Pushing the boundaries of YA fiction: Louise O’Neill on writing Only Ever Yours

‘Reading my diary I worried I hadn’t made it dark enough to capture the true horrors of being a teenage girl’

Louise O’Neill with the cover of the new adult edition of Only Ever Yours.

Louise O’Neill with the cover of the new adult edition of Only Ever Yours.

 

When I began writing Only Ever Yours in March 2012, I didn’t realise that I was writing a novel for young adults. I knew that the story was about a 16-year-old girl who was in her final year at school but I tried not to give too much thought to the age of the eventual reader, if any. I just wanted to tell the story in the way that I felt it needed to be told without censoring myself.

It was only when I began submitting the manuscript to literary agencies and hearing their feedback that it occured to me that the book might be marketed as YA (young adult). There was such a strong reaction at this stage with multiple offers from competing agents, I was sure that the book would be snapped up immediately by a publisher. The book would sell at auction, I told myself, I would get a six figure deal, I would be able to (finally!) move out of my parent’s home and support myself.

It was not to prove so easy. There was trepidation amongst editors, a sense that this book was different, that it was difficult for them to categorise. It was too dark, the ending was too bleak. More than one editor expressed their concern that a book for this age category could not be so distressing. It felt quite condescending in a way. It was as if they assumed that all teenagers enjoyed lives free from sadness or worry or doubt, that teenagers would be unable to cope with a book that had slightly insidious undertones.

The funny thing was that I had read some of my own teenage diaries while I was writing Only Ever Yours to get into the mindset of an adolescent girl, and some of the entries were heartbreaking. Sixteen-year-old me felt alone and lost and unsure of herself, she felt that no one understood her. She didn’t feel seen for who she was, so she felt the need to wear a social mask at all times. After reading my diary I was worried that maybe I hadn’t made my book dark enough to capture the true horrors of being a teenage girl.

I was very lucky when I met my editor at Quercus, Niamh Mulvey, because she instinctively understood what I was trying to achieve with this book. She promised that she would protect me on an editorial basis, that she would never ask me to censor my work. I didn’t know enough about the publishing industry at that time to recognise how brave she was to allow me to present Only Ever Yours in the shape that I wanted to do so.

She has been even braver with my second novel, Asking For It, (published September 3rd) which has been described as a harrowing and brutal exploration of rape culture and victim blaming. I feel very lucky that Quercus have understood that my novels have never sit comfortably in either the YA market or the adult market, that in many ways they have uneasily straddled both.

Of course, adults reading YA or children’s books is not a new phenomenon. From Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, publishers are always keen to exploit what they see as the “crossover appeal”. I can understand why many adults are drawn to fiction that deals with adolescence. For many of us, this is a time that still feels very vivid. It is a time of so many firsts; your first kiss, your first crush, the first time you have sex, the first time you have your heart broken or break someone’s heart in return. Those memories stay with you for the rest of your life, in some ways they shape the adult that you become. Reading YA fiction can be a way of working through some of those memories, painful or joyful. It can be a cathartic experience for both the reader and the writer.

Of course, despite the increasing popularity of YA fiction, many authors will know that you are still frequently met with condescension. “Oh, you write for children, do you?” I have been asked. “Have you ever thought about writing real books?” This attitude lessened as Only Ever Yours began to win awards and was reviewed favourably in serious newspapers and magazines but the snobbery still exists. People who have never read any modern YA literature are unaware of how diverse it is, of how beautifully written much of it is, of how high the standard has become for all of us working within this market.

Perhaps it was as a result of this that Quercus has decided to republish Only Ever Yours as an adult edition. They have repackaged the book with a new cover in the hopes that as an adult book it will receive more space in high street book shops, and that it will be reviewed more widely. They believe the book has an important message for women and for men of all ages and are determined to help with the dissemination of that message.

I am so grateful to Quercus for the support they have shown Only Ever Yours, for their unwavering support for this book. I am very lucky to have a publisher which has allowed me to take creative risks and push the boundaries of what is considered appropriate for YA fiction.

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