Lucy Christopher’s third Young Adult novel, The Killing Woods, is a dark tale of two teenagers’ journey to discover the truth behind a murder. Christopher’s distinctive voice and prolific output has already made her an international bestseller, and is on the verge of seeing her critically acclaimed début, Stolen, turned into a film. Wales Arts Review Senior Editor Gary Raymond caught up with her in the run up to the UK release date of The Killing Woods.
Gary Raymond: What makes a Young Adult novel? Is it tone? Is it subject? Is it a mixture of things?
Lucy Christopher: What makes a Young Adult novel is simple really: its audience. With young adult novels it is possible to tackle the same subjects in novels for adults, and in more or less the same sort of literary ways, the only major difference is that you are primarily writing this novel for a teenage audience. When writing for a teenage audience, there are certain literary conventions that often, though not always, apply: generally, storyline and plot are strong and prominent in the work, there is a recognisable teenage protagonist through whose eyes we see the story unfold, and the style of the work is often direct and chatty. However, that said, I can think of numerous YA novels that have broken these ‘rules’ also. What is crucial is the acknowledgement of the audience you are writing for and the ‘teen eye view’ that the novel takes on.
Your début novel, Stolen, was a great success and continues to be all around the world. Am I right that it was partially a product of your creative writing Masters at Bath Spa University, where you now teach Writing for Young People? What did studying there teach you, and what do you continue to discover from the other side of the desk now?
Thank you for your kind words, and yes, Stolen was connected with my study at Bath Spa University. However, it was for my PhD in Creative Writing, rather than my Masters in Creative Writing, that I wrote it for. Stolen was the creative part of my thesis, and it was highly unusual that the novel was picked up for publication before the doctorate was completed. Participating in this process taught me that authors have to be flexible and adaptable, constantly merging academic aims and intentions with the harsh reality of a commercial publishing world. It taught me not to be too idealistic about my work and to remember what’s important: getting the book out to its intended audience. This merging of the commercial reality of publishing with the academic process of writing a piece of fiction is something we teach in Bath Spa’s MA in Writing for Young People. Here we train our students to go out into the publishing world already clued up about its realities and expectations; we also send them out with well-crafted, thoughtful and kick-ass manuscripts. My doctoral process helped me to realise the importance of this.
Much has been made of the darkness of your novels. The tone continues in The Killing Woods. Broadly, do you think there is a bond between young adult fiction and dark themes, and if so why do you think that is?
I think there is a bond between young adult fiction and strong emotional themes, whether that is through themes of love, lust and desire (as in Meyer’s Twilight, Steifvater’s Shiver, or Julia Green’s novels) or through themes of darkness (think my work, Melvin Burgess’s work or Margo Lanagan’s). It is while you are a teenager that you first experience these extreme emotions of love and fear; it is between these two extremes that I like to operate as an author. Dark themes are often synonymous with YA because they are often where the big emotions lie: emotions like jealousy, fear, depression and anger… emotions that are often being felt by a teenage audience in startling and shocking first-time reality.
Where does the darkness come from in your work?
The same place it comes from in all of us: from the sides of us we keep hidden in the shadows. I’m a big fan of Carl Jung, so I believe in the wholeness of people: that people are made up of conscious and unconscious sides, visible and shadow selves. It is this idea that I try to get across in The Killing Woods; all of us have shadow, or ‘darker’ sides, that are possible to tap into.
Your writing has a distinct energy to it – perhaps even a cinematic energy – would you agree with that? And do you think popular fiction nowadays has a closer connection to cinema than it does to literature?
Goodness, that is a tricky question. To answer it effectively we’d have to look at our definitions of both cinema and literature; one being a visual form and the other a written; one having a predominantly public persona and the other a private one. I actually think that literature is still literature, and cinema is still cinema: there is a difference. Books are still primarily a medium that you enjoy alone, in private; they are a medium where thought and getting up close to character is most prominent. Sure, some writers are more obvious at setting scenes than others, but that doesn’t mean their writing is more synonymous to cinema. I have learnt this first hand while being a co-writer for the screen adaptation of my novel, Stolen. Simply I think that some writers, like me, can really visualise the scenes they are writing; others, like my friend David Levithan, focus primarily on the poetry and aesthetics of the words and their construction. We are both YA authors, just approaching the form in different ways. Perhaps it is simply that the novels with the cinematic undertones are the ones that are often getting made into films, so they are the ones that we most hear of in popular culture.
Something that marks out all of your work is the authorial voice. In The Killing Woods you have broadened the first person experience by telling the story through the voices of several characters. Can you explain something about the process of finding these voices?
The Killing Woods was told for a long time in only Emily’s voice, but something was missing. I started to write the middle section of the novel in Damon’s voice in order to access a ‘darker’ side to this literary world. Originally the character of Damon functioned as a bit of a ‘shadow’ self; a character ruled more by his subconscious than his conscious thoughts; a character on the edge. His character did change throughout the writing of the novel, but in order to write a novel with a theme of acknowledging the wholeness of ourselves and our personalities I thought it was important to write from both a male and female point of view, both lighter and darker sides.
Landscape is clearly very important to your work. Can you explain a little about the different processes you have been through to create these landscapes on the page?
The Killing Woods actually began with a trip to Nigerian rainforest. I was fascinated by the density of the trees, the intensity of its heat and climate, and by the forest’s ability to be simultaneously light and dark. When I returned to South Wales, I decided I wanted to use dense woodland as my fictional setting and have a primary theme of acknowledging darkness within us. However, I didn’t feel validated in writing about the Nigerian rainforest: I just didn’t know it well enough. So I walked in the woods behind my house in Monmouthshire in order to find the real story I could write. Darkwood is set loosely on the woods near my house, the bunker is based on a real bunker I found in Wentworth Forest near Chepstow, the Leap is based loosely on a place I used to work when I had a job with the RSPB. I write about places I know well, yet I distort them for my narrative purposes too. My other novels, also, are based in real places I have known: the Western Australian desert and the Newport Wetlands respectively.
Are you already working on the next book? How does the recuperation process work after a book goes to the printers, and when do you know if the next idea is taking form?
I am working very gently on my next novel. Ideas are coming to me in images mostly, and I am trying not to force them. In my ideal world I’d love a long recuperation process between novels, but YA fiction doesn’t always work like that. I’m working on the Stolen screen adaptation at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll start in earnest on the next YA novel over the winter some point.
The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher is out now in paperback, priced £7.99 (Chicken House).
Banner photo: Rolf Marriot