Hi Keren and welcome. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Tracy and thank you for inviting me to your lovely blog.
My first book, a YA novel called When I Was Joe will be published by Frances Lincoln in January 2010.
I’ve just finished writing the sequel, Almost True which should be out later in the year.
I’ve been a journalist since I was a teenager. I got a job as a messenger girl on a national weekly when I was 18, then decided to skip university to train as a reporter. I worked as a reporter on various papers in London and Glasgow, and then as a home news editor for The Independent. That was probably my favourite job of all time – short deadlines, lots of stress and different every day.
I moved on to be a commissioning editor on the comment pages - working with top writers including Andrew Marr, David Aaronovitch, Polly Toynbee, Germaine Greer and Jo Brand. I left to go freelance when my daughter was born. When she was two we went to live in Amsterdam, supposedly for two years. We stayed for more than eight years, and my son was born there. In Amsterdam I worked for a photographic agency, where we sold features to magazines around the world, everything from Marie Claire Brazil to Playboy Russia.
In 2007 we moved back to London. I signed up for evening classes in Writing for Children at City University. The course was great fun and while taking it I developed the idea for a novel about witness protection. I wrote the first chapter for the end of course assignment, and then, luckily for me, the university started a workshop course aimed at helping you write a longer piece. I took the workshops as a series of deadlines and wrote the first 60,000 words of When I Was Joe during the 12 week course. The help and support I got from the tutor, Amanda Swift and the other students was invaluable.
WHEN I WAS JOE
It’s one thing watching someone get killed. It’s quite another talking about it.
But Ty does talk about it. He names some ruthless people and a petrol-bomb attack forces him and his mum into hiding under police protection.
Shy loser Ty gets a new name, a new look and a cool new image. Life as Joe is good. But the gangsters will stop at nothing to silence him. And then he meets a girl with a dangerous secret of her own.
When I Was Joe is your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?
This was my first attempt. I spent ten years failing to write a memoir, and I abandoned an Open University course in Writing Fiction because I couldn’t get my head around short stories. So, no hidden manuscripts - I wish I did, I’d love to be able to dust them off and revamp them.
The book tackles the difficult subject of knife crime. What inspired you to write about this theme? How much research did you do?
It was an accident. I wanted to write about witness protection, and the huge effect it would have on a family to have to change their names and move away from relatives and friends. It’s such a paradox – telling the truth leads to a life of lies. It resonated with me because my family had just moved from The Netherlands to England and we were all adapting to our new surroundings.
I chose a stabbing almost at random to be the crime that Ty witnesses. I thought the book would be about his life in witness protection, not the crime itself.
Then, as I was writing in the spring and summer of 2008, there was a horrific spate of knife killings in London. Every day there seemed to be another death and the papers were full of articles about gang culture and possible solutions to the terrible violence.
One day I was going to pick up my son from school and I was very late -a key road had been closed down because the police were doing a raid on organised criminals. Then our alternative route home was blocked because a boy had been stabbed in broad daylight on the street. My son then began telling me about another stabbing which had taken place a few months previously. An older boy who had been at his school five years before, had been knifed to death. Some of the children remembered him and there had been a lot of talk about his death. Knife crime seemed very close to home.
Everything I read in the newspapers or saw on television helped me understand Ty and the other boys in the story. I started reacting to statements from politicians and commentators from Ty’s point of view. Gradually the book became as much about knife crime as witness protection.
Part of the story involves witness relocation. How much research did you do into this and other legal and police procedural matters? Do you think it’s important to be as truthful as possible or did you give yourself some creative licence?
Witness relocation is a difficult subject to research because necessarily it is very secret. It’s also very patchy in the UK, unlike the US where there’s a long established witness protection programme. In the UK the level of witness protection varies between police forces. Because of my news background I remembered several stories of botched witness protection, people who’d been attacked although they were living in hiding under assumed names.
Many of the things that Ty and his mum experience come from stories like that of Danielle Cable who witnessed her fiancé’s murder in a ‘road rage’ stabbing, and had to leave her home and family, with half an hour to pack her bags. Danielle was not allowed to contact her family, only received letters from them occasionally and could only call them once every six months. Almost every aspect of witness protection in the book comes from true stories like Danielle’s.
I had a barrister friend check the police procedure and the legal aspects of the story. He had worked with several witnesses who were in police protection, so he gave me information as well.
I do think it’s important to be as accurate as possible, and that’s what I strive for. Having said that, I did allow myself two bits of police-related creative licence – no one’s picked me up on them yet, so at least they ring true.
Do you feel drawn to writing gritty realism and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other? Do you think your journalistic background has any bearing on your choices? Have you tried writing any other genres?
I’ve never tried anything else. I like crime and realism, but I hope I’ll attempt other things. The supernatural doesn’t appeal right now, but I wouldn’t rule it out. My main object is to create real characters and place them in interesting circumstances and see what happens.
I like realism in fiction, but I don’t think it has to mean that books are grim and depressing, however serious the subject matter. I hope that readers will find lots of humour in When I Was Joe.
For this book, my journalistic background definitely helped. I’m used to reading widely in the media, remembering the details of news stories, picking out key facts and concepts. I saw it as a natural progression in my career - from news to comment to fiction.
One of the characters self-harms. Do you think reading about characters who suffer from mental health problems helps a sufferer to perhaps feel less alone, to even seek the help they may need? Do you think it’s important to tackle difficult subjects like this, to help people better understand the condition?
I read that there was an increase in British girls self-harming. It seemed such a strange symmetry - boys killing each other with knives, and girls cutting themselves.
Reading my book might help someone in my character’s position think about getting help or confiding in a friend. Equally it could help people who have never self-harmed become more imaginative and understanding, perhaps more able to spot a friend’s suffering and reach out to them.
Sometimes books centre on just one issue, or one character with problems, and that might leave the impression that most people are ‘normal’. I think that most of us have got problems, big and small, there are all sorts of ways of seeking help and we can all benefit from trying to understand ourselves and others.
Were your publishers open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself because of your target audience?
Their only concern was the sexual content because the girls involved were only 13. I had no problem with toning it down a tiny bit, leaving more to the imagination. We also talked a bit about swearing, and I changed a few words and deleted a few more.
You make several references to popular culture in When I Was Joe. Were there any concerns that these could become outdated quickly? When referencing popular culture did you need to consider how readers from other countries and cultures would relate to certain things?
I felt it was impossible to write about a boy like Ty without reference to popular culture. It just wouldn’t be plausible. I also dislike YA books in which all the music references fit with the age of the writer instead of the protagonist or reader. Ty was not going to have a thing about classic films or ‘80s music, he was going to watch lots of television and listen to commercial hip hop.
I tried to make the references as timeless as possible by using big stars and long-running series. I don’t see Kanye West, The Simpsons and EastEnders becoming incomprehensible to readers for a long time. I didn’t just pick my references randomly, each one has a particular resonance for me and for Ty. One in particular gives readers a clue to a storyline in Almost True.
Most of the references are pretty international. Some are specifically British, but I felt that was fair enough because this is a book, about a British boy living in London. I also know, from living in the Netherlands, that the BBC is watched all over Europe and British television is much more international than we Brits realise. The Britishness of the book didn’t stop a German publisher dtv Junior wanting to publish it, and it will also be coming out in Australia and America next year.
Having said that, this is a book set in 2008, and of course it will date - I hope it will become almost unbelievable that boys would be arming themselves with knives on the streets of London.
Your main protagonist is a teenage boy and you tell the story using a first-person POV. How difficult, or easy, did you find it to get inside the head of a teenage boy? Regarding ‘teen speak’ and first-person narrative, how did you approach your protagonist’s voice?
I was daunted at first at the idea of have a 14-year-old boy as a narrator. I really wasn’t sure if I could do it - not only had I never been a boy, but I went to a girls’ school. My son is only nine and I don’t know many teenage boys. But then I thought of JK Rowling and Harry Potter, and I decided to give it a try.
My sister’s son was the same age as Ty and she said: ‘Good luck - they don’t talk much.’ So I thought that there might be an interesting contrast between what Ty thinks and what he actually says. I knew he’d be awash with hormones, and, as someone with no dad and no brothers, be quite confused about that. I annoyed my daughter with questions about the boys at school, and I was interested to hear how emotional they seemed – fighting, crying, losing their tempers.
As I got to know Ty better, I found his voice came more easily –he was inside my head. But it was also helpful to consider how adults would see him and react to him. I could see where the misunderstandings and arguments would come from. I absolutely love writing as Ty. I love his mixture of shyness and stroppiness, and his convoluted logic, and the way he gets himself into trouble by making bad decisions. At the same time I could completely identify with the mothers who weren’t very keen that he should be going out with their daughters.
In the end the only thing that caused me problems with Ty’s first person voice was the need to use incorrect grammar occasionally, which was painful.
Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?
My daughter, then 12, read Joe as I was writing it, and gave me lots of good ideas, especially about Claire and Ashley. I also had a 13 year old boy reading it and a 15 year old girl read the first draft. They were my safety net. My daughter and niece have been reading Almost True. They’re very helpful because they tell me when things are getting boring, and when to reintroduce their favourite characters.
How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I’ve been working in journalism for nearly 30 years, all the time learning about writing and editing. As reporter you listen carefully to people’s exact words and phrasing, which is a great help when writing dialogue. As an editor you learn to order your content, and - of course - the fine art of cutting copy.
I took the two courses at City University, and then we set up a fortnightly writing group which is led by our tutor Amanda Swift. I need the feedback and support of the others in the group, and I love reading their work and giving my thoughts – I’ve learned a lot just from doing that.
The other thing I do to improve my writing is read - I’ve been reading as much YA fiction as I can get my hands on, and I’m so impressed by the wealth of inventive talent out there.
Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?
It was a great vote of confidence, and I was very happy to know that I had a really good editor - Maurice Lyon at Frances Lincoln – whom I trust and can work with. It made a difference having a deadline for completing Almost True - I was juggling writing it with working part time for a newspaper, which was very difficult. Knowing that I had to deliver on time, I couldn’t give up, was very helpful.
Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
I’m the sort of person who thinks that writing a shopping list is a boring waste of time, so I don’t think I’ll ever get into wall charts, character arcs or detailed plot plans.
For When I Was Joe I had the back-story in my head at the beginning, and I knew where it would end, and I had some ideas about what would happen along the way. The rest happened on the page – it was quite exciting. Sometimes Ty completely surprised me.
Almost True continues Ty’s story. I had the first four chapters planned out in my head, and some secrets that needed to be revealed, but the rest I planned as I went along. Sometimes I’ll work chapter by chapter, sometimes I’ll map out a section of four or five chapters. Sometimes I go completely wrong – I wrote about fifteen chapters over the summer without my writing group, then one comment at our first September meeting made me realise I had to rewrite about ten of them.
The legal side of things in Almost True had to be decided in consultation with my barrister friend. I told him the story so far and he outlined possible outcomes. So it’s almost as though I set up the first two thirds of the plot and then the resolution took care of itself.
Rewrites and Revision: How long did it take you to complete When I was Joe? Did you do much rewriting or editing?
I wrote the first draft between May and July 2008. Then I reworked the ending, and, after some advice from a potential agent, the first two chapters. I was editing all the time that I was writing. Typically I’d write for a couple of hours in the evening, edit for an hour in the morning and think about the story all day. I also had to do some rewriting when my barrister friend had read it - ‘Did you mean to get all the police procedure wrong?’ he asked.
By October the final draft was more or less complete, but then my agent had some suggestions and I made some other changes with the guidance of my editor at Frances Lincoln. The last chapter was added after the book had been accepted for publication, and I also rewrote one of the middle chapters. I went on editing until I had to hand back the final proofs.
What made you think ‘I want to write for teenagers?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
Once I had the idea of writing about witness protection it had to be a teenage book, because changing your identity is such a good metaphor for puberty. I love reading books for teenagers - there weren’t many of them around when I was growing up, so it’s a new genre for me.
Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?
I was a total bookworm as a child. I loved Enid Blyton, the Chalet School books, pony books, ballet books. My favourites were Noel Streatfield - especially Wintle’s Wonders and White Boots; Honor Arundel’s Emma books about an orphaned girl who goes to live in Scotland with her arty aunt; Antonia Forest’s Marlow family series and my absolute favourites, two books by Mara Kaye, Masha and The Youngest Lady in Waiting, about a girl growing up in St Petersburg in the nineteenth century.
There wasn’t a lot of YA writing around when I was a teenager, although I loved The Outsiders by SE Hinton. I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer, and I fell in love with Wuthering Heights.
I envy today’s teenagers, with all the choice they have of wonderful writers. Recently I’ve particularly enjoyed books by Cary Doctorow, Gillian Philip, Patrick Ness, Tabitha Suzuma, Paul Dowswell and Mary Hoffman.
Children and teens are discerning readers, who aren’t fooled by reputation or pretentiousness. But they have many more distractions than I did - more television, computers, more pressure from school. I used to read as an escape from boredom. My children have more excitement in a weekend than I had in a year at their age.
Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you'd like to write for in the future?
I’ve never tried writing fiction for adults. If I think up a story which is best told for adults, then I’d certainly give it a go.
Before finding your agent and achieving publication, did you approach many agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?
I felt a great sense of urgency about finding an agent and publisher for When I Was Joe because it was so topical and it might seem stale if I waited even a few months. I’m also horribly impatient. So I started querying agents as soon as I’d finished the first draft. I’ve now discovered tons of blogs giving great advice on how to query agents, and they all say never start querying as soon as you finish the first draft. It was madness - I didn’t even have a title, and I was re-writing the ending - but eventually it paid off.
I had around half a dozen rejections. Then, in October 2008 my luck turned. I heard from three agents in one week who all wanted to represent me. Suddenly I was in the unbelievable position of being able to pick my agent, an almost impossible task because they were all completely wonderful. In the end I opted for the calm and insightful Jenny Savill, partly because I felt we complemented each other very well and partly I felt very comfortable with the international flavour of her agency Andrew Nurnberg Associates - Ty would think they are very cool because they specialise in translation rights and he loves languages.
When Jenny approached publishers, inevitably there were rejections. I tried to take every one as valuable feedback, but it’s quite hard to do that when they contradict each other. Some publishers were nervous of taking on a book they saw as being very gritty; others felt it clashed with their existing writers. The process gave me a lot of insight into the publishing industry and I tried, not always successfully, to avoid taking rejections personally. Luckily, by February 2009, I had a two book offer from Frances Lincoln.
Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Just do it. Sit down and write 1,000 words every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish, keep going. You don’t have to plan everything in advance - just think about what’s going to happen in those 1,000 words. In a month you’ll have 30,000 words, in two months 60,000. Then you’ve got something you can work with.
Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?
I’ve started blogging since I got my book deal. Candy Gourlay has a great blog on marketing children’s authors at notesfromtheslushpile.co.uk and she wrote something like ‘I really can’t understand why an author wouldn’t have their own blog’. So I thought I’d better set one up.
I was a total novice, had no idea really what blogging was, or how anyone would ever find it or read it. I wanted to gather together news stories and information on knife crime and witness protection. I also thought it would be interesting to write about becoming a published author. I’ve actually found it hard to stick to my own brief - now I write about anything and everything I think might be interesting, and I’m completely addicted to blogging, twittering, Facebook and reading other people’s blogs.
I’ve met some great people through the blog, and I can’t believe I’ve only been doing it for a few months. My only worry about it is that it definitely makes me lazy about ‘real’ journalism – I think of an idea, consider trying to sell it to a newspaper, and then stick it on my blog instead. It’s called Almost True and it’s at www.wheniwasjoe.blogspot.com
Agent's comments: JENNY SAVILL of ANDREW NURNBERG ASSOCIATES
Why I chose Keren-
I was three chapters into Keren’s manuscript when I knew I wanted to represent her. Her writing was really consummate – amazingly so for a debut author.
Usually things niggle me straight away when I read a manuscript and in lots of cases I have to make an effort to read on, but not with Keren – the narrative just flowed – and then some! I was completely taken with the main character, Ty, who I found utterly real and sympathetic and who finds himself, having witnessed a knife crime, in a truly nightmarish situation. But it wasn’t all grim – parts of those first three chapters had me laughing out loud and I knew I was in the presence of a very skilful writer, who had managed to get inside the head of a traumatised teenage boy.
Keren and I met and talked and talked and I liked her loads and knew I could work editorially with her. I also knew I felt passionate enough about WHEN I WAS JOE to give it the pitch it deserved to publishers. I felt it was a book that was going to matter.
A tall tales & short stories review
I was fortunate to be given the chance to read a pre-publication copy of When I Was Joe and I certainly wasn't disappointed.
Written in a first-person narrative, the story unfolds at a page-turning pace. The prose is taut and uncluttered which adds to the appeal and I really believed I was hearing a teenage boy's thoughts and speech. I believe this to be an essential quality when reading a contemporary novel such as this, especially considering some of the themes it explores. I believe it could help encourage a usually reluctant reader to pick up this book and enjoy the experience of reading a novel.
Having mentioned the apparent simplicity of the writing, which in itself is a very difficult thing to achieve and the author should be applauded, the novel itself covers many issues relevant to contemporary society.
This is definitely a multi-layered novel, emphasised by the intriguing character of Ty. During our teenage years we are developing into individuals, trying to break free of parental constraints. Ty is given the opportunity to recreate himself in a different guise, quite literally, and it makes for interesting reading. What would any of us do if we're given the opportunity to reinvent ourselves? Ty is a teenager given just that chance. He makes good and bad choices, he pushes boundaries, he experiments. It doesn't always make him likeable but certainly complex.
There are hints and suggestions of things not being quite what they seem which really drew this reader in and made her turn the pages in need to know the answers. Always a wonderful thing to pick up a book and not want to put it down until you know the full story.
WHEN I WAS JOE release dates
UK, January 2010,
Australia, February 2010,
Germany and USA Autumn 2010.
ALMOST TRUE release dates
UK, Autumn 2010
Germany, Australia and USA 2011
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