Thursday 9 February 2012

Going back to your writing roots, with Celia Rees

I think it's fair to say that no list of top children's authors is complete without Celia Rees.

She is most widely known for her historical novels, including Witch Child, followed by Sorceress, Sovay and Pirates!, but her writing career began in contemporary teen thrillers. This year Celia has gone back to her roots with another contemporary thriller: This Is Not Forgiveness. Here Celia talks about writing This Is Not Forgiveness, and the process of going back to the future...

The question I’m asked most often is, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ And it’s a difficult one. Every book I write begins with an idea, but ideas can come from anywhere. All I can say for certain, is I know when one is there. You can’t dial up ideas and it doesn’t do to search too hard for them. Virginia Woolf once likened ideas to fish swimming in the great pool of the mind. Look too hard and nothing will break the surface. Turn too fast when you catch a glimpse of that great leaping fish, and it will disappear, leaving scarcely a ripple. You have to be subtle and you have to be quick.

Virginia Woolf

When I have an idea that could become a book, I feel a kind of thrilling excitement and I know to go with it. To dismiss that special feeling would be pure foolishness. To start on anything without it, would be like trying to breathe life into something that is already dead.

The idea for This Is Not Forgiveness came to me when I was watching Francois Truffaut’s film, Jules et Jim. What interested me was the triangular relationship between the two men, who are close friends, and this extraordinary girl, a real free spirit. They both fall in love with her, and I was thinking: You could update this. Make it now. I’d been writing historical novels. The book I was working on, The Fool’s Girl, was based on Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night. Shakespeare was one of the characters. So this new idea did not exactly fit my current profile but I knew that it would be my next novel and it would be contemporary.

Every Step You Take, Celia's first novel, and Fool's Girl, a historical novel - the style for which she is largely known

The story starting to tell itself in my head was happening now. That is when I got my second thrill of excitement. When I began writing, all those years ago in the early nineties, my first novel, Every Step You Take (now long out of print) was a contemporary thriller. I would be going back to my roots.

Could I still do it? Could I connect to modern teenagers? Could I mirror their world? Echo their voices? It was easy then. I was a teacher. My daughter was a teenager. But things had changed. I no longer teach. My daughter has grown up. Did that put me out of touch? Could I write something that would interest and engage teen readers, keep them turning the pages? It was a challenge but one I would have to take up. Once an idea is there, it is impossible to un-think. Once it is in my head, it has to be done.

I often have the first chapter a long time before I start writing, so I didn’t find that hard to do. I began to write in the voice of the main narrator, Jamie, who is seventeen. I was writing in the First Person, Present Tense. I’d written in the FP before, but not Present Tense. It took a bit of getting used to, but felt right for the book. My first idea was that the book would be written entirely from Jamie’s point of view.

Then came a piece of writer serendipity by the way of an Arvon Course with Patrick Ness. I was there as Patrick’s co-tutor, but the Arvon magic can work for us as well. We sat in on each other’s sessions and took part in the workshops. Anyone who knows Patrick’s work, knows that he is passionate about voice. He is also a daring and innovative writer. He made me think that I could write in other voices, too. So I made Jamie one of three narrators, joined by the other male character, Rob, his older brother who is a soldier, and the charismatic, enigmatic Caro.

Arvon + Patrick Ness = a golden equation even for the practised amongst us

Once I decided this, the book really came alive. I didn’t have any problem with the voices at all. It was almost like taking dictation. I wrote the book very quickly. Far faster than my historical fiction because I didn’t have to keep stopping. I enjoyed being able to write without the constraints of period life and language and writing in different voices was exhilarating.

The resulting novel is very different from that first book but I’m glad I decided to go back to my roots. The book is finished now and published. Did I succeed in meeting the challenge? Only time and the reader can tell.

Slushpile note: I was lucky enough to receive an early copy of This Is Not Forgiveness, and am happy to attest to its brilliance! It's a book that stays with you long after you've finished reading it. Jo


  1. A fascinating, insightful post, Celia, thank you. I've heard Patrick speak too, when he came to Australia a couple of years ago - brilliant writer!
    Glad that your daring innovation turned into a very worthy narrative (by the sound of it). Congratulations! Now, I'll look at the video. :)

  2. What a wonderfully insightful post, Celia, thank you! I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of This is Not Forgiveness!

  3. Great post Celia, thanks! The process of letting each idea you have find its own voice, be it contemporary or historical, is really interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Oh! Oh! Oh! Can't wait to read it!

    1. ...but Jo is going to let me borrow it first. Isn't she? Jo?

    2. You'll have to fight over it!

  5. Hi, Celia - really interesting post, and I love what you say about Virginia Woolf and the fish. Also: "Once it is in my head, it has to be done." It's great too the way those insights, like your with Patrick Ness, can suddenly light the way and make it all seem not only possible but exciting.

  6. Ooh, I just love it when authors share these kind of insights. And just great to see that Arvon works for the tutors as well as the students. Thanks, Celia. Can' wait to read it.

  7. What a fantastic post. Thank you Celia. I was interested to see your were also concerned whether you could write with a teenage voice as your children had grown up too. That is something I have also faced, it was really good to know I wasn't on my own! This post has been truly inspirational, thank you for sharing. Am not off to buy This is not Forgiveness

  8. Wonderful! I too am an ex-teacher with grown up children, and worry about now losing touch with the rawness of the teenage experience. I'm looking forward to your talk at the London Book Fair, and thanks so much for this very interesting post; I shall read your latest book with more insight because of it.

  9. Great post ... thanks for sharing.

  10. Celia, were there any things about writing a contemporary novel that surprised you - things that you had thought unique to the historical genre? Or was it totally, completely, different?

  11. Very taken with the honesty of showing you had anxieties Celia, and that you keep on learning too. Thank you.

  12. Very interesting ideas celia, thank you. The fish analogy was fascinating, as some books you read you can just tell the writers were trying too hard or trying to 'write to order'. But it's ones like 'forgiveness' that shine through because the reader can tell are an idea that you HAD to write about.

  13. Another book I really want to read now! It sounds great.

  14. What thoughtful responses - a real writers' site, this! An interesting question, Cindy. I found TINF much easier in some ways - I know what a High Street/bar/cafe/hot dog stand looks like and it is easier to channel voices I hear around me rather than those I've never heard in life. I learnt something, though, from writing historical - my concern there is to explore how historical events impact on my characters lives and I found i was doing the same thing in TINF but with contmporary events.
    It is important to follow our own ideas, Astrid, not try and manufacture them. All writers are subject to doubts and fears, Phillipa, no matter how good, or how experienced. It is part of the creative process.

  15. This is an inspiring post. I want to be daring now. Thanks, Celia.

  16. Thank you, Celia. What an honest and interesting post. And it's great to hear about the value of Arvon Courses for the tutors, too...
    Thank you, Clare.


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