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Author Jenny Downham MAG
Jenny Downham is a British novelist who retired from acting and began writing young adult fiction when her son was born. Her first book, Before I Die, is about a girl with leukemia and her list of things to accomplish before she dies. Her latest novel, You Against Me, tackles the subject of sexual assault.
Hannah: Where do you get your inspiration?
Jenny Downham: I actually know very little when I start a new project. I may have a few ideas, but they're usually abstract, as if I know the tone of the piece, but little else. I always use free writing techniques to gather material. This is a bit like improvising in theater – throwing words down and not planning anything in advance. Most of it goes in the bin, but the strongest themes and voices keep returning. After months of this, I begin to know more.
I also have a file of newspaper cuttings and scribbled notes. I take a notebook with me everywhere to jot things down, because however much I think I'll remember an idea I had on the bus, I never do!
Your books often deal with controversial issues? Why? What difficulties come along with writing about these topics?
I don't really think in terms of issues when I begin a project, I'm more interested in characters and the stories they have to tell. I start with them and see where they lead me.
I do seem to have a tendency to be drawn to 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 is an allegation of sexual assault, but at the book's heart is a love story.
To write about the very difficult subject of sexual assault, I researched thoroughly and although this gave the story roots, it also made me more aware of my responsibility. I didn't want any girl or young woman to pick up my book and think after reading it that she shouldn't bother reporting an assault, and yet I wanted the novel to accurately reflect the very difficult realities of prosecuting such a case.
I was attempting to write a good story, one that moved readers emotionally but also made them think. I hope that the book encourages debate for the very reason that I am not telling anyone what the right answers are.
What advice do you have for people, in particular teens, who want to have a career in writing?
READ READ READ! Do it like a writer: with one eye and half your brain looking for just how this author made this character so believable or that sentence so beautiful or this story such a page-turner.
Write down ideas, overheard conversations, random lines that just pop into your head. You'll forget them if you don't. Do not leave the house without paper and a pen! It makes you watch the world for stories. It makes you listen attentively and imagine with energy.
Join a writing group. This provides you with a place to talk, swap work, and offer support and constructive criticism. I know it's tough when you're young because most groups are set up for adults, but you could always form one with a couple of friends, or suggest that your school start one.
How has your experience in acting helped you as a writer?
I learned to tell stories on my feet before I learned to write them down – often improvising as I went along and often in quite tricky situations. I learned what held attention, and I gathered a lot of information about structure and character.
I still use acting techniques to write. I keep notebooks for each character, researching them as if I'm going to play them on stage – what they like to eat, what their hopes and fears are. It doesn't all get in the story necessarily, but it helps me to know who they are.
How often do you write? Every day?
I try to. I am lucky that my children are school-age, so I write when they go to school and stop when they get home. I start again when they are in bed. It gives a good structure to the day. I try and write on weekends if they are busy, but otherwise, I will spend the time with them.
Who do you let read your first drafts?
I belong to a writing group and we critique each other's work. I hope we are honest. I know we are vigorous! It's sometimes terrifying taking new work there, although always useful.
Are you very sensitive to people's critiques of your work? How do you deal with criticism?
I used to be a lot more sensitive, but being in a writing group has made me realize that readers all have an individual response, and sometimes a story may simply not be to a reader's taste. When a book is being written, most criticism is constructive and given with an eye for improving the writing. I usually let it sink in for a few days then see if I agree. If I do, I change things. Once a book is published, it gets a lot harder to deal with criticism, because then it's too late!
What is the best advice you have ever gotten from someone who was editing your work? The worst?
Best advice: Read scenes out loud – it's amazing how much difference it can make to perception of rhythm and speech.
Worst advice: Stick to the rules.
In your book Before I Die, you tell the story of a girl who is dying of leukemia but is still determined to live. Do you believe that people become more alive as they get closer to death?
If I learned anything at all about terminal illness in my research, it's that the experience is different for everyone. Tessa attempts to live as if there was only this moment, right now. I think this is something people relate to but find extremely hard to do. Most of us save up for the future, looking forward to tomorrow when things might be better or different somehow. Very young children can just “live” because they have less concept of time. I believe adults get closest to it when present at some peak experience – childbirth, a death, a time of intense love or loss, when nothing else matters. Or perhaps when we are stunned by the beauty of the natural world – a kind of primeval sensibility that allows us to be truly in the moment. I think it's rare though, and it slips away from us all the time.
What was the hardest thing you had to deal with while writing You Against Me?
The research. After that, it was owning the material – feeling as if I had the right to tell this story. Also, I wanted every character's actions to be motivated so that readers would be able to put themselves in anyone's shoes and find something to relate to. I didn't want any character to be wholly bad or impossible to understand. I wanted the reader's loyalties to shift. That was very challenging.
Why do you think it is important for people to know both sides of a story, an issue you address in You Against Me?
I want the reader to go on a journey to confront their own presumptions about such a crime and to see how the truth can be slippery. Sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute because there are often only two witnesses – the defendant and the complainant. Other factors, such as use of alcohol and drugs can muddy the situation further. Often it comes down to issues of consent.
If a case even makes it to court, there is the “thirteenth juror” to consider – the fact that juror judgments in rape trials can be influenced more by attitudes, beliefs, and biases about rape jurors bring with them than the objective facts. One juror might believe that any female who dresses provocatively is “leading a man on;” another might suppose that any girl who drinks before going to a guy's house is “asking for it;” another might wonder why a girl would flirt all night if she didn't “want it.”
In You Against Me, Mikey and Ellie are drawn to each other from the moment they meet. Why do you think this is? Do you believe that love can overcome our differences in beliefs?
They are drawn together due to their circumstances. I'm not sure they would have considered spending time together otherwise. I wanted them to have to tackle their own prejudices about each other, as well as their preconceptions about the assault. I wanted them to fall in love despite themselves.
Can love conquer differences? I think it can encourage empathy. You Against Me is a love story, but the love is fought for under very difficult circumstances. Out of their love comes truth and healing.
Are you working on any other novels that you can talk to us about?
I've started writing book three, but have no idea where it will take me. Inspiration comes from everywhere. I never plan a structure. I don't like knowing in advance. I like surprises.