Interview with ‘SAFE’ author Kate Hanney: “People don’t want to admit that this sort of thing happens…”
Kate Hanney has spent over 14 years working as a secondary school English teacher in South Yorkshire with young people who suffer from severe social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Whilst Kate continues to teach, her experiences working with teenagers inspired her to write realistic fiction for the ‘Young Adult’ age-group, with a focus on social issues such as crime, drugs and life in the care system.
Her first novel, ‘SAFE’, described as the book for teenagers who don’t read became a hit amongst reluctant readers after finding its way into Waterstones and secondary school reading sets. The follow-up ‘Watermelon’, offers a gritty and realistic depiction of a 15-year old boy caught up in gang violence and living in a children’s home.
Kate also recently co-founded Applecore Books with children’s author Wendy Storer, and released her third novel ‘Someone Different’ late last year.
Your inspiration for writing SAFE came from teaching young adults in South Yorkshire. How did the book come about?
It was a very tight community there, very insular and very deprived. It dawned on me that not a lot of people would realise exactly how some of these youngsters are growing up, what their experiences and their environments are like. I thought some of their stories and life experiences needed to be shared. People are sometimes quick to judge other people… to be quite negative about kids today. But there are lots of reasons why they end up being who they are and doing what they do.
When the mainstream media talks about young adults there’s often a fixation with blanket terms like “hoodies”, “chavs”, “gangs”, terms which almost dehumanise teenagers. That’s what you’re going against in your writing isn’t it?
It is, yes. It’s a fine line: it would be easy for people to say that I’m making excuses up for these youngsters and that ultimately they have to make their own decisions, they’re responsible for their own behaviours. But if you’ve been in the lives, the houses, with the parents and the other people around you that these youngsters have, it’s very difficult. A little bit of understanding and empathy, that’s what I’m trying to create. People can be quick to stereotype and have a blanket opinion of young people…
…I live on the cusp of two large housing estates in Sheffield. I got a knock on my door late one night and there were a couple of hooded youths outside. I opened the door and one of them said, “I’m just letting you know that you’ve left your keys in the door”. My house keys and my car keys were hanging out of my door on the outside and these kids had stopped to tell me.
I love that story because it absolutely shatters all those stereotypes. Some people I know would not have opened the door. What you saw happening, what you thought you might have seen happening from the outside was nothing like what they were actually doing. Not only had they actually seen the keys, they’d not just walked past, they’d not just not taken the keys and taken my car off the drive, but they’d actually come to tell me. They’d stopped and gone out of their way to be helpful.
In ‘Watermelon’ there are open references to young people engaging in violent crime, selling drugs and having underage sex. Do you believe it’s important that these things are discussed?
For the kids that are involved in that sort of thing it’s important that they can perhaps hear a story about a similar sort of life and culture to theirs. But in terms of a wider mainstream audience, it’s important that other young people and adults appreciate that these things do happen. They happen all the time where I work, in my professional life. My [own] children are still quite young but when they’re in their teenage years I would hate for them to be blinkered and think that everyone’s life is like theirs. They need to know.
How can you change the outlook of the average adult who feels threatened, rightly or not, by that image of teenagers dressed in hoodies roaming dark streets?
It’s about creating that empathy. It’s not so much excusing what some youngsters (a very tiny minority) do, it’s about trying to fill in the background to the headlines. It’s trying to go through the previous 15 or 16 years, from conception really, to understand the life choices they’ve had. I’d love it if people thought, “What would I have done in that situation? How would I have grown up?”
Many of them would realise that the choices some youngsters make are actually rational responses to their environment…
…and their cultures. Some kids have got so few positive role models, so few ambitions. One of the saddest conversations I’ve ever had with a young person… (was with) a really, really bright lad. I tried to suggest that he might want to go to university later in his life, and he just had no interest whatsoever and said “It’s not for me”. “If I took you to look round would you at least go and look around the university?” I asked him, and he was like “No, no chance”.
And he was a very intelligent bloke. We were talking about ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the time and he’d been away between lessons researching on the computer. I thought: that’s brilliant; I’m really pleased you did that, and he said, “I were just bored one night”. There were lots of other things he could have done if he’d been bored but he’d actually chosen researching and that’s how the conversation came about.
That reminded me of going back hundreds of years, or at least a hundred years. I’m thinking back to my grandparents. I can remember them telling me stories about going into service. My nan went into service when she was 13 and had this outlook of being inferior to the people she was serving, and that conversation reminded me of them.
Can you tell me a bit about Applecore Books?
Wendy and I share the same agent and we were in a very similar situation. She writes for a younger audience than me but her writing’s still very much issue-based, and we both had big publishers very interested in our work but not quite going for it in the end because of the issues. So after a while, probably a couple of years, we took the decision to form this independent company, publish our own stuff, and possibly take on other authors. For us it’s got to be within that ‘realistic’ genre.
My parents grew up in a sort of slum area of Sheffield. The reason Applecore Books is called by that name is because my dad told me a story, about kids being so poor when they were growing up that if one of them had an apple one of the poor kids would say “save the core”. And he would eat that core because it was all he’d get. And it was also the metaphor of the seed. The core being the bit that no one wants but actually holds the seeds and a potential for growth.
Do you think there’s an excess of sci-fi and fantasy fiction and not enough ‘realistic’ fiction in the Young Adult market?
A lot of books out there that are high interest, low reading age, for your less able readers, but the quality is very variable and the subject matter…if you compare it to the console games and the DVDs they’re watching, it’s very basic and much more childish…
…There’s a review of ‘Watermelon’ on Amazon which says it walks a very fine line between what would and wouldn’t be deemed acceptable for a teenage audience, and it really got me thinking. I think one of the things that people struggle with is that it’s contemporary, it’s now. People perhaps don’t want to admit that this sort of thing really happens.
At work I teach things like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’… and they’re full of issue-based stuff that’s really cruel, violent. The past cushions it. The future too. Take The Hunger Games; I mean the whole concept of The Hunger Games - young people trying to kill each other – is really quite disturbing.
A common theme in both adult and teenage fiction is that terrible experiences eventually lead to either epiphanies or positive changes in the protagonist’s inner self. Where do you stand on this?
The original ending for Watermelon was a much more tragic ending. But I had an ongoing dilemma because Cornerstones (literary consultancy) essentially said, “No you’ve got to have a positive ending, a more optimistic ending for it to be commercial”. And I deliberated about that for a long time, because I did feel like I was selling out. The way I got around that was I made it a positive ending but tried to emphasise the fact that he ended up living because of luck and coincidence. It could have very easily gone the other way, and it wasn’t anybody being a superhero, it was just a series of events that saved him. But I still do cringe a little bit with that, because nine times out of 10 it would have ended in tragedy, and that is a tough one, very tough, balancing reality with the needs of the industry, or the perceived needs of the industry.Kate Hanney, SAFE, young adult fiction
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