Where to start with: Sarah Waters

If I’m going to keep this post in line with other Where to start with posts then I shouldn’t be recommending the book everyone has probably heard of, Tipping the Velvet. But love affairs in music halls is not a bad place to start.

Sarah Waters is sometimes summarised as writing “historical lesbian fiction” but whilst that is true, her books are so much more then that sweeping generalisation would have you believe.


The Paying Guests
brings us to 1922, when the aftermath of the war is starting to change people’s lives. Frances and her mother can no longer afford their house without taking in lodgers and when Lilian and Leonard Barber move in, Frances is captivated by the modern style and attitude Lilian introduces. The effect the paying guests have on Frances and her mother is told with Sarah Waters’ typical sensuous and rich language, deftly creating drama and suspense through her portrayal of flawed but utterly real characters.

 

When I first read Fingersmith I was describing it to everyone as “Dickensian lesbians”. This flippant remark wasn’t only because of the setting of the novel, but the themes of poverty and desperation. The manipulation of women by men is a current that runs throughout the many twists and turns of this brilliant novel. Sarah Waters chooses each word so carefully that you can’t help but feel the tension and barely disguised sensuality present in most chapters.

 

 

Check out all Sarah Waters’ books on her website

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

It’s hard to know what else you can possibly add to a book that already has all the glowing reviews in the world. There is a reason some books are hyped, and everyone says “you need to read this”, because sometimes it’s true.

What Belongs To You tells the story of an American teacher living in Bulgaria who first meets Mitko in a public bathroom, where he pays him for sex. Throughout the subsequent years Mitko’s continued involvement in his life gives us a view into a relationship that is hard to define.

This is an intimate story detailing every minute aspect of a mans life as he tries to navigate his way between the deep sensual attachment he has to Mitko, and the undercurrent of violence and anger always present. Theirs is a relationship of obsession, lust, love, and dependence.

Garth Greenwell’s writing is effortlessly exquisite, building beautiful sentences that call out to be re-read and re-read time and again.

I love books that detail the small connections between two people and What Belongs To You is one of the most honest and human portrayals of that intimacy that I have read in a long time.

What Belongs To You is on the longlist for the Green Carnation Prize and I bought my copy from Wordery

 

How to write YA Fiction

This week I attended an event hosted by Oxford Writing Circle featuring Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Melinda Salisbury, and Samantha Shannon. The event was titled “How to write YA fiction” but covered so many aspects of reading, writing, and publishing YA.

Before I start, a short disclaimer: Whilst I did furiously take as many extensive notes as I could nothing below is a direct quote, and I have sometimes shortened a longer point to address the overall idea of what was said for brevity. Any errors are my mistake and unintentional, please let me know if I’ve got anything incorrect.

Some highlights of the evening were Mel introducing herself with reference to her super cute brace-induced lisp; Mel expressing an interest in writing raunchy Mills & Boon Nana stories. There were things other than Mel being adorable though, of course.

I should start by saying a thank you to Blackwell’s Oxford for hosting, and Peter Meinertzhagen for hosting and asking the questions.

The panel started by bragging about all having been on panels with Alwyn Hamilton so I believe this is now the benchmark for success as an author. Have you spoken alongside Alwyn? Yes? Then you’ve made a successful career!

On a panel about YA writing you may have noticed that not everyone’s books are always categorised as YA. While Samantha’s books are published by the adult arm of Bloomsbury in the UK, in some countries they are classified as YA and often deal with YA themes (more on that in a bit). Kiran’s books are sometimes classified as Middle Grade (MG) or YA, and Mel’s books are strictly YA.

Peter started by asking all three about how they got into writing YA/Children’s, and if it was deliberate.

Kiran didn’t know she wanted to/was writing a children’s book from the start. As part of her masters in creative writing she started off writing poetry, but also had to write some prose and it was in this that she first wrote the story of a young girl. This character stuck with her and she kept on writing. It was whilst doing this that realised perhaps she was writing a children’s book (or a YA/Childrens cross-over). Her agent was the one who suggest a shift toward MG but Kiran just wrote what she wanted to, without a strict adherence to what one market wants.

Samantha isn’t technically a YA author but everyone in YA is happy to steal her and claim her as one of their own. The main character of The Bone Season books, Paige, is 19 and this is an awkward age for YA (a little too old) but also awkward for adult books (a little too young). In YA a story is oftentimes about a protagonist discovering what makes them different, finding their place in the world, and this is why The Bone Season books fit so well into YA.

Mel wrote YA on purpose and it’s her favourite kind of book to read because YA is the category that pushes forward the most. YA is the most exciting, diverse, innovative area of publishing. Adult publishing is so far behind, YA is the one pushing boundaries. YA is about the immediacy of life because that’s what being a teenager is like. I was struck by Mel’s obvious adoration of teenagers, especially teenage girls, and her respect for them.

Kiran said that the age of her protagonist in The Girl of Ink and Stars was changed by the publishers, from 12 to 13, as the publishers thought it was the most appropriate age for what the character goes through. In her new book, The Island at the End of Everything, the main character’s age was changed from 10 to 12, Kiran doesn’t have a problem with this. It is important you trust your publisher, and that you can talk to them and you know you can push against things – but they know what they’re doing so if you trust them, go with them.

Peter then asked how important the age of the protagonist is in YA.

Samantha talked about The Priory of the Orange Tree and how all the characters are different ages, the oldest being a 64 year old. She hopes it still appeals to lots of people as she’s never had problems relating to characters who were younger/older than her. When she started writing The Bone Season she made Paige the same age as her, 19, and thought it would be nice for them to grow up together. However, she’s since overtaken Paige because she underestimated how slow publishing moves.

Mel talked about how marginalised teens are and how important it is for them to see themselves reflected in YA. Mel hates it when adults who review YA books say the teen characters are making bad choices. YA needs to reflect teens and there is so little space for teens (especially girls). So often the things they’re interested in get devalued, it’s important for YA to validate them.

Peter noted that some claim YA is read mostly by the over 25’s, do YA authors have a responsibility to write what teens want to read, rather than adults?

Mel said that people over 25 didn’t have YA which is why they read it now. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is the book she wanted to read as a teen. Mel’s theory is that the first book you write is the book you needed as a teen.

Kiran‘s favourite book when she was 13 was I One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and this style and use of language informs the way she writes now.

Samantha said that adults connect with YA because at any age the issues are relevant. There are always debates on twitter about YA but it’s important not to forget the teen readers in all that.

Peter then asked the panel if they find it easy to get feedback from teens.

Mel said that Twitter is for old people, but she gets a lot of interaction from teens by using Instagram and Snapchat (but not Facebook).

Kiran does a lot of school visits which is great for immediate feedback. It’s hard to know how successful you are with children because they’re not on social media. So much marketing is the author self-promoting and social media is a big part of this.

Samantha gets a lot of feedback from reviews, although these are mostly done by adults. It’s a shame the Guardian books website shut down, because that often had content written by teens. Her books are in the limbo between YA and adult but she feels that she has more freedom with what she can write in an adult book. While some of the more adult content makes it better as a adult book, a lot of the themes are very YA.

Everyone then went on to discuss what the themes of YA are.

Kiran said that for The Island at the End of Everything she was asked to tone down certain aspects (of a sexual nature) which she is happy to do as long as it doesn’t change the heart of the book.

Mel and Samantha talked about how YA and Children’s books are often categorised together which is why sometimes it can be difficult to know what’s appropriate. Sex in YA is fine.

Kiran identified hope as a theme in children’s books, a book must have hope at the end. In YA this isn’t as necessary, hope can be turned down a notch.

Mel spoke passionately about fan fiction – it’s changed the rules. Teens seek out what they want to read – they want sex scenes. Mel is glad that the era of preachy YA books that are toned down has gone – it’s not what teens want. We owe teens some damn good fiction after this week!

Peter talked about a recent Daily Mail article (to sighs from the room) which said that YA books are too gloomy, and asked what the panel’s thoughts were on that.

After Kiran pointed out how dark Watership Down is, Samantha talked about how much light there is in YA, as well as the dark, but YA writers are pushing boundaries. Books are dark because they reflect the world, and the outlook for many is bleak at the moment. Sam quoted Neil Gaiman when he said that fantasy exists to show us that dragons exist and that they can be defeated.

Kiran said that being a teen has always been hard but YA is writing a way out of the darkness. There is kindness in YA, good doesn’t always prevail but it teaches teens to stay true to yourself and find your people in the darkness.

Mel said that hope is continuous, YA is full of it, just not packed in a friendly way that lies, it gives bites of hope instead.

Peter then started a discussion of the craft of writing and what makes YA different to adult fiction.

Samantha said that YA is slightly more plot driven than some literary fiction. When she was editing The Song Rising her usual editor was on maternity leave so she worked with a someone different who was a YA editor. It was a very different experience, with more cutting, the book was slimmed down so that it was more focused. She found it an exhausting process to write a fast-paced book and would be happy not to do it again.

Mel noted that life as a teen is more plot driven, adult life is more meandering, and that this is reflected in the differences between the types of books. Things happen quickly to teens, they live life at a faster pace, they’re asked to be adults so quickly. As an adult you get more room but teens are asked to make decisions quickly. There is an immediacy to being a teen that seeps into writing. There are more emotional milestones to tick off, as well as life milestones (exams, school, etc). Teens are asked to define themselves quickly.

Kiran pointed out how the first draft of The Girl of Ink and Stars was over 100,000 words long, but the final published version around 50k. There was lots of landscape description which was the first thing to go, it was originally in the third person now in first person. Kiran said it’s important not to get too hung up on differences between YA and adult or on writing to type, just write what you want to.

Peter then asked what could adult fiction writers learn from YA to which Mel immediately responded with “humility”.  She went on to say that some adult fiction talks down to you and there is a lot of peer pressure to be living a certain life that is presented in adult fiction (general and literary – not in genre). Kiran agreed and noted that in adult literary fiction there can be a tendency to lie to yourself about what you enjoy so that it says something about you. Some literary authors aren’t earning the attention they get, adult authors are sometimes told they’re great and we’re supposed to believe that without them having to work for it.

Mel then talked about how YA books are rarely seen as “important” or game-changing, but recent exceptions to this are The Hate U Give and Asking For It. Despite the great attention and praise these books have received, they would probably be getting a lot more attention if they weren’t YA. There was a general agreement from the whole panel with Samantha when she said that YA fantasy is doing so many important things that are being ignored, even within YA. The contemporary issue books are the ones given the most attention and praise.

Peter asked if it can sometimes be damaging for a book to be labelled YA? Does it change who reads it and how seriously it’s taken?

The whole panel agreed that YA is taken less seriously. Mel said it becomes seen as frivolous precisely because teen girls like it. But is there a better way of marketing it? Mel doesn’t think so. She said that publishers are passionate about YA and getting it out there, they think it matters.

Kiran agreed, YA is not institutionally supported, children’s authors are not taken seriously, “commercial” is a dirty word. YA and Children’s books are the ones that are making the money but they are not getting the credit they deserve.

Samantha said that how we talk about YA needs to change. In interviews or at events she is never asked questions that adult/literary authors get asked such as “tell us about your character, what are their motivations”. Instead, YA is talked about in simplistic ways – if YA was talked about and reviewed as adult then things would change.

The event finished with Peter asking everyone on the panel what one piece of advice they would give about writing.

Kiran: Write the book you need to write, leave the marketing to someone else. Don’t worry, good writing will out. Focus on the writing and leave everything else to someone else.

Samantha: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Marketing of books is category driven but leave that for someone else to worry about. Keep breaking boundaries. If what you’re writing is a mix of genres that’s fine – it’s okay to write weird!

Mel: Finish your book! You can’t be a writer if you don’t finish. Don’t start planning your career without a finished draft. First drafts are shit, they’re rubbish, they make no sense. Once your first draft is finished you can work on it. Don’t compare your first draft to a published work, there is no comparison. Publishing is what happens when a bunch of experts come in and tell you how to make it possible, they make it good.

Thanks for reading this excessively long post. I know many people were unable to make it so I wanted to cover as much as possible of what was said without interjecting my own thoughts.

This was a fantastic event and it was inspiring to hear three authors I admire so much talking so passionately about the respect we owe to teenagers. Thanks to Oxford Writing Circle for organising and to Kiran, Melinda, and Samantha for such a great evening.

 

 

 

 

How to talk about a plague

It was 1987 and my mum told me a story about her day at work. She’s a nurse and that day she was working in A&E, attending to patients waiting to go up to a ward. She tells me how she started her shift being told by another nurse “that patient has been asking for water, I’m not taking it to him, you do it.” Baffled, she asked why that nurse, and others, were refusing to take water to a patient. “He’s got AIDS”, my mum was told, as if this was answer enough for why a nurse would refuse to go near a patient. Mum thought, ‘well, I have no idea what that is, but I’m a nurse, so I’m going to help a patient’. She spent all night trying to get hold of the patients partner, a married man who was unaware his partner was possibly hours away from death.

I was 7 years old when my mum told me this story. It’s hard to imagine, for anyone who was born after the first cases of HIV were diagnosed, what it was like at the start. The lack of information on what this new disease was, the lies and rumours about how it was spread (even after it was known how, the denials that it was anything other than a gay disease).

There are some great novels and works of non-fiction that can educate and enrich your understanding of what life was like when this disease began to destroy lives, so I’m going to recommend a few you may want to start with.

If you want to learn more about just how horrific a time it was for those infected and their family and friends, you should start with How to Survive a Plague by David France. This book (and there is a documentary of the same name available) tells the story of a group of activists whose tireless campaigning changed forever the availability of drugs to combat HIV.

 

 

Paul Monette’s memoir Borrowed Time (which I reviewed a few years ago) is a devastating first-hand account of AIDS. Published in 1998 it is an intimate account of love and loss which has haunted me since the day I first read it.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt in a novel which brings HIV into the lives of young people through the eyes of a 14 year old who loses her beloved uncle to the disease. She has to confront prejudice and secrets caused by both HIV and homophobia within her family and her community.

The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín is a novel which doesn’t focus on AIDS as a central theme, but where the disease seeps its way into every aspect of the character’s life. Set in Argentina in the 1980s it tells the story of Richard, his family struggles, and relationship difficulties, set against a backdrop of political turmoil.

I’ve recommended the books above because these are the ones that I’ve read, but there are many more that explore the early days of AIDS and its effect on individuals, communities, and the world. Let me know your recommendations of any you’ve read. I really want to read some contemporary novels that deal with HIV so any recommendations are welcome.

Where to start with…Jeanette Winterson

I first became familiar with Jeanette Winterson due to the dramatisation of her first novel, Orange Are Not The Only Fruit, which aired on the BBC in 1990. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a lesbian growing up in a religious community in England and explores family relationships, sexuality, and religion.

I finally read the book as part of my A’Level English course and loved Winterson’s storytelling so much I tried to read everything she’d written. This was easy given, at that point, she’d only published six novels. Since I first started reading her work, she has published (if I’ve counted correctly) 16 novels, many collections of short stories, screenplays, and a memoir.

If you haven’t read Oranges I’d recommend you start with that, but following on one of my early favourites is Written on the Body.

Written on the Body is a very difficult novel to define. An intimate portrayal of lust and love, the gender of the main character remains undefined throughout, forcing you to read the book not as a response of one gender to another, but as desire for a physical body.

 

 

For a completely different story, try Tanglewreck – a children’s fantasy time-travelling tale. A sci-fi Dickensian exploration of quantum physics that is full of adventure and humour.

Winterson has also contributed to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of re-tellings which have been released since 2015. I’ve not found the time to read The Gap of Time, her re-telling of The Winter’s Tale, but the story sounds fascinating so I’d recommend giving that a try.

 

 

 

 

History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

25014114History Is All You Left me is a story that talks about first love, grief, and mental health, in a story so beautifully written it had me crying from the first page until the last.

Written in chapters that alternate between the past and the present, the reader can fall in love with the relationship between Griffin and Theo as they themselves fall into each other, while in the very next chapter we’re brought crashing back down to earth with the devastating grief of the present day.

The portrayal of the grieving process and the different ways in which people deal with death was the most moving part of the story for me. I could identify with Griffin every step of his journey, and felt his devastation, anger, confusion, and hope that love was still alive in some way.

One of the first things that stood out for me was the realistic portrayal of OCD and how it affects every part of someone’s life. It is rare to read about OCD in fiction, nevermind in such a carefully and sensitively handled way.

Another thing I loved was the realistic presentation of sex. To not present it as an unusual thing that two young boys would want to have sex (not only with each other, but with other partners as well) was fantastic to read. The relationships and sex lives of the characters were so well crafted that the characters jumped off the page and became very real and very complicated people as a result.

 

George by Alex Gino

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George and her class have been reading Charlotte’s Web and when the teachers decide they should perform it as a play, George knows that she wants to play the part of Charlotte. The story follows George’s attempts to convince her teacher that she should be allowed to play Charlotte, even though everyone thinks she’s a boy. We also go on the journey George takes in telling her best friend, mom and brother the thing that seems obvious to her, but not to them. That she’s not a boy.

There is a line that made me stop, take a moment to breath, and realise why this is a perfect book for adults as well as children to read. When George says that trying to be a boy is really hard. The representation of what it is like to be trans is the best I have ever read and I think it was conveyed in a way that will make sense to younger readers.

I’ve read some interesting reviews of George online, and once you get past the blatant transphobic ones, there seems to be a lot of criticism that I think needs addressing. One strand of complaint is that the constant gendered language used towards George is excessive. That people don’t use phrases or words all the time that mention to children what gender they are. This is, of course, blatantly untrue and what Alex Gino is doing in this story is pointing out how often this does happen, and how this makes someone like George feel when she is constantly reminded how other people see her.

Another criticism I read frequently is how the story is too simplistic. Yes, the plot is quite simple but the subtle nuance that Alex Gino draws through it, and the way in which they demonstrate the realities of life for a transgender child, adds a depth that is subtle but profound.

The most depressing criticism I have read, other than the obvious ones that are just fuelled by hate, are those expressing that children shouldn’t read this book, that they wouldn’t understand it, and that they would be confused by the content. It depresses me that adults don’t give children more credit. I think you’d be surprised by what they do understand and by the depths of their empathy for each other. This is absolutely a book children should read and every school library should have a copy or two.

Whilst George’s experience of talking to people about being a girl is one of optimism and happiness in the end, this is not the typical situation for many trans children and adults. That is why this book is so important. It is vital to present the idea that yes, many trans children do have happy outcomes when they speak about their identity, and many adults deal well and are understanding. There can be a happy ending, and I’m so glad this book exists to prove that.

 

Superior by Jessica Lack

My book of the week has to be Superior by Jessica Lack. Based on the blurb alone I wanted to devour it immediately: A superhero’s intern falls in love with a supervillain’s apprentice in this star-crossed LGBT YA story. I mean, how can you not want to read that?

Superior is a novella with heart and humour. It’s goofy and gay and brilliantly conveys a detailed world where superheroes run hotlines and people call them to help rescue their cats.

I’m recommending this because Jessica Lack is superb, not only at realistic world building, but at developing characters with life and depth in only a few pages.

Get your copy now 

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

On the one hand this book is easy to explain, it’s about two boys, kissing. But then again, it is so much more than you would imagine and hope for.  Craig and Harry are trying to set a new world record the longest ever kiss and the story tells us of their attempt. But we don’t just hear from Craig and Harry, there are four stories interwoven into the novel, all related to boys coming to terms with coming out and the reactions of the people around them. The overall narrator is the voice of an older generation of gay men who have lost their lives to AIDS. It is these narrators that really start to pull the emotional punches as they lament the glorious possibilities the lives of young men have now, possibilities that were so cruelly denied to them.

Two Boys Kissing is a deeply moving and passionate novel that is absolutely beautiful.

You Know Me Well by David Levithan & Nina LaCour

When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other — and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.

Told in alternating view points, You Know Me Well, follows the story of Kate and Mark who become best friends after one moment of bonding in a gay bar. I was skeptical at first that they could become such good friends so quickly, but I remembered the intensity of feeling when I was the same age as the characters, and it made more sense. Here are two people desperately searching for an identity and trying to find their place in the world, which is why they get so quickly attached to someone else who sees able to help them on this journey.

While the characters attempt to navigate the tricky world of relationships, it is their friendships that sit centre stage. This novel explores a number of themes that are rarely touched upon in YA fiction. As well as exploring friendship it, more importantly, shows LGBTQ+ young people comfortable with their sexuality and receiving support from the people around them. We need more novels that explore LGBTQ+ friendships and that explore the importance of having friends (more important than relationships)

This book left me with such a good feeling almost entirely because of the background setting of Pride. I felt so uplifted by the portrayal of celebratory times and optimism. While I preferred Mark’s story, and found it difficult at times to connect with Kate, both parts of the book are written wonderfully and are so engaging I read this in one sitting.

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