‘All I had was this character’ says Brian Conaghan regarding the origins of his collaboration with Sarah Crossan. Both writers had launched successful debuts and been nominated for the 2015 Carnegie Awards. Prose poetry novels were unheard in UKYA before Sarah Crossan debuted with The Weight Of Water. She was told it wouldn’t sell, but it has now sold in multiple countries. When Brian Conaghan wanted to put his new character into a prose poetry novel, he knew Sarah Crossan was the person to consult.
What were their priorities? Sarah Crossan spoke of the need for a similar work-ethic. They were working in a tight time frame, so she needed to be certain the work would be done.
The novel developed in a series of online conversations. During the writing stage, Crossan wrote Jess’s parts, and Conaghan wrote Nicu’s. While editing the authors worked together. The ending was planned in one session. Crossan spoke about the different ways the ending could have evolved, but said the priority was for both characters to grow and develop as a result of their experiences.
Crossan spoke about the pressures of writing an ‘Own Voices’ character. Both authors wanted the voices to be authentic, and agreed that it is important to be sensitive to the fact that they have not lived ‘the real experience’. Conaghan spoke about his experiences as a teacher, saying he wanted to give voice to the children he worked with who were not represented in fiction. He also spoke about the ability to empathise with the outsider experience – he has not lived Nicu’s life, but has experiences which enable him to empathise with Nicu and create his character.
How do they write about difficult themes? Crossan stressed the importance of universally relatable themes, referring particularly to Moonrise, her latest YA work. Moonrise is about a character on death row, an experience which only a small number of people can relate to, but the story is also about death and dying which is a universally relatable experience.
Advice for writers included accepting rejection and a strong work ethic, and not being afraid to make mistakes and show other people your work.
Thank you to Newcastle University School of English and Seven Stories for the opportunity to hear from Conaghan and Crossan at this free event. For those of you who are not aware, Seven Stories is the national centre for children’s literature. It hosts great exhibitions and events, and houses the largest archive of children’s fiction in the UK.