If you know anything about children's publishing, you'll know of Anne Cassidy. She's an established YA writer of gritty, tense novels. She doesn't shy away from difficult subjects and her most famous novel - 'Looking For JJ' - deals with the topic of child murder. Her writing is lean and sparse and a masterclass in the 'less is more' approach. I'd advise any aspiring writer to read Anne's books for a true lesson in the discipline and craft that allows talent to shine. There's no showing off in Anne's books, and they speak all the more powerfully for that.
Anne is also one of three authors who set up the Scattered Author Society. I have been a member for a year and now can't imagine a writing world without this group of supportive children's writers. We may not all have met, but we brainstorm book titles, share details of our professional lives, support and encourage, meet up before publishers' parties and attend retreats. Not bad for an organisation that is run on a completely voluntary basis. Oh, and we also have a rather brilliant collective blog - An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. This blog is required reading for all children's authors and anyone interested in the world of children's books. It also allows enthusiastic blog readers such as myself to explore a whole world of further blogs from individual writers.
Anne's latest book, 'Guilt Trip', is about a group of teenagers who rescue a boy from suicide, only to kill him themselves. Like all of Anne's books, it's a slim volume that keeps you tightly in its grip because of the superb plotting, authentic teenage voice and ooh... Those twists. Anne very kindly agreed to answer some of my questions and I was fascinated to hear about her writing approach and thoughts on YA fiction. I hope you enjoy the conversation:
Your depictions of adolescence prove that the devil really is in the detail. The teen relationships in 'Guilt Trip' brought so many memories flooding back for me. The subtle dance between who is going out with who, the etiquette of teen drinking, even a backpack's ties dragging across the floor as someone walks. How do you think your way back into a young adult's mind set?
I think the years between 12 and 16 are powerfully emotional years. So much happens to the young person in the space of time. There is no other period of four/five years in a lifetime when we consciously go through such major changes. It's for this reason that I remember things so keenly. When I think back to my teens it just seems like yesterday. I also use music* and talk to my family about those days. I suppose the fact that I write stories about teen life for a living means that that part of my memory is constantly stimulated.
Young Adult fiction often needs a strong voice. I love the pared back narrative that you use in 'Guilt Trip'. Not a wasted word in sight! Is this your natural writing voice, do you think, or something you adopted for the type of book that you write?
I think this is my natural writing voice. I love stories which are elliptically told. I'm not a great fan of descriptive writing unless it is poetically brief. I also like stories where the plot moves quickly. Sometimes I think I've been too brief. The ends of some of my stories feel sliced off. 'Forget Me Not' is like that. I read that over now and wish I had fleshed it out a bit more.
'Guilt Trip' deals with an event that is purportedly immoral and outrageous - the murder of a teenage boy by his peers. Yet, there are no 'baddies' in your book. The cast of characters panics and makes a bad decision. Were you consciously trying to send out a message about the hazy morality of choice, or was it simpler than that? Did it just make a good story?
There's a lot of crime fiction which deals with 'evil' people. I'm much more interested in ordinary people. I think most people, given the right circumstances, could do terrible things. You only have to look and see what happens in war zones wehre people are brutalised by what's happening to them. My characters are ordinary teens. Alison, Stephen and Jackson don't mean anything bad to happen but it does and instead of dealing with it they run away. This leads to a much worse tragedy. Each of them are pretty self centred, concerned with superfluous things and somehow amid all this a boy is killed. I honestly wonder what I would have done when I was a teen. I probably would have run a mile and hoped for the best. But by luck nothing like that ever happened to me so I am a 'good' member of society.
I've heard you speak at the Society of Authors about the fact that for several years as an author, you never met or corresponded with any other children's authors. Do you think today's world of Facebook, Twitter and social networking would have made a difference to your learning curve as a writer?
No, I don't. I like all the modern communications but my learning curve as a writer came from writing one book after another and seeing what worked. My breakthrough book, 'Looking For JJ', was my seventeenth book! I'd worked out how to do it by then.
Crime fiction is notoriously dependent on a tightly woven plot. As a crime writer, do you have any hints or tips for others who are writing in this field?
I read a lot of crime fiction and am always taking note of plot devices and interesting ways of unpacking a story. But you don't have to read crime books to discover the way to plot. Jane Austen did it brilliantly. I was stunned when Wickham ran off with Lydia. The clues were there though and JA hid them beautifully. That's all you have to do in a crime novel.
You have a long-standing career writing for the Young Adult market. Do you have any thoughts about the current fashion for YA and the type of books that are being published into this field?
I think YAF is brilliant. When I started writing there were a lot of 'issue' type books around. Now I have the feeling that good stories are the thing. I love the fact that there is such a range, vampires to political thrillers. The key always is to provide believable and interesting characters, put them in a difficult situation, stand back and see what happens.
Thank you so much, Anne. What about that? A generous admission that she's not satisfied with all her novels, some fascinating comments about the personalities in 'Guilt Trip' (I hadn't picked up on the theme of selfishness) and great advice about plotting and storytelling.
Anne's book, 'Guilt Trip', was published last month and I really recommend reading it. There's a fantastic use of a text message on the very last page that left me asking questions as I shut the book. And if you're left asking questions, that can only be a very good thing indeed.
* Please see my ABBA blog here for a discussion about music and inspiration.
If you like this interview, you might enjoy my other interviews with Michelle Harrison and Jon Mayhew.
Update! On this beautiful, sunny day I wandered down to my local Waterstones. And this is what I saw: