Karen Gregory’s first published novel Countless was the story of a girl coping with an unplanned pregnancy while in the grip of anorexia. Compelling and realistic it won acclaim for the compassionate way it dealt with such a sensitive subject. She has followed that with Skylarks. The story of a love affair between two young women the novel takes a look too at our divided society, and is also truthful, realistic and full of genuine insight.
What was Karen’s route into writing?
‘I’d always wanted to write’ she says, describing herself as a ‘massive reader’ while growing up, and always thought she would get round to it, though for a long time lack of confidence held her back. It was the birth of her daughter that changed that: ‘When my daughter was born I felt such a strong urge to record the birth and the emotions that came with it. From there, I tried my hand at short stories. I was lucky to have a couple of friends who also wrote and they looked at my early stuff and gave me feedback.’ She went online to educate herself about writing, and then started looking up agents, writing a complete novel in the meantime. She was, she says, ‘really lucky’ that agent Claire Wilson liked her work and took her on; readers will probably feel that luck had little to do with it, while talent and an original voice did. The book was sent out on submission and while she waited to hear back, she began writing something new, ‘partly to take my mind off it’. That book became Countless and got an offer from Bloomsbury, about nine years after she first started seriously writing.
Both of her published books cover big issues: anorexia and teenage pregnancy in Countless, a lesbian love affair and the inequality inherent in our society in Skylarks. Did she deliberately set out to take on big themes?
‘I don’t think I necessarily set out to do it. I just start writing about things that I’m interested in or concerned about, then create the character. That then helps me explore the issues from that character’s perspective. With Skylarks, my working life has pretty well always been in the public sector – local government, the NHS and now at charity Beanstalk – so financial pressures and austerity have been in my mind a lot. I think that was always going to find its way into my books.’
As a writer for a YA audience, does she feel a responsibility to write books with big themes?
‘I think it’s important that we hear a variety of stories, and I think people want that. People want to see lives that look like theirs, to find themselves reflected in the books they read. It’s important that authors should write what they are really passionate about, and there should be space for different kinds of books, about a variety of topics.’ She attended a recent YA Shot event at which the panel were also questioned about their duty of care to readers: ‘We all agreed that there is a responsibility there to be careful and sensitive about what you’re writing.’
Joni, the central character in Skylarks, is working class, something that is rarer in YA novels than one might expect. What drove that choice?
‘It’s something that came quite naturally to me’ says Karen, ‘My own background is hard to categorise: in my teens I lived in a council house in a village surrounded by very wealthy people, just like Joni. So for me, Joni’s background wasn’t a conscious decision, just something that felt very natural and normal to me.’ She mentions a blogger who recently got in touch to say how pleased she was that Joni’s got a job. To Karen, that’s just normal: ‘I had a paper round and jobs as a teenager. It was just something that people do, it’s how people live and I do feel it’s important to represent that’.
Her novel is written in the present tense. How did that affect the writing?
‘My original draft was in the past tense’ she explains, ‘and in fact I tried more than once to write it in the past tense, but the writing only seems to click with me when it’s in first person present tense. I don’t know why, some bits of writing process still feel mysterious to me, I’m still feeling my way a bit. But the present tense brings real immediacy and because you’re in the character’s head, it helps me get to know them, know what they would do.’ She adds quickly, ‘Not that I’ve ruled out other forms!’
The development of the lesbian relationship between Joni and Annabel also grew spontaneously, she explains.
‘When I first started writing the book, it was actually from Annabel’s point of view. At the time I’d just started working in the NHS and had witnessed a lot of cut backs. I was very exercised by some of those, and my original idea was to make her the central character, somebody whose father had made their money through private contracts to the public sector. I wanted to explore the ethics around that – but then Joni’s voice just took over, and then it became apparent to me that Joni was gay. It wasn’t deliberate just something that grew very organically.
The book celebrates how communities working together can change things. It’s a very stirring element in the novel. How important was that when she was writing Skylarks?
‘I think The Hate U Give is brilliant, and what’s happening in America now is really inspiring. As I’ve said, Joni is very much how I when I was a teenager, but I really didn’t feel that I had a voice, or that I could stand up to things. It’s been really interesting to explore that through Joni. At first when she gets involved in the campaign to save the estate where she lives, she’s really only thinking about the impact on her own family but then she starts to realise the wider impact and feels a sense of community and the power in that. That’s been really exciting to explore.’
Karen seems to go from one novel to another. Is she working on something new?
She is, she says, and it stars another contemporary, female protagonist, though, like lots of authors, she’s loathe to say more than that at the moment. One thing she will say though is how much she enjoys working with her editor Hannah Sandford at Bloomsbury: ‘I’ve gained lots more confidence as my writing has grown, but up until now I was pretty much self-taught as a writer. Working with Hannah has helped a lot and I’ve learned so much. I used to get feedback and think “You’re right but how on earth am I going to make these changes?” Now I know an answer will come and that’s given me more confidence. I still feel there’s lots more to learn, so working collaboratively is really exciting.’
Skylarks, 978-1408883617, is published by Bloomsbury, £7.99 pbk.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps, director of the children’s programme for the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival and reviews editor for Lovereading4kids.