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Eight Questions with You Against Me Author Jenny Downham

August 29, 2011

Today, we’re happy to welcome author Jenny Downham, who shares her thoughts on writer’s block, her influences, her subject matter and much more. Jenny wrote one of our group’s favorite books of 2007, Before I Die, and her second novel, the stunning, devastating You Against Me will be available everywhere on September 13.  

This raw modern-day take on Romeo and Juliet tells the story of Mikey and Ellie, two teens falling in love against their families’ wishes. Mikey’s sister has accused Ellie’s brother of rape, but in Downham’s sensitive novel, nothing is clear-cut, and family relationships, class issues and friendship are all more complex than what readers might find in other young adult novels. Give this riveting, romantic book to mature teens or adults.- Erin

Q. What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?

I had a poetry anthology called, ‘Come Follow Me,’ which I adored, but which is sadly out of print now.  I used to read the poems aloud to myself until I’d learned them off by heart. What I loved most about it was that there always seemed to be a poem to describe exactly how I was feeling.  It gave the book a magical property for me, although it was really only the result of its vast stretch.  It contained lullabies and cradle songs, traditional poems and prayers which had been handed down orally through generations before being written down.  It also had nonsense verse, narrative poems, sonnets and limericks from some of the most famous poets in the world. 

More than anything else I found it hugely consoling.  I also remember being very impressed that these poems had been put together into a book that was especially for children.  It made me feel important! And the language fascinated me.  One day I wouldn’t have a clue what a poem meant, but then the next time I read it I might have gained a small understanding.  I still have my battered old copy and I often dip into it.

Q. What inspired you to write about such difficult subjects like rape, death, and poverty?

I don’t really think in terms of ‘subjects,’ I’m more interested in characters and what stories they have to tell. 

I do seem to have a tendency to look for the extraordinary in the everyday and vice versa.  In Before I Die, the protagonist is dying, but the novel is actually an examination of what it means to be alive. In You Against Me, there has been an allegation of sexual assault, but at the book’s heart is a love story. 

I don’t want my job as a writer to be about giving moral guidance about ‘difficult’ things. Teens don’t want to read about things adults think are good for them, or about how they ought to behave. 

Of course, books can address difficult situations and confront social issues and help readers deal with real-life challenges.  They can transport you, make you think, move you…. the list is endless.  Ultimately though, it’s the story – with all its complexities, with the emotional truths it uncovers, the experiences beyond the everyday that it gives, that will be the real reason why young people read.

I was attempting to write a good story, one that moved readers emotionally, but also made them think. 

 Q. Do you plan to continue writing young adult novels or do you think you might write for adults down the road?

I want to write for and about teenagers because they are on the cusp of adulthood and that interests me.   A teen protagonist can do almost everything an adult can, but because they are boundaried by adult rules and expectations, they have to be far more creative to get what they want.  It’s much more exciting to tell a story when there are lots of obstacles in the way.

The distinctions between children’s literature, YA literature and adult literature are more flexible and loosely defined than ever before.  Despite the plethora of other entertainment available to teens, they read in huge numbers and are becoming increasingly sophisticated.  There was never such an exciting time to be a writer for the YA market.

Q. What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?

READ READ READ!!  Do it like a writer – with one eye and half your brain looking for just how this author make this character so believable, or that sentence so beautiful, or this story such a page-turner.

Q. Do you ever experience writer’s block?

YES, I often sit at my desk and feel absolutely stuck, especially when I’m starting a new project.  The only thing that helps me is to give myself regular timed writing sessions – ten or twenty minute chunks throughout the day – something I can sustain and that has rhythm to it.  I use a kitchen timer and give myself no rules except sticking to the time.  I don’t worry about quality, I simply keep to the rhythm.  After only a few sessions, I usually spark some new ideas.

Q. What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?

My favorite scene is the one at the river where Ellie dares Mikey to swim.  The final version is almost the same as the first draft, which rarely happens to me, but it just seemed to flow off of the page. 

The scene I am most proud of is the one where Ellie goes to the police station, because it was difficult to research and almost impossible to write.  I wanted to show what really happened to Karyn without being titillating in any way.  I wanted the reader to sympathize with Ellie, despite the circumstances she describes. I wanted it to be legally accurate and also page turning and I wanted to encourage the reader to sit in Ellie’s position and ask themselves what they might have done differently. 

 Q. Which character speaks the loudest, to you? Do any of them clamor to be heard over the others?

Mikey.  He was determined to avenge his sister and all I had to do was follow him.  I loved writing from his point of view because he was a mass of contradictions – he’d left school with limited prospects, yet was hugely ambitious.  The main carer for his family, he also managed to juggle a complicated love life.  Bright, but often inarticulate, he had an innate distrust of authority, yet his family were dependent on police and social workers for support.

Q. Are you working on a third book?

Yes, but I have no idea where it will take me.  Inspiration comes from everywhere.  I watch the world for stories in a very energized way – newspapers, overheard conversations, etc, anything can be used.  I don’t like knowing in advance.  I never plan a structure.  I like surprises.  I’m quite disciplined and sit at my desk every day and just write. 


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