Interview with Kate Cann

4 April 2011

I tend to wax lyrical about the importance of plot in YA novels.

Teens want to be entertained. They want to be thrilled, to sit on the edge of their seats. That’s why I love Kate Cann. She’s written about twenty books for teens, which are all nail-bitingly brilliant. Instead of deadpan girl-meets-boy stories that have as much depth as a small puddle, her books are enthralling, plot driven and most importantly, real.

Possessing Rayne, the first in a trilogy, is about a teenage girl sick of life in London council estate, her abusive popular boyfriend, and her mother who sees her as little more than a live-in nanny for her baby brother.
Rayne makes the difficult decision to leave London and everyone she loves behind. She takes up a vacation job in the country, and discovers that village life can be a hundred times worse than the city.

What struck me the most was just how easy it was to be drawn into the world Cann creates and to get into the head of the characters. It really felt like it was my sixteen year old self living through the pages. I can only imagine how vivid it must be for actual teens.

It wasn’t just the Rayne trilogy that I found so addictive, but every book I’ve read by Cann. The author has a knack of getting into the head of her readers, which, if you think about it, is exactly what a good YA title should do.

I recently interviewed this prolific author on what it takes to write for teens (which incidentally, is what I will be speaking about at this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival.)

Where do you draw inspiration from?
Anywhere I can. A conversation, a person met at a party, something I’ve read, or seen in a film …. it all coalesces and composts together. Also, I’m a great walker. I live in the country and most days before I start writing I ramble with my dog across fields and through woods for an hour or so, and it works as a kind of pre-writing meditation.

What made you decide to write for young adults, as opposed to more mature audiences?
I was editing teenage books and hated the way they treated sex. It was either fake, fantasy stuff or really depressing tales of abuse. There seemed to be nothing that dealt positively with the intense life-changing power of a first sexual relationship. I wrote Diving In first, then In the Deep End and Sink or Swim. They’re all about the same couple, Coll and Art, and they’re practically historical novels now – they have no mobile phones in them, for a start! But they keep selling. I think the real things – like passion and jealousy and love – are pretty much the same over the centuries. In fact I’ve recently added a fourth to the series – Art’s Story – written from his point of view, because I got so much mail wanting to know if they worked things out and stayed together.

Do you find that there’s a formula to writing YA?
There’s definitely a start, a middle, and an end. The start is exciting as you set everything up and create characters. The middle is the hardest bit – keeping it going, keeping it authentic. The end, if you’ve got it right, is as exhilarating as a roller coaster ride as you swoop down to the finish! And I think YA has to be very focused, no waffling, no self-indulgent meandering on the part of the author. I like that.

In your opinion, what do teens like to read?
The years between 12 and 20 are some of the most dramatic in a life – so much changes. A 14 year old is hugely younger than a 19 year old. For that reason I think teens like to read about people their age, or just a bit older. Identification is very important. Fiction is a way of helping them understand the world – explore it, in safety – and consider the part they want to play. Apart from that, I think they like to read as broadly as adults – but again, it must be focused, sharp stuff.

What do you think a young adult novel should include in order to bridge the gender divide?
I suppose it must have an honest depiction of both sexes! In my book Leader of the Pack I tried to look at both sides of a passionate relationship between a very masculine, tribal, rugby playing boy and his much more free thinking, creative girlfriend. It was exhilarating to write. My publishers insisted on making the cover partly pink, and putting hearts on it, which pretty much guaranteed no boy would pick it up, but I have had emails from lads saying they loved it, they ‘were’ the hero. It’s much tougher to get a boy to read a ‘female’ book than a girl to read a ‘male’ book. I don’t know how we can get round that.

Do you think a YA book that appeals to both sexes is the ideal?
Not necessarily. There are some ‘male’ books – like Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies – that appeal to girls too but that doesn’t in my opinion make them better than Jane Eyre – a book that very few boys will read!

What do you think makes a book appeal to international audiences?
I suppose some common ground – universal themes – but the allure of the alien and the exotic is also strong. I sell well in the Netherlands and Sweden but not one of my books has been published in France (I suspect they think there’s nothing a mere Englishwoman can tell them about love!).

What are your five top tips for aspiring authors?
Keep a diary. You put down real thoughts and events and feelings, and one good tip for a writer is – keep it real. I used my old teenage diaries when I wrote the Diving In trilogy.

Write what stirs and interests you, not what you think you should be writing. Then it will be alive for the reader, too. Trust your instincts – if it excites you, it will excite other people. Don’t worry about it all being perfect – writing really is a craft, and you learn to ‘know’ when it’s good or when to switch things about. But the main thing is to get this passion and ‘life’ into it. I also think getting out and living is important – no one ever wrote anything good stuck up in an ivory tower!

Eavesdropping and observation are great – just looking at the people around you. Buses and trains are good for this. Listen to people’s speech patterns and rhythms.

On a more practical note – I always start the day’s work by editing what I’ve written the night before. Some scientist has proved that your brain actually continues to work on things you did that day in your sleep. You just seem to know what to change, or what to add .

Read as much as you can.

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