Hi Julia, thanks for taking the time to do this interview in the run up to publication. Harper, your protagonist in What a Way to Go! is a great character: likeable, believable and completely unsentimental. Where did she come from?
Thank you, Lia. A few friends and acquaintances were influential while I was writing her, including a fifty year-old vegan friend called Peter who is completely bald, mad about cycling and unbelievably fit. While I was writing the novel I also went to a wedding of a university friend of mine called Gwen and one of the speeches at her wedding inspired me.
One of her bridesmaids said that, when Gwen was a teenager, it wasn’t just friends who would call on her, the Socialist Party would too. They’d come round to ask Gwen to do some door-to-door canvassing. I remember thinking to myself that this was something that never would have happened to me as a teenager. I completely admired her for it; Gwen’s independence of mind and spirit went straight into Harper’s DNA. Harper is the kind of twelve year-old I wish I had been.
Why did you choose 1988 as a period?
I read Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing As Society in 2011; it’s a brilliant non-fiction title about the social, economic and political landscape of the 1980s. In the course of reading it, I spotted that in the March budget of 1988 Nigel Lawson introduced some tax policies which led to a scramble to buy and own houses – his policies generated the summer of the ‘Lawson Boom’.
I wanted to show how crippling these kinds of policies would be for those people who were renting in that era and who were eager to secure a roof under their own heads. Harper’s mother, Mary, suffers from a triple blow because she is looking to buy a house as a divorcee, with a child in tow and on a part-time salary. I saw with my own eyes my Mum’s struggles to get a mortgage in the early eighties under similar circumstances and have since thought how unfair and how judgemental society-at-large can be.
I have only realised, now that I have some perspective on the book, that writing it was in part an act of reclamation: I wanted to go back to that period and to challenge a lot of society’s stigmas and assumptions about single parenting, mental health and what it meant to be a child in a world which was becoming increasingly driven by capitalism. Sadly, this act of reclamation didn’t extend as far as being more discerning about music; Harper is as much a fan of confected chart toppers from Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s Hit Factory as I was!
The novel addresses the precarious and fragmentary experience of many children whose parents have separated. A large cast of characters orbit Harper’s world; they all have their oddities but also their appeal – and impact on her development. Her experience of adults is largely positive – can you comment on that?
When your parents separate, especially if you’re an only child, you end up spending a lot of time with adults; that was certainly my experience and one that I replicated for Harper. Looking back on my own childhood, I realise now that I had to mature before my years emotionally, and I imagine that this is the case for children who go through any similar kind of trauma. However, I often didn’t possess the vocabulary to express my more insights.
When I was nineteen, I worked as a nanny in Italy for three months with the sole job of teaching English to two young children. I was told by my employer that I was absolutely not allowed to speak Italian, only English. However, I heard Italian all summer long, as it was always being spoken around me. As such, by the end of the summer, I was completely fluent as far as my listening comprehension went, but I could barely string together a sentence to express myself in the language. That was how it felt as a kid: I could empathise with grown-up emotions, but I didn’t have the abstract vocabulary to underpin and communicate what I was feeling – and knowing.
In What a Way to Go I made a conscious effort to be very concrete in my descriptions, my use of language and also in the use of objects and symbolism. I hoped that this would help to communicate some of the more ephemeral feelings that Harper and other characters are experiencing. This book is not just a love letter to the eighties, but also to what it means to be, as Mary Karr puts it in her Paris Review interview on the Art of Memoir, ‘three foot tall, flat broke, unemployed and illiterate’ – in other words, a child in an adult’s world.
The theme of mental illness hovers on the borders of the novel. Can you talk about that?
Since I was 21 I have suffered on and off with mild depression and anxiety and it has often come as a complete surprise to me when I’ve reached a difficult patch. When my two kids were born, I was placed on alert for post-natal depression, and I had check-ups with psychologists after both births to gauge the state of my mental health. I was interested by this, because what is normal under the circumstances of such a life-changing event as the birth of a child? Giving birth is an animal experience which transcends modern ideas about what it is to be a human.
In What a Way to Go I touch on the theme of post-natal depression because it’s not something I have often read about in novels. I think I was interested in exposing stigma surrounding depression and showing that it is something which can be and should be discussed openly, rather than hidden away. In the course of the book, we see how this kind of burying of mental health issues can have ripple effects on other people in the future. Harper is a good judge of character, and she has an intuition that things are not as they seem. She turns out to be right…
You’ve chosen big, brave themes to write about in a YA context: illness (mental and physical) and death. Did you feel at all constrained by the fact that you’re writing for young people?
I lost someone very dear to me when I was fourteen: I was there the day he learnt of his cancer diagnosis and I was holding his hand eighteen months later when he died. The person in question wanted to write a book of funny and unusual deaths called What a Way to Go (the book has since been written by somebody else) which entirely encapsulates his gallows humour. I think he would have loved that I eventually did write a book with this title, albeit a very different kind of book.
Death, divorce, depression do not discriminate when it comes to how old you are. John Green has of course made this case very well in his books. With my own work, I didn’t think about the age of the readership when I wrote. In fact, I think my ‘ideal reader’ was a man in his fifties sat on the London tube with a briefcase on his lap! However, when I had finished my first full draft, I gave it to a brilliant book blogger and reader, Yemaya Wood, who was sixteen at the time. She did a Beta read and wrote a report for me. I hope that the book will reach a YA and an adult readership alike.
Growing up, Judy Blume’s books were my atlases for young adulthood. In them, I learnt about sex, relationships, puberty, divorce… I think there might not be that many novels for a crossover readership which explore death, divorce and depression from a young person’s perspective with a similar lightness of touch. I think this was probably a motivating force for me to touch on these subjects – although to be honest, I didn’t overthink it at the outset.
During the course of writing this book, we were affected here in mid Wales by an awful event which involved the abduction and murder of a young girl who was a classmate of my daughter’s. During the nine-month period while the case was open, I stopped writing completely – a fog of despair and anguish hung over the town and the entire community. The day that the perpetrator was imprisoned, I returned to writing this story with a different perspective on life, a feeling of extreme injustice that such a young soul should be extinguished so prematurely, so indiscriminately and so unfairly. The case gave me a renewed purpose to speak on behalf of children, through the voice of Harper.
While you were working on the novel you worked for New Welsh Review. Can you talk about that, and about the literary scene in Wales?
I worked for over two years as the marketing and publicity officer at New Welsh Review, edited by Gwen Davies which this gave me an excellent overview of the Welsh publishing scene. One of my last jobs was to organise the prize-giving ceremony in which Eluned Gramich won the New Welsh Writing Awards for writing on nature and the environment, a prize which I’d coordinated. That was a high note to end on (and it might be of interest to your readers to note that it is open again from the 19 January 2016, this time seeking long-form work on the theme of travel).
Previous to that, I was on the Honno Welsh Women’s Press committee for a couple of years and that also gave me a good grounding here in Wales – Honno is one of the last women’s presses in the UK and they recently published a brilliant anthology about women campaigners called Here We Stand.
There are some excellent resources here in Wales for writers. For a start, I’d urge people to look up Ty Newydd, the Writers’ Centre which is in north Wales. I conceived the idea for What a Way to Go while at a writing from life course at the Centre, which is Wales’s answer to Arvon. In north Wales, we also have the residential Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire, which has an ambitious programme of literary events throughout the year.
I am in my third year of sitting on the bursary panel for Literature Wales, helping to award bursaries to emerging and established authors, which is a complete honour and a joy to do. This is an annual programme which I benefitted from in 2011 when I was awarded just over £1,000 in nursery fees to enable me to get the novel under way. I’d urge authors to look up the T&Cs to see if you might be eligible.
I would say that the literary scene in Wales is becoming more ambitious with every year that passes. The newest kid on the block is Firefly Press, which publishes a growing list of children’s fiction, but on the English language side we also have many other publishers including the likes of Parthian, Seren, Cinnamon, Gomer and Rack Press. This site by the Welsh Books Council is a good source for more information.
Alongside New Welsh Review, there are other magazines published out of Wales including Wales Arts Review, Planet, and Poetry Wales. And there are is an excellent procrastination of acclaimed authors (I’m told that’s the collective noun) who call Wales their home, including Cynan Jones, Rachel Trezise, Tom Bullough, Kate Hamer, Gwyneth Lewis and many, many others.
I’m not fluent in Welsh, but my kids are learning through the medium of Welsh so I am beginning to get an insight into the Welsh language scene. There is of course a long and illustrious tradition of the annual Eisteddfods here, in which a Bard is crowned each summer. Wales has been incredibly kind to me, and I wouldn’t have written a single word of What a Way to Go without the support from the writers’ community here.
That’s an incredibly generous and informative answer, thanks. Ireland and Wales are so close, there should be more of an exchange between us, don’t you think? What’s next for you?
I am in the process of submitting a 45-minute radio drama to the BBC. Meanwhile, my eight year-old daughter Matilda is insistent that I go back to a book I wrote when I was 21 called The Thought Box which is for children, so I hope to return to that, too.
Another novel is on the horizon, but I’m not in a huge rush to get going. I felt I needed a bit of down time after finishing this book. These smaller projects are my means of cleansing my palate before I try to approach a larger piece of work again.
Well, the very best of luck with it all. Thanks again for talking to us, and for all that great info about the scene in Wales.