Keeping it real: Young Adult authors on the hard truths in their fiction
The stories have to come first, not the issues, agree YA authors Louise O’Neill, Kim Hood and James Dawson. Claire Hennessy reports onthe Children’s Books Ireland conference
Authors Kim Hood, James Dawson and Louise O’Neill at the recent Children’s Books Ireland conference
“For me, young adult literature is one of the most exciting kinds of literature we have,” Dr Padraic Whyte begins. It is day one of the annual Children’s Books Ireland conference, and there are three much-praised young adult (YA) authors ready to discuss “truth and lies” in their work. But first we are reminded of something often forgotten in our goldfish-memory lives: for all that we hear about the rise of YA, its importance and its newfound daring, it is not a new field. Dr Whyte, co-chair of the MPhil in Children’s Literature programme at Trinity College Dublin, takes us through a brief history from post-WWII America to the present day, via the realistic novels of the sixties and seventies that engaged with youth experiences and laid the foundation for the current “return to realism”. Young adult fiction in Ireland, Whyte suggests, doesn’t begin to emerge until the 1990s, but we are now seeing it at its most vibrant.
Case in point: panellist and Clonakilty woman Louise O’Neill, whose newly-released second novel Asking For It (Quercus), the current Irish Times Blolok Club choice, tackles the ugliness of rape culture and victim blaming head-on. There’s also Kim Hood, Canadian-born but now calling Ireland home, whose background in therapy and community services informed the difficulties with mental illness and physical disability her characters encounter in Finding A Voice (O’Brien, 2014). UK writers are also making names for themselves in what has long been an American-dominated field; writer and former teacher James Dawson has published a number of dark thrillers alongside some excellent non-fiction for teens (This Book Is Gay, published by Hot Key in 2014, should be in every secondary school library; he is currently working on a book about teen mental health). His most recent novel, All of the Above (Hot Key), tackles fluid sexuality, eating disorders, alcohol abuse, and cultural identity.
These are YA writers who tackle “issues” – and are often criticised for doing so, or for how they’ve done so. But for all three issues do not drive their fiction. “It was story that started the process for me,” Hood says. “For me, story always starts with characters. As a writer, you’re always storing things in your head. You never just experience anything.”
O’Neill concurs. While she knew that there were certain topics she wanted to deal with, the stories came first for both her novels. James Dawson, wary of books that are just “issue books” and not much more, uses his non-fiction to consciously address important themes: there, he says, “I don’t have to hide it, I can just do it”.
“You’re going to spend a year working on it,” O’Neill points out, so there’s no point in simply and cynically picking a perceived “hot topic”. She also finds it can be difficult to be asked solely about the relevant “issue” in a novel, where the book isn’t treated “as a story, or a work of art” but a manifesto. Whyte notes the media attention around Asking For It has focused on its content, and raising awareness of rape culture: we need to talk about, he says, how we address issues “in an artistic way, with the skill of an author”. It’s very easy for discussion about a novel to become about the topic – or about the writer’s own life. When Dawson was working on All of the Above he was careful not to “leave fingerprints” on the book, conscious that although there’s autobiographical details in his non-fiction, he’s “revealed more of [himself] through the novels”. “Some of it’s me,” he concedes. “I’m not going to say which bits.”
Hood takes a different approach, and doesn’t try to take herself out of her work: “If I’m not being vulnerable, then it’s not any good.” For O’Neill, her childhood acting experience comes into play; she takes on the character’s personality when she writes, although living inside a rape victim’s head for six months left her “burnt out”. Although her novel is inspired by real-life events it is also very much invented; she believes it’s a “real abuse of power” to write about real people.
The reviews and response to all of their work has been largely positive, although Dawson admits to visiting the notoriously vitriolic reader-review site Goodreads recently (“I know, what was I thinking?”). He’s also seen librarians concerned about This Book Is Gay, although adds that many others fought to have it included in their own collections. The “Angry Internet People” have also gone out of their way to pick apart the book, which he conscientiously gathered as many voices for as he could, aware of the need to represent lesbians, gay people of colour, trans individuals, and others whose experience would differ from his, as a white, middle-class man. “I am now completely immune to criticism on the internet,” he declares. “If you don’t like it, write your own book.”
Whyte is curious: is there anything that the authors feel shouldn’t be written about in YA? “If it’s handled responsibly, that’s the main thing,” O’Neill says, adding that no one wants to write “a manual for self harm or an eating disorder”, and that even if they did, a publisher wouldn’t take it on. It’s also difficult to assess the maturity of young readers, which doesn’t always correlate with age. “I’m not going to put an age category on [my book],” she notes, “I just hope that whoever needs to get that book gets it into their hands.” Dawson is similarly not a fan of age-banding for books, and Hood notes that children are actually growing up with a lot of quite difficult and challenging experiences: so why not write about them?
The topic of the day is “truth and lies”, but the panel has a clear distaste for fiction which lies to its young readers. Their own work may not be autobiographical, and it may find itself addressing issues that are often difficult or challenging for both authors and readers, but each of these writers wants to write their stories as honestly – and as skilfully– as they can. YA fiction, as Dr Whyte has reminded us, has been around for a long time. In good hands like these, it will continue to endure.
Claire Hennessy is a YA author and creative writing facilitator. She is also co-editor of Banshee, a new literary journal.