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Jenny Downham's debut novel Before I Die, became a huge hit due its powerful story about a 16 year old girl's will to live inside a body dying of cancer. Here, Jenny shares with gr some insights into her second novel, You Against Me which promises to be a fantastic read.
Is there anything readers should be aware of before they begin the novel?
You Against Me is a love story, but the love is fought for under very difficult circumstances. It’s also about truth, about looking at someone you know really well and wondering if you know them at all.
Beyond that, I’m reluctant to tell readers why the novel may or may not appeal to them, or warn them that the story may be unsuitable because of their age or life experiences. I think readers take their clues from the book itself – the jacket, the quotes, perhaps a few lines of text. Anyone who is drawn to it will hopefully find something of value in it.
Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
I actually knew very little when I started writing. I had a few ideas, but they were abstract, theoretical, as if I knew the tone of the piece, but nothing else.
I always use free writing techniques when I start a new project. This is a bit like improvising in theatre – throwing words down and not planning anything in advance. Most of it goes in the bin, but the strongest themes and voices keep returning.
After months of this, I began to know more. I was haunted by a small seaside town, by a girl called Karyn who alleged something terrible had happened to her and by her brother, Mikey who was out for revenge.
Readers have enjoyed the characters and story equally. When writing it, was your focus more on one than the other?
Pinter once said that the writer’s job is to ‘arrange and listen,’ as if following clues. He believed that characters arrive at their destination through their own impulses, rather than being manipulated to suit a pre-ordained plot, and I agree.
There’s a delicate balance however, between allowing characters their own momentum and getting down to the business of structuring. When writing You Against Me, I often felt as if I was in a room with a bunch of unruly teenagers, each with their own agenda. When should I insist that I knew best? When should I let them dictate the journey? Sometimes the way forward was obvious, but there were many days when the path was murky and unknown. I re-wrote some chapters so many times I lost count.
Was writing such an emotionally taut novel difficult?
I often felt overwhelmed with responsibility. I didn’t want any girl or young woman to pick up my book and think after reading it that they shouldn't bother reporting an assault, and yet I wanted the novel to accurately reflect the very difficult realities of prosecuting a case such as this.
Is there a message that you have aimed to share with readers through You Against Me?
Story tellers should give other world’s, other lives, so that reader’s can empathise, can think ‘what would I do if that were me?’ I was attempting to write a good story, one that moved readers emotionally, but also made them think.
I don’t want my job as a writer to be about giving moral guidance to the reader. Teens don’t want to read about things adults think are good for them, or about how they ought to behave. It’s the story - with all its complexities, with the emotional truths it uncovers, the experiences beyond the everyday that it gives, that will be the real reason why young people read. I hope it’s a story that inspires discussion. I hope it raises lots of questions.
What was the greatest challenge in writing this novel?
The research. After that, it was owning the material – feeling as if I had the ‘right’ to tell this story. Also, I wanted every characters’ actions to be motivated, so that readers would be able to put themselves in anyone’s shoes and find something to relate to. I didn’t want any character to be wholly bad or impossible to understand. I wanted the readers’ loyalties to shift. That was very challenging.
Why did you choose to base this novel around teenagers – why not adults?
I want to write for and about teenagers because they are on the cusp of adulthood and that interests me. A teen protagonist can do almost everything an adult can, but because they are boundaried by adult rules and expectations, they have to be far more creative to get what they want. It’s much more exciting to tell a story when there are lots of obstacles in the way.
The distinctions between children’s literature, YA literature and adult literature are more flexible and loosely defined then ever before. Despite the plethora of other entertainment available to teens, they read in huge numbers and are becoming increasingly sophisticated. There was never such an exciting time to be a writer for the YA market.
What kind of research or preparation did you have to do for this novel?
I interviewed criminal lawyers, social workers, family support workers and police officers. I watched court cases and read lots of books.
The research really grounded the novel, but it slowed me down a lot too. All the people I needed to talk to were busy professionals, some of whom charge a fortune for ten minutes of their time and I was asking if they would talk to me for hours for free.
Your previous novel dealt with loss and courage – were these themes on your mind while writing You Against Me?
I don’t really think in terms of ‘themes,’ I’m more interested in characters and what stories they have to tell.
I do seem to have a tendency to look for the extraordinary in the everyday and vice versa. In Before I Die, the protagonist is dying, but the novel is actually an examination of what it means to be alive. In You Against Me, there has been an allegation of sexual assault, but at the book’s heart is a love story.
Will there be a novel about Mikey and or Ellie in the future?
I can’t imagine it at the moment, not only because I’ve started a new book and they don’t seem to be there, but also because I really like the idea of readers filling in the gaps for themselves – imagining what happened before the book started and what might happen after the closing pages.
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