Friday 15 November 2013

Ideas come from Looking Glass Land

I was sitting in my upstairs writing-room (the spare bedroom) when I saw one of our cats trot purposefully down my opposite neighbour’s drive and disappear into the hedge.

I found myself wondering what tales a cat could tell.  For they lead lives very different to ours. They barely even inhabit the same house. From down there on the floor, the kitchen looks utterly different. (Try it.)  The functions of objects are not the same for my cats and me.  I don’t sleep on the table, and neither should they. But they do. 

I’ve never felt desperate to lose myself in the garage. I'm not interested in what’s going on under the kitchen sink.  When I go out the back or front door, I don’t tense and look carefully about for enemies. I have no idea what my cats get up to when they go out, but I suspect it’s adventurous and epic, with dangers everywhere.  Cats who can go outdoors are never bored.  And what must it be like to climb trees the way they do?  We were pruning the apple tree a few weeks back, and I realised how very much higher it feels at the top of the ladder than it seems from the ground; and how very different the garden looks from up there.

Do you remember how it was all the black kitten’s fault that Alice went through the Looking Glass?  It simply wouldn’t fold its arms properly, and she held it up to the mirror 

that it might see how sulky it was –

‘and if you’re not good directly,’ she added, ‘I’ll put you through the Looking Glass-House…

‘Now… I’ll tell you all my ideas about the Looking-glass House.  First, there’s the room you can see through the glass – that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way.  I can see all of it when I get upon a chair – all but the bit just behind the fireplace.  Oh!  I do so wish I could see that bit.  I want so much to know whether they’ve a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too – but that may be only pretence, to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I’ve held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold one up in the other room.’

Stop for a moment and just reflect (sorry!) on Alice’s chatter.  She's clearly been thinking about that looking glass for quite a while, and she's come up with the convincingly child-like (and extremely creepy) notion that the people in it are different from us - and that they may be deliberately deceiving us.  It's not Alice's own reflection who holds up the book in the mirror, but a mysterious ‘they’ - and this is a very good piece of observation. The looking glass is on the high mantelpiece. Alice, as a little girl, is not tall enough to see herself in it: if she holds a book up over her head she can see only the reflected book and not the person holding it, who might therefore be... anyone...?

Alice continues:  ‘You can see just a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.’

And, of course, it is.  ‘What could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but all the rest was as different as possible.  For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fireplace seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney piece…had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.’

Adults as well as children often ask writers the dreaded question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  It’s so very difficult to answer, because a lot of the time, we simply don’t  know. But I’ve evolved an answer. Fittingly, it’s in the shape of a story.  Some years ago on a book tour I stayed in a Manchester hotel, and my room overlooked the windows of a derelict building across the street.  Because I'm a storyteller, I immediately imagined a face in one of the broken windows, looking back at me.  Whose might it be?  A ghost?  A fugitive?  A murderer? A drug-smuggler?  Somebody from the past?  An alternative me?  Any one of those choices would lead to a different story.  

To be a storyteller - or a reader - is to see the world from someone else's point of view.  Ideas come from that hop across the street, that quantum jump that takes you out of yourself into a different place, a place from which you see the world at a fresh, different, slewed angle. 

 © Katherine Langrish

Friday 8 November 2013

What is YA fiction?

Here, in order from the left, are Delia Sherman, Susan Cooper, Garth Nix,  Neil Gaiman (at the back, heading towards his seat), Will Hill and Holly Black, taking part in a panel at the World Fantasy Conference 2013, which as you probably know was held in Brighton over last weekend.  What they were discussing provoked a good deal of passionate comment from the audience, both agreement and disagreement – most of which remained pretty much inaudible, as for some unknown reason the massive conference hall floor was not provided with roving mikes.

The subject under discussion was:  "The Next Generation:  Are All the Best Genre Books Now YA?" and the explanation ran: "Over the past decade the young adult market has seen a huge boom in genre titles and readers, in no small way helped by the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games and the works of Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman. What has caused this surge amongst younger readers, and can it be used to keep them reading into adulthood?" However, as these things tend to do, the discussion veered away into a conversation about the nature of YA fiction: what it is and what it isn't, and what makes it what it is.

So when is a book YA?  It's not easy to say.  Perhaps it's simply when the protagonist is a teenager or young adult.  So does that make 'The Catcher in the Rye' a YA book?  Discuss... But is 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' a children's book, just because Scout, the point of view character, is a child? Clearly not: so it's not as straightforward as that.

Moreover, is YA fiction a new phenomenon?  Other members of the panel were in broad agreement with Neil Gaiman when he said - I paraphrase - that YA is a new genre, and that in his youth and that of most of us, we sprang from reading children's books straight into adult fiction, especially genre fiction. Teenagers were not especially catered for.

Deep in discussion - CJ Busby and Elizabeth Wein; Kathleen Jennings listening behind

Some of the people sitting around me wanted to question or at least qualify this - but it's difficult to make a nuanced point while effectively yelling from the fifteenth row.  Elizabeth Wein, sitting behind me, pointed out that maybe the perceived absence of YA fiction in the 60's and 70's is more about categorisation than actual fact. She pointed to books such as KM Peyton's Flambards series (in which the heroine grows up, elopes, marries, is widowed, remarries twice, has a child, loses a child...), Rosemary Sutcliff's historical novels, published as children's books, but always with young adult heroes - and Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea novels in which the main characters start out as young adults and eventually even grow old.

So if ‘Young Adult’ is a new category, maybe this is only true in the sense that the idea been newly created: the books were always there.  

Of course Neil Gaiman is correct to say that we also moved into ‘adult’ genre fiction.  Of course we did – to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, John Buchan, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Jack Schaeffer, Georgette Heyer.  But what about Alan Garner’s ‘The Owl Service’?  Is that a children's book?  Is ‘Red Shift’? What about TH White’s ‘The Once and Future King’? Also available were many non-genre (for want of a better word) novels which were both accessible and attractive to teenage readers and which dealt specifically, many of them, with the pains and challenges of growing up:  Rumer Godden’s ‘The Greengage Summer’, Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’, Jane Gardam’s ‘A Long Way From Verona’, and ‘Bilgewater’, and ‘The Summer After the Funeral’. Some of these were labelled adult books, some children’s: for better or worse, all would be marketed as YA today.  Labels or no labels, they existed.   

These were the books I pulled off my parents’ shelves, or found for myself in the libraries as I – never left children’s books behind, I never stopped reading them – but as I hacked my own paths through the uncharted jungle that lay beyond the children’s shelves.

Elizabeth Goudge’s novels are a case in point. She may be best known today for her children’s novel ‘The Little White Horse’, which JK Rowling’s praise probably helped back into print.  It is indeed a lovely book, and so are her other children’s novels, especially my favourite, ‘Linnets and Valerians’- but she was, in the main, a writer of adult novels. At age 14, I found depth and complexity in her adult fiction – a thoughtfulness, a slower narrative pace, a concern for the difficulties of relationships, and a delight in abstract concepts of philosophy and religion which opened my horizons. There were nearly always children in these books, but the children interacted with adults and their concerns in an un-children’s-book-like way. Goudge wrote of terror and horror and mental illness. The sensitive child Ben, in ‘The Bird in the Tree’, is haunted by a sketchbook he has found which contains pictures of dead and decomposing bodies. He becomes terribly afraid of death for himself and for those he loves – but he doesn’t tell, or not for a long time. The story is not about Ben, but about a love affair between his mother Nadine and his cousin David, which threatens to break up his parents’ marriage and split his family. Ben and his brother and sister are not in control, but they are still affected by the actions of the adults in their lives.

Is this is what makes ‘The Bird in the Tree’ adult fiction? This lack of centrality for the child or teenage characters? What we now term YA fiction places the young person in the focus of the action, in the learning, decision-making centre. So Cassandra in ‘I Capture the Castle’ grows and learns, watches and experiences, and makes in the end the wise and sad decision not to accept an offer of love which is largely pity. But the boy Leo, in LP Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’, although the point-of-view character, is on the edge of the action.  He doesn't understand what he's doing. Like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, he needs his adult self to narrate, to mediate, to understand, to explain. The child Leo has a minor part in adult lives. He is collateral damage, manipulated and used.  

Finally, the panel and I think the floor agreed with Holly Black that the perennial attraction of Young Adult fiction - whether it was first published with that tag or not - is its freshness of perception.  When adult fiction deals with childhood and adolescence, it tends to concentrate on loss of innocence, on damage and disillusion. YA fiction  is all about rites of passage - first love, first kiss, first independence - and the thrills and spills of growing up.

(There's another look on this from Saxey at lightningbook, who was also in the Brighton audience!)