Monday 12 August 2013

Past on Paper - Interview With Lydia Syson, Author of 'A World Between Us'

Well, hello there.

It's been a while.

I won't go into a long and boring explanation as to why I haven't posted anything in an age, mainly because it's a bit long and boring. But the main reason there's been nothing here for the last month involved a four year old, a cup of milk and the keyboard of my old laptop (RIP old laptop). But I'm back! With a replacement laptop! And because I've been gone so long, I've got an extra special treat for you...

You may remember me introducing my new (well, it was new then) feature, Past on Paper. I'm going to be posting about YA books set in the twentieth century, for no particular reason other than I've recently loved quite a lot of this sort of historical fiction. You may also remember a review I did for A World Between Us, and that I liked it a lot. More than a lot. Not only was it a great story superbly written, but it centred around a period of history that I'm particularly interested in - the Spanish Civil War - as well as being the first overtly 'political' YA novel that I'd encountered, very much appealing to the politics nerd in me. So I thought I'd ask the author, Lydia Syson, for her thoughts on YA historical fiction, politics in YA novels and other things of great interest...

-          How would you define ‘historical’ fiction? Can it be anything up to contemporary or do you think a certain amount of time has to have passed?

I think it’s less a question of the passing of time than the passing of a particular world – which was why I felt able to include Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love in my Guardian Book Club historical top ten.  I’ve read other definitions that say 50 years must have passed (isn’t that also what turns old furniture into an antique?) or the writer can’t have been alive at the time of the setting.  I’m not terribly bothered by strict definitions.  In fact one of the reasons I particularly like writing YA fiction is its lack of concern for genre boundaries and strict definitions.  And I’m horribly aware from my own childhood experience that labels can be as a terrible turn-off.  Actually lots of my favourites were time slip books, or slightly alternative history.  Not that I would have known how to label them then.

The historical novels that I find most interesting are those actually propelled by specific events or a particular zeitgeist.  And place is as important to me as time. I get frustrated and annoyed by fiction that is merely vaguely historical and uses the past as decoration. 

-          What came first – a desire to write a YA book or a desire to write a book about the Spanish Civil War? What inspired you to marry the two together?

The first thing was having children, and sharing books with them.  Years ago my daughter suggested that I write a novel for children while I was waiting to hear from publishers about an historical biography I was hoping to write for adults.  I finally started it in the gap between delivery and publication of Doctor of Love.  This first novel was set in the eighteenth century, and I’m definitely planning to return to it one day.  The idea for writing ‘A World Between Us’ came from a later conversation with my daughter.  It seemed a perfect subject for a YA readership – world-changing events, commitment, passion, tragedy, romance, and betrayal, full of contemporary resonance.

-          Your story is centred around an event that isn’t widely known about – was this a conscious decision?

A World Between UsVery much so, though it was a somewhat risky one.  I was shocked to discover from my teenage daughter that most of her friends knew nothing at all about the Spanish Civil War.  I was also rather amazed to find nobody had already written the kind of book I had in mind – a novel full of the passions of the period that would arouse the interest of younger people, but offer a new perspective on the war too, something informed by the work of post-Cold War, post-Franco historians that used newly available archive resources and also addressed the question of women’s involvement in the war, and yet was completely accessible. Actually, put like that, I suppose it’s easier to understand why it hadn’t been done.  Another problem is that most children’s publishers seemed very bound to the curriculum when it comes to historical fiction, or wanted some sort of ‘history plus…’(fantasy/ghost etc) and of course I’d started writing at the height of the YA vampires and dystopia obsession. But once I’d become aware of the gap, I did feel a responsibility to fill it.  It was definitely a challenge.

-          As I teenager, I was aware that being interested in politics was a bit rare for someone of my age – what sort of feedback have you had from teenagers who have read A World Between Us in this respect?

I was a bit worried at first that young people today would find it hard to identify with that level of idealism and political commitment.  But I kept reminding myself of the fact that you’re never more open to new ideas and influences than when you are in your teens and early twenties.  Too many older people dismiss contemporary teenagers as self-obsessed social media addicts with no interest in the wider world.  I don’t think that’s true or fair.  School groups I’ve spoken to are very quick to see the parallels between the British Union of Fascists and far right groups in Britain today like the English Defence League and the British National Party.

This week I asked a large audience from a wide range of schools how they felt about the balance between romance and politics in A World Between Us. They were overwhelmingly more interested in the political aspects of the book, and said they’d like to see more politics in children’s fiction.  I was always determined not to shy away from the word communism, and was very pleased when one reader told me how much it had meant to her to find a communist character in a novel for the first time. I wanted to convey exactly why communism was so attractive to so many people all over the world in the 1930s, and why joining the Party seemed to them the only way to oppose fascism at the time.  But I think there are enough hints in the book to suggest the direction communism was taking.  

My impression is that the economic crisis and the ensuing debates about global capitalism are now reviving many teenagers’ interest in politics.  But it’s something that’s always going to fluctuate. I became a teenager in 1979, just after Thatcher was elected, and I think we were a very political generation. And of course it wasn’t rare at all for a teenager to be interested in the 1930s, when politics was on the street and in your face and much harder to avoid than it is today.

-          When writing a story around a significant historical event, how important is the balance between educating and entertaining a reader? Do you think the story has to be even more powerful in order to match the drama of the historical backdrop?

That’s a very good point.  Of course I want readers to come away having learned something – but I don’t want them ever to feel ‘educated’ or worse still, lectured.  And I certainly don’t want to tell them what to think about events.  It’s really important that the historical background is so much a part of the fabric of the novel that readers absorb information in passing, almost unconsciously.  Recognition of that fact might come later.  I suppose it’s a less a case of competing claims than making sure that the drama of the story comes naturally from the drama of the history – so that the past is never merely a backdrop.  I try to convey the atmosphere and dilemmas of a particular situation, and above all what it was like for the individuals caught up in it. 

My own starting point was that this had to be a book that anyone could read, however much or however little they already knew.  Of course I can’t help hoping that reading ‘A World Between Us’ might ignite an interest, even a passion for the subject, and make readers want to explore further – and there are lots of suggestions for that in the enhanced iBook edition and on my website – but it might be the only book on the Spanish Civil War that some people ever read. I think by the end of the book most people will have a pretty good sense of the sweep of events, what the war was all about and how it fits into twentieth century history.  It’s definitely education by stealth though – I don’t think it’s the job of historical fiction to lecture or hector.

-          How important a role do you think political themes play in YA fiction in general?

More than most publishers like to let on, perhaps.  I do think that it’s unusual for YA books on political subjects to address party politics in quite the way ‘A World Between Us’ does, but that’s partly to do with what makes a good story.  If you take a slightly broader perspective of what is ‘political’, there are ever increasing numbers of YA novels that come under that category – even The Hunger Games, arguably, if you think in terms of totalitarianism and individual freedom.  Amnesty International has a very interesting project about using fiction to teach human rights:
In DarknessI’ve recently been hugely impressed by Nick Lake’s remarkable novel In Darkness, set in Haiti.  It weaves together the story of Toussaint l’Ouverture, who led the slave revolt that briefly freed his country in the late 18th century, with that of Shorty, a boy in Port au Prince trapped under the rubble after the 2010 earthquake. I’m also looking forward to reading William Sutcliffe’s The Wall this summer.  Politics can be more or less overt in YA fiction, but you’ll definitely find them there when you start looking.  Think, for example, of Anna Perera’s Guantanamo Boy (more topical than ever), Mal Peet’s Life: an Exploded Diagram (the Cuban Missile crisis as a background to a rural coming-of-age story) or Jenny Downham’s You Against Me, which addresses sexual (and indeed class) politics quite brilliantly. Miriam Halahmy and Sarah Crossan offer different insights into immigration, racism, and asylum. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s book The Unforgotten Coat may have been aimed at younger readers, I think it’s as must-read for everyone!  Then of course there are environmental politics – Carl Hiaasen is very good on that, as is Gill Lewis, for slightly younger readers.  
What all these books have in common is that they open readers’ eyes and help them to think about the world in a different way. This seems to me the real value of YA literature, which doesn’t suffer from genre policing in quite the same way as adult fiction. It’s exciting and rewarding as a writer because – as long as you can persuade a publisher - you really can do what you like with it.
-          Would you ever consider writing about any other time periods, or even contemporary, in the future?

That Burning SummerDefinitely.  One of the things I loved about being a radio producer was flitting about – making a programme about Bohemia one month, the history of America on screen the next. I’d hate to get stuck in just one period.  I suppose I am more wary of contemporary settings, as they can date so much more quickly.  But I’m not ruling anything out.
That Burning Summer comes out in October.  This is set in England in the summer of 1940, right underneath the Battle of Britain, on a part of the coast so close to France that you could hear the guns across the channel.  In a sense it’s about events following on from those of A World Between Us – but everything has shifted again. The main characters are a Polish fighter pilot, who has already witnessed the invasions of his own country and France, a teenage girl who shelters him, and her younger brother who is obsessed with a set of rules that the government has issued: ‘If the Invader Comes’.  This book is moody and atmospheric, and much more confined in than A World Between Us in terms of characters, time and place, but it’s full of echoes and foreshadowing, evoking past, future and the wider world.  Not party politics, but not unpolitical. 
I’m not quite ready to talk about the book I hope to write next, but I have a feeling that A World Between Us fans will be very excited by it. And I’m certainly excited by the prospect of researching and writing it, and raring to go.

-          Are there any tips you would give to anyone thinking about writing historical YA fiction?

Total immersion. Live and breathe your period.  Dream it.  Bore your friends and family about it.  Use all your senses and everything at your disposal – especially sound archives and films, if it’s recent enough.  But if it isn’t, novels and plays written at the time you’re writing about will give you a great sense of voice and vocabulary.  Though having said that, it’s really important to get the balance right.  You want it to read convincingly to the modern ear without falling into pastiche.

Well, I'd like to say an enormous thanks to Lydia for yet more brilliant words. I, for one am ridiculously excited about That Burning Summer and the as-yet-undisclosed book that I can't wait to hear more about.

So what are your thoughts on politics in YA fiction? Does it play more of an important role than you first realised? Is young adult fiction a good place for political themes? (very much so I reckon)

Let me pick your brains people...