Hayley Long is an award-winning young adult fiction novelist, her works have been internationally acclaimed and have been translated into fifteen languages. Here, she takes time out of her busy schedule to talk to Dr Ben Screech about her work, influences and the wider young adult genre.
Ben Screech: You began your career writing for adults. What was the initial stimulus for deciding to give writing for children / teenagers a go, and did you face any challenges in terms of managing the transition between these two modes of authorship?
Hayley Long: You’re quite right. My first novels were for a general readership and published by Parthian, an independent press. It didn’t initially occur to me to write for teenagers – although, I was always writing about teenagers; Fire and Water is about college students and Kilburn Hoodoo was very much a school drama. It was actually Gwen Davies (now the Editor of New Welsh Review but back then my editor at Parthian) who suggested I write something actually for teens. And I was fast coming to that conclusion myself. I’d been teaching for a while and there just didn’t seem to be enough YA novels with Welsh kids in.
This was about ten years ago; there are a few more now. But anyway, that was my inspiration – Gwen’s suggestion and also the goal of writing something which I thought the younger kids where I was teaching – would enjoy. That’s why Lottie Biggs lives in Cardiff, Wales.
In terms of challenges, I don’t really see any huge difference between writing adult novels and YA ones. It’s still difficult! At least, it is for me anyway. And I still agonise over every word. I think the only definite change is that I feel a greater sense of responsibility when I write for a younger audience. If I use bad language or say something shocking, I have to be satisfied that the novel absolutely needs it. And I think I worry more about the messages I send out.
Take Lottie Biggs for example; I was writing a book about depression. That could have had a very downbeat ending. But as brilliant – and as real – as it is, I never wanted to rewrite The Bell Jar. I was thinking about those kids who I’ve known and who have fallen off the class-role with long-term absences because they have depression. I didn’t want to say, ‘Yes, you have depression; your whole life is going to be a struggle and your depression will be the dominant feature of your life.’ I wanted to send out a message of hope. In no way does depression have to define everything.
As somebody who also divides their time between teaching and writing, I can empathise with the occasionally challenging nature of this combination. How do you find balancing the two, and to what extent do you find that teaching complements or influences your writing work (and vice-versa)?
Ha! Now there’s a question. I can answer that quite easily. After seventeen years, I gave up teaching fairly recently. Yes, for a writer of YA fiction, the classroom is an invaluable resource – but the truth is that teaching is one of those jobs that just stretches and stretches and fills up every gap of time. Even after I reduced my hours to part-time, I was still doing much more than that in real terms. In the end, I felt something had to give – and it was never going to be the writing. It sounds such a glib thing to say – but I don’t know who I am if I’m not that person who writes.
The discovery of music, and its influence on teenagers plays a considerable role in your fiction. What is it about the influence of music that continues to interest and excite you as a writer, and what impact did music have on you as a teenager?
I LOVE music. LOVE it LOVE it LOVE it. Can’t play a single instrument. Can’t sing. But I can listen. And I can hear a tune on the radio and often date it correctly because it takes me back to a specific flat-share or city or wherever I was at that time. Music is a really powerful thing. Some songs even remind me of smells! In my house, we have shelves full of records and I used to DJ in bars with a friend. It was the most fun ever.
I think this record-hoarding love-affair has something to do with my own adolescence. I wasn’t actually very good at being a teenager. I was small (still am), had a crippling lack of confidence, and compensated for both these state of affairs by either being silent or a bit obnoxious. As a result, I wasn’t massively popular and spent hours in my bedroom taping the Top 40 off the radio or listening to pirate radio stations. Music gave me confidence. As a teenager, I discovered The Doors and – for a while anyway – that defined who I was. Just like it does for Jody Barton in the book. Then I saw people like Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses/Belly/The Breeders) playing guitar on TV and I thought, ‘THAT’S who I want to be,’ – even though I had no skills any band could ever use. But I suppose it was just about finding my own identity. Or finding someone to identify with anyway. I still have a very strong emotional connection to a lot of indie/pop/soul/rock/funk music and I hope I always do have that. And that’s why I write about it.
Otherness, and feelings of ‘difference’ (in terms of for example; alienation, mental illness and sexuality), is a recurrent theme in your novels. To what extent do you feel that writing for adolescents inevitably involves engagement with such concerns, and do you feel that writers for young audiences have any sort of duty of reassurance?
I don’t think these themes are necessarily inevitable in YA fiction – but, yes, I accept that they do crop up in my fiction. The truth is this: I don’t have the sort of mind which can conjure up future worlds or wild adventure stories. I can, however, imagine what it’s like to be someone else. And that’s every bit as useful I think. It’s Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird who says (something along the lines of) ‘You never really get to know a person until you climb into their shoes and walk around in them.’ That’s what I try to do when I write and to some extent, any sense of otherness that’s created mirrors how I feel.
We live in a very consumerist and media-driven world and we’re all receiving a million messages a day on how we’re supposed to be. If you don’t share the same likes and dislikes and tick all the usual boxes, it’s easy to feel a bit like a baffled onlooker at somebody else’s party. Fiction is a way to explore those less ordinary and less commonplace perspectives and the more these alternative views are explored, the less marginal they will seem. But what’s really needed is more writers being published who reflect our diverse world. Malorie Blackman famously caused a bit of a Twitter storm when she suggested that there needs to be more diversity in (children’s) fiction but she is, of course, absolutely right. People come in all sorts of variations – whether that’s ethnicity or religion or sexuality or whatever – and it’s not helpful to pretend that they don’t. So yes, I do feel I have a duty to reassure my readers that it’s OK to be different.
Much has been made of the ‘twist’ ending in What’s Up With Jody Barton. Reading this book, and considering its ending reminded me of the (late) Gene Kemp’s novel The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, where gender is manipulated in a similar way. With this allusion in mind, I was wondering which children’s / YA novels inspire you and provide the background to your writing (if any), and who you are reading these days?
I don’t actually read a huge amount of children’s or YA fiction. I read a healthy amount, of course. But I also read adult literary fiction and commercial fiction and history books and… well, just anything at all that I feel like. I’ve always been like that. By the time I was about twelve or so, I’d read every book my parents owned – it wasn’t a bookish house so there wasn’t really too many to work my way through. But amongst this selection were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wooden House (a story about an escape from a Prisoner of War camp in WW2) and Everest, the Hard Way by Chris Bonington. I just read anything and that way, I think I developed the capacity to read more or less anything. And even now, I’d never want to limit myself to just one or two areas of the bookshop or library – for me, that would be like only ever eating cookies. Nice for a while but then I’d go off them forever.
I think my own eclectic reading tastes are especially helpful to me when I write. I can get motivational inspiration from a book like Louis Sachar’s Holes which is a fantastic example of how wonderfully clever children’s fiction can be and one of my favourite books of all time – but then my creative inspiration usually comes from other sources. I find myself thinking about how John Irving creates a shock impact in The Hotel New Hampshire or marvelling at what Anthony Burgess has done with language in A Clockwork Orange. Or thinking about how Salinger has created a convincing and unique voice in The Catcher in the Rye. I’m not, of course, saying that the end result is that I’ve written books which are anywhere close to being as effective as these classics but you asked me where my technical ideas come from and this is the answer – novels that have a different intended audience to those I write. I think this is healthy. I think it helps prevent the YA ideas pool from becoming too cross-contaminated.
I love the idea of a story unfolding against the time-scale imposed by a journey or event, such as Ally’s day-long train ride in Fire and Water. What made you decide to use that device to structure your novel and what do you make of its effects on Ally’s narrative?
For me, the structure is the hardest and most crucial part to writing a novel. It’s the key to everything. It’s the route map if you like. It’s the device by which your story gets told. A plot is just a story. It’s not too hard to come up with the basis of some sort of story but unless you know how you are going to tell it – you can get muddled. I know this for a fact. I’ve been in the middle of that muddle. Fire and Water was my first published novel and the structure was simple and effective. If you measure your main narrative against a train journey happening in the present tense, you’ve instantly got a nice alternating structure – the physical journey in the here and now versus the main story in the past tense as the passenger reflects. Ta-dah! And THIS is how the story shall be told.
Right now, I’ve got several possible stories in my head but it’s figuring out a structure which is the difference between whether I have a novel or not.
You have written engagingly in Downside Up about young peoples’ negotiation of social media. Do you feel that the digital opportunities available to young people now have ultimately a positive or a negative effect, and for what reason(s)?
This is a tricky one and my answer may make me sound like a total Luddite. The world has changed and the internet is not going away. On the plus side, that’s an enormously liberating and exciting world to live in; it enables us to have access to all sorts of information in seconds, to talk online to people we never would have dreamt of talking to and to have our say and publish whatever we like at the press of a button. That’s the good bit. There is a downside though. The first is the pressure that social media puts young people under. Surviving in the real world is no longer enough; kids now have to survive in a virtual world too. Likes and Follows are pretty much seen as badges of acceptance and approval – who dares to be that kid who has only ten friends on Instagram when everyone else has got nine hundred plus? What might those nine hundred ‘unfriends’ be saying about you? But even without that paranoia, the whole online friend thing is pretty much a nonsense. NOBODY has that many friends.
Most of these Likes and Follows aren’t even friends of friends. But they all have access to each other’s thoughts and photos and personal information. I don’t see how this can be a good idea. And all the online friends in the world aren’t worth a single real one – someone you can actually spend time with and talk to face to face. So that’s one concern: Is an online life replacing a life that is well lived? My other concern is about concentration. We have access to all this information but how rewarding is that? Effort is part of the process of understanding but I worry that the fast fix approach of the internet is turning us all into passive readers who just want to be gratified. And I say this from experience because I’m as bad as anyone. I spend way too much time scrolling through my Twitter feed. What did I used to do with all that spare time? What could I be doing with that time now?
I read Bleak House last year and it nearly killed me. The sentences were so long; the text so dense – it was a real struggle. Yet when I was twelve, I was reading books by Dickens and the Brontës. What has happened to me? Why do my eyes keep slipping off the page? I seriously worry that the internet – and social media in particular – has chipped away at my ability to concentrate. And that’s a real worry. Because it’s obsessive concentration that gets difficult things done. Put it like this: Anyone who can read a hefty nineteenth century novel, possesses powers of concentration which will make them a success at something. I hope we don’t evolve away from that.
Anne Fine, among others, has expressed disapproval of the trend in children’s book publishing of the gender-focused marketing of authors such as Jacqueline Wilson, (who’s books are clearly marketed at a young female demographic). How focused are you, as a writer, on audience, and do you worry that children’s / YA fiction often appears to be divided along gender lines? If so, what do you think can be done to redress this balance?
First and foremost I write for myself. I once tried to write in a very practical way and provide a publisher with what I thought they wanted and it was a horrible experience – it was like pulling words out of my head and it made me depressed. So these days I write what I like and hope that a publisher will like it too. In this sense then, – beyond that moral responsibility I spoke of earlier and also the practical matter of accessibility – I don’t suppose I’m deliberately trying to please an audience. And I don’t involve myself too much with marketing questions and covers. Perhaps I should have done because in the past my books were very obviously targeted at girls. But it was only the original cover of What’s Up with Jody Barton? that ever worried me.
Most of my other books were, in fact, rightly marketed to appeal to girls because they were ‘girls’ books’. I don’t see why that should be in any way a shameful viewpoint. I do wonder sometimes if ‘gender neutralising’ actually means eradicating and, in fact, demonising anything that’s obviously associated with femininity. After all, the issue always seems to be with covers like those on the books of Jacqueline Wilson or Cathy Cassidy – nobody seems to have any problem with the covers on books by Darren Shan! Are a generation of adults pointlessly outlawing pink for girls? Some girls like pink! That’s cool with me even though I’ve never been one of them! I really can’t get too fired up about it. For me, what’s important is what is what is written inside the book. If the messages for girls and boys are equally strong and positive then I don’t have a problem. And the most important thing of all is just to get young people reading novels at all.
There has been a growing trend in the last few years of dismissing higher education in the Arts and Humanities as ‘worthless’ in the context of a culture of work that increasingly rewards graduates entering with highly specialised and vocationally-based qualifications. As a fellow English graduate (and teacher), how do you perceive the future of Arts and Humanities degrees, and what were your own experiences both during and after studying for a degree in English?
The question of where an arts degree can take you has always been asked. Having said that, I think there will always be plenty of people who opt to pursue those courses. I hope so anyway. I think it would be a very dull world which had no arts graduates in it! But maybe the question has become more potent because the criteria for assessment has been changed. It used to be the case that a degree in the arts or the humanities was evidence of the ability to write well; this meant it was good currency for anyone hoping to pursue a career in journalism, advertising or anywhere where a confident command of written English is needed. But somewhere along the way, the quality of written communication has been dispensed with as a necessity. And that reaches right back through the education system.
Time and time again, I’ve heard the words, ‘It’s the content that matters – not your ability to write well.’ I think this is unhelpful to everyone – including those graduates who can write. At an academic level, good written English should not be seen as an advantage which must be countered – it should be a requirement. After all, if something is being written in a way which is so lacking control that it doesn’t communicate, how can the content be meaningful or convincing? I did my degree quite a while ago. It was in English Literature and being able to write was an expectation of all students. Writing essays unaided was the most practical and useful thing I got out of it – that and the experience of living away from home. I’d say that these things were actually invaluable to me and changed the course of my life. They were certainly worth much more than any knowledge I gained about literature. The literary stuff was just a bonus.
Your novels are quite firmly rooted in, and evocative of, place; from Wales in Fire and Water and the Lottie Biggs series, and London in Jody Barton. Do you see setting as being integral in terms of writing realist YA fiction, and is there anywhere you haven’t previously written about where you would like to set a novel?
Settings are hugely important to me. They are often my starting point and they are certainly as important as any of my characters. I think this was because I moved around a lot in my twenties; I had a real travel bug and a love of places. I don’t have the opportunity to move around like that anymore but every book I’ve written has revisited somewhere I’ve lived and where I know – or used to know – very well. I know there are other writers who also use setting as a starting point but everyone writes differently. Plenty of books have no recognisable setting at all – just a generic one. I recently re-read Lynne Reid Banks’ wonderful children’s novel The Indian in the Cupboard. That could be set in any town anywhere but it doesn’t stop the story from working tremendously. But I couldn’t do that. I need a strong location, for example; Sophie Someone is set in Brussels where I lived for a while during that nomadic time in my twenties.
Have any of your books been optioned for film / television? If not, which would you most like to see adapted for the screen and why?
No. Any of them. Because I could stop worrying about money!
In all seriousness though – I need to get with it and start writing something more filmic. I’m my own worst enemy because everything I write is largely about what’s going on in the narrator’s head. This doesn’t translate well to the screen.
Thanks for your time Hayley, I can’t wait to read and enjoy more of your work.
Dr Ben Screech is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, UK. His teaching and research interests centre primarily on writing for children and young-adults. In 2018, his paper on students’ emotional engagement and responses to YA fiction won the ‘best paper in section’ award at the College English Association annual conference in St Petersburg, Florida.