Monday 6 December 2010

Open Book and Mariella Frostrup Interview YA authors

by Teri Terry
Is a bit of your brain still a teenager? If so, YA may be just the thing…
I’d like to think that one day, Mariella Frostrup might interview me on my latest best seller.
There is one flaw with this, though: she is just way too scary. That could turn from dream to nightmare in seconds.
She’d probably have me quivering in the corner with insightful questions, spot every flaw in my writing from beginning to end, and make me realize that I’m just playing at this writing malarkey and should go home and knit.
And she would do it nicely, too.

Mariella Frostrup: Book Goddess

On 21 November, Mariella presented a special edition of Open Book on BBC radio 4, exploring the recent boom in fiction for young adults. She spoke to authors Marcus Sedgwick, Malorie Blackman and Gemma Malley.
How could I resist, with the divine Mr M involved?

The Divine Mr M (Marcus Sedgwick)
And she didn’t shy away from the big questions. Is the YA boom a construction of the publishing industry, or does it fill a needed gap? In years past, children went straight from reading children’s to adult books: did stretching in our formative years do previous generations any harm?

Mariella began by putting them in the spotlight: what did they read as teens?
Mariella started them off: she went to Georgette Heyer and DH Lawrence. Marlorie Blackman impressed with Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca. Oh, and Jacqueline Susann. Marcus Sedgewick admitted he read good, and bad: lots of science fiction and fantasy – just like me! – though no names admitted to, except that Merlin Peak was a big thing that grabbed him at age 14 or 15. Gemma Malley read Judy Blume, Virginia Andrews and… Dostoevsky. Really?!

Is one of the hallmarks of teen fiction that the central protagonist is almost always a teenager themselves?
Marcus noted this isn’t essential, though Malorie said it is easier for readers to empathize and identify with protagonists of similar age. She writes for the teenager inside herself: books she would have loved to read at that age. Gemma, on the other hand, didn’t set out to write a YA book; her protagonist was a teenager as this was needed for her story.

An extract from Boys Don’t Cry, Marlorie’s latest, was read. This novel tackles issues of teenage pregnancy, homosexuality and attempted suicide. How is responsibility to young readers balanced with responsibility as a story teller?
Malorie noted endings in her books may not be happy, but they are hopeful; and teens don’t always believe there is a happy ending. In writing this particular book she set out to give teenage dads a say.
Malorie Blackman

Is it a hallmark of YA that endings aren’t neat and happily ever after, but are often bleak or enigmatic?
Gemma noted that teens are in transition from the black and white world of the child, to an adult shades-of-grey world; they are starting to realize their parents aren’t necessarily always right, and that they have to think things through for themselves.
Marcus says he tries to do two things: to not be boring, and – like Gemma – to suggest that life is not black and white.

Mariella noted that girls read more than boys: does Malorie’s Noughts and Crosses appeal to black boys?
Malorie hopes so. She said when she was growing up, books did not feature black characters, and that fiction engenders empathy, and gives an emotional vocabulary.

And now for the big issue: YA is the space between children’s and adult books. Was it created by a marketing push? Does YA really exist?
Marcus mentioned Catcher in the Rye, and that SF and Fantasy were there for YA readers: YA has always existed, but it is now a recognized genre that is published into by publishers. Gemma agreed there have always been books that tap into teens.

BUT are we holding kids back by the idea of teen books instead of going straight to adult books?
Malorie noted that some teens get disaffected by reading adult books, and Marcus that the idea that teens should always be stretched to the limit of their reading ability is false. We don’t do that as adults: we might want to read a trashy novel on holiday. He said ‘why not just feel free to read what you want to read at any time.’ Brilliant advice.

Mariella notes that Marcus’s White Crow doesn’t shy away from posing difficult questions about life after death: would have been different if written for adults?
Marcus said probably not, though noted publishing decisions affect editing, and there is a responsibility to have some notion of hope and optimism. But more to have an engaging story.

Can you tackle more when writing for children than adults?
Gemma said yes: teens can accept all sorts of things, and don’t have the same parameters. Marcus said it is exciting writing for children as you can write about anything; with adults, you are constrained by genre, trends, and what is and isn’t acceptable.

Mariella discussed Gemma’s dystopian world in The Declaration, in which she critiques the very premise of children.
Gemma was interested in developments in science: do we want to live forever? If so, we can’t have children. Using a future setting gives more freedom in the plot as can expand reality, and, no research is necessary.

Mariella quoted Nicholas Tuckers’ Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers, where he criticizes upping the tragedy in books for teens.
Malorie noted her books have both humour and angst. Marcus said Tucker missed the point. There are two types of books: good, and bad. And those about issues with a capital ‘I’ can do it badly, or well; you shouldn’t sweep away the whole genre or approach.

Why write YA?
Marcus said honest children’s writers all admit, there is a bit of their brain that is still a teenager.

Finally: what are the themes of the future in YA? Are there different genres within?
Marcus says publishers hate the label SF; Malorie notes that if you want to write innovative fiction, YA is the place to be; and Gemma that YA doesn’t seem to be subdivided too much – there is a huge amount of freedom.

My Conclusions?
Since I am mentally 14, still trying to work out shades of grey, don’t like doing research and am writing an innovative dystopia set in the future without calling it SF… I guess I’m in the right place.


  1. Ooh thanks for writing this. I missed it and it's very interesting. However I hope that they don't persuade many more (so-called) adult writers to switch to YA!

  2. Hi, it is still available online, if you want to have a listen:

  3. This seem to confirm for me what I supected about myself. Part of the brain ore something is still young adult.

  4. But if this is true, I should be writing one of those waterproof bath books that burp and squeak.

  5. Great post! Thanks for summarising the interview. I agree with the comments about fewer boundaries in YA - more freedom and better stories!

  6. There are waterproof bath books that burp and squeak?!? I want one!!
    (or is that just what happens if you drop your Kindle in the bubbles?)

  7. I'm not sure I'm still mentally a teenager - I didn't much like being a teenager - I think I write for that age because I can't help picking at an old sore....

  8. Great interview. Interesting questions. I think y/a made a come back due to the success of Harry Potter. Youth discovered that books written for them can be great and that they didn't have to make the leap to adult books. Plus, all ages enjoy HP.


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