INTERVIEW by Megan Welsh

NWR Issue 101

Hayley Long

Hayley Long is the author of several novels, mainly for young adults, including What’s Up with Jody Barton? (shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Book Awards). Her most recent novel, Downside Up, was published in July of this year, and she is currently at work on a new project while also teaching in Norfolk. Here, she talks about her novels’ structure, Twitter (you can find her @hayleywrites), teacher training, and being a teenager.

NWR: In your latest, Downside Up, fourteen-year-old Ronni Runnacles is an avid Twitter user, and the structure of the novel incorporates her tweets. How did you find mixing such a short form – the famous 140 characters or less –with the longer novel form? Can you tell me about your process for mapping a novel like Downside, where the structure – page-jumping, book-flipping, varied font sizes, tweets, and dreams – is so important to the story?

HL: Tweets are interesting. Sometimes, limiting yourself to fewer words forces you to be more creative. It reminds me of the very first words I had in print. I used to write CD and book reviews for the Cardiff magazine, Buzz. The word limit for a review was about 120 words. It actually wasn’t easy and probably made me a stronger, more precise writer. Having said that, many Tweets are just thoughts thrown straight out on the wind. They’re knee-jerk reactions. You have a thought – you tweet it. I’m just as bad as anybody. And in Downside Up, it’s often Ronni’s first reaction: Where’s my phone? I want to tell the world? In that novel, the tweets are just another way of expressing her state of mind.

It’s interesting you’ve asked me about structure and mapping. For me, that’s definitely the hardest part of writing a novel. The story is fine – once you have an idea. But the tricky bit is that question of HOW to tell it. For Downside Up, I liked the idea of parallel worlds. Sort of like Freaky Friday or Billy Liar. And I like the idea of interacting with a book – making it part of the story. I wanted some physical way to show that Ronni’s superstar lifestyle isn’t real. I also liked the idea of kids flicking backwards and forwards and turning the book around as they read. But then I like that kind of thing myself. And that’s why my books have different-sized fonts and scribbles and other visual tricks going on too. It’s because I like these things.

NWR: Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman says, ‘whether they choose a classic literary novel or Twilight, the important thing is to get young people to pick up a book.’ Has using social media, like Facebook, Twitter, or the Girls Heart Books blog, helped you engage with your readers (young and otherwise)? Do you think it draws people to reading to be able to engage with writers that way? For you, does it help or hinder your writing?

HL: I absolutely agree with Malorie Blackman. Any book is an investment of time. It requires concentration. And if you can concentrate on a book, you can concentrate on other things too. Social media is totally different. If anything, I think it erodes our ability to concentrate and encourages us to flick quickly from one thing to the next. I usually turn the internet connection off when I’m writing. For me, writing is work – I have a Facebook page and a very active Twitter account but I don’t look at them when I’m working. Do Facebook and Twitter get me more readers? I wouldn’t have thought so. But they provide an easy way for people to contact me. And unlike a letter or an email, it takes very little time for me to reply – meaning I have more time to write.

NWR: Social media spots, too, can also be a dodgy place for young people, especially, I think, girls. (I’m thinking of Downside Up, when Ronnie and Sadie’s fight is filmed and posted on YouTube, or Ronni’s very public audition in front of Piers Morgan.) I’ve read that your first book, Lottie Biggs is NOT Mad, was written for your students at Cardiff’s Whitchurch High School. Was Downside written with friends or students – young social media aces, but still, I think, at risk – in mind? Moreover, would you agree with this assessment of risk?

HL: I’d certainly agree with your assessment of risk. Social media is a minefield for everybody – but especially younger people. I’m actually really thankful that nothing like Facebook existed when I was a teenager. It would have made me miserable. I’m sure I would’ve judged my ‘worth’ by my number of Facebook ‘friends.’ And perhaps that’s what some teenagers are doing. Apparently they all have about 800 friends. How can that be? Nobody has that many friends. Most people can’t even claim to know that many people. So by ‘adding’ all these near-strangers, they’re giving people access to private information and making themselves vulnerable.

But actually, none of this was in my head when I wrote Downside Up. For me, it was only ever about 2 things:
1. How difficult it can be for kids when their parents split up
2. How ambition and realistic goals have been replaced by identikit dreams of fame and celebrity.

NWR: Taking a bit of a more serious turn, on Twitter, particularly, I notice that you’ve been very active both in supporting striking teachers and in responding to the government’s position on teacher training. Specifically, Dominic Cummings’ report released earlier this month, revealed his belief (among other controversial assertions!) that ‘whilst heads need to be flexible enough to allow talented people to experiment, we also need schools in chains that spread proven approaches (and “90% solutions”) without relying on innovation, inspiration, and talent.’ As both a teacher and a writer – about students in your young adult fiction and about teachers in your novel Kilburn Hoodoo {a highly recommended title, ED} – what’s your perspective?

HL: I’m a teacher in the state sector so obviously I care about state education. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this current government cares about students in the state sector or respects their teachers at all. If they did, they wouldn’t be introducing free schools which divert money away from existing schools, and which are at liberty to employ whoever they like – qualified or not. It’s quite astonishing and we’re already hearing reports of free schools which are failing just weeks after they opened. It’s disastrous for the students involved. We expect our cab drivers to have a driving licence. We expect our doctors and solicitors and accountants to be qualified. We even expect whoever cuts our hair to be trained. But the effects of a poor haircut last just a few weeks… the effects of a poor education can hamper a person forever. Teaching is a career with a big burden of work and responsibility. It needs specialist qualifications and training. I’d have thought this was obvious to anyone who’s ever spent a day in a classroom. Maybe those Old Etonians who are running the country should come and spend a bit more time seeing what teachers in the state sector do.

NWR: Given that you often write about young people at school – students interacting with teachers, worrying about GCSEs, being disciplined at school – how much may these recent political turns influence your writing?

HL: Not at all. I try to keep politics out of my classroom when I teach and I try to do the same thing when I write fiction.

NWR: Getting back to fiction, I’m always excited to see girls’ friendships portrayed. (I’m thinking of Lottie and Goose in the Lottie Biggs series or even Ronni and Sadie ultimately coming to terms with each other in Downside Up.) Are you conscious of subverting stereotypes here? Similarly, I think of your angry girls, Lottie trying to chuck a desk out a window or Ronni running a bumper-car at ramming speed, and wonder, how do you, writing your novels, try to captures such passions in young women?

HL: I never really think about stereotypes when I write about friendships. If anything, I suppose I’ve just drawn on remembered friendships from when I was at school. Maybe too, I’ve corrected my own history a bit – created the types of close friendships I would have liked. To be honest, I wasn’t very good at being a teenager – probably because I looked about five years younger than everyone else! As for capturing the passions of angry young women, I suppose it’s the same answer again. I haven’t consciously tried to do anything; I just create my characters, imagine how they might be feeling in certain difficult situations and just let the story happen.

There are other times, though, when I’ve quite deliberately smashed stereotypes. Especially in What’s Up with Jody Barton? There’s Jody, of course. And Jody’s dad who looks like a thug but has a big soft heart. I also wrote in several elderly characters and was careful to give them their own individual personalities. The two old ladies, Vee and Doreen, share a really dirty sense of humour and provide a lot of the comedy. I wanted to show my young readers that old doesn’t mean boring.

NWR: And, certainly, stereotypes flip with your boys as well. Stuart (Downside Up), Neil (Lottie Biggs series), and Liam (What’s Up with Jody Barton?) appear as the lovely, moody dreamboat type – and then things get complicated. This may be too simple a generalisation, but do you find boys and girls respond differently to your books? What kinds of questions – from school readings and the like – have stuck with you?

HL: Oh, you’ve noticed! There’s a pattern with my heart throb boys. I own up. The best looking boy is never Prince Charming. I think it’s a reaction to all those terrible American teen romances which were around when I was a teenager – Sweet Valley High and similar stuff. They were awful: I read them because all the other girls did. But always the central characters were beautiful. Even if they weren’t popular or fashionable, they were only a quick make-over away from beautiful. But real life isn’t like that. In real life, the best looking boy in school is usually a bit of a git and the only person who asks you to the disco is called Keith Mucas and has bad skin. Maybe I’m correcting history again. I’m giving all those bad-skinned boys a chance to shine.

Do boys and girls react differently to my books? Well, mostly I only ever get emails from girls – which is unsurprising considering the gender branding of my book covers. But when I go to schools, I’m always really surprised and massively pleased by the reaction I get from boys. They LOVE it when I read, ask me loads of questions and queue up to have their books signed. They’re fascinated by these insights into the life and mind of a teenage girl (not mine, obviously – I mean my characters’.) And that’s why all this gender branding is a shame. Why shouldn’t boys read about teenage girls? Teenage girls are absolutely relevant to their own lives, after all.

NWR: Jody Barton loves Jim Morrison and River Phoenix; Lottie Biggs loves James Dean. Of course, these are widely regarded figures, but do you think the idea of such tragic figures appeal more (or differently) to young people? (My first thought with Jody Barton was ‘Has Jody seen My Own Private Idaho?’!)

HL: Ha! I’ve asked myself the same question and OF COURSE Jody has seen My Own Private Idaho. And found it mind-blowing. It probably made him feel even more uncomfortable and confused. In all seriousness though, I had to think very hard about which film Jody would latch on to. Running on Empty ticked all the boxes and wouldn’t get me into any trouble with irate parents….

It’s probably not going to surprise you if I tell you that there was never any agenda or grand design with all these beautiful dead stars who keep cropping up in my books. I write about what I can get excited about. With Jody, I had some very obvious challenges. I was writing the voice of a gay teenage boy. The only part of that phrase I have personal experience of is the teenage part. So I thought about who I fancied when I was a teenager and picked River Phoenix. And when Jody describes him and says how beautiful he is and laments the fact he’s dead – that’s not really Jody speaking, it’s me.

Guess what? When I was a teenager, I loved Jim Morrison and James Dean too.

NWR: Rounding it off, now. Say I’m looking for some great new fiction, young adult or otherwise (do you see a distinction there?), what’s on your shelf right now? And I believe you’ve just finished a first draft? Can you tell us anything about that? Will it be a Wales novel?

HL: Young adult or otherwise? Well, a good story is a good story for anyone. I don’t think adult readers should dismiss teen fiction. But then again, sometimes I think the expansion of YA fiction has created its own limitations. It’s possible to find a lifetime’s worth of reading just on those teen-targeted shelves. And that means some readers may become quite confined in their tastes and choose never to explore other areas. When I was a teenager myself, I read everything and anything. I still do. I love William Boyd. I recently read a historical novel, Dominion by CJ Sansom and really enjoyed it. I have Morrissey’s self-titled autobiography to read, and I shall be tackling Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, when I get a chance. I also read teen fiction too, of course. This summer, I was in New York and came home with a suitcase stuffed with books. I’m a big fan of an American teen fiction writer called Walter Dean Myers. His books are always set in Harlem and follow the lives of teenage boys. Monster is an ASTONISHING novel. Right now, I’m reading another American teen fiction novel called Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin. That’s very good. I also recently read Martyn Pig by the British writer, Kevin Brooks. I read it because my sixteen-year-old nephew told me he’d read it at school and it was ‘quite good.’ Actually, it’s brilliant.

In between all this reading, I’m polishing a draft of my own latest work. It won’t be set in Wales. I haven’t been back there – in my writing – since Lottie Biggs. But this one takes me back to another previous address of mine – Brussels. It has many features my readers will recognise: varying font sizes, visual tricks, first person voice etc – but this is also very different to any of my previous books and quite different to anything else out there at the moment. I like to keep one step ahead of what people expect from me. I like to keep surprising people. Maybe that’s a risky strategy – but it’s the only way forward for me. I don’t want to keep writing the same things over and over again.

Megan Welsh studies creative writing at the University of St Andrews

What's Up with Jody Barton? by Hayley Long


previous interview: Interview with Katrina Naomi
next interview: Interview with Scholastique Mukasonga


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