Lucy Christopher’s most recent novel, RELEASE, is a psychological thriller which explores the intricacies of rebuilding a life after a major event. The novel is a follow-up from her first young-adult novel, Stolen – but can also be read as a standalone work – and delves into the female experience of survival after trauma. Ally-Joh Gowan-Day caught up with Lucy Christopher over Zoom to hear more about the process of writing a novel ten years on from her first, and the shift in audience – from teen readers to adults.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: So, I wanted to start by asking about the relationship between Ty and Kate. In Stolen, there is an element of love between Ty and Kate, obviously it’s from the point of view of Kate who is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. However, despite the hate Kate harbours in RELEASE, I think some readers were expecting a twisted romance of some sort. Did you ever consider taking their relationship in that direction?
Lucy Christopher: I was quite aware that there were a sizable amount of readers out there who were hoping for that type of ending, and I did think about it. I did think, could that ending work? I sort of played around a little bit with it and tried bits out, but then I just felt that it wouldn’t be honest, on many different levels. I’d been quite affected by the #MeToo Movement that had happened between the writing of the first book, Stolen, and then my latest book, RELEASE, and I sort of evaluated what would be right, what would be real, what would be something that I would feel proud and confident to say in a novel, and I don’t think that if I’d had them going off into the sunset that that would have been something I could have sat with as an author.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: Did you always know how you wanted Ty and Kate’s relationship to end, or did you work it out as you wrote the second novel?
Lucy Christopher: I think I did work it out as I was writing the book. In fact, I sort of rewrote the ending a few different times to emphasise which way it could have gone. It was a bit of an organic process, but I have left it a bit ambiguous and a little open for the possibility that maybe in another ten years I might write a third book.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: What was the process like delving back into characters that have been untouched for ten years? You said in the acknowledgements at the end of RELEASE that this story has been in your notes for years, but what was it like reviving these characters?
Lucy Christopher: I thought it would be a lot harder than it was, but I found that as soon as I started to write in Kate’s voice again, I found that quite comfortable. I think it’s also to do with the fact that it’s in a sort of direct form of address as well and I often find that way of writing quite a comfortable way to write. And I think because I’ve been thinking about these characters for ten years, they never really left me, and certainly other readers have been thinking about them and sending me emails. I’ve read in the interim quite a few stories about what readers think might happen after Stolen. There’s fanfiction for Stolen on the internet, and I’d read some of that. So, they were always present. Kate and Ty were always in my head, so when I came to write Kate she was just there already, so that was helpful.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: So it’s almost as if Kate and Ty have been with you for the past ten years, growing with you as well.
Lucy Christopher: Yeah absolutely, and I think that’s quite an interesting writing experiment actually. How one revisits characters, story and setting, when you’ve grown ten years as a writer and a person, and does that time change the way you see character and setting. I think that’s quite an interesting experiment that I’d be keen to explore more in my writing journey.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: So did the fanfiction help you on your journey to write RELEASE?
Lucy Christopher: I read some of them and, as you said, there were quite a few readers who wanted that happy ending and who had written that happy ending, and there was a part of me that wanted to write that, and there’s a part of me that feels really guilty because of those readers and I hope they still like the direction I decided to do take RELEASE.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: RELEASE is a novel that deals heavily with trauma, specifically life after trauma. Did that require research on your end, and how did you approach that with sensitivity while writing?
Lucy Christopher: Yeah absolutely, I did a lot of research into several things to do with trauma. First of all, I read every single memoir I could read of people who had experience with kidnapping or coercive control. I also interviewed some people who had PTSD from various forms of trauma and we talked about that. And also, I volunteered at a psychological charity that worked with perpetrators of abuse who didn’t want to be abusers and were trying to reset themselves and their minds and to work with urges and desires they didn’t want to have. So, that was quite interesting to be researching the other side of the story because RELEASE is told completely through Kate’s eyes, but I also did quite a lot of research into what it might be like for someone who had been accused of coercive control and how they would deal with life after that.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: That’s really interesting because Ty’s point of view isn’t seen as you said, but you did research for his side of things too.
Lucy Christopher: Yeah, and there was a part of me that briefly considered writing the book, or at least some of the book in Ty’s perspective, and I did think about that for a while, but ultimately I wanted RELEASE to be a book about a females experience and to really put Kate’s story first and foremost for the reader as the principle narrative.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: What made you want to revive the story of Gemma and Ty? Did you know from the moment you finished Stolen that Gemma and Ty’s story wasn’t finished?
Lucy Christopher: No I didn’t know that. I thought when I finished Stolen that that book would stand on its own and it would be its own thing. In fact, I remember having a conversation with the publisher of Stolen, a man called Barry Cunningham, and Barry said he didn’t think we’d ever publish a sequel for this book because Stolen was a young adult novel and a sequel would bring in an adult novel. Also, Stolen works as it is as a whole piece, it has an ending and a resolution so I was never planning to have a sequel. But, as you said, the characters stuck in my head, the readers emailed me and their questions got stuck in my head, and then the #MeToo Movement happened, which made me re-evaluate the whole story again in a different light and I thought let’s think about what it would be like for Kate to own this narrative and for it to be completely her story.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: Did you start with the Outback and weave Kate and Ty into the setting, or did Kate and Ty come first?
Lucy Christopher: I would say the Outback came first in both books, in fact in all of my stories I have a very clear sense of place. The book and where the story is set seems to come to me first and I daydream about that place and what could happen there and what would be a great thing or a terrible thing and the story comes from the parameters of place. So it’s always the place first.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: It’s quite obvious from the way you write about the Australian desert that you have a strong connection to it. Can you tell me why you picked this setting and what personal relationship you share with Australia and the outback?
Lucy Christopher: I’ve got rather a funny background, I was born in Cardiff, but I spent most of my life and childhood moving between Wales and Australia. So, I’ve pretty much spent an equal time of my life in both countries. Currently half of my family is in Wales and the other half are in Australia. I have both passports and I never know how to answer when people ask where I’m from. So, I’ve always been torn between them, but I do remember the first time I went to the Australian desert, and that was when I was about fourteen and I went on a trip with my mum, and I remember thinking that it was unlike anywhere I’d ever been in my whole life.
It was so vast, so desolate, so beautiful, stunningly beautiful and also that sense of danger was everywhere and I became kind of obsessed with the land after that. I read all the books that I could read about the Australian desert, or books set in the Australian desert. I was very influenced by a memoir called Tracks, by Robin Davidson, which is about her journey trekking across the Australian desert by herself with three camels, and I very much wanted to be her when I was about nineteen. In fact, I did go on a camel trek across the Australian desert, with other people, not just me and the camels.
I’ve always tried to find a way to write about it. The first book that I ever tried to write was a Young Adult dystopian novel set in the desert, which I never actually finished, but that was the novel that got me onto my masters degree and on to my PHD, which then led on to me writing Stolen. It all came from an obsession.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: So it’s kind of like the way Kate’s so obsessed with the desert after having left it for so long, obviously in a different kind of way, but it’s that same obsession.
Lucy Christopher: Yes absolutely, Kate’s obsession with the desert and her fear and love of it is absolutely me. It’s totally my journey as a person.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: I know you said earlier that if there was a second book it was always going to be an adult novel, but what made you want to write an adult novel, and more specifically, what made you want RELEASE to be your first adult novel?
Lucy Christopher: It felt like a really natural progression for this book to be for an adult audience. I knew I wanted to write for adults, but it felt insurmountable. How do I get over to writing for adults? That seemed like a whole other thing that I hadn’t thought or learnt about. So RELEASE feels like a sort of bridge between that young adult audience that I feel I have a good understanding of to this whole new audience of adult fiction. RELEASE felt like a natural book. At the moment I’m working on a straight book for an adult audience and that feels harder and it feels like the first book for adults that I’m writing because I don’t have any hand holds like I had with RELEASE.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: In an interview with Wales Arts Review ten years ago, you said that you feel dark themes are often synonymous with Young Adult fiction (YA) because dark emotions like jealousy, fear and depression are often felt most keenly in adolescence. What do you think changes between a YA novel and an adult novel? Was the experience of writing it different?
Lucy Christopher: Yes and no. I thought the experience would be more different, but the best themes in literature are the same whether they are for young adults, adults, or even younger children. Those themes of death and darkness and fear and control, those are great topics in any audience you write for. I think the only thing that changes is the perspective and point of view. When I write for teenagers I’m thinking about an audience that maybe doesn’t have as much experience or emotional experience as an older audience might have, and might not also be approaching things with a blasé attitude, it’s often for the first time with a YA audience. For example, if we’re talking about coercive control with a YA audience, it might be the first time that audience has come across what coercive control might be. Whereas with an adult audience, it might not be. It might be the story or the perspective may speak back to earlier times where they first came across coercive control and building upon that. So, it’s really about perspective and experience, I think.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: What gave you the idea to write in a letter-type form from Kate to Ty? I know that there’s a technique in therapy called the ‘unsent letter’, where you write to someone in your life as if you’re going to send it, but then you don’t send it, you burn it, and RELEASE reminded me a lot of that because Kate never actually sends the letters she’s writing. I was wondering whether you had something like that in mind while picking this format?
Lucy Christopher: Yeah, to some degree. It’s curious because even I’m not sure if RELEASE is written as a series of letters, or whether it’s her talking to him and he’s actually become part of her brain. And the reason she’s sort of writing to him, is because I wanted the narrative to be as tense and close as it could possibly be, and I think that direct form of address and the second person narration has an advantage in getting so close. I also wanted to get through that idea of control. She’s writing to him so he has a lot of control in this story, just by the nature that the narrative in addressed to him, and I wanted to think about whether that sense of control can change or shift through the book, and what would it take for her to not direct all of her life and narrative towards him.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: I imagine the creation of RELEASE has been a very emotional journey. How has it been as a writer?
Lucy Christopher: Yeah, it took a while to get there, as you know it took ten years, and I do feel it needed that time. I don’t feel I could have written this book straight after writing Stolen, and I think it’s benefitted from that time and maturity of myself as well as the characters. And like I said, I’m quite interested in the experiment of what would happen if I wrote another book in another ten years when the characters are another ten years older and I’m ten years older, what would that do to the novel and the style and the themes I may be interested in exploring.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: Leading on from that, RELEASE feels really quite special in that it’s a gift to your audience that have been with you from the very beginning. Fans of Stolen were teenagers when they first read Stolen, and now they’re adults and have their own families. I imagine RELEASE brings up moments of nostalgia for them and transports them back to ten years ago, too. What is that like, to have an audience that has grown with you and followed you on your journey?
Lucy Christopher: It’s so wonderful to know that I’ve had readers that have come with me and followed my writing journey. Some of them have emailed me at various points over the years and they’ll tell me that they’ve reread Stolen again and what’s been happening in their lives since. In fact, one of my wonderful readers first read Stolen when she was fifteen, I think, and she emailed me the day after RELEASE was released and said “I have to tell you I’ve read the book. It came in on my Kindle at one minute after midnight and I was up with my new-born baby all night”, and she’d had to read the book through the night as she was looking after her new-born baby and I was like ‘woah, what a trip’.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: The ending of RELEASE, although Kate has a sense of release, is still quite open. Is this the end of Ty and Kate?
Lucy Christopher: I have deliberately not written anything about what might happen in another ten years because that’s what I did with moving from Stolen to RELEASE, I didn’t write anything at all, I just sort of kept thinking about it and put it at the back of my brain and let the wonderful magic that is the back of the brain, the subconscious, write the story for itself, and hopefully the back of my brain will tell me when it’s time and when I’m ready to tell that story.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the films directed by Richard Linklater entitled Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, but these films take the same actors and the same character ten years apart, and it’s a really interesting experiment and I’m kind of curious to see what that experiment would look like on a page, in a novel.
Ally-Joh Gowan-Day: Having written your first adult novel, are you planning to write another?
Lucy Christopher: Yes, going forward I’d love to see myself as a writer who writes for both, for adults and for young people, it’s very much what I want to do. But, I’ve just begun work on another book for adults, and yes it will be a psychological thriller with a strong female lead and a very strong sense of wild place at the heart, as those are the things that really get me as a writer. I don’t want to say too much because I’m in that sort of early stage where it’s very fragile. But place, psychological thriller and a strong female are definitely going to be a feature in the next book.
Find out more about Release by Lucy Christopher here.
Photo credit: Karen Brown