How far is too far when it comes to writing about death and violence for teens? As the unwitting author of a dark young adult novel, I was delighted when the good folk of TheCultDen sent me to Waterstone’s Piccadilly for a discussion on that very subject with five crazy-talented writers of genre fiction. I was in good company too, with the award-winning author of books such as A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness, in the audience.
The panel, comprised of Sarah Pinborough (The Death House), Sarah Lotz (The Three), Will Hill (the Department 19 series), William Hussey (Jekyll’s Mirror), and chaired by James Smythe (The Machine), started by describing their introduction to horror. All of the authors recalled reading Stephen King and James Herbert. William Hussey sited a gift from his father – a cardboard box filled with Tales from the Crypt comics. Sarah Pinborough remembered being traumatised by a school production of Dracula at the age of six. Sarah Lotz found Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Tom Kitten terrifying, and used to imagine herself being rolled up in a pie to be devoured by rats. She also read Iain Banks’ brilliant The Wasp Factory at a tender age, and it left a lasting impression on her. Will Hill thinks Roald Dahl is responsible for a lot of childhood nightmares, and sees Dahl’s books as gateways to the work of King, Herbert and even Clive Barker. Hill found It so scary, he had to put his library copy in the middle of his bedroom floor where he could keep an eye on it until it could be returned. He also described Barker as having “a strange relationship with the flesh”, and interestingly found the sexual aspects of his work more disturbing than the violence.
Hill also recalled watching a lot of banned films as a youth, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being one memorable example. Pinborough, a former teacher, was once given the movie as a Valentine’s Day gift (“he wasn’t a keeper!”) She used it for a class on censorship, and found it fascinating that kids who had seen Hostel and Saw were more distressed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, even though it’s not explicitly gory. Hill thinks it’s the irrationality of the violence and feeling of helplessness which comes from not being able to discern motive which makes it so unsettling.
The panel was asked whether they ever censor themselves whilst writing for a YA readership. Hill, who describes his books as “quite splattery”, doesn’t censor himself at all, and admitted he didn’t even think he was writing YA novels until his agent and editor decided that’s how they should be marketed. This is something I can relate to, having written what I thought was a book for adults until my publisher decided it should be classed as YA. William Hussey recounted his surprise when he received a complaint about his Witchfinder series, not about the ritualistic murder of an eleven year old boy described in quite graphic detail, but the fact that the boy’s aunt is in a same-sex relationship.
The next topic was death. Pinborough spoke about having a moment of existential realisation at the age of twelve, and coming to terms with the fact she wouldn’t live forever. Her book, The Death House, contains a brutal fist fight and a murder, but like Will Hill (and me), she initially thought she was writing it for adults. Lotz effectively kills the entire world in her novel, and thinks perhaps there is an element of ‘playing God’ narcissism and wish fulfilment at work when you write. William Hussey agrees. He thinks maybe he destroyed London on the page as revenge after he collapsed with malaria on the tube and wasn’t picked up for three stops.
Things took a serious turn at this point, with Sarah Pinborough talking about the radicalisation of the three British teen girls believed to have run off to Syria, and Sarah Lotz describing the anger she and her daughter (and writing partner) experienced when researching the hideous practice of ‘corrective rape’ for gay women in South Africa. Pinborough possets that as you age as a person and a writer, you start to encompass issues which you want to see addressed in your writing. Things that make you angry. She believes that Fahrenheit 451 has pretty much come true, and that we don’t want to do any hard thinking in this age of Twitter and reality TV.
The rise of social media and ‘hive mind’ mentality is a pertinent issue for Hussey too. His book, Jekyll’s Mirror, deals with cyber bullying. Hussey made the point that while bullying used to stop when kids got home, now their torment continues all day and night because bullies have access to their victims via their mobiles.
Will Hill commented that it’s not just the issues you are aware of which make it into your writing, but the subconscious anger too. He’s realised that all the fathers in his books either die horribly or are deadbeat characters, reflecting his latent feelings about his own father. Hussey agreed, and suggested the same goes for fear as well as ire. He admitted that when his mother first started battling cancer a decade ago, all the mother figures in his book began to die.
The panel were asked whether they feel they have a responsibility to be honest to their younger readers when it comes to difficult subject matter. Sarah Pinborough feels that kids have an inherent sense of right and wrong, and don’t try to excuse their actions in the way adults do. She thinks they are much more emotionally honest. Hussey agreed and made the point that kids know when you are “pulling your punches” as a writer and will resent you for it. Hussey thinks it’s important to remember that death and violence have consequences when you write them. Each death has to matter.
Sex is a tricky subject in the world of YA – perhaps even more so than violence. Pinborough decided not to write a full sex scene in The Death House because she felt the reader would be invested in the emotions rather than the act. She felt the reader would bring their own experience (or lack thereof) to a scene like that, so it would always be awkward. Speaking of which, Lotz once tried to co-write a steamy scene with her daughter and promptly gave up! Hill believes US publishers are definitely more squeamish about sex than anything else in YA. He was asked to remove one line from chapter about the violent sacrifice of a group of women, because the line stipulated they were naked.
Hussey had a similar experience, when a reviewer neglected to mention zombies and a toddler being run over by a truck as unsuitable reading for teens, but flagged ‘alternate depictions of the afterlife’. This “censorship of ideas” worries him. Pinborough thinks this is another example of our collective mentality – we have become the censors. The panel discussed Flowers in the Attic, and questioned whether it would be published now. Will Hill made the point that children won’t actually subject themselves to real fear or disgust. He believes that if something is truly upsetting them, they will simply stop reading.
There was just time to talk about swearing before the evening drew to a close. Nothing dates a book like teen slang because language is evolving constantly, especially now when the internet seemingly spawns new words on a weekly basis. Pinborough advised keeping it classic if you are going to use curse words. Will Hill explained that he had to plan carefully when he was going to use his allowance of a single ‘fuck’ in his YA series.
It was entertaining and inspiring to listen to authors at the top of their game speak so passionately and openly about their own experiences. Writing for young adults is so rewarding, because we never again feel things as deeply as we do in our teens and early twenties. Writing an authentic voice which speaks to young people can earn a novelist the most loyal and ardent fan base possible. Hearing the panel speak, it wasn’t hard to understand why they’ve nailed YA. Quite simply they have a lot of love and respect for their younger readers.