A Q&A with ER Murray and Helen Falconer

The authors of Caramel Hearts and The Dark Beloved, both born in England but living in Ireland, talk to Claire Hennessy about their new work and writing for young people

Summer is typically a busy time for authors, publishers and booksellers: whether you’re looking for a beach read or a cookbook or a literary tome, there’ll be a wide variety to choose from. On the YA front, there are two recent titles worth checking out from writers now based in Ireland – both originally born in England, but we’ll claim them as local talent anyway.

ER (Elizabeth Rose) Murray’s Caramel Hearts (Alma Books) is narrated by Liv Bloom, a young teenager trying to cope with her mother’s alcoholism through a family recipe book. Helen Falconer’s The Dark Beloved (Corgi) is the second in a trilogy set in the west of Ireland, where Celtic myth meets modern-day teenagers. I spoke with both authors about their writing process, what YA means to them, and the Irish writing community.

CH: Helen, your first two novels (Primrose Hill and Sky High) featured teenagers but were pitched as adult fiction more than YA. Do you think they'd be published differently today?

HF: All my books feature teenagers, but while my current Changeling books are for lovers of fantasy and romance, my first two novels dealt with the darker side of being a teenager: parental drug abuse, sexual predators, street violence. I felt I was writing directly for teenagers, and Faber and Faber did pitch the books as "young adult"; however, 15 years ago, "young adult" meant 18 to 35. What counts as YA has been revised downwards – a lot. And these days, I often see my first two novels in the "teenage" section.


CH: Elizabeth, you're in the middle of Nine Lives, a trilogy for 9-12-year-old readers – what was different about writing YA?

ERM: The Nine Lives Trilogy is an urban fantasy series set in Dublin and west Cork, but Caramel Hearts is a realistic novel about a girl dealing with an alcoholic mum – and it has real cake recipes throughout. The books are very different, but although the settings, style, genre and age groups differ, I approached them in the same way: it was all about staying true to the story and making it the very best that it could be.

However, writing YA was different in that teens are more emotionally charged and so you have to get the nuances right for a story to connect with its intended audience. No caricatures, no melodrama, no preaching or patronising. This is true of any story, but teens feel it more keenly and will immediately disconnect if you get it wrong.

CH: Helen, does having teenage children help with writing for that age group?

HF: It isn't possible to write teenagers without listening to their voices, and so my children and their friends have been my most valuable resource. It's not that I've forgotten my own youth, but essential details do change – very rapidly, in the case of social media. Even within my own family, my older children experience life differently from the younger ones. Another welcome change is that girls are rapidly becoming bolder. In my own teenage years, girls would get sneered at for making a joke (remember when women "just weren't funny"?). I'm glad to find today's girls aren't afraid to be witty – a real sign of increasing confidence.

CH: And tell us about your son and his writing wisdom…

HF: When I found myself writing a YA trilogy (one book not being enough to contain everything I wanted to say), I asked my son how trilogies work. He explained, "The first book is the story, the second book is a bigger more exciting version of the story, and the third book is the war." Okay, got it.

CH: Elizabeth, do you find yourself using your own experiences as a teenager in your work, or do you make it up entirely?

ERM: I used a lot of my own experiences in Caramel Hearts, as I wanted the story to resonate with its readers – and for that to be possible, it had to be authentic. I grew up in a council estate and my family was affected by addiction.

Although the characters and events are not based on my life as such, I drew on the emotions that I felt at the time, on the reactions and behaviours of people around me. I wanted the book to ring true with anyone who has suffered from the effects of addiction or has a difficult relationship with their mother. This meant connecting with some deeply buried and hurtful memories, but this was completely necessary to get the right amount of tension and emotional charge.

CH: For both of you – how have books for teenagers changed since you were that age? What did you read as teenagers?

ERM: In my teens, I was limited to what was available in the public library. There were very few books in my house and I'd outgrown the school library very young. I was always an avid reader, devouring Hard Times by Charles Dickens when I was 10 years old, so the limited selection of Sweet Valley High and romance books in the teen section didn't appeal. I tried both but they didn't make sense to my world. I couldn't connect with the characters or storylines, so I moved on to stuff like Stephen King, Lord of the Flies, Margaret Atwood, James Herbert, Flowers in the Attic, 1984, Equus, that kind of stuff. I also loved myths and legends from other times and cultures, and autobiographies like Wild Swans. In fact, the only book I ever read as a youngster that connected to my world in any way was Kestrel for a Knave. It was a class thing. No one was writing about people like me, the situations and challenges myself and my friends and family were experiencing – thankfully, this is changing. There's so much more stuff for teens about teens. Real stuff they're experiencing, and this is so important. But I still think class needs to be addressed.

HF: When I was a teenager, I mainly reread all my children's books while I waited to be old enough to be interested in adult protagonists. There were a few "coming-of-age" books, like LP Hartley's The Go-Between, which I adored – but they seemed to be few and far between. Catcher in the Rye; Lord of the Flies... As a category, coming-of-age novels tended to read as hymns to innocence, those golden years before cynical adults and grim reality conspire to crush the fragile hopes of youth. In current YA, the teenage protagonists are feisty characters who fight back and win! Much more encouraging!

CH: Again to you both, do you read much modern YA or do you find it distracts from your own work?

HF: I can't get away from modern YA – it's what everyone else in the house reads, so I read it too and not just to learn how it's done, but because I enjoy it enormously. The energy and direct quality of the writing is so refreshing, plus it seems to be where all the great plots have gone to hide. Who could fail to be gripped by The Hunger Games, or The Fault in Our Stars?

ERM: I read all the books I can, and in lots of different genres – literary fiction, YA, middle grade, picture books, short stories, poetry, historical fiction, horror, nature writing – though I must admit, I'm a bit behind with YA at the minute as I was reading lots of middle-grade books alongside my trilogy. But I'm having a ball catching up; YA is so exciting right now. Every time I think the boundaries have been pushed, someone pushes them a little more. This is a good thing! I'm constantly being blown away by a new YA author, or a new book from a favourite author.

CH: Let's talk about Ireland, where you've both ended up. Helen, the Changeling trilogy is so rooted in place and the myths of the west of Ireland. Were you always interested in Ireland? When did you start getting sucked in?

HF: As a child, still living in London, I had a book of Celtic mythology (a battered yellow hardback – where is it now?) that I read and reread. When I married an Irishman, it was like marrying a homing pigeon – it wasn't long before we ended up in north Mayo, which was where that yellow hardback came to life. Everywhere the ancient stories are written on the surface of the land – the fairy forts, the dolmens, the holy wells with healing powers. The hawthorn, which grows everywhere because fairies will curse the fool who chops it down. My first friend here was able to buy her house cheaply because it was built on a fairy road. How could I not write about that?

CH: And over to you, Elizabeth, who's also married an Irishman! Your trilogy's so grounded in Ireland but Caramel Hearts is set in the UK – did you always know you'd set it there?

ERM: Yes, Caramel Hearts had to be set in the north east of England because I really wanted to write something that represented the world that I came from, that I see lots of young people trapped in today and is often underrepresented or present in a negative light. I grew up with a single mother on the dole, the third of five children, and we were extremely poor. We weren't working class – we were described as part of an "under-class". To make the story and characters in Caramel Hearts believable for the reader, I had to write from the heart and immerse myself in a world that I know and have spent a lifetime trying to understand. And this is why one of the most important ingredients of the book is hope.

Addiction is much more far-reaching than many people realise, especially for people from poor socio-economic backgrounds; it creates terrible cycles of repetitive and destructive behaviour. The cycle can be broken, but often, the behaviour simply repeats and repeats through generations. You see, the only way out of the so-called “under-class”, the only weapon you have is hope – but there has to be a way for you to access the knowledge that hope exists. And then you have to have the strength to want it.

For me it was a particularly astute primary school teacher who encouraged me to get an education – I wouldn’t have even thought university was possible if he hadn’t drummed it into me aged seven. Without him, my life would have been very, scarily different. I managed to leave that cycle behind and I feel a strong sense of duty to try and pass on the message of hope through my fiction. Not in a didactic way, just through true and honest storytelling. A medium that would have reached me at that age.

CH: Do you feel Ireland is a natural place to be a writer or artist – or is that just a myth we like to peddle to tourists?

HF: It's certainly where a lot of us hang out! And not just for the peace and beauty of the landscape. I do think that being a writer or artist is considered more of a normal job here, and I like that attitude to the craft. Plus the country is full of natural story-tellers – a night in the pub in Killala will furnish any writer with enough to keep them going for the next 10 years. One day I'm going to write the whole lot down, and that will be a book in itself.

ERM: I honestly believe it's the perfect place to be a writer/artist. In fact, if I hadn't moved to Ireland, I don't think I'd have realised I could even be a writer. Firstly, the writing community is extremely nurturing. Go to any book launch and you'll see streams of writers there in support; check out Rwitter and you'll see how interactive writers are with each other. Writers are so accessible and human here! Prior to living in Ireland, writers seemed almost like otherworldly beings!

Obviously, things have changed over the years – the internet and social media have created excellent opportunities for writers to engage with each other and their audience – but in Ireland there’s a warmth and togetherness that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. The literary festivals are plentiful and they treat authors well, there are great organisations like Children’s Books Ireland doing great things for children’s and YA books, and the amount and quality of writing workshops is outstanding. You really feel part of a community, whatever stage of your career you’re at.

My husband is a singer/songwriter and musician and I have lots of artist friends too; in West Cork, certainly, there’s this same sense of belonging and support in those fields. My personal experience has been a very positive one.

CH: And final question for you – what are you working on at the moment?

HF: Thanks for reminding me that I have a deadline! It's the sequel to The Changeling and The Dark Beloved, which will be published in June 2017. There's no title for it yet – there never is, until about a month after I've finished writing the book.

ERM: The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 is published in three months' time, so the publicity stuff is already starting, and there'll be two launches (Dublin and west Cork) to organise. I'm currently writing the final book in the trilogy, The Book of Revenge. Meanwhile, I've been playing around with some nature writing and exploring some personal essays, so they're tinkering away in the background. I'm also trying to figure out which novel to write next; I have a few ideas jostling for attention so I'm discreetly ignoring them for now and letting them battle it out amongst themselves until I'm ready to let rip.

Caramel Hearts by ER Murray (Alma Books) and The Dark Beloved by Helen Falconer (Corgi) are both available now. Claire Hennessy is the author of Nothing Tastes As Good (Hot Key Books) and works as an editor and creative writing facilitator