Monday, 3 October 2011

A young reader visits and wows me with awesomeness

Writing for teenagers is a tough way of earning a living. Virtually impossible when you write stand-alone books like mine. Most teenagers understandably tend not to buy books, preferring to borrow them from their school library - which is FAB from a cultural, social, emotional etc point of view but from an earning-a-living point of view, not so much. (School library borrowings don't provide author income, but borrowing from a public library does.)

However, every now and then something happens which reminds me why I love teenage readers more than any other readers in the world, even if I can't earn a living from them. And when I say "teenage", I mean anyone from the age of about 11, because that's when it all kicks off. (See Blame My Brain if you want to know why.)

Recently, after a school event in Devon, one of those things happened. I had an email from an 11-year-old girl, Iseult Merlin, who had been in the audience and who hadn't been able to ask her questions. And they were the most extraordinarily deep and fascinating questions, as you will see.

Some of you are writing or hoping to write for teenagers. Some people think this must be an easy thing to do because, you may think, teenagers won't think as deeply as an adult or worry about hidden meanings or anything. How wrong could you be! I have always known how deeply they think, otherwise why would I so love writing for them?

With permission from Iseult and her mother, Lalla, I now reproduce the questions and my answers.  All the questions are about Deathwatch, which Iseult says she loved.

Iseult: At the end of the story it was clear that even the ‘villain’, (the stalker) – was someone who was a victim of a past tragedy and to be pitied. Do you think most villains are really victims?
Well, I think the most interesting ones are. If we say that a villain is a victim we give him an excuse and rather than saying, "He's bad" we say "He's bad because..." What I would never want to do is say, "He's bad because...and so that's ok." I think we all have to stand up for free will and choice, though people who are very damaged by circumstances have tougher choices.
Iseult: At the end I was left feeling sorry for the old man who had done the school visit with his insects. Is it important to leave some characters without a happy resolution to their story?
I think I perhaps wanted to show what an old man might feel like in front of a whole classroom of teenagers. I also think some people don't have a happy resolution to their stories in real life and I think it's OK (but not necessary) to show that. Also, in fiction, we do tend to leave minor characters to their own devices and not tie everything up happily for them. I felt sorry for him too but he felt very real to me and I needed to think what he would really have done, more than what I wanted him to do.
Iseult: Cat’s vulnerability to her stalker is largely caused by her rebellion against her parents’ rules: she goes on ‘Phiz’ despite her parents’ ban, giving away too much information about herself; she walks home alone when they want to collect her in the car. She is saved by her athletic ability, something her parents are keen she should continue, though she has doubts. This seems to put her parents in the right and Cat in the wrong: is this intentional?
Wow! I don't know! I suppose that if Cat is in the wrong then the readers (who are on Cat's side and who are more like Cat than like her parents) will see inside their own hearts and start to put themselves in her shoes. And, of course, parents are sometimes right! Basically, though, I'm just telling the story as I feel it, rather than thinking what ought to happen.
Iseult: At the end we see that Cat is taking her future into her own hands. When she kills the spider in her room she is tackling her fears; when she decides to continue as a runner but to cut down on swimming she is shaping her own future. But many of the characters can’t do this because of mental illness – schizophrenia or gulf war syndrome. Is mental illness the real villain?
Wow again! Yes, I rather think you are right. Mental illness is an incredibly powerful hurdle or brick wall, stopping people being able to do what they want or need. And I guess that your point about Cat taking her future into her own hands is crucial - because when you have mental illness you lose control (some or all) of your own future, or it must feel like that from inside. Maybe that's the aim of the doctors caring for patients with mental illness: to give them back control.
Iseult: Most of the characters, although they seem separate at the start, are linked by an invisible web of past connections. Is this why the book has a spider theme?
[Note to my readers: NOW do you see what I mean?? Is this not brilliant??]
On on level: No! The book has a spider theme because I don't like spiders and insects and nor do lots of other people, so I thought it would be creepy and fascinating and thrilling and nasty.
On another level: there's a view that says that if a reader takes a meaning or message from a book, the meaning or message is there and valid. So, if you think that's why there's a spider theme, you are correct, because that is a meaning for you. It wasn't intentional, but the mind works in mysterious ways. And if I was as clever as you, I could easily have done it intentionally!
Remarkable questions, Iseult, and it is a total privilege for me to be able to write for you and other readers like you.

To buy Deathwatch or Blame My Brain or any of my books, please either support your nearest or favourite bookshop, or use my Amazon store here. Thank you!


Rebecca Brown said...

That was fantastic! How wonderful for you to get such an intelligent response and to know how much your books ate affecting teenagers. Brilliant; good luck to Iseult!

Helen said...

The reader that makes it all worth while! Well done, Iseult.

catdownunder said...

Now that makes writing worthwhile...and very scary!

Stroppy Author said...

Ooh, what a wonderful reader. Well done, Iseult! I find it really condescending that anyone (including editors) should think some issues are too hard or complicated to offer to children or teenagers. If they don't to think about them, they won't - but for those who do (like Iseult), it's really important to have them on offer.

BucksWriter said...

Very smart questions, and interesting answers. I particularly like the comments about readers developing their own meanings and connections and those being entirely valid.

Luisa Plaja said...

What a wonderful set of questions (and answers)!

Emma Pass said...

What an incredible set of questions. I was bowled over by how perceptive they were, especially the one about mental illness being a villain.

Next time someone asks "But why?" when I tell them I write for teenagers, instead of trying to explain yet again, I'll direct them to this post (in the politest way possible, of course)!

JO said...

On my former life I worked with young survivors of trauma - and loved the teenagers. They are angry, and energetic, and immediate. They ask the best questions, and need honesty. And adults who are willing to try to see the world through their eyes - which includes acknowledging that we (adults) don't know everything.

And they need access to the best books. A society that cannot treasure its young people - and give them the best - is surely the poorer. Not only because we deny them what they deserve, but because we miss the opportunity of looking at ourselves through their eyes.

Claire Dawn said...

SOmething to aspire to. Every author hopeful wishes for the day they can have these convos. Thanks for sharing. :)

Em-Musing said...

This is one interesting girl...with an interesting name, and interesting questions. Wonder what she'll do when she grows up. Perhaps be a writer?

TeriT said...

You know, the thing that interested me the most was the question about spiders & webs. I find it fascinating how the subconscious writing mind throws things like this up

Anonymous said...

I wish I had been so insightful and articulate at eleven. I had to flick back a few times to double-check that age.

I remember being asked if I had to "dumb down" the words I used because I was writing for teenagers (I know). Iseult's questions and insight prove - if any proof was necessary - this is not the case.

What a wonderful e-mail to receive, and I'm so glad you were able to share it with us all.

Kamille Elahi said...

These are some very well thought out questions.

My theory is that teenagers tend to be more curious about the world and so ask questions more than adults who just seem to have a headache all the time.

Joy said...

Such insightful questions and what a gorgeous name! I especially like her thoughts on a possible spider theme. And the question about mental illness being a villain -- wow!

Katalin Havasi said...

Iseult's original and intelligent questions suggest that she could be an excellent poet. Emotionally she feels older than her age. I can't help thinking an adult helped her to form the questions.

womagwriter said...

Bloody Norah that's one bright eleven-year old! I predict an A* at Eng Lit.

Clare said...

Wow - a letter like that must make it all seem worthwhile when the going gets tough. Those are very perceptive questions for anyone to come up with - and facinating answers as well.
(Also didn't realise there was a difference in income if books are borrowed via a school or public library - oops!)