JW Hicks talks to Susie Day, author of The Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones.
Did you always mean to write for young people?
Since I was seven. Then I forgot all about it. It wasn’t until Harry Potter hit (and sent me back to reread lots of beloved books) that I remembered, and binned all my overwrought undergraduate Works Of Fine Literature in favour of much more important stuff.
Which are the unforgettable books you read as a child?
The Twits by Roald Dahl, because it was the first book I ever chose for myself from a bookshop. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, because it was the first book I didn’t finish; being ‘a good reader’ was important to my self-perception, and it was a big step to accept that I could choose not to slog through something I didn’t like. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, because I refused to read it for years (urgh, ballet, how girly) and then discovered Petrova felt exactly the same.
I must confess that the final pages of Twice-Lived Summer made my eyes prickle. How were you affected when you wrote them?
Sorry! (Well. A bit.) It was a hard book to write, for a number of reasons. I actually wrote 50,000 words of a different take on the ‘living one year twice’ idea before realising it didn’t work, and starting over. Hooray for understanding editors. And during that time someone I worked and lived with died unexpectedly, leaving young children, which made me shrink away from following through with the darker side of the story. It felt both inappropriate and exhausting to make fiction about tragedy in that environment. But that’s life, I think. It rolls on regardless. Books need to acknowledge that too.
Are your stories tightly structured, or loosely formed, developing as the work progresses?
I’m not a planner, alas. I’ve tried! But if I write a beautiful chapter plan, I deviate from it so much by chapter 2 that it’s wasted work. Before I start a new book I need a sense of the shape and size of it, of character, a few pivotal scenes, and to know the ending (what it will mean or feel, if not clear detail). It makes editing harder and longer, but it seems to be what suits me.
Bluebell’s book is all Wales, isn’t it? How strongly does growing up in Wales influence your writing?
I grew up with the sea at the end of my road (murky pebbly Penarth beach from the top of a cliff, mind, so don’t get too misty-eyed). Going down Barry Island as a kid was my best thing ever. It wasn’t till I watched Gavin & Stacey in England, with English people, that I really clocked that there was stuff for me so distinct and familiar there that they found quirky and alien.
I have a complex relationship with my own Welshness - I’ve lost all my lovely SWelsh vowels (not on purpose, just osmosis from the voices around me), and being from Penarth in the first place doesn’t endear you to some - but I am Welsh. I will always be that person correcting friends who say ‘England’ to mean ‘the UK’. When I was young, I always found it frustrating that children’s books always seemed to be set in London; if there was ever something in Wales it was fantasy, drawing on some legend. Writing Bluebell let me nudge against that, and also draw on my own teenage memories of seaside towns, massive seagulls, funfairs, chips and hope.
Your writing style is so very readable, what’s the secret of its appeal to young readers, and how important is it that you have disabled and LGBT characters in your stories?
Thank you! Readability isn’t something I consciously think about - I’m just trying to tell the story that fits these characters - but I suppose I try to fuse the memory of what I loved in books as a kid with the children I know and work with now. I think that fusion is probably also what motivates me to make my work inclusive. I grew up on classics, wonderful books, Narnia and Swamazons and Malory Towers and I still love and recommend those stories - but they don’t reflect the world I live in, and not only because talking lions don’t exist here. Representation matters. To all of us.
Some authors’ work comes over as patronising, does working with teenagers save you from this heinous crime? If not what does? And have you any tips on how not to talk down to your readers?
Sometimes you wind up talking down to your audience in ways you never intended. My first novel for young adults, Big Woo, was about social media and internet relationships, as well as being a funny story of ordinary mortifying teenage shenanigans. I set out to write something even-handed about online life, that acknowledged that we might need to be mindful about what we share while emphasising the vast joy and value that friendships formed by keystrokes can have. Looking back, I didn’t get the balance right. The book gets used in US schools as a scary warning: ‘if you aren’t careful online, look what can happen.’ I can’t think of anything I’d find more patronising as a young adult.
I think starting from a position of ‘I’m trying to figure this Life thing out too’ not ‘I’m old, I’ve done this, I have all the answers’ is probably a good beginning. I work in a boarding school with teenagers (boys aged 16-19), and the best conversations I have with them are the ones where I acknowledge at the start that I don’t have an instant fix or a magic remedy to whatever’s up; that my job is to listen to them. It’s got to be a team effort. Reading should probably feel the same.
Your novel has a cast of fabulous characters, Bluebell’s unflappable, not easily embarrassed parents, her wonderfully drawn sister Tigerlily, and her motley collection of friends. Do these characters come to you fully formed, or do they grow as you write?
Blue, Tiger, and her mum and dad were set in stone pretty quickly; I usually begin with characters and build from there. I knew I wanted a nervy girl with a spectacular big sister (I’m the youngest of four so I know what that’s like x3). I knew I wanted them to stay in a caravan park a little bit like the one at St Mary’s Well Bay in Sully. Then I saw a rockabilly band that had a splendid woman drummer, and the family set-up was sorted. The friends were a mix of people my big sister hung out with when she was a teenager, and people I imagined I’d hope to be mates with if I were Blue, starting over in a new town and trying to redefine myself.
Read JW Hicks's review of The Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones here.