Guest post by YA writer Rachel Ward

A book develops a life of its own once it’s published, and you don’t know who, if anyone, will pick it up and read it. One of the things that worried me as a new author was the thought that some readers might be upset by things in my book, Numbers, which were too close to home. Although the basic premise of the book – that a girl can see death dates in other people’s eyes - requires a suspension of disbelief, I tried to make the rest of it contemporary and relevant. But then I worried that it might be too relevant, and could upset someone who’s in foster care, facing serious illness either their own or of someone close to them, a victim of a terrorist outrage, or whose parents have died.
My book has been read by people whose circumstances are close to those of my main characters, Jem and Spider, but the feedback I have had from them has been unexpected and wonderful.
One of the most moving reviews I’ve read was posted on US Amazon. The reviewer reported that her husband had inoperable cancer and had asked her ‘How many days do you think I have left’ a hundred times. She said that the book made her wonder if she would tell him if she knew. She concluded ‘There are few new ideas but the storyline in this book is one I haven’t read before and I am glad I did.’ I’m not ashamed to admit that this moved me to tears.
I’ve also heard from a group of readers from a book club in Wiltshire. All the members of the group are looked-after young people, and they have told me how real my characters are, and how close to their own lives. This has moved me too, because I had no idea when I was writing where my characters came from. I confess that I didn’t do any research about living in foster care or talk to any kids in that situation. I could have ended up writing something that was unrealistic or, worse, patronising.
I think I was right to worry about the effect my book might have, but it’s also right to write about things that are real and relevant. Books can help us get a glimpse into lives very different from our own, and they can also help us to make sense of our own lives when we identify with characters or situations.
In January, one of the people nearest and dearest to me had a brush with death. After a horrific day like every hospital drama you’ve ever seen on TV, we’re now looking towards a slow, but hopefully full, recovery. Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve been editing Numbers 2: The Chaos, a book which develops the theme of mortality, knowing the future and fighting it. At times it felt too close to home, but I kept going and now the book’s done, handed over to my publisher, and soon to make its own way in the world. When it hits the bookshelves in June, I wonder who will pick it up...

Numbers is published by Chickenhouse.


Helen Black said...

Hi there.
Thanks for your post.
This is an issue I think about a lot. I too write about children in the care system, in that my series character is a lawyer who represents them, which is what I used to do for a living.
I'm always concerned that I might be making entertainment out of someone's real life misery, that what I do tips over into exploitation.
It's a difficult balance, shining a light into the murky corners of society no?

Anonymous said...

Lovely and moving post which I think shows that we must follow our instincts as writers. If we are facing our own (unconscious?) demons it can only help others, as long as we do so sincerely and don't use grief or disaster in a voyeuristic way. I don't read YA as a rule but will look out for this one.

Gillian McDade said...

A really interesting post. Thanks for your contribution. I love the cover of the book - it's a real eye-catcher!

Roderic Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roderic Vincent said...

Thank you for that. I was interested that you were able to write so tellingly about children in care, from a distance. Sometimes the tyranny of research follows me about like a disapproving schoolmistress. Perhaps you were able to write about it in a way that convinced because you were authentic to your own experience - an authenticity that comes across in your post, too.

Caroline Green said...

I have to add that Numbers was one of the best YA books I'd read in a while. I contacted Rachel out of the blue to pass on how much I loved it and she kindly agreed to posting on SW for us. So thanks again Rachel!

Jo said...

Hello Rachel, thanks for your post. Writers are often told to 'write what you know,' but it takes confidence to write from emotional, as opposed to literal, experience. It must be a great boost to hear that your work resonates with people whose experience it mirrors. All the best of luck for Numbers2.

Unknown said...

Great post, Rachel. My WIP (my first fiction!) also involves an issue I don't know much about and I am similarly concerned, but you give me hope.

Also, this is the first time I've ever added a book to my reading list from an author post. Great hook to that story.

Rachel Ward said...

Thank you for your comments and kind words, and good luck with your writing projects whether close to home or from a distance.
Roderic and Barjoker - I drew on my emotional history far more than I realised when writing Numbers. It only dawned on me how much of 'me' was in the book when I started to write the sequel, which uses a different character's point of view, and struggled like mad. That's when the penny dropped that although my main character expresses her feelings very differently to me, they had the same root. Perhaps that's a whole new post...

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