Children’s Book Blog: Ask the author – Julia Green
Julia Green is a critically-acclaimed YA author and is also the course director for the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. I spoke to her about her new novel, ‘This Northern Sky’, and asked her to share some top tips for aspiring writers.
This Northern Sky has a very strong sense of place. Have you spent a lot of time in the Hebrides?
I first visited the Outer Hebrides (Harris and Lewis) in my early twenties – the amazing time I had that summer stayed with me, and has made its way into This Northern Sky. I made a trip to another island (Inner Hebrides) as research for the novel. I walked each morning and wrote each afternoon to try and capture the sense of place. Staying on the island helped me to find other aspects of the story, too. I began to see that the place was much more than simply a setting for events, but had a crucial role in helping my character, Kate, change and grow.
How important do you think it is for authors to familiarise themselves with the world they want to write about?
It’s different for different kinds of novels, of course. I’m interested in writing (and reading) realistic fiction, and so I need to ‘ground’ my stories in a real world. I make things up, too. The real places are fictionalised, so it’s a mixture of the closely observed, and the imagined. But even in a fantasy novel, I think the world of the story has to be carefully thought through, with its own rules and boundaries and geography. And for many authors, it’s their own connection to the world they want to write about that inspires them in the first place. So I would encourage new writers to explore the worlds they do know; to write from experience and observation. You can read about places on the internet, but it’s not the same as being there.
How did you go about making the first person narrative sound plausibly teenage?
Getting the ‘voice’ right is fundamental, I think. I spend a lot of time experimenting with the voice, and making it sound ‘right’ for the character. I listen to teenagers talk, of course, and it’s helpful having young people in my own house, though mine are older than teenage now. I don’t want to use every nuance of ‘teen speak’ – it changes too quickly, and I’d probably get it all wrong – but I do my best to write from ‘within’ the sensibility of my teenage protagonist. I ‘am’ Kate as I write.
Yes, it’s my intention to write character-driven stories, partly because so many contemporary novels are driven by plot. I want to speak up for the ‘quieter’ kind of fiction which deals with the intense, inner world of teenagers, where everything is felt so deeply and intensely.
For me, that’s the great thing about this time of life, when everything’s in transition, and when we are working out who, and how, to ‘be’. These are the sort of novels I loved when I was a young adult, and still do, actually. Stories that deal with relationships, emotions, real life.
To write a story this way, you have to spend time getting to know the character before you begin writing. I make notes. I have a list of questions I ask myself, about who she is, what’s happened to her before the story begins, what she loves, hates, fears. Her memories and dreams and secrets. What she wants. I do the same for all the characters. It helps me work out what motivates them. The story comes out of that.
Opposing views about wind farms feature heavily in the book. Why did you decide to give environmental issues such a central role?
I wanted a bigger theme – a thread to run alongside and weave through all the emotional aspects of my novel, which is all about love and loss and change. My research visit to the island provided the wind farm idea – it was a real live issue being hotly debated by the islanders. It seemed the perfect solution. We talk about the ‘winds of change’ – the environmental issue seemed to reflect the other issues rather well. And it was suitably complex: there are no clear-cut answers. I read all about it, but in the end I cut out a lot of the material I’d researched, as I didn’t want to overload the story, or sound preachy. So, in the end it’s the issue as viewed by my teenage characters. I hope readers will think about these things. It’s important that we do.
In your Creative Writing position at Bath Spa University, you must occasionally come up against people who claim that ‘writing can’t be taught’. How do you respond to them?
Usually they’ve failed to understand the difference between ‘learning’ and ‘being taught’. Our students certainly learn how to improve as writers. We’ve had so many successful students (Lucy Christopher, Gill Lewis, Sally Nicholls, to name just a few of our published alumni) so we’re clearly doing something right. There are aspects of writing that can’t be ‘taught’ (talent has to be there to start with, as does the self-discipline needed for long hours at the computer, day by day over a year), but many aspects of craft can be learned.
What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to an aspiring author?
To be a reader, as well as a writer. To trust your instincts; to write the book you really want to write, that only you can write. And to do it, every day if possible, rather than simply think about or talk about doing it!
Find out more about Julia Green and her work here www.julia-green.co.uk
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonster
Tagged in: C.J. Harper, C.J. Skuse, Che Golden, Elen Caldecott, Fleur Hitchcock, Gill Lewis, Jim Carrington, Julia Green, Lucy Christopher, Marie-Louise Jensen, Rachel Carter, Sally Nicholls, Sam Gayton, Sarah Hammond, This Northern Sky
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