Be inspired: Patrick Ness, Malorie Blackman, James Dawson & Catherine Johnson talk all things YA

Four top YA authors discuss writing, reading and why YA in an inspirational talk at Waterstone’s to celebrate the launch of Love Hurts.

Love Hurts

On 12 February, two days before Valentine’s Day, I headed over to Waterstones Piccadilly excited to listen to a talk with four amazing authors who each contributed to the seasonally appropriate Love Hurts, a collection of YA short stories all about love.

The authors speaking were Patrick Ness (oh, how I love him), Malorie Blackman, James Dawson and Catherine Johnson, and each had plenty of advice for writers and for readers, and lots of wisdom to share, so prepare to feel inspired.

Writing relationships

Patrick spoke about how he went about writing the relationship between Todd and Viola, the main characters in the amazing Chaos Walking trilogy (you can read my review of The Knife of Letting Go, the first in the series, here). “I wanted to write the type of teenagers that I knew, rather than the type that I saw,” he said. “Why can’t they both be brave? Why can’t they both bee foolish? Why can’t they both make mistakes? Why can’t they both make incredibly good decisions?

“I wanted them to fall in real love. I wanted it to really mean something. They really were against the odds – different places, different backgrounds, different education levels, they’re physically separated at points in the books. So I thought, when it comes, when it finally comes, and when you’re a teenager in love it feels like your entire world has shifted, it’s so fantastic and so painful and so brilliant and so awful and so great. I wanted to take those feelings and treat them really seriously.”

And already the Love Hurts event was amazing, because, as I may have mentioned before, Patrick Ness is a genius.


The incredible Malorie Blackman then spoke about the characters in her popular Noughts and Crosses series, which I still haven’t read yet but absolutely want to now. “I wanted to describe true friendship that developed into true love,” she said. “It’s love against the odds. It had to feel real, and I wanted people to read it and really care about those characters.”

“When you’re still a teenager and you’re still trying to figure out who you are and where you belong, and what do you want to do and what do you want to be,” said Malorie. “YA literature needs to reflect that in a way. And it’s not just about love affairs, because it’s about your relationships with your friends or your family, and there’s love involved in all of those – or not as the case may be. And that’s where you get the stories coming from.”

With each book I’ve grown up a bit,” said James Dawson. “With Hollow Pike, with Liz and Danny that was very much how I wished I could have been in love. I don’t know how true Liz and Danny are. But by Alisha and Ryan in Cruel Summer, which is very dysfunctional, that felt a lot more like my life. By the time I got to my first real love story, I had kind of given up because I don’t know anything about love. So it’s about three teenagers, they’re just crushing into each other. I don’t understand it well enough to say what’s real and what’s not real.”

“If you look at This Book is Gay, there is a lot of my past relationships in there because I could only write about my relationships,” James continued. “The book that I’ve just started writing I’ve dedicated to all the boys that matters, but more all the ones that didn’t, because you can learn as much from things going wrong as you can from them going right. I don’t think I could have written any of my books when I was a teenager because I’d seen it on TV and I’d read it in books but I hadn’t lived it.”

To that, Patrick said: “James said he wouldn’t have been able to write those books as a teenager, but you would have written something else, and that’s just as valid a declaration of how you see the world. It’s just a different book, because you’re going to be a different person.”

Malorie agrees, adding that she feels like she’s grown and developed with each book she’s written. “I think anyone who says they know all the answers is lying, because for me it’s about learning as my characters learn,” she said. “When I wrote Boys Don’t Cry, for example, I wanted that to be about a boy who suddenly finds himself as a dad, but I also wanted it to be his brother’s story, Adam, who is gay and he is going out with someone who makes him keep it a secret. It’s an abusive relationship.”

Malorie explained that she wanted to write Adam’s story in Boys Don’t Cry because she was deeply affected by the awful case of Ian Baynham, who lived nearby to Malorie. He was killed by a group of teenagers for being gay. He’s been minding his own business with his partner when the teenagers attacked him in Trafalgar Square after he confronted them for shouting homophobic insults at them. He died 18 days later in hospital.

Malorie went on to reveal that she only reads her books once through when they’re published, and she’ll never read them all the way through again. “I just sit there thinking, I should have changed this, I should have changed that, oh how could I write that,” she said. “But I hope that, with all the things I think are wrong from the previous books, I’ll get better in the next one.”

“You learn so much about everything you write,” agreed Catherine Johnson.

Hope in YA

Then came a debate about whether there needs to be hope in YA literature, to which Patrick Ness first answered a simple “No.”

“When you write for teenagers, there’s always this fight between should be and is,” Patrick said. “Do I write the world as it should be, or do I write the world as it is? You’re constantly juggling how much you want to write of each.”

“The David Levithan books are very good should be books. They’re totally this is how the world should be. But I tend to prefer erring on the side of is, because I wouldn’t want anybody to feel alone when they read my book.”

“In More Than This, I decided that Seth being gay would be no big deal. Nobody would mention it as a big deal, there would be no discussion of it as a big deal, and that the relationship he was in anybody could relate to because those feelings of intensity, of having someone that’s just yours, and sharing them with no one else, and that’s the problem he faces. It’s not that people find out, it’s that he discovers that he doesn’t have him all to himself. It is going to be hard, but there can be a wonderful thing out of it.”

“In real life, there is always hope,” argued James Dawson.

“I always believe there’s hope,” agreed Malorie. “I don’t believe in the message: Life is shit in then you die. Hang in there, and even in your worst moments know that things can get better. Even in Noughts and Crosses, it didn’t have a happy ever after ending [James: “’ll say!”], but it had a hopefully ever after ending, because our hope is in the next generation.”

“We’re all acting like I don’t believe in hope,” Patrick went on to add. “Hope is a broad definition. There are a lot of arguments about The Bunker Diaries by Kevin Brooks, the bleakness of it. I think people know what a book is, they know a story is a story, but I also think that hope can sometimes be somebody recognising how painful it feels, and the identification that there is a writer out there who can understand and allegorically represent how you feel, despite the bleakness of the ending. I think that’s hope, it says you’re not alone, and you’re not alone is the most hopeful sentence there is.”

“All you have to do is read what teenagers write. I’ve judged teenage writing competitions, and they’re waaay darker than anything you’d ever be allowed to publish. I think teenagers know what a story is, and recognition of how hard it is to continue is also hope.”

Rules in literature: Is there anything you can’t write about in YA?

“I don’t think there should be rules for authors, ever,” said James.

You can put anything in a YA book and get away with it as long as it’s true,” Patrick added.

“The danger is that children, as in junior’s school children, do like to read up,” said Malorie. “So my books for teens do say not suitable for younger readers. But then I’ve had 10 and 11 year olds saying “I’ve read your book,” and I’m like “Oh my god!”

“It depends on the emotional maturity of the child,” she continued. “A good friend of mine whose daughter wanted to read them told her: “You’re too young you can read them when you’re 13.” But she snuck them out of the school library and read them and then told her two years later. And she said, “well actually, when I got to the yucky bits I just skipped over them”. That’s exactly why, you take the bits that mean something to you.”

Kids are incredible self-censors,” Patrick agreed. “There’s something really exciting about contraband reading. You know when you’re slightly too young for something. I had a nine year old who was one of the winners of a writing competition, and he’d read Chaos Walking but I thought he was too young. But he said: “Is the reason you made it so that men had noise but women didn’t because men are straight forward and women are shifty?” I said, “oh you need to talk to your mum”.”

On the other hand, Patrick thinks that there needs to be some barriers in literature in general. “If there weren’t barriers, we’d all be writing these fantastically immoral books about why incest is great,” he said. “I think there is no subject that can’t be covered, it’s all in how you cover it. But I’m a moral person, and the stories that I care about are not going to be about why suicide is a good option, because I just do not believe that. That kind of no-go area exists. I think it exists because who wants to read that?”

On writing a race, gender or sexuality that’s not your own

Then came the question about whether or not authors should write characters that they can’t immediately relate to, whether it’s because they come from a different background, religion, race, gender or sexuality, for example.

There’s always going to be a place for authentic voices,” said James. “I think people need to employ more people from minority backgrounds, and they need to publish more authors from minority backgrounds. But I would be so sad if I could only write me, a white gay man, for the rest of my life. But I haven’t done. My first book was about a white girl and a mixed race girl. People don’t ask J K Rowling how she did a Dementor.”

“That’s the joy of writing a book,” added Catherine. “We want to see into other people’s lives, we want to experience lives that aren’t our own.”

“If you are writing about a culture that’s not your own, it’s important for the author to get their facts straight and do their research,” Malorie said. “But that said I think that we have imaginations for a reason, and I think imagination is a muscle – the more you use them the stronger they get. I would say I can write from the point of view of anybody I want to, and as long as I get it right and the voice is authentic then I’m not going to let anyone say to me you shouldn’t be writing that. If I want to write a story from the point of view of a goldfish then I will, and I won’t let anyone say otherwise.”

“If people say you can’t write that I say watch me,” added Patrick.

The fear of sharing

I found it particularly inspiring to hear about the authors’ insecurities when it came to writing and sharing their work.

“I kept all of my early writing totally secret,” said Patrick. “It became a safe place for that reason.”

“That’s the thing about fanfiction sites,” said Malorie. “It’s a way for you to get your writing out there and get feedback. I started going to a writer’s group, but it took me two terms before I could read my stuff out. We were told to bring stuff in every week. And I did, I’d do all of the assignments and bring all my work in and she’d go round the class and say could you read yours. She’d get to me and I’d say not this week.”

“She put up with me for two terms and by the end of the two terms she said, “Malorie, do you want to be a writer?” And I said, “More than anything in the world.” And she said, “Well you have to shit or get off the pot love.” It was mortifying because everyone laughed, but it was the best piece of advice I’d ever received.”

“It’s hard because you’re putting a bit of yourself out there for people to critique, but if you want to do it do it anyway. You have to do it,” Malorie concluded.

On why YA exists

When the talk was opened up for questions from the audience, one lady asked why there needed to be a YA category at all, to which I think I let out a little gasp. No YA!? Why would you even think such a thing?

“I absolutely think there needs to be YA because it’s ownership, something that’s yours, is really important,” said Patrick (YAY PATRICK). “It doesn’t matter that I don’t like Twilight. Twilight is just not for me. And the fact that so many adults hate Twilight – for very good reason – only makes it more popular among young people.”

“I get asked all the time what’s the difference between YA and adult writing, and the only theory I have about that is I think YA fiction I think tends to be about finding your boundaries and pushing them, and adult fiction tends to be about already knowing your boundaries and feeling their limitations.”

Blimey. How amazing is he? And all three of the other authors at the talk too. What do you think of the authors’ advice and opinions? Anything you agree or disagree with? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.


1 Comment

  1. kendraleighton
    13th March 2015 / 7:40 pm

    Sounds like it was a great event! Great post; thanks for transcribing so much of the panel – fascinating stuff.

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