Catching up with UK news while in the USA and I find out that one of my favourite YA authors is the new Children’s Laureate
Catching up with UK news while in the USA and I find out that one of my favourite YA authors is the new Children’s Laureate
HI Sara, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! For my first question would you be able to summarise Half Lives in 10 words? (if you can- more words can be used if necessary)
That’s a difficult challenge, but here goes…
Two stories of survival; separated by time but bound by a deadly secret.
Half Lives is two stories – one set at the end of our world as we know it and the second on the cusp of a new civilisation arising – how long did it take you to write the story?
The spark for the story came in November 2009 when my editor at Little, Brown sent me a link to an article on Slate.com’s Culture Gabfest. The article was titled “Atomic Priesthoods, Thorn Landscapes, and Munchian Pictograms: How to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste to future civilizations.” It discussed how a US Department of Energy panel planned to label the site of an underground nuclear waste repository.
The topic may sound dull, but the more I thought about it, the more it fascinated me. Some types of nuclear waste are deadly for more than 10,000 years – that’s longer than the world’s oldest civilization. Who knows what the world will be like even a thousand years from now? What language will we speak? What symbols will have meaning? The article sparked something in my brain and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I developed the novel on and off from the moment I read that article in 2009. The more I wrote and researched, the more I found that I wanted to explore.
(If you want to read more about the article that started it all and the issues behind the story, you can visit my web site at: http://www.sara-grant.com/half-lives/half-live-discussions/)
Was it difficult keeping the protagonists voices separate?
The voices, settings and time periods were so different that keeping the stories separate in my head wasn’t difficult. Also I initially wrote the two stories in Half Lives as separate novels. Once I was sure the stories were satisfying on their own then I knitted them together, endeavouring to show the reader the complete story by withholding and revealing information in each narrative.
The idea of a culture and religion based around modern day youth slang and culture is brilliant – what inspired you to come up with that concept?
It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time, maybe even since the 1995 Joan Osborne song One of Us with the chorus, “What if God was one of us. Just a slob like one of us. Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.”
Until Half Lives, I hadn’t found the story that would allow me to explore these ideas. What’s more fascinating than religion? Not only organized religion but also the systems of belief, faith and superstition that everyone creates to make it through the day.
Half Lives as a title works on a number of levels – the stories of Icie and Beckett, their lives being trapped by fate and circumstance and the time it takes radioactive materials to decay. Did the title come first or did you have the story planned and written before you named it?
Half Lives was the title from the very first proposal and outline. That happens sometimes; the title comes as part of the initial spark.
The covers of the British & American editions are very different – which one do you prefer?
I like both covers for different reasons. They both represent similar aspects of the novel. Both covers show the connected dark and light sides of the story. The US cover was designed to match the re-designed cover of my first teen novel Dark Parties. I must admit that my favourite detail appears on the UK cover; it’s a black cat sauntering across the ISBN bar code. (A black cat plays a significant role in the novel.) Details like this make me appreciate how much my publishers invest in and understand my work.
Did you have any involvement in the design?
I have two amazing publishers with fantastic art departments. They showed me initial designs, and I gave feedback, but they are responsible for the cover concept and design. I leave the visual art to the professionals.
The breakdown between Icie, Chaske, Tate and Marissa was as heart-breaking as it was inevitable – is it difficult to write scenes like this in your novels? I am aware that some authors have very public near breakdowns when talking about bad things happening to their characters.
Many scenes in Half Lives were difficult to write. If I’m heart broken when writing or upset or scared then that emotion often translates onto the page. Many scenes had to be written in layers. It’s easier to deepen difficult scenes over time rather than in one initial rush. I’m a planner so I know most of what will happen from the initial outline. But surprises happen along the way, and it can be devastating when you realize that something horrible must happen to one of your characters. Chaske surprised me the most in Half Lives. He was a mysterious character that revealed himself to me over the course of several drafts.
Was Half Lives written as a warning against the dangers of nuclear waste and weapons of mass destruction or was that just an added extra?
The novel sprang from an article about these issues so they were fundamental to the story from the very beginning. The more I researched about these topics the more unbelievable it became. Creating a substance that will be deadly for tens of thousands of years definitely seems like science fiction, something right out of a superhero comic book.
While reading the book I had no idea how you were going to bring the two strands of the story together separated as they were by time and culture. Did you start with the idea of how they would converge or did they converge together as you wrote?
I created a grid that outlined the plot points in the two novels and noted how and where they would intersect. The difficult aspect of this novel was that if I changed something in one story, I had to consider the ripple effect it would have in the other.
The Just Sayings that prefaced each chapter of Beckett’s story are brilliant – are there any plans to put them together and make them all available to the reading public?
That’s an interesting idea. I do have a bigger list of Just Sayings. I’m a bit obsessive about details like that so I have a grid that notes the origin of the Just Saying and where it appeared in the book. But my reference documents are sometimes only understandable to me. Maybe I’ll get that organized and post it on my web site. Thanks for the suggestion, Matt!
Finally – what are atomic priesthoods?
The phrase ‘atomic priesthoods’ comes from the article I mentioned that served as the spark for Half Lives. The article discussed how the US planned to mark the site of a nuclear waste repository and the conundrum of how you communicate with future generations that most likely won’t speak the same language we do nor understand the same symbols. Here’s the extract from the Slate.com article:
“In the early 1980s, the semiotician and linguist Thomas Sebeok wrote a paper for the U.S. Office of Nuclear Waste Management titled “Communication Measures To Bridge Ten Millennia,” which proposes a folkloric relay system to pass along information: “The legend-and-ritual, as now envisaged, would be tantamount to laying a ‘false trail,’ meaning that the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently.” Sebeok further suggested a Dan Brown-like “atomic priesthood” of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians and the like who would preserve the “truth.”” (http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/green_room/2009/11/atomic_priesthoods_thorn_landscapes_and_munchian_pictograms.html)
This was one idea for how to warn away future generations from these deadly burial grounds with only a select few – so called atomic priests – who know the truth. Thankfully this wasn’t the final recommendation. Atomic Priesthoods sounds like a great name for a rock band though.
Thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed!
You are very welcome, Matt! Thanks for reading Half Lives and being my first official interview on the book.
Book: A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
I don’t want to talk about it. Don’t touch me.
Song: Who Knows Where the Time Goes – Fairport Convention
As a writer, I should be embarrassed that I can’t put into words how beautiful this song is, but perhaps that’s what makes it beautiful, that there’s nothing you can add to it. It’s enough.
Do you have difficulty in deciding which book to read next?
Laura has a brilliant write up of what went on during the filming here: On the Boat with Andy Robb.
While we chatted we were painting Dark Angels Space Marines.
Which is a sequel to:
Both of whom were written by:
Noooooooooooo not the Batman – although that would have been amazing!
They were actually written by BatmAndy Robb.
The last few photos were taken at the book launch, which was held at the Waterstones on Kensington High Street. The launch was fantastic with a number of people dressing up as comics characters (my favourites being Walter ‘Rorschach’ Kovacs and The Big Figure from Watchmen), I was too busy enjoying myself to take photos.
This is Andy and Cristina of Crisckracker Films who filmed the interview.
Important Note: Each of the bloggers has a unique coda at the end of their videos so be sure to watch them all!
Teen Librarian is proud to feature an interview with Jon Mayhew, author of Mortlock, The Demon Collector, The Bonehill Curse and the soon to be published The Eye of Neptune, first book in the Monster Odyssey series.
1. You have chosen a young Prince Dakkar – better known as Captain Nemo as the (anti?) hero of your story. Is there any particular reason you chose a pre-existing character in the public domain rather than creating someone new for the story?
I have a bit of a track record for using past works of literature as a springboard for my writing. The character of Sergeant Major Morris in The Bonehill Curse is taken from WW Jacobs’ story The Monkey’s Paw. I quite like imagining the characters before the events of a story and the best characters allow you to do that. I’ve always been fascinated by the character of Captain Nemo and so when Bloomsbury asked me to do an adventure series, he sprang to mind straight away. I wanted to write undersea and historical so inventing anew Captain Nemo, seems a bit pointless. There’s also the challenge of doing something new but something that has a ring of truth about it.
2. Obviously in his youth he was merely Prince Dakkar, will your series touch on how he became Nemo (no-one) and eventually refused to step on to inhabited land? Or is it going to be a swash-buckling tale of derring-do and adventure?
Both, I hope! What intrigues me about Nemo is that he had a past. It is referred to in Mysterious Island. He returns to India at the age of 30 and marries but becomes embroiled in the Indian Uprising of the 1850s. His wife and child die and he goes to an island with some compatriots and builds the Nautilus. But that doesn’t really explain how he knew how to build a submarine, or why he was so driven to save the oppressed or why he wept bitterly whenever he killed men. It didn’t tell us how he became educated, where he got his encyclopaedic knowledge of the sea or his love of Art from. I wanted to explore how his character forms. For example, he is obviously an inspiring leader, so in one book he may encounter famous generals, emperors and politicians of the time. It would be a shame to miss such an opportunity for swash-buckling tales of derring-do and adventure, though!
3. There is also (according to the Amazon page) a Girl but she is only referred to as ‘a Girl’ – is her identity going to be a surprise or can you share a bit more information with us?
She is a fictional character. Georgia Fulton, a niece of one of the other characters, she’s a fist-fighting, All-American girl who generally acts as a foil to Dakkar’s Princely pomposity. In other words, she punches his lights out when he gets too big-headed!
4. I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island when I was a youth and loved it (also the Disney Movie which I enjoyed as a child) and did not give the character any thought for years until I read Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. There is a Nemo graphic Novel by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill due out in February focusing on the captain‘s daughter. Have you read any of the works featuring Captain Nemo (apart from the Verne originals)?
There is a lot of Nemo-inspired material out there! I loved the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but wondered why Moore made him a Sikh. Dakkar would either be Hindu or more likely, Muslim. I’ve read a manga Captain Nemo which was great fun but I’ve avoided other texts. I also enjoyed the films and various cartoons that have popped up through the years.
5. Prince Dakkar was portrayed as being virulently anti-British and anti-imperialist in general, will your novels be showing how he became this way?
I hope so. It is interesting to look back at how Dakkar was portrayed because in early English translations, he came to England to improve his country, in American translations of the time, he came to ‘learn the ways of his oppressors.’ In the original versions of Verne’s books, Dakkar was Polish and hated Russia. This was quickly changed when France and Russia became close allies. All fascinating and the reason why MY Prince Dakkar is mentored by a Polish nobleman in exile from his home country!
6. Apart from Prince Dakkar will any other literary characters be making an appearance in the series?
Probably not literary characters but certainly historical characters from the time I have set the books. So in Book one, Dakkar meets Jean Lafitte, notable American/French pirate, he meets Robert Fulton, real inventor of the first Nautilus submarine. In the second book, Napoleon crops up amongst others!
7. You are currently working on a sequel to Monster Odyssey, will this series be finite in length or is it going to be more open-ended?
As open-ended as possible! I have an ending in mind and a broad character arc for Dakkar but anything could happen on the way!
8. How much research went in to developing the story?
Obviously, I needed to reread the originals and then it’s a question of interrogating the year I set the first book. Dates and chronology proved tricky as there were inaccuracies in the originals which I discuss here: http://jonmayhem.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/dating-nemo.html It also involves reading around certain key events such as the Battle of Waterloo and getting a feel for that time. Verne wrote speculatively at the time but he pinned a lot of his work down with what he believed to be scientific fact. The beauty of writing in Verne’s world is that you have an essentially recognisable world but tinges of fantasy. A good example of this would be the fact that Verne thought it plausible that undersea craft could survive much deeper below the sea than we now know is possible. So we can go deeper.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions
Thank you for asking!
In some way, genres are a bugbear for writers. They’re a straitjacket. For booksellers, they make perfect sense – which shelf does this book go on, ah that one because it’s crime fiction. But it makes a writer’s life harder to have to be compartmentalised in that way and a lot more boring. Ask Jodi Picoult what genre her books fall into and she gives this response:
“Hang on while I get on my soapbox. I hate being pigeonholed. I have always been called a women’s author, but 49% of my fan mail comes from male fans, and I think you can legitimately label my novels as legal thrillers, mysteries, romances, or plain old fiction. I think you can consider my books literary, because they make you think, or commercial, because they are a compelling read. Marketing departments like to label authors with just one tag, so that they know how to promote a book, but I think the best books straddle genres and attract a variety of readers. I’d like to think this is one reason my books appeal to people – because I give them something different every time.”
I can totally understand where she’s coming from with that answer. Fortunately in YA – as long as you fit into the YA genre and that’s a whole other argument – then you don’t generally get divided up into sub-genres beyond that, which does give you more freedom. However I still get asked what Skin Deep and By Any Other Name are – romance, mystery, thriller, ‘issues’ books. The temptation to reply ‘Books,’ is always there. Actually I write urban fantasy too– as opposed to paranormal romance…see what I mean here about how silly labels can get – but the YA market is so flooded with vampires that I keep that just for fun because I like my characters. But it illustrates a point that we can be labelled within genres too and that does restrict what you want to write somewhat. We’re much luckier with YA than in the adult market but are these distinctions always helpful? Some writers – usually well-established successes – get away with cross-genre or swapping between different genres but I suspect more writers would be doing it if they could. Swapping genres does potentially confuse your fan base and so some people will use different pen names if they’re going to do that.
Ultimately I want to write books about people and have some stuff happen to them. If that means a few sub-genres get mixed, so be it. As long as it’s interesting for the reader, that’s all I care about. So really when I’m not being facetious when you ask me the question about what I write, I’d say ‘character-driven YA.’ Though I don’t mind the broad brush of ‘contemporary YA’ either. I like books that have a have a tangle of themes in them, because life’s like that. Life isn’t a single issue deal and I like my fiction to reflect that complexity. Which is why a bit of genre-mixing is sometimes essential.
hi Joanne thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! Can I ask you to introduce yourself for the audience please?
Hi Matt, thanks for having me to “chat” to all your wonderful, bookish readers!
I’m a born and bred Joburger and have lived here among the Hadedahs and mine-dumps all my life. Johannesburg isn’t a beautiful city – though we have fabulous trees – but there’s something about the vibe and the pace that’s exciting. Or maybe we all just have altitude sickness!
After I finished school, I trained as a high school English teacher and I loved doing that for a while. I must confess that in my early days, I did a lot of things “for a while”. I have done IT training, business consulting with one of the Big Four consultancies (awful job!), been a general factotum in a children’s theatre, answered phones, arranged flowers, done in-store demonstrations of cooking frozen vegetables (almost as bad as business consulting!) and, once, I had a job handing out helium balloons in a shopping mall, while wearing a bathing suit and high heels. One day, I will write a book – a tragi-comedy – called “Jobs I have done”. Along the way I collected a fistful of degrees and for the last 15 years, I have practised as a Counselling Psychologist, dealing primarily with victims of crime and trauma. It’s tough work and my brain escapes by dreaming up stories when I’m not in my consulting rooms.
The first book I wrote was a biography of the sole survivor of the 2003 “Sizzlers Massacre” of nine men working in a Cape Town massage parlour. Although it was never published, I learned an enormous amount about writing and that gave me the confidence to begin writing books that have, thankfully, been published.
Your new novel Rock Steady has just been released – it is your second book for young adults and a sequel to Turtle Walk, can you tell us something about the series?
Rock Steady is the second in the series that began with Turtle Walk. Although it’s a sequel, it reads just fine as a stand-alone novel.
My inspiration was a desire to write something different to the books I saw on the YA bookshelves at local book stores – books written almost exclusively by foreign authors, set in Europe or the US, telling stories very often based in fantasy, with a preponderance of male protagonists and feeble girl sidekicks who served as loyal friends, victims to be rescued, or passive foils to the boy’s actions. With this series, I wanted to write realistic fiction (a break from wings and wands and fangs), telling South African stories set in our beautiful country, with smart, funny, resourceful, kick-ass heroines. In short, the kind of books I’d love my teen daughter and her friends to read. The feedback on that score has been amazing!
In each book, the protagonists tackle some broadly ecological issue. In Turtle Walk it was illegal long-line fishing which decimates Leatherback Turtle populations, in Rock Steady it’s the illegal trade in San Rock Art. Of course, back at school, the eco-warriors have to deal with the usual teen issues – first love, parental pressure, really mean teachers, etc. Sam, the main character, also suffers from anxiety and it’s been fun to explore that a bit more deeply in this book. The main characters are female, but the books aren’t “girly” and there’s lots to interest boy readers.
Rock Steady and Turtle Walk have both been published by Protea Boekhuis in South Africa, do you have any plans for international publication?
Turtle Walk was picked up by international distributors and is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Hopefully Rock Steady will follow suit. I think it’s safe to say that most South African authors have plans for international publication. We have such a small book-buying public here that in order to make a living from writing, you do need to adapt your writing style and projects for the international market.
Are you planning on writing more stories about Samantha Steadman and the eco-warriors?
One of these days, I have to begin writing the third in the series. I’m thinking of having my eco-warriors go head-to head with fracking in the next one. And it may be Jessie’s turn to come off the rails!
Did you make a conscious decision to write for a teen audience?
For this series, yes, though I like to write what I would like to read, and I love reading YA books. I don’t think there were very many of them around when I grew up (we seemed to go from Enid Blyton straight to Wilbur Smith), so maybe I’m indulging in a second adolescence!
I have also written two books for younger middle grade readers (Jemima Jones and the Great Bear Adventure, and Jemima Jones and the Revolving Door of Doom, both of which are available as ebooks) as well as an adult novel. But I really enjoy writing in the YA “voice”. There’s a lot to like about YA fiction as a writer. It’s very direct, raw and emotional, there’s not too much in the way of flowery, literary descriptions, and there’s always room for writing with humour – which seems to be my style. So though I don’t want to be locked into writing one genre only, I’m very comfortable in the YA zone.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
I think it’s that the work is so varied that even I can’t get bored. There’s a rhythm to getting the idea, fleshing it out in pleasant daydreams, getting it down on paper, editing and rewriting, and these days, of course, marketing, but it’s never the same. Each new book is like a new baby, and you can’t quite be sure what it might become!
Were you a reader as a teen and did you have any favourite authors?
I was a reader as a foetus! Seriously, ever since I could read, I’ve read everything that would stand still long enough, be it the classics, trashy novels, or the back of the cornflake box. I loved it all –from the minute microcosm of Jane Austen’s world to John Steinbeck’s spare style; from the rollicking romances of bodice-rippers to the detailed excellence of PD James. I read, and always have, every genre except high fantasy and science fiction – I think I must lack the imagination to see other worlds, because I don’t think I could write those genres either. I suspect I might be a low-brow, because I generally prefer gripping stories and authentic characters to literary fiction.
Can you recommend any other YA writers (from SA or international)?
Oh, wow, where to begin? In South Africa, Jayne Bauling, Edyth Bulbring, S.A Partridge, Kabelo Kgatea, John van de Ruit and Christine Porter, among dozens of others. Internationally, the usual suspects: John Green, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth and, of course, Jo Rowling, but also Gwen Hayes, Lauren Oliver, Stephanie Perkins and Australia’s Melina Marchetta. I’ve just finished “Poison Princess” by Kresley Cole and thought it was fabulous.
Are any of your novels based on personal experiences?
I’m a real magpie, collecting images, experiences and words – especially words. Sooner or later, everything I’ve ever heard or seen or felt or experienced winds its way into my books. Of course, it gets transmuted through the experience of my characters in the alchemy of the writing process. In Rock Steady, Samantha is tormented by a really sick teacher, and that is based, in part, on a miserable experience I had at school. I also use my kids shamelessly – stealing their jokes and teen-talk. The only exception to my general thievery is in my psychological practice – what my clients tell me there, I treat in strictest confidence. What happens in therapy, stays in therapy.
Are you working on anything new at the moment or do you have anything planned for the near future?
At the moment, I’m writing a YA romance, and I’m loving it! It’s based on a contemporary (and non-fantasy) retelling of a classic fairy-tale. I’m a bit superstitious of saying more about it, though, in case I jinx it. My psychological thriller for adults, Dark Whispers, is scheduled for publication next year. Writing that book, which was based on a newspaper article I read, scared the pants off me, and it definitely won’t be one for my YA readers.
Do you ever visit school or library reading groups either in person or virtually via Skype? If you do what is the best way to contact you about a visit?
I love visiting schools and talking directly to teens – I want to get as many young people as possible addicted to reading! I’ve done school visits in Johannesburg and Cape Town and would definitely be available to speak to groups via Skype. I do talks on my specific books, as well as on the broader writing process and the ecological issues tackled in my eco-warrior series.
I’ll be part of the children’s programme at the Franschhoek Literary Festival again this year, and will be visiting Durban in July as a guest at the Kids Lit Quiz international finals. I’d love to chat to readers and schools outside of South Africa. Travelling is always a possibility as, like many South Africans, I have family in London and Atlanta. The best way to reach me is probably via twitter @JoanneMacg or via the contact form on my website www.joannemacgregor.com.
Hi Matt, thanks so much for interviewing me on your blog. I was born in Boksburg (near Johannesburg) and spent 17 years growing up in Port Elizabeth, which is a very windy city on the coast of South Africa. I never wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be an airhostess and travel the world. But in the days when I was young you had to be very tall and very pretty to be an air hostess. I was neither. So I went to university in Cape Town and studied history and politics. I also edited the university newspaper and got a part time job as a switchboard operator at a weekly newspaper. But I was useless at it so they let me write a few stories. I ended up being the political correspondent for the South African Sunday Times from 1991–1995 (where I had the privilege of covering the transition to democracy). I then went and did an MBA at the University of Witwatersrand, where I learned that I don’t have a strong profit motive. Ten years ago I chucked in the full-time job at the Sunday Times and decided to stay at home and look after my three children and try and write books (for which you certainly cannot have any profit motive). The first book I wrote was for my children. And when no one wanted to publish it, I wrote a few more books. And then they all got published which was a bit of a relief.
I live in Johannesburg which is a brilliant city with the best weather in the world. I have published six books in South Africa. The Club, which was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in September 2008, and five young adult novels: The Summer of Toffie and Grummer (Oxford University Press, February 2008); Cornelia Button and the Globe of Gamagion (Jacana, April 2008); Pops and The Nearly Dead (Penguin, March 2010); Melly, Mrs Ho and Me (Penguin, September 2010) and Melly, Fatty and Me (Penguin, September 2011).
2. You have written books for adults (The Club), tweens (Cornelia Button) as well as Teen readers (Pops and the Nearly Dead & A Month with April-May), do you have any preferences for writing for a particular age range?
I don’t usually write with any audience in mind. I simply tell the story I want to tell. I like writing books from the perspective of young people. Teenagers are interesting people and their take on life fascinates me. I think they tend to be more honest than adults. And their observations on life and society tend to be less muted and constrained by convention.
I think A Month with April-May and its sequel 100 Days of April-May would be enjoyed by teenage readers, but one of my other books, Pops and the Nearly Dead, is one of those cross-over books that appeals equally to adults and teenagers. I like the fact that it’s the kind of book that builds a bridge between the generations and makes people realise that the only thing that separates old people from young people is a couple of years. When I set out to write The Club and The Summer of Toffie and Grummer I didn’t have any market in mind. I didn’t give it any thought. I just wanted to write a good story that would capture the imaginations of people who like to read books. And then these books got buffed and tweaked in later drafts when the publishers decided where they wanted to position them. Although The Club was pitched (by the publishers) at an adult market, a lot of teens have read it and it grew a bit of a cult status among teen readers. The only book that I specifically meant for children (aged about 9–12) was Cornelia Button and the Globe of Gamagion. I wrote it for my three children and I think it’s very much a children’s book. And unlike my others books, I have met very few adults who have actually enjoyed it. Which I think is fine, because I never wanted them to.
3. Is A Month with April-May your first novel to be picked up by an international publisher?
Yes, Hot Key Books is publishing A Month with April-May in February 2013 and the sequel, 100 Days of April-May in September 2013. There is also a third book which will be published next year that is not part of the April-May series. The two April-May books are also being published by Bayard in France next year.
4. The original title for A Month With April-May was Melly, Mrs Ho and Me. Apart from the title were any other changes made when you were published by Hot Key Books?
I was very lucky to have an amazing editor in South Africa called James Woodhouse who edited the two April-May books. I loved working with him and I think Hot Key Books were really happy with the edit he did. So very few changes were made to the text except for a couple of words that were either South African slang, or too foreign for a UK reader to understand. We either made it clear in the sentence what the word meant, or we changed the word to one with which a UK reader would be more familiar. We also have a glossary at the back just in case the reader wants to check that his/her understanding of the word is correct.
5. How were you discovered by Hot Key Books?
I have an agent called Tina Betts from Andrew Mann in the UK. And she got me discovered by Hot Key. Tina has been really amazing. She kept the faith with me and persevered, even when things looked pretty bleak and I had almost given up hope of ever being published outside of South Africa.
6. What is your opinion on the state of YA writing in South Africa?
There are lots of brilliant YA authors in South Africa, but, like the rest of fiction, the book buying market isn’t great: we are competing with the big titles from the UK and America that also have big marketing budgets behind them.
But there is an exciting project in South Africa which started a couple of years back to try and get young people reading, especially young teens from low income communities who haven’t had exposure to the culture of reading for pleasure. The project is called FunDza Literacy Trust and it publishes local material by great local writers on an accessible app on a cellphone – and nearly all teens in South Africa have access to cellphones. The stories are high interest, lots of drama, and a new chapter is loaded each day, in the proud tradition of Dickens’ penny dreadfuls. There are also full books available on the site. So far, more than 350 000 users have registered, which is amazing considering that a bestseller in South Africa is a book that sells about 3000 copies.
The publisher that founded FunDza, Cover2Cover Books, has a Harmony High series aimed at the same target market. The books follow the lives, loves and challenges of a group of teens at a fictional township high school. The books are written by a small collective. Some titles give you the idea of the content: Sugar Daddy, Too Young to Die, Two-faced Friends, Broken Promises. FunDza distributes these books to schools and literacy organisations and they are having rave reviews, with teachers reporting that they had never seen kids reading like this before. These are, hopefully, the gateway to broader reading pleasure as young people realise that reading can be meaningful, and so can go on to enjoy the more challenging local writers who are producing some really interesting books.
7. Did you have any favourite authors when you were a teen?
I read everything I could lay my hands on and never really took note of who was writing them. I read all my mother’s and sisters’ library books. I read lots of trashy books and some good books too. I was a bit of a glutton. The children’s books I really liked were written by Enid Blyton, Willard Price and I liked the Katy books by Susan Coolidge. I loved Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Montgomery) and I have tried to get my daughters to read it and they have refused. It breaks my heart.
But the one author I admired as a teen and still go back to is Jane Austen. She never disappoints. I enjoy her irony and her sense of empathy. And her long sentences. I wish I could write long, complicated, grammatically perfect sentences. But apart from Jane Austen, there is one author who I esteem above all others for writing the best book ever written for both adults and teens: Harper Lee (who only ever published one book and got it right the first time). Whenever I see To Kill a Mocking Bird in charity shops, I buy it. I have about thirty copies and I’m going to keep on buying it. She inspires me to keep on writing until I get it right.
8. Who is your favourite young adult writer (local and international)?
I don’t read young adult fiction unless I have to. I know that sounds a bit mad, but I don’t want to be influenced by what other young adult writers are writing. And it would make me nervous. But the one author I really like who writes for both adults and teens is Philip Pullman. I loved His Dark Materials Trilogy. They are cross-over books which I think are the best sort of novels. I also like Roald Dahl. I didn’t mind reading his books to my children too much when they were young.
9. Are any of your novels based on personal experiences?
Most of the ideas of my books come from things I have heard or experienced. With A Month with April-May, a couple of years back, my daughter was going through a rough spot. She didn’t want to go to school, she was sleeping a lot, and her grades were dropping. I finally figured out that she was having a bad time with one of her teachers. And knowing my daughter, the teacher was probably having a rotten time of it too. It got me thinking about the effect that one teacher can have on the life of a child. And how teachers have the ability to make or break pupils – and vice versa. It also got me wondering about the miscommunication that happens between people and how sometimes it sets us off on a course of action we can’t stop, even when things are heading for a train smash. So I decided to write about a teacher and a student who butted heads and things got out of hand. In my daughter’s case, things didn’t end happily. Writing this book was a way of turning things around and giving the story a different ending. There are aspects of Pops & the Nearly Dead which are based on real life characters and events. About six years ago my parents moved into a retirement village in Port Elizabeth and a few months later my father died. In the years that followed his death, my mother and I would talk about the people and goings-on at her retirement village – and of course we would talk about my father. We would knit – she was teaching me how to knit a blanket for my daughter – and talk and sometimes cry, and then I would write a chapter. And so, over the years, Pops & the Nearly Dead grew into a book. A lot of the book comes from true stories about my mother’s retirement village and a number of the characters are based on real people. But I took a lot of these events and turned them on their head and asked “What if?” and “Why not?” I enjoyed being able to take real people and events and give them different histories and endings. In a sense, I loved the fact that I had the power to rewrite history and make it all better.
10. What is your favourite part of the writing process?
I think it is when I have completed the first draft. I try and write the first draft of my books really fast. Because I’m not one of those disciplined writers who plan and have an outline of a book. So I lurch from chapter to chapter, never quite sure how one will end and the next will begin. I go a bit loopy in the process, sort of in a bit of a panic as to what comes next. And so of course, I drive my family a bit mental. So I need to finish the manuscript quickly before things completely unravel. I can’t afford to indulge in writer’s block because then it would make the whole first-draft process longer and more agonizing for everybody. But when I do hit a snag I go walking. Walking always sharpens the mind and makes you alert to all sorts of possibilities – like breaking your leg by falling down the holes left by the skollies who nick the water metre covers to sell for scrap metal. I also wander around my garden a lot and read newspapers. I love newspapers. There are always a hundred possible books in every newspaper, and usually I’ll read something that removes the snag and allows me to carry on writing. I find writing is a bit like running a marathon. It’s very hard work and the first and last few chapters are the worst. So I really like it when the first draft is written and I can go back to it feeling less crazy and start to flesh it out.
11. Do you ever visit schools or libraries in South Africa and have you considered Skype visits for international virtual visits and if you answer yes to either of those questions what is the best way to get into contact with you to arrange visits?
I have visited a lot of schools in South Africa and I like doing it. I enjoy hearing what young people are thinking and I find it really rewarding. But the idea of Skype scares the skin off me. I tried to do it once and I felt really weird. I think I’m a bit digitally challenged. But also I think I like to feel connected to people and Skype made me feel isolated. But if any school in the UK wants me to come and visit in all my fleshiness, I would love to do that. I can be contacted on facebook, or at my email address edythbulbring @ gmail.com.
12. Do you have any future titles coming out from Hot Key Books?
There is a third book that Hot Key Books is publishing next year which is not part of the April-May series. It was initially published by Oxford University Press (SA) in 2008 and it is called The Summer of Toffie and Grummer. It is the first book that I got published so it is very dear to my heart. I wrote it for my mother and it’s about a girl who tries to find a boyfriend for her widowed grandmother. I think Hot Key Books is going to change the title, which is fine by me because they come up with great titles. My experience with Hot Key Books has been brilliant and I really feel like I have found a home for my books with them in the UK.
First, I always panic. This is just my personality type. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it. Once I’m in a state of almost total panic, I read books, newspaper articles and magazines. I watch films, box sets, TED talks, and listen to This American Life, Radio 4 and music.
I take notes, listing subjects that interest me. For book two: bullying, class, suicide, friends as family replacement, soldiers, post-traumatic stress disorder. During this period, I refuse to talk to most people about my idea, while boring one individual to weepies every time I see them, which I make sure is every day.
I buy stationery: post-its, folders, plain A3 notepads, felt-tips. I make ideas clouds using multi-coloured felt-tips. I brainstorm characters using multi-coloured felt-tips. I try out narrative arcs using multi-coloured felt-tips. This goes on for months, and except for the sense of terror that I am never going to have another idea in my life, and the certainty that I can’t even write anyway, it is a perfectly nourishing and enjoyable period.
Next, I try to write an outline. This is difficult, seeing as I barely know my characters, and only have a vague notion of theme. I give up outlining, and try to free write, but that’s difficult, seeing as I don’t know what’s going to happen either. I don’t even know where the story is set! I spend some time thinking about place, before realising it’s impossible to decide on a setting when I don’t even know what the story is.
Round and round I go. Outlining, researching, free writing, buying stationery, over-using stationery, I try to make progress, and it’s really, really slow, but eventually, something starts to emerge.
It is different from what I intended, but this is because the magic bit of writing has come into play. My subconscious mind is doing a lot of the work for me. When I’m not paying attention, which is most of the time, my characters go off on tangents, and sometimes these are better than anything my panic-stricken conscious mind can come up with.
At last, the novel starts to take shape, and writing it becomes a real pleasure. I begin to believe these people are real, and these things happened, and I want to spend all my time with the story so I can work out the best way to tell it. When I have my first completed draft, I send it to my agent and my editor, and then I wait for feedback.
And this is where the real work begins.
Welcome to the Teen Librarian stop on the Night School: Legacy Blog Tour. Legacy is the sequel to the amazing Night School by C.J. Daugherty
For your delectation we have a member card for Night School member Gabe Porthus below as well as the video trailer for Legacy.
If this is the first time you have come across the Night School: Legacy Tour – do not panic! The rules are below the member card as are links to the other stops on the tour!
For complete details about the tour and competition please visit C.J. Daugherty’s Night School’s Members Page
Night School Challenge Rules:
Legacy Blog Tour Dates
Sat 5th – District YA
Sun 6th – So Many Books, So Little Time