Herself talks about HIMSELF

When a nun from the orphanage dies, 26-year-old Mahoney is given an envelope. Inside is a photograph of a young girl and on the back, someone has written:

‘Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co.Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you’

So begins HIMSELF, as we follow Mahoney back to Mulderrig, ‘a benign speck of a place…pretending to be harmless’ to find out what happened to his mum.

When I finished reading HIMSELF, I immediately pestered author Jess Kidd for an interview because I was so desperate to know how a debut author could write something so incredibly original and brilliant. I also wrote a review:http://tinyurl.com/hf3e4t9. Even though she didn’t know me, Jess agreed to meet up and discuss all matters literary over a glass or a two. But grotty life stuff got in the way of lovely fun stuff, so this interview was conducted via the magic of email, but hopefully I will get to meet this very special writer one day soon.

Q1) I was lucky enough to read a proof copy of HIMSELF seven months ago and it is still so vivid in my mind. In my review, I called you ‘the Heston Blumenthal of literature, kicking down the doors between genres, mixing ingredients that couldn’t and shouldn’t work. Yet they do. HIMSELF is at once thrilling and heart-breaking, tender and vicious, funny and creepy, brilliant and bonkers. So my main question is the one that everyone who has read it wants to ask: HOW DID YOU DO IT?

Thank you so much, I love the idea of being ‘the Heston Blumenthal of literature’ and it completely sums up the process of writing this book! I knew I had certain ingredients that I wanted to use, these being; a crime/mystery plot, a magic realist narrator, a small-town setting and a cast of eccentric characters, I just had to find a way to blend them all. But always I was looking towards telling the story of the characters I had come to really love in the best way I could.

I was lucky enough to have been awarded a bursary to study for a PhD in Creative Writing and this provided me with the permission to write experimentally! I looked at how to go about writing cross-genre fiction, concentrating on crime/mystery and magic realism. I examined how other writers used magic realism, which is a fascinating narrative mode, and thought about how I could absorb all these influences and theories and go about create an original piece of fiction. I didn’t worry too much about taking risks, I just tried to tell the story that was as compelling as possible and evoke a setting that was as vivid as possible and hoped everything would fall into place!

As a reader I love books that play with conventions and subvert them a little, I also like that ‘rug pulled out from under me’ feeling. I think I was very much trying to create this experience for the readers of Himself by bringing together disparate styles and genres, ideas and emotions. I think of all the elements balancing the comedy and the violence was the hardest and took the most thought.

Q2) Everyone who reads HIMSELF will fall in love with the characters. The charismatic Mahoney, the hilarious Mrs. Cauley and the tragic, compelling Orla – they are all extraordinary and yet completely believable. Which of them came to you first and did you struggle to get their voices and motivations right?

Mahony arrived first in a short story. It took me a little while to get to know him because although he’s a charmer he’s also quite a self-contained character. For me, one of the novel’s central questions is whether Mahony can move from being alone to being loved. Sometimes this journey was hard to get right, just because I was trying to explore very different sides of him – the damaged Dublin orphan and the self-assured stranger. As I was writing Mahony I often felt like a lot of his past was hidden and sometimes this could be frustrating. It was only when a poet friend of mine asked ‘what does he keep in his rucksack?’ that I got an inkling of how Mahony had been spending his time in Dublin!

Orla’s story was one I had wanted to write for a long time. Originally, I was only going to set the novel in 1976, but increasingly I found myself wanting to take the reader back to Orla’s time. It felt important to show what had happened to her more directly and these chapters were amongst the most upsetting to write. As a single mother, I felt a very personal investment in her story, which came out of a few different accounts of the treatment of unmarried mothers during this time period. In response to these accounts, I started to ask a series of ‘what if’ questions: (‘What if she refused to leave town?’ ‘What if she wanted to keep her baby?’ ‘What if she threatened to tell everyone the name of the father?’). And so Orla’s tale unfolded.

Mrs Cauley arrived in a very different way. Of all the characters I’ve ever written she came fully formed, knocking on the door and letting herself in before I could even answer! Her voice was there from the first – because she immediately started heckling me. I initially wrote long exchanges of dialogue between Mrs Cauley and other characters just for the fun of it. Although I knew from the start what she sounded like and had an outline of her history a lot of her past is still unknown to me. In this way she’s a little like Mahony, there’s an air of mystery about her, which is odd because I invented her! I would love to explore her past and find out what makes her tick, especially as there is the suggestion that she lived through interesting times, arriving in Ireland as an immigrant and becoming an actress at The Abbey Theatre. Also, I just miss writing her!

I think my writing is driven by character and place. Plot is something that takes a bit more thought and is often accompanied by swearing and post it notes. But saying this, I also quite like shaking up my carefully plotted ideas and turning them on their heads. I also like those moments of blissful revelation when you finally solve a plot problem or just begin to understand exactly which direction you’ve been heading in.

Q3) Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer (this is the bit where we want to hear that you wrote 22 books and they were all rejected and then finally you cracked it. PLEASE don’t tell me this brilliant debut is your first and it took you six months!)

I’ve always written, as a young child I especially wanted to be a playwright, I was fascinated by acting and how an on-stage world could be created. I dropped out of college to have my daughter and continued to study with the Open University, taking a module in creative writing during this course. It was at this time that I began to think seriously about creative writing as a career. From there I embarked on an MA in Creative Writing Studies with a view to teaching in the prison service, I felt that in this way I could continue to write and help support other people to write too. The MA had a large teaching component but it also allowed me to workshop my short stories, and receive that all-important feedback. I began to teach undergraduates and adult learners and got a profound sense of satisfaction in doing this. When I received a bursary to study for a PhD in creative writing I decided to use the opportunity to experiment with genre and forge an original piece of work, first and foremost. I would worry about publishing when it was finished!

Combining work and study and writing was often very difficult and for much of the time I was a single mother. I always worked jobs that would allow me to keep studying and writing and got used to living on a low income! I was relieved to finally finish my studies.

Armed with a prototype novel I approached a few agents and was lucky enough to receive some really positive feedback and interest. I had submitted to Susan Armstrong after identifying her interest in Irish writing and magic realism and she read the first few chapters and called in the manuscript. She has since said that my covering email gave very little away. I think I struggled with how to pitch such an unusual novel! I do remember writing the synopsis and think that it would be easier to write another novel. Sue and I then worked together to shape and restructure the book for publication and after a few nail biting, floor-pacing days the book found a wonderful home with Canongate.

Q4) What – if anything – is your writing method. Are you planner or a pantser?

I’m all of the above, the way my writing day pans out depends on any number of factors. A plot monster might send me rushing to clean the kitchen floor or reorganise the cupboards (drastic actions, I’m not a fan of housework). Or else a new character might have me up half the night writing epic exchanges of dialogue. Sometimes I have to drag myself to my desk and make myself sit down at it, at other times I have to force myself to leave it. But I invariably start with a plan and that gives me something to deviate from. I welcome all deviations. If I’m really stuck I’ll have a nap, if that doesn’t work and I’m desperate, I’ll do the ironing.

Q5) What gives you energy as a writer? i.e. what makes you want to sit down and write and feel enthused about it?

I love reading poetry. Sometimes just a combination of words or a vivid image sets me off. Then it’s a case of being awed by the beauty and power in the way a writer has constructed something. This inspires me and makes me want to find my own patterns and phrases. Whenever I feel daunted by the acres of blank pages, I just concentrate on enjoying the look or sound of a string of words.

I also love getting feedback on my work. This makes me want to keep going and trying new things – just the idea that someone out there is connecting with what I’ve made is so inspiring. I’m new to Twitter but already I find it good way to feel connected to the reading and writing community.

For me there is a difference in the way I approach editing and the way in which I tackle planning a piece of writing. On brand new projects, I like to get quite immersed and I could easily lock myself in the shed for a few months and not talk to a soul. Then emerge into the light, blinking, when I’ve a rough plan in place and a fair bit of it written. But when I’m editing and the bones of the story are in place I’m far less reclusive and more likely to answer the phone!

Q6) The dead are as important in the living in HIMSELF and it made me wonder whether you ever seen someone who has passed on and/or do you believe that others can?

I was brought up on ghost stories, some of these entities were elusive or malign, but the ones I found most interesting just wandered about commenting on proceedings. I think that’s why there is a great deal of exchange between the living and the dead in my fiction. This means that ghosts are not just fleeting spirits, they also have a communicative role. One of the things that struck me quite early was the idea that the afterlife was really just a repository of stories – of once-upon-a-time lives and deaths. As I grow older what strikes me most is the idea that ghosts most strongly represent a sense of the past made present, history irresistibly returning again and again. Because ghosts never die they most powerfully represent what haunts a community or an individual.

As a small child I thought it wholly plausible that the world was full of dead as well as living people. I was fascinated by that idea and that fascination has stayed with me although I’ve yet to witness something tangible first-hand. My second book features a clairvoyant and some supernatural themes and I very much enjoyed researching it! If anyone needs a volunteer ghost hunter then pick me, I’d happily sleep in the most haunted of houses.

Q7) What advice would you give to people who have been writing for a few years but have yet to secure an agent or book deal?

I would say keep going. Above all else, keep creating. Working on several projects at once has always helped me, along with making contact with other writers, in my case, through teaching or studying creative writing. During the rocky times on the long road to publication I concentrated on the work not on the future!

Q8) Now that you do have an agent and a debut novel, what are your ambitions for yourself as a writer?

Above all else I want to continue developing as a writer, finding new and original ways to tell stories. I am now working on my second novel Hoarder, a contemporary crime novel set in London. This has been great fun to write. I have also written a fast-paced, pretty eccentric, crime novel set in Victorian London, which I’m very excited about. These novels have some things in common with Himself, such as the use of magic realism and the supernatural, but they are also very different. I also have plans for a collection of short stories and a screenplay.

Thank you so much for answering my questions so honestly and for writing such a brilliant book. I am so glad that HIMSELF is finally published and I would urge anybody who loves great stories beautifully told to read it. You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Himself-Jess-Kidd/dp/1782118454

Firsts and Lasts

Cancer diaries always have a timeline, don’t they? Each post labelled week one, two etc. as the author plots their perilous journey through illness, treatment and recovery. But where to start? If the start of our ‘journey’ was the week we were told he had cancer, then this is week three. https://johoganwrites.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/the-cough/ If the start was when The Cough first began, then this is probably month eight or nine. But if you measure our beginning from when we first met and kissed, then this is our twenty sixth year.

This has been a week of firsts. I went back to work for the first time since the diagnosis. Everyone in the office had been briefed not to mention it unless I did and so it was OK. I didn’t cry once, which gave me a false sense of security for the rest of the week as I told myself I was over the worst.

We visited the Chemotherapy Ward for the first time for a pre-assessment, spending a generous and unrushed hour with our funny and gentle nurse from Zimbabwe. But the visit to the ward made me weep in a way that work didn’t. So much kindness. Oh Lord, the kindness.

I went to parent’s evening for the first time by myself and struggled not to sob in the assembly hall as I realised that this may be my future. Slayed not by the thought of going by myself but potentially having no one to return to and report on what the teachers said. For who else will be as interested in our children’s progress and peculiarities as their father? Their history, their narrative is something we hold between us like a shared banner. I cannot imagine holding it alone.

It was also potentially a week of lasts. My partner is a massive football fan but because he has been so ill and his team is far away, he hasn’t seen his team play for months nor visited his mum. I didn’t want him to go – he really isn’t well – but he’s worried that he will be worse after chemotherapy and that this might be his last chance to see them. So after some ‘debate’ we agreed that he would go this weekend before Chemotherapy starts. He went yesterday with our 15yo son whilst I stayed home with our 12yo. And after a week of being fairly task driven and dry eyed, I Could Not Stop Crying.

This was my first Friday night without him since the diagnosis. Another first that I am terrified will become the norm. No one to share a bottle of wine with, to discuss the boys, work, my latest book idea, his thoughts on politics, our predictions for GBBO. The potential sinkhole that may open up in my life was exposed and for the first time I felt truly overwhelmed. I genuinely do not know how I am going to cope with what the future may bring. How am I supposed to keep putting one foot in front of the other for my boys and not fall to my knees in a tsunami of grief?

Tomorrow I will be fine. My partner will be home and we will focus on getting ready for his first chemotherapy session and enjoying the last days before it. I will remind him and myself of all the reasons to be hopeful and focus on all the many practical tasks I can do to make things easier. And I will mean it. I will feel it, because I am generally a resilient and optimistic person. I am not giving up. But I am also an honest person and right now I am just very upset and scared.

 

them

The Cough

Neither of us can remember when it started. February? March? Certainly before Easter. In the spring, it was ‘just’ a cough: ‘an expulsion of air from the lungs’ as the Oxford Dictionary defines it, a grate of sound that heralded each morning and night and was quickly forgotten about in between. There was no breathlessness, no pain, no reason for him to stop going to football matches or caring for our children. No reason to suspect that The Cough was about to change our lives.

Except The Cough wouldn’t go away. I told him to go to the doctors, little nibbles and nags as routine as his coughing that I threw over my shoulder as I ran to catch a train. But it was still ‘just’ a cough. We bought throat pastilles, changed the bedding, dusted the books.

Still he coughed.

I think I started to worry in May. I saw a poster that urged anyone with a cough that lasted more than three weeks to go to the doctors and through the twist of panic, I fixated on the words ‘and breathless’. My partner wasn’t breathless – I kept asking him – but I noticed he was doing less. The grass went uncut. He drove rather than walked to the shops and sometimes he’d fall asleep on the settee.

Eventually he went to the GP and we were both surprised when she diagnosed pneumonia and sent him for an urgent x-ray. My partner still seemed well – apart from The Cough. He took a course of antibiotics whilst we waited for the results of the x-ray and we carried on. The x-ray showed shadowing but this was typical of pneumonia, so when The Cough didn’t go away, he was given more antibiotics. Whilst we were on holiday, he took a dramatic turn for the worse. Suddenly he was unable to walk more than a few steps without collapsing into a coughing fit that literally took his breath away. He spent the holiday bed bound, the family trapped and terrified in a cottage far from home by The Cough.

The summer was lost in a series of appointments, scans and tests, waiting and coughing, coughing, coughing. After five courses of antibiotics, it clearly wasn’t pneumonia. But my partner had never smoked, so we thought it would turn out to be some rare, debilitating but ultimately curable autoimmune disease. So when the consultant sat opposite us and told us that the results of the biopsy confirmed it was lung cancer, we were shocked.

I think we all imagine these scenarios and wonder what we would say or do. I can confirm that it is exactly as the TV shows and books depict it: people and their voices seem very far away. Your face burns, blood rushes through your ears, stomachs plummet. You think/pray that you have misheard or are in a dream, as the life you thought you had fractures and falls away.

In that particular moment, my partner reminded me why I loved him. He gasped. Nodded. Then in his soft, kind voice, he apologised to the Consultant and the nurse for the fact that they had to give him such terrible news and hoped he hadn’t ruined their day.

I was less noble. ‘But we have young boys,’ I wept, as if that somehow entitled us to an exemption from disease and the heartache it will bring.

That was ten days ago. Ten days during which we have had to tell family, friends and our lovely, lovely boys. Ten days during which we have experienced a flood of kindness, sympathy and understanding that has been truly humbling. Everybody wants to help, but sadly there’s nothing that anyone else can do.

Bit by bit we are recalibrating our lives. I have given up my Big Important Job that turns out to be not important at all. I am learning the value of all the things that my partner used to do: getting the kids breakfasts and packed lunches together, making sure they take their PE kit when they leave and that I am here when they return. We have spent the week enjoying the gentle pleasures of cafes and pub lunches, holding hands and talking. Listening. All the things we were – shamefully – too busy to do before.

We lurch between hope and fear depending upon the latest article we have just read but neither of us can think about the diagnosis for more than ten minutes at a time. It is too overwhelming. I am throwing myself into domestic tasks: buying and cooking food as a barricade against the disease, obsessively searching the internet for new bathrooms and houses in an attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Until today, I haven’t written. I wasn’t sure I could or should. This is a test run and I am not sure if I will share it. I usually quote Nora Ephron who said ‘Everything is copy’. Only sometimes, it isn’t. I could claim that I am writing it for others (please go to the doctors if you have a cough!) But in all honesty I am writing this for myself: trying to wrap a bandage of words around the wound of what has happened in the hope that reducing it to a paragraph or a page will make it less frightening and more bearable.

Cancer narratives tend to be written in the language of battles but the anger and sense of injustice that this implies simply doesn’t resonate with us. My partner has a very rare form of cancer that looks like an infection on an x-ray. It is nobody’s fault that he is so ill. It is just very, very sad.

In the coming weeks my partner will begin a course of chemotherapy and having lost my mother to cancer a few years ago, we have no illusions about what this will entail. But the past ten days have made us realise the importance of hope. And that what matters is love.

Always, love.

 

 

 

 

 

YA literature – where are the boys?

This weekend I took my 11yo and 15yo sons to @YALC. Actually, that’s not really true. My sons took me to Comic Con and in between forking out a small fortune for Dragon Ball-Z figures and watching them play ‘retro’ arcade games I managed to persuade them to accompany me to @YALC on the second floor every now and then.

I write YA. I read YA. Some of my best twitter buddies and heroes are YA authors, so @YALC is perfect for me. A room full of YA books, friends and writers – what’s not to like? In the post-conference wave of love and euphoria, it seems churlish to focus on a negative but the reaction of my 15-year-old son to the conference kept me awake last night like a piece of Scrooge’s badly-digested cheese.

First, let me establish my son’s credentials. He read The Hobbit aged six and by the time he was seven my bedtime reading skills were redundant as he worked his way through the Harry Potter series. As he grew older, he became the literary equivalent of the Hungry Caterpillar consuming at least three novels a week. He read his first ‘YA’ novel aged ten (Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman), read all of John Green’s novels when he was twelve and last year polished off the entire Game of Thrones series in a single summer.

But then he stopped. At first, I thought it was just a GoT book hang over. George R Martin is a tough act to follow. I bought him other fantasy books but they languished unfinished by his bed. He did have some success with Stephen King but then homework and mock GCSE’s kicked in, leaving little time or inclination for reading. I read that this was common: that the pressure of school work makes once prolific readers fall off the book wagon in their mid-teens but that they generally rediscover their love of reading in their early twenties. Maybe like the hungry caterpillar he had consumed too much and needed some time in his cocoon before emerging as a literary butterfly.

I think I was secretly hoping that @YALC would entice him back into YA books. With so much of his life taken up with friends, school, sport, sport and sport, books were the one thing we had in common. But within minutes of entering the second floor where @YALC was held I could feel his hackles rising. We circled the venue searching for people I knew and books to buy. Or at least I did. My oldest son grew tense, prickly and moody. ‘Can we go now?’ is all he kept saying.

After a bad-tempered exchange and some flippant remarks on both sides, we eventually had a calmer discussion over lunch. Initially dismissive of his criticisms of my beloved YA community, I was struck by one observation he made. ‘YA is not a genre,’ he said. ‘It is a marketing category. The key thing the readers have in common isn’t their age but the fact that they are all women.’

What my 15-year-old-son saw when he visited @YALC was a room full of young girls and middle-aged women like his mum selling, buying and talking about books. What he didn’t see was himself. I argued with him (as I often do) that he shouldn’t let that bother him, that he should just care about the books. But the books, he argued, are all about women too. Look at the covers, the titles, the lead characters. It is all about love triangles and endless internal monologues. Why aren’t they selling more fantasy books, he asked, gesturing to the (mostly male) fantasy community around us. Why aren’t they trying to get any of these (boys) upstairs? Then he dismissed his own question and returned to his food with the damning fact that ‘none of my friends read, anyway Mum. None.’

I am not saying my son is right (that’s my job, after all). But he has made me think. I worry, as I often do, about his concept of masculinity, about whether he has absorbed the subtle culture of misogyny that makes men dismissive of female dominated activities. I worry that he lacks the confidence to follow his own interests regardless of what his friends think and fret that my 11yo son (currently oblivious to gender) will soon follow the same sheep-trodden path. I worry that I expect too much of him, who at fifteen is desperately trying to understand what it means to be a man and negotiate a path towards it.

I worry.

I am sure there are lots of great books out there for young men that I simply haven’t found yet. And I am sure there were other young men at @YALC who had a great time. But still. His comments have stuck with me as the truth often does. I am currently writing a YA thriller and although I am trying to make it appeal to both sexes (and my 15-year-old son claims to like it), it has a female protagonist and star-crossed lovers and I suspect if it ever finds readers they too will be women. As the mother of two sons who worries about the (lack of) boys reading, I sometimes think I should write a book that would appeal to them. But I can only write the stories I want to read.

And perhaps therein lies the problem. The majority of YA authors are women. The majority of our agents, publishers and booksellers are women, so we get excited about the same kind of books. Is it any wonder then that the majority of our readers are women too? Are we in danger of creating a self-perpetuating echo chamber where we only speak to ourselves? I have not touched on other equally important aspects of diversity as others are more qualified to comment but these thoughts apply across the board.

This post is not a criticism of YA literature in general or @YALC in particular. It was a fantastic weekend and the people who worked so hard to make it happen have given so many people so much pleasure. YA literature is one of the most exciting and vibrant categories of fiction today. It is more than a genre: it is a community. But a healthy community questions and challenges itself. A healthy community looks at not just whom it includes but whom it (unintentionally) excludes and whether there is more that we can and should do to welcome others.

For once, I am not pretending to have all of the answers. But I think my fifteen-year-old son was right to ask these questions.

 

 

 

 

Why my 77-year-old dad loves Middle Grade fiction.

MG booksOn the outside, the council house we grew up in looked just like everybody else’s: we all had the same colour door (green), with black slate tiles and beige, narrow bricks. But inside, our house was different. Inside, we had books. Not a huge amount by today’s standards, and with the exception of my dad’s prized Reader’s Digest collection, most were borrowed from (and promptly returned to) the library. But we were a family of readers, with my dad the most passionate reader of all.

It wasn’t the books per se that he loved, but the landscape of dreams within them. Our meagre bookshelves were eclectic: Austen and Wilbur Smith sat alongside Shakespeare and James Clavell, vying for space with the histories of ancient civilisations and guides to mushroom picking, bird spotting and wine making. We had a respectable dictionary and Thesaurus collection for the daily crossword competitions and in the days before google, friends would knock our door to borrow them.

Our little oasis of books helped lead me to university, where I read what the English Literature course told me to, and in the holidays, my dad would share with me his latest book haul from charity shops and car boot sales. I fell in love and eventually had children, so I saw my dad less as I got older, but when we did meet up, ‘What are you reading?’ became our instant re-connection.

I have told you all this in order to establish my dad’s credentials as a reader, because I am about to tell you that this 77-year-old man loves Middle Grade fiction. I absolutely shouldn’t have to do this, but there is such ignorance about children’s literature, that I feel it’s necessary to clarify that my dad still has all of his mental faculties and is a prolific and discerning reader.

When my mum – his wife of 47 years – died a couple of years ago, books became even more important to my dad. Books are now his companions, his heart-salve and distraction. My brother and I take turns to visit him every weekend, and so, once a fortnight I take my dad out for lunch, and whilst he eats his gammon, egg and chips, we swap and discuss books. Some of his favourites this year have been All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon.

Every fortnight, my then ten-year-old and fourteen-year-old sons nodded politely away at my dad whilst they guzzled their coke. Then last year, my youngest brought along Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, a fantastic and moving series set in prehistoric times, seeped in magic and survivalist skills. My dad’s eyes lit up when he described it, so my son gave him the book. And oh, he loved it. My dad devoured the whole series, and for months, he and my son had long and gorgeous conversations about wolves, woods and magic.

When the series ended, my dad pined for more. We gave him Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, which he wept over, Varjak’s Paw by SF Said, which he (and my son) raved about, and Holes by Louis Sacher. He adored In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll and Rooftoppers and Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. Time after time he has met us with tears in his eyes as he discussed the books with my son, wondering why they have been restricted to the ‘children’s’ category when they were such sophisticated, well-written and moving stories. He still reads ‘adult’ literature (he is currently reading – and loving – Himself, a stunning soon-to-be-published debut by Jess Kidd), but he also loves the Middle Grade books that my son gives him. In fact, he makes no distinction between the two: all he wants is a compelling and well-written story that touches him in some way.

Watching my dad – a prolific reader – discover a whole world of books he knew nothing about made me realise how many adults are missing out on tremendous stories just because they are categorised as ‘children’s’. Yet the potential for ‘cross over’ between grandparents and grandchildren must be huge: both are at the vulnerable extremes of life, with an empathy and emotional accord that unites rather than divides them.

But the best thing about my dad reading ‘Middle Grade’ books isn’t just that he was exposed to great literature: they reminded him of the child he used to be, and despite an age gap of sixty-five years and an increasing digital divide, they’ve helped create and develop a genuine connection between my father and my son.

Next week my son will give my dad his latest favourite book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. And my dad won’t ask him whether it is ‘adult’, or ‘YA’, or ‘Middle Grade’. All he wants to know is, ‘Is it any good?’

Like so much ‘Middle Grade’ literature, the answer – of course – is yes, it’s brilliant, and my 11-year-old son can’t wait to share it with his 77-year-old grandad.

An interview with author Antonia Honeywell

 

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is a first for me. It was the first book I ever discussed in a book club, the first book I ever reviewed, and now I am delighted to say that Antonia is the first author I have ever interviewed. She very kindly agreed to answer all of my nosy questions about writing in general, The Ship in particular, and the balancing the creative with the personal…

The Ship was your debut novel, but like most writers, your journey to publication was not a short or simple one. Could you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer, and what kept you going?

I always wanted to write – I always wrote. But for a long, long time there was no one in my life who believed I could do it. And because I was rather a strange teenager who only read books by dead people, it took me a while to understand that writers were just ordinary people, and that it wasn’t preposterous to aspire to be one. When I wrote my first novel and began to submit it, I had another set of false impressions to overcome. I sent it to six agents who all rejected it and thought I’d given it a good go. It was only when I began to talk to other writers that I began to understand that six rejections is nothing – by which time, I was knee-deep in another novel. All this time, of course, I was also earning a living. As for what kept me going – I’m still not sure about that. I think it’s simply this – that if I don’t write my stories, no one else will. And I’ll never know what might have happened. I need to know what’s going to happen next, and writing is the only way I can find out.

It has been over a year since I read The Ship, and yet the atmosphere and themes of the book are still very vivid in my mind. Re-reading the reviews, nearly everyone comments on how much the story stayed with them long after they put it down and how thought-provoking it was. Was this an effect you deliberately tried to achieve, and HOW did you do it?

It’s an effect I dreamed of achieving and I’m so grateful to those reviewers (including you, of course!) I started by trying to make Lalla’s sheltered world a recognizable place, and to show the reader why her parents make the decisions they do. The desire to protect our children is universal, so I hoped that readers would identify with that part of the story. Then I pushed that natural human instinct to its limits to work out what it costs. For me, the engagement lies in the question, ‘What would I do in those circumstances?’ And because I didn’t invent any of the features that brought the world of the novel to collapse, I think that readers come to realise that the question’s not as far removed from reality as we’d like to imagine. The reader exists right there, in the pages of the novel.

You manage to conjure up a dystopian London not that different from our own, yet chillingly realistic in just a few pages. Did you know it was a dystopian novel when you set out to write it? (Very interesting to see on Amazon that most readers of The Ship also bought Station Eleven, btw, which is another fantastic, literary dystopian novel that haunts you long after reading).

I didn’t set out to write a dystopia, but I did want to create a world that Michael Paul, the father, would want to escape, and it didn’t take me long to realise that I was writing one whether I intended to or not! I had to be efficient in creating that world, because the main thrust of the story lies in the life on the ship itself, which is about as far from dystopian as it’s possible to get, and the sense of the horror and desperation beyond it is essential in the creation of tension.

I was desperate to read The Ship as soon as I first saw it on twitter – it was such a compelling cover and concept. It’s really interesting to see the new cover for the paperback version – just as beautiful but very different. Can you tell us about the thinking/strategy behind these different covers?

The hardback cover took a few drafts to get right, but the moment my agent and editor saw this one, they knew it was right. I think the two covers make a perfect pairing. The hardback has stronger colours and sharper outlines – it reflects the adventure and suspense of the novel. The paperback is softer and more impressionistic, which reflects the more thoughtful, meditative aspects. I couldn’t choose if I had to. Fortunately I have both!

When I first read The Ship, I assumed it was a YA book because the protagonist, Lalla, is sixteen, but I think it was marketed for adults. What is your view on the distinction between YA and adult books and have you had many teen readers?

The Ship wasn’t written as a YA book or marketed as one. But the responses of readers show that it resonated with the YA market, as well as with readers of literary fiction. I think there are lots of books which occupy this space – Nineteen Eighty Four, for example, which I read for the first time when I was thirteen and thought had been written for me personally. It’s the age for questions of identity and place in the world – and for rebellion, too. I think the rise in YA in recent years is something to celebrate, and novels like The Ship benefit from the engagement and enthusiasm of that wonderful community of writers and readers. I’m not at the centre of it – but glad and grateful to have been given a seat on the side.

As well as being an author, you are a mum to four children, a wife and a daughter; you read a lot and are active and generous on twitter. When do you make the time to write, and how do you cope with the guilt and (presumably) not doing it all?

Yes, I’ve got four, all quite close in age – my eldest is ten now. Time is my biggest issue. There’s never, ever enough of it. I look at writer friends whose children are older, or who are child-free, and yearn for the time and space that they supposedly have. But every writer has things that drain their time, and the children are growing up so fast. I tend not to waste time wishing I had more time. I multitask – bake while helping with homework, play board games with one hand whilst making notes with the other, get tea together at the same time as I’m making breakfast. I also (don’t tell my husband) hide behind a cushion at one end of the sofa while we’re meant to be watching films together. I accept every atom of help I can get. And I take my laptop everywhere and write anywhere.

What gives you energy as a writer? i.e. what makes you want to sit down and write and feel enthused about it? (I am interested in this because some people find reading and/or twitter a distraction, whereas I find them both energising. I am intrigued by what gives/depletes energy in different writers and what we can do to respect/nourish that.

Writing is such a solitary occupation. On the whole, I find Twitter a genuinely restorative place. As for reading – it’s the reason I write. It’s as simple as that. Other people’s success is a harder one – we’ve all seen a writer go a little over the top on the self-promotion side – but on the whole it doesn’t last long. The wheel turns again and it’s someone else’s chance. It’s up to you whether you look at someone else’s good news and feel crushed, or whether you look at it and go, ‘Wow, so it IS possible!’ Everyone has to allow themselves that little grip of envy – but I don’t buy the whole Gore Vidal death-every-time-a-friend-succeeds thing. This industry is hard. Let’s celebrate everything we can.

What advice would you give to people who have been writing for a few years but have yet to secure an agent or book deal? 

Red wine and perseverance, with or without the red wine.

Now that you do have an agent and a debut novel, what are your ambitions for yourself as a writer?

I’d like to stay published. That’s all. Of course I’d love to win a prize and get a foreign deal and travel with my book and all that kind of thing. But really, I’d just like to stay published and to know that people are reading my books. That’s ambition enough.

Last year was an amazing year for you with the publication of The Ship, an awful lot of things  – both good and bad, personal and professional seemed to happen to you all at once. What do you remember most about that year, and what will you treasure?

There are so many things to remember – Jake Arnott’s face when I started singing at my book launch, the first time I saw The Ship in a real bookshop, the writers I’ve met, GollanzFest, all the incredible book people I’ve made friends with. But Jo – this is the real heart of everything – I’m here, with James and the children, and everyone’s still alive and nothing’s broken, and there’s a book on the shelf that proves that writing isn’t only for dead people sitting on clouds. Whatever happens next, The Ship has become a part of the story.

The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell, is published in paperback by W&N and is out now http://amzn.to/1K7sAtQ

 

 

 

HIMSELF by Jess Kidd

I don’t normally review books that aren’t yet published, because it seems mean to tantalise you with something that you can’t yet buy. But HIMSELF is such an extraordinary novel, that I feel I have to write about it.

When a nun from the orphanage dies, 26-year-old Mahony is given an envelope. Inside is a photograph of a young girl, and on the back, someone has written:

Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.’

So begins the story as we follow Mahony back to Mulderrig – ‘a benign speck of a place…pretending to be harmless’ – to find out what happened to his mum. And what a story it is. Jess Kidd is not just a gifted writer: she is a storyteller who has created a cast of characters worthy of Dickens. Mahoney himself is so handsome, that as one man says, ‘with looks like that, the fella is either a poet or a gobshite, with the long hair and the leather jacket and the walk on it.’ And Mrs. Cauley – an 80-year-old woman who lives in a lair of dusty books – hoists her ‘Harvest Festivals’ out of the window when she wants her friend to call. (‘Me knickers, boy. Harvest Festivals: all is safely gathered in.’)

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in this book, but it is also dark, violent and at times genuinely creepy. For alongside the living, Mulderrig is full of the dead. ‘For the dead are always close by in a life like Mahony’s. The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales which the dead just yearn to fill.’

And this is what makes HIMSELF such an extraordinary novel. Not only do the dead drift amongst the living, but there are elements of magical realism, as portents strike the town: soot in the fireplaces, armies of spiders and clans of badgers marching down the road. It’s as if Jess Kid is the Heston Blumenthal of literature, kicking down the doors between genres, mixing ingredients that couldn’t and shouldn’t work. Yet they do. HIMSELF is at once thrilling and heart-breaking, tender and vicious, funny and creepy, brilliant and bonkers.

Mulderrig, we are told, is a place like no other. People don’t want to leave. ‘Why would they, when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?’ This is exactly how I felt when I finished the book. I didn’t want to leave Mulderrig or Mrs. Cauley, her pal Bridget or Mahony himself.

I’m sorry that you’ll have to wait till October to meet them all yourself, but I promise you, it will be worth the wait.