Young Adult fiction is hotter than ever, for those going through their teens and those of us who have survived them. As you will read in my interview with prolific YA writer, Joanne Macgregor, this is no surprise. Deep down, we all remain the same person who pined over their crush and worried what to wear to civvies day. Young adulthood is a time of firsts, of becoming, of feeling everything a bit too deeply, like that shock of cold water when you first step into a swimming pool in spring. Thankfully, we as readers are in good hands with Joanne, who lives a double life as an author and psychologist. She lets us into her writing journey, and her love for YA fiction below.
Tell us about about how you got into fiction writing and your journey so far?
I've been a reader and I've always been a writer, but I never really thought about writing a book. Then the Sizzlers massacre happened, in which one boy survived. It turns out he was the adopted child of a couple that I knew. When that case came to trial they asked me if I wanted to write the biography, and I said yes! I flew around and interviewed everybody, which grew into the first full written work I produced. When I started submitting it, it got really nice feedback but the trial was over, so there was no brand recognition. So that book never went anywhere. I realised I could do it and realised that I could really enjoy it. At the same time, my kids were reaching their teenage years and I was becoming really annoyed with the books on offer to them. A lot of them were fantasy, and they all had male protagonists. The females were all friends and sidekicks. My daughter has always been a great reader and I wanted her to have a book where the girls were central characters. They did the rescuing, they were resourceful and strong and kickass. That's when I started writing young adult fiction.
I noticed a strong eco theme in your books...
Yes, I taught high school kids and I feel that they have a lot of hope. They are not as jaded and are filled with optimism. They're passionate about their causes.
What transition did you have to make into the Young Adult voice?
The biography I wrote was non-fiction, so the first fiction I wrote was for young adult. It came naturally and I quite liked it. I wrote the first one and about half of the second one when I was trying to get the first one sold. After that I tried my hand at adult fiction, which I may do again one of these years. I've also written a couple of books for younger kids. Overall, I think I most enjoy the young adult writing.
It must be quite a dynamic voice and dynamic style...
Yes, it's fast, it's urgent, it's emotionally fresh. I'm not a great literary fiction fan. I have no patience for long waffly descriptions and am always searching for where the story begins. What I love about Young Adult books is that the story is paramount. The story trumps style. You're competing with not just other books but Candy Crush and their phones. You've got to get their attention and really hold it because otherwise you lose them.
How does your parallel career as a psychologist influence your storytelling?
It does and it doesn't. I work in two separate places on two separate days and I'm very hot on the fact that what my clients tell me is wholly confidential. Although I don't ever bring anything from their stories into my stories, it does deepen my understanding of the human condition: what anxiety's like, what depression's like, what mental disorders are like. I think that perhaps gives me an added depth. Some YA writers are very young and don't yet know about the depth of life or loss. There isn't an awareness of trauma and grief and how that shapes who we are. I hope that psychology deepens my understanding about the way that humans work and malfunction.
You're on Twitter a lot as well, which I think has it's own psychological impact...
It's interesting that my star sign is gemini and I do have these two lives. I never post as a psychologist, only as a writer. I don't want to live out there amongst the trolls.
I was really struck by the pace you have written your books. From the outside, it seems that you're launching at quite a steady pace. Tell me a bit about your approach to productivity when it comes to writing?
Well it's important to mention that a lot of those books were written before, so with Scarred I went through a long process of submitting to agents and publishers and during this time started writing the next book, and the next. By the time I decided to go the self-publishing route, I had four books, which is actually fantastic for self-publishing, because the best thing you can do is bring them out in short intervals. I don't write that fast, I just had stock. I don't have much time for writer's block, I think it's a joke. If I sat and waited until the muse inspired me I would hardly ever write. So I write, and those days that I write are very precious because I'm not earning. I can't muck about. It looks terribly impressive on the outside, but the truth is those were written a lot slower. I think I've got quite a strong work ethic. I think that persistence plays a large part in those who are published and who are not. It separates the men from the boys.
What have you learnt about young adults through writing for them?
I know a lot about them because I used to teach them, I used to work with them in drama groups, I used to do extra lessons with them, and have studied the psychology of teenagers, so I guess I was off to a good start. It's fun to go into Kindle and see what passages have been highlighted, which sentences resonate a bit more. Teens have got a bad rep and I just love them. I admire their energy, their optimism and the freshness of their lives. First love, first kiss, first failure, first rejection. I love keeping my ear in there.
I don't think that I'd know what is cool for a bunch of teens right now...
You've got to have informants. My daughter is perhaps my best informant. Yesterday I was writing a sentence about this one character being rude, and was joking about 'boobs being up to here,' and she said 'no mom, he'd say tits!' Every time I'm in the vicinity of teenagers, I listen to how they speak and what they speak about.
How do you navigate social media in your books?
Well, cellphones and emails are in the Ecowarrior series. In Scarred you will see there is a website and some social media. In my dystopian series I've made up a few things. You never know: what's in this week will be out next week.
How do you remain relevant and not date your book at the same time?
I think some things are here to stay, but other things you can make up. You have to be careful because dating also relates to the language. Some words have got longevity, but others like amaze balls don't.
What excites you about the current South African literary landscape?
I think it's wonderful! I think that there are so many voices - new voices, fresh voices - of writers who are freeing themselves from the necessity of having to write about heavy issues of the past. They are writing good stories set in this conflict, set in this society with all its baggage, which weaves its way throughout the story. What doesn't excite me about the SA literary scene is there just aren't enough readers. I think that is because partly we were raised on a diet of dreary, depressing books. They might have been necessary at the time but they aren't now. People have an idea that if they pick up a South African book it is going to be depressing. Bookstores often segregate SA fiction into a separate section - 'the naughty corner' I like to call it - with the result that it's harder for readers to discover. They don't realise you can have as good a romance or thriller or YA from a local writer, so I think we've done ourselves a disservice. I am so excited about the new crop of local books that will hopefully suck readers into reading local writing.
What are some of your favourite South African reads at the moment?
I've just read Edith Bulbring's Snitch, it was terrific. Just funny and fast-paced, I love her writing. I'm just going next door now to Love Books to get Sigh the Beloved Country by Bongani Madondo. I love Pamela Power's MsConception - that's what I mean by a book that is just human, funny, fast, well-written and entertaining. Although it's very clearly set in post-Apartheid South Africa, it's not all about these big heavy issues. It's about big, universal issues of being a woman and a mother.
How does literature help with the experience of being a young adult?
There are more teenagers reading now than ever before because there is this new genre. When I was young, you went from reading Enid Blyton to Wilbur Smith. There's this enormous wealth of books for them to read. It's not true that it's the most profitable segment, it's the most contested segment. Neurologically, you never really get past your teens. Your brain in your teenage years turns out very sticky for those experiences in those years, particularly the negative ones. The human brain, generally, is velcro for negative experiences. I think that when we write about bullying, appearance or self-esteem, somewhere out there is a teenager reading it and saying, 'this is me, I'm not alone. Other people have felt this.' I also think that there are some adults out there going, 'oh God, it wasn't just me who was the freak in high school.' I recently wrote a column for a blog where I asked, 'What made you feel like a freak in high school.' It was the most engagement I have got on any post, and it was mostly from adults. I think that teens still find in books a comfort and an emotionally charged escape that they don't find anywhere else. They are reassured that they are not alone, that the horror of high school does end and it gives them some entertainment and escape from their lives.
Visit Joanne Macgregor's author page here for some cracking YA reads, and look out for my review of Scarred, coming soon to my newly revamped reviews page!