Monday, 20 February 2012

The Scribble City Interview: Celia Rees on 'This is Not Forgiveness'

Celia Rees is Scribble City Central's first guest author of 2012, and I'm delighted that she's here today, answering my many 

BURNING QUESTIONS

about her wonderful new YA thriller, This Is Not Forgiveness. I read TINF a few weeks ago, and it is  a book which dragged me into its pages, held me captive and spat me out the other end, exhausted, enthused and enthralled.  It also made me want to ask Celia a good many things, as I'm always fascinated to see how other writers' thought processes work, and how they deal with difficult subject matter.  Luckily for you, Lovely Readers, Celia agreed to be interviewed, so without further ado, I'll hand you over to her.
Copyright Helen Giles (PhotoWitch)
SCC: Melvin Burgess calls your book ‘lyrical and gritty’, Patrick Ness says you have ‘ventured into new territory and returned with explosives’. What drove you on to write this book – to depart from everything you had done recently and set out in this very different direction for your work?
CR: Whatever I write, I’m always impelled by an idea. Before I wrote Witch Child, I’d never written a historical novel. I was daunted by the amount of research I’d have to do, but I knew I had to write it. After Witch Child, I wrote more historical fiction, and I could have gone on doing that, but then I had the idea for This Is Not Forgiveness. I was watching Fran├žois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. The film (and the book on which it is based) is about two young men who are close friends and their joint obsession with an extraordinary young woman. It is set before and after the First World War, but it has a timeless quality and I suddenly thought, you could make this now. The idea linked with other bits of ideas I’d had over the years and it wouldn’t go away. It would be a departure and a challenge, but I like challenges, they keep my interest and my writing fresh. Also, my first novels were contemporary thrillers for teenagers and I liked the idea of going back to my roots.

SCC: Your three main characters are all beautifully observed, and they have in common this: that they are all observers of others. You also make use of mirrors a lot in the book, seemingly as a way of stripping layers away to get at the truth. Are you, like many writers, most comfortable as an observer yourself? Why do you think that is, and what are your favourite methods of covert observation?
CR:Yes, I am an observer, always have been. Wherever I am, I’m watching, thinking, speculating. It becomes second nature. I keep notebooks handy, but often I just squirrel observations and reflections away in my head. They can be there for years only to pop back up again when I’m writing. To do this, one needs a certain amount of anonymity. I think one of the problems writers face now is being forced into participation, by the pressure to appear and make use of social media.

SCC: “Death is the end of the road – the ultimate destination where you can be alone.” Caro, Rob and Jamie all have a parent who has committed suicide, and this has, whether knowingly or unknowingly affected each of their lives. Was it important to you to show the repercussions that a parent’s actions can have down the generations?
CR:The death of a parent, in whatever circumstances, is very traumatic. My father died when I was twelve. He died very suddenly and the shock was so great, and my mother’s grief so profound, that no-one would talk about his death. He just disappeared from our lives. This obviously had a deep and profound affect on me and his death was from natural causes. I can only speculate about how deeply affecting a parent’s death by suicide would be.

SCC: "Medals cast deep shadows...I’m broke beyone anyone’s fixing." You clearly did a lot of research on soldiers, PTSD, and how combat troops (especially wounded ones) deal with being back on civvie street. Who did you talk to to get that amazing ring of truth into Rob’s character, and how did it affect you?
CR: I read a great deal about the effects of war on those who do the fighting, not just in the current war in Afghanistan and the recent conflict in Iraq, but also in the First and Second World Wars and in Vietnam. There are plenty of first hand accounts, both of fighting and the affects it has on combatants. I also watched films, like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, series like Generation Kill and viewed Soldier Vision’, video footage put up on the internet by soldiers on active service. I spoke to members of the armed forces who were on active service, but I did not go in for lengthy, extensive interviews. I felt that would be intrusive, inappropriate, somehow.

SCC: What I particularly like about this book is that it shows normal teenagers behaving and talking as they all do in 2012 – it’s refreshingly real. You’ve got right inside their heads, but it’s a brave (some would say risky) thing to do to portray them in all their unvarnished glory. Did you find it immensely freeing to let them swear, take drugs, have sex and drink? Or was it quite scary to write?
CR: Anyone who writes for teenagers knows that there is a kind of covert censorship about what one can and cannot write. Decisions have to be made, especially about sex, swearing, drugs and alcohol (violence seems to cause less offence) and this has NOTHING to do with how teenagers really behave, or their real lives. As I said in answer to Question 1, this book was going to be a departure. If I was going to do it, I was going to show things as they really are. Teenagers swear, have sex, get trashed. I did not feel in the mood to compromise.

SCC: “Gossip creates its own reality. I am a slag because everyone says I am,” says Caro. Do you think this is a modern effect of the celebrity magazine-fuelled world we live in, or has it always been like that? Do you think that gossip like this is another insidious form of bullying?
CR: The double standard that applies to young women’s sexual behaviour has always been there. It may have been exacerbated by modern celebrity magazine culture and the tabloids’ salacious hypocrisy but modern means of communication, texting, social networking, certainly spread the poison faster than whispers in the classroom. And, of course, it is a virulent and vicious form of bullying.

SCC: Your plot is all too scarily believable, but, of course, those exact right ingredients for your explosive mix would have to be in place for this to happen in real life, (which is hopefully unlikely). However, do you think that we, as a society, are in real danger of creating a situation like this, by making our young people powerless, disenfranchised and demotivated to engage with the world?
CR:
When I first thought of the idea, Caro’s interest in radical politics was questioned, then students were on the streets of London demonstrating, with a fringe taking things to violent extremes, and it did not look quite so unlikely any more. Waves of this kind of political unrest go back through recent history (Caro’s heroes are the Baader Meinhof Red Army Faction) to the nineteenth century and earlier. Any society ignores this kind of dissatisfaction and unrest at its peril. Just look what is happening in Greece and Syria right now.

SCC: “Occult paraphernalia, leached of their power, become mere knick-knacks.” It’s strange to find tarot cards, runes and a planchette in a story of such practical gritty realism. While Caro seems to dismiss the power they once had over her, she still reaches for meaning within them. Have you ever succumbed to the lure of fortune tellers and futurecasters? Are you superstitious, and if not, why do you think that is?
CR: I just saw it as goth-emo a phase she went through, but being Caro, she went into it pretty thoroughly and some of it stuck. I have more than a passing acquaintance with the occult, having written books that dealt with the supernatural in its different manifestations, from my early Point Horror Unleashed and Hodder titles, to Witch Child and The Stone Testament, so it was easy to fold this in to the mix. It doesn’t mean I believe myself, but I will admit to a certain fascination with it. What interests me more is why people want to believe.

SCC: Caro’s imaginary ‘kill list’ in Rendez, and Rob’s similar one from the multistorey at the end bring the book full circle. Was that a deliberate linkage – another kind of mirroring?
CR: It wasn’t conscious, but then lots of things aren’t. You write something, then you notice a certain symmetry. It is as though some unconscious part of your mind is at work. I like it when this happens. It gives the work strength, a veracity that is greater than anything you planned.

SCC: I always worry about the music I mention in a book, fearing it will date it. Was that a concern for you, or did you want TINF to be marked as being of this particular time? Did you have a special playlist for the book, and if not, what did you listen to while writing it?

I think that the book can’t help but be placed in a particular time, because of the events that influence the action. I make compilations and playlists for all my books, whether its 18th century seafaring songs for Pirates!, folk ballads and The Beggars’ Opera for Sovay or Elizabethan songs for The Fool’s Girl. For This Is Not Forgiveness, I had a mix of music. Some tracks conjured mood and character; some provided music for the characters themselves to listen to; some did both. Some were my choices; others were suggested by young persons of my acquaintance. Judge for yourself, which are which.

Celia's Playlist (in no particular order):

Vaccines – Wreckin’ Bar; Post Break Up Sex

Cold War Kids – Sensitive Kid; Broken Open

Friendly Fires – True Love; Blue Cassette

Crystal Castles – Vanished

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs; We Used To Wait

Libertines – Don’t Look Back Into The Sun; Can’t Stand Me Now; Time For Heroes
The Smiths – There’s a Light That Never Goes Out; Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want

Stone Roses – Waterfall
Bob Dylan – Billy #4 - Soundtrack: Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid

Van Morrison – Cyprus Avenue; Madame George

Alison Krauss – The Scarlet Tide
The Cardigans – My Favourite Game

Mumford & Sons – Winter Winds; Little Lion Man

Sex Pistols - Anarchy In The U.K.
The Specials - Friday Night, Saturday Morning

The Undertones - Teenage Kicks

Noah And The Whale – 5 Years Time

Wheetus - Teenage Dirtbag

Depeche Mode – In Your Room

Brecht/Weill – Pirate Jenny – The Threepenny Opera

Kraftwerk

And…

The Boom Town Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays

This Is Not Forgiveness has its very own micro site:
http://www.urflixstar.com and an ‘official’ playlist at http://www.urflixstar.com/tinf-playlist
There is also a trailer, if any of your readers are wondering what on earth we are talking about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTD1w7nKYD0&feature=player_embedded

SCC: In 35 chapters you have only 8 chapter head quotes, ranging from Peter Sansom through Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera to Emma Goldman. Are you a serendipitous finder of ‘the right quote at the right moment’, or is it something you research and think about very carefully?
CR: The book is written in Voice, from different points of view. Jamie tells the story, Rob makes podcasts (you can see an extract at: http://youtu.be/akiiy8io968 ) and Caro keeps a notebook. The quotations head up her chapters. I decided to do this because she seemed like the kind of girl who choose pretentious quotations and write them down in her notebooks as statements. I chose them carefully to give an insight into her thinking; the range and diversity of her interests; her depth and her shallowness. The Peter Sansom quotation is more serendipitous. I was at a poetry reading and he read his poem, My Brother’s Vespa. I liked it because my brother had a Vespa, and then I thought the last two lines would be perfect for This is Not Forgiveness. I asked him if I could use them and he said, ‘yes’.

SCC: Finally, if you had a wish for this book, what would it be?
CR:
One always has hopes, but it would tempt fate to say what those hopes might be and, yes, I am superstitious!

SCC: Those were marvellous and enlightening answers, Celia. Thank you for being so honest, and for giving us all a peek inside your head. Honestly, Lovely Readers - go and buy this book now - today.  It's an absolute must-read winner, and I predict it'll be on every 2012 prize list!

Find out more about Celia here:
Celia Rees Website
Celia on Twitter
Celia Rees Official Facebook Fan Page

7 comments:

adele said...

Wonderful interview. And was that Peter Sansom reading the one at Lancaster? Bet it was...

TheBookAddictedGirl said...

Amazing interview - all questions I was desperate to know after as well! I adored this book, so thank you for the great interview guys! :)

Celia Rees said...

It was indeed, Adele!

Gillian Philip said...

I wanted to read this book already, but now I'm going straight to buy it. Thank you for a wonderful interview, Lucy and Celia - and I LOVE to see playlists for books!

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks, Adele and Book Addicted Girl! And Gillian - so do I. Have been happily listening to both old favourites and discovering some new goodies from Celia's playlist.

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent interview, and excellent book. The PTS was very convincing - and I've been living close to it for a while, though in a different context. Thank you both.

Katherine Roberts said...

Great interview Lucy, and many congratulations on the new book Celia. I have this one lined up to read... and now you've mentioned tarot cards I'm really looking forward to it!

 
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