art and music, Sophia has been called ‘the queen of teen dreams’ by journalist Amanda Craig. Her books have sold internationally to over 16 countries and there are plans to make Threads into a children’s TV series.

Hi Sophia! We’re celebrating the release of Unveiling Venus, your second historical novel and the sequel to last year’s Following Ophelia. If you had to entice a new reader to pick up either book in fifty words or less, what would you say?

SB: “What is it like to be looked at for a living? In these lavish, detailed stories, Mary Adams discovers the joys of being admired by great artists and the dark underside of being a muse. Her adventures are for anyone who loves art, fashion, history, travel and the stirrings of feminism.” (That’s 51 words, but Mary has a lot of adventures!)

33256865Ordinary maid Mary becomes the mysterious Persephone when she enters the world of the Pre-Raphaelites. Did you always want to write about this period in art? How did you make that world come so vibrantly to life?

SB: Funnily enough, my specialist art history periods are the Italian Renaissance and the Twentieth Century. I didn’t know much about the Pre-Raphaelites until Stripes asked me to write the stories, but I love their use of colour and I really wanted to write about art. I absolutely loved the painstaking research. Every colour of every apple, brush, ribbon, eye, costume or necklace was carefully considered and matched to Rossetti, Titian (who the Pre-Raphaelites admired) or one of the other artists I talk about.

Plus, the men in the group are so fascinating to a twenty-first century feminist: they love women and celebrate them, but objectify them and often make their lives miserable – even to the point of contributing to Lizzie Siddal’s early death. Christina Rossetti was busy writing fabulous poetry – which I quote – but doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to celebrate the joie de vivre of the group, but also analyse and criticise how hard it was for the women in their circle. Mary Adams comes through OK, but it’s no thanks to them!

Your books have taken you from the high fashion of contemporary London to grand, crumbling country houses and now to the streets of nineteenth century Venice. How do you approach tackling such different settings?

34483827SB: I’m glad you’ve noticed them! I find that the more I mentor new writers, the more I get them to focus on setting. The reader wants to be able to picture where things are happening and setting helps to create the mood and character of a book. It’s often what keeps me going while I’m writing. My protagonists won’t do what they’re told, the plot goes off in unexpected directions, but the houses, streets, hotels, canals and palazzos are always there to be luxuriated in. I want my reader to be tucked up on her sofa with a hot chocolate, imagining herself in these places, as I do while I write.

Often it’s weird to visit the real location afterwards and think for a moment that my scene really took place there, then remember, no – it was fiction. I’m going to Venice at Easter and I know I’ll get lots of fake déjà vu from Unveiling Venus, even though I set the story there 150 years ago.

Your 2015 standalone, Love Song (which I adored), contributed to contemporary YA’s current taste for books about boybands and fandom. What did you enjoy most about writing boybandlit? What did writing about music mean to you? (And is there any chance of a sequel about Declan, the multi-instrumentalist drummer and one of my favourite characters from the book?)

27396059SB: Thank you! I’m very fond of Love Song but it was very hard to write – or at least, the first half was. Once they all settled down in the crumbling country house it got easier. It was inspired by my (spot on as it turned out) conviction that One Direction were on the verge of splitting up and wondering how they must be feeling. As Keris Stainton knows, I have a very soft spot for Harry – although possibly not quite as soft as hers. But in the end I was more inspired by reading about the heyday and split up of the Beatles, who are closer to my band The Point. Lounging around, doing my research for the book by reading rock biographies was a pretty awesome way to make a living.

Also writing about teenage boy friendships. I have a teenager at home and he’s very funny with his mates. I wanted to capture some of that. And listening to music with my younger son, discovering Led Zeppelin and sharing that moment when you fall in love with a piece of music so that it becomes a part of you – that’s very special and I’ve been thrilled to hear from readers that they’ve discovered it through the book. Making my Spotify playlist for it was lovely too.

On the Declan front, don’t worry, that book is already written in my head. To do a controversial JK Rowling, Declan was always gay, and not acknowledging it to himself, and his story would be about coming out and taking on the profoundly homophobic rock/pop industry and finding his path. I know there are exceptions, but I still think it’s really tough for gay young people in the music industry. I wanted to put some of that in Love Song and I tried to, but it was a book in its own right and I think if you’re going to do justice to the story you have to do it properly. He and Angus are my favourite people to write about – although I’m fond of them all in their way, even Connor.

One thing your (often very different) books all have in common is that they’re for pre-teens or YAs, but what has writing for teens taught you?

thelooknewcoverSB: That it is very hard to write and sell books specifically for teens to teens in the UK! Unless they’re fantasy. The teens who read a lot have all the books in the world to choose from. I’ve always wanted to write for 11-15 year olds, but it’s a competitive market.

I love very much the connections I’ve made with readers who have taken my books to their heart. I’m honoured that they did. I wanted to write about being creative and brave, and finding your inner confidence. I wanted to reassure teens that although these years are tough – and they are – you will turn out OK. I also wanted to explore the dark side of insta-fame and show that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I particularly wanted to make books that would keep kids reading during those difficult early secondary school years, when Eng Lit suddenly becomes a chore and the joy can get sucked out of books. But now I’ve done as much as I can. Writing as a teen made me re-experience all those emotions and often it was hard. Now I’m moving on to other things, though I’m still grateful for anyone who comes to the nine novels I’ve written so far and finds those messages inside them.

And finally, can you tell us anything about what you’ll be working on next/?

SB: I’m currently working on two picture books, a middle grade novel set in Switzerland and an adult detective story. I need to find a new voice and that takes time. We’ll see what works…

Have you read any of Sophia’s books? Do you have a favourite? You can check out my review of her latest, Unveiling Venus, here!

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UKYACX Blog Tour // An Interview with Sheena Wilkinson

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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-charneySheena 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.

9320989Your 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.]

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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!

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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.

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