‘Regular people can be driven to something terrible by circumstances,’ says Anne Cassidy calmly. From someone with such a gentle demeanour sitting quietly in her own living room, it is a disarmingly forceful statement but Anne means it. And she doesn’t just mean it in an abstract way about other people; she means it for herself as much as anyone else, ‘If I were the parent of someone who’d been hurt, I could do a terrible thing. Luckily we are mostly protected by society from doing such things.’
It is a theme that runs right through Anne’s books. While the trigger between the cause and the tragic effects that drive the plots of Anne’s novels varies, the concept that extreme crimes often come about from quite small-scale provocations rather than inherent evil remains constant. As do the kind of characters who commit them. ‘When I write about teenagers, I’m looking for the kind of teenager who is basically a good person but something pushes them over the edge.’
It is a very compelling start as the everyday nature of contemporary teenage life that Anne captures so easily and the ordinariness of her characters make them and their terrible actions entirely credible.
In terms of success, it has worked best for her in Looking for JJ which won the Booktrust Teenage Prize and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2005. Unusually for Anne, it was closely based on a true story. ‘I had read Gita Sereny’s book about Mary Bell and in it Mary Bell tried to explain what she had done but she just couldn’t. As I saw it, a tiny difference in circumstances might have changed a whole sequence of events. She set out to get away from one thing and found herself doing something terrible.’ And the same is true for JJ who is in a situation in which she kills a child because she is trying to escape from something horrible and completely unconnected in her own life which has pushed her to suspend normal judgement and good sense. ‘JJ reacts to a situation – but it could all have gone another way,’ says Anne.
For readers, it is that fine balance that makes Looking for JJ so compelling. Without being didactic, Anne encourages the reader to believe as she does that JJ is not a bad person. One of the reasons for the novel’s great success is that as it is told retrospectively it allows readers to consider whether JJ deserves forgiveness and the chance to rehabilitate herself. And that’s another theme that recurs in Anne’s writing.
Anne had written 16 books before Looking for JJ and several since. Her next book, Just Jealous, ends with two dead bodies and a gun. ‘It is a sign of times changing,’ says Anne. ‘Ten years ago I wrote a book with a gun in it and my agent said “forget it, no publisher will touch it”. Now, of course, gun crimes are a reality and, as in earlier novels, it shows that Anne is an author who has her finger firmly on the contemporary pulse. ‘I get some of my ideas from news stories so they do tend to be up to date. I read a story about a boy who shot a girl. One was black and one was white and that set me off thinking about this idea but it isn’t a “race” book. I used it as a way of looking at a story from the point of view of the person who made it happen – a character like Iago who sets the whole thing in motion.’
While the plot lines keep pace with social change, Anne makes no attempt to update her books in terms of contemporary behaviour and especially speech although she still spends a lot of time talking in schools and feels very at home with adolescents. ‘I think if I was starting now I’d be more explicit,’ she says. ‘But now I think less is more so I intimate behaviour rather than spelling it out.’ Specifically, she took a decision about swearing. ‘I realised early on if I did include swearing, I’d have to include it in every sentence since that is how teenagers speak. So I decided just to leave it out and that doesn’t seem to be an issue.’
Anne’s first experience of writing was during her teacher training. Pointing out that for the next 30 years as teachers they would be asking children to write creatively, her tutor set the class a creative writing homework. Anne wrote a short story and found she was ‘thrilled with it’. Joining a creative writing group was a natural next step and she soon wrote her first novel. ‘I wanted to write a murder mystery. I love dark mysterious books with secrets in them which characters don’t want other people to know.’ Influenced both by the great crime writers from the US and UK such as James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler and Ruth Rendell and children’s authors whom she read with the students she taught such as S E Hinton, Anne wrote Big Girls’ Shoes. It took a year to write and she sent it to three publishers before Rosemary Stones took it for HarperCollins. Since then, Anne has given up teaching and now writes two books a year. They are quite different enough to be easily distinguishable although themes recur and basically they are all crime novels with a teenage romance in the background.
Anne says that she writes crime novels partly because it is easy – ‘they have a shape, something happens’ although she adds, ‘it’s what you do with that shape and who you put into it that matters.’ The underlying reason is also interesting: ‘It’s about guilt. I have an overriding sense of feeling guilty about things I’ve done wrong. God is always watching you – even though I don’t believe in God.’ Expanding on this, Anne reveals that as well as expiation for her own sins she partly writes to ward off trouble. ‘Basically, I have a pessimistic outlook on life. It is because I’ve had a sort of golden life. I had a great childhood. I’ve had good health and great relationships so I’m thinking “what will happen now?” and I’m looking out for dark things.’
This starting place is especially evident in her stories about missing children. ‘That’s a specific part of my pessimism. I’ve only got one son and so I was a helicopter mum; I hovered over him. I had three worries: 1) that he would get ill, 2) that he would get run over, 3) that he would be snatched. I could do something about the first two but I couldn’t do anything about the third. It was completely random. That was a very big worry and so I wrote about it to fend it off.’
But it wasn’t just to stop her son being snatched that Anne wrote such chilling and tragic stories as Missing Judy, Forget Me Not and Talking to Strangers. She was also thinking about how to engage her readers. ‘I try to take teenagers to a new emotional experience. 99% of teens don’t know what it would feel like if their little sister wandered off and wasn’t seen again.’
And nor do most of us. Anne likes that aspect of these books, too. ‘I’m fascinated by the enormity of grief,’ she says. Exploring it is just another aspect of the opportunities afforded to crime novelists that makes Anne so attracted to the genre. ‘It affords endless opportunities, gives you an infinite possibility of writing about people. I used to be interested in who did a murder. Now I’m interested in how and why and those may not be apparent until much later.’
She also visits and revisits how society deals with rehabilitating criminals which allows her to express her views on redemption and forgiveness. ‘I do believe in redemption. I think people who commit crimes should have the chance to give things back to society. Forgiveness is harder and although I do believe in it, I can understand a parent’s desire for revenge.’
These shifts in emphasis are making her books for teenagers less straightforward and more subtle than they used to be but that is because of how she wants to write rather than because she feels there has been a change in the basic make-up of her readers. She remembers her own teen years sharply, especially the feelings of being an outsider. ‘I feel I spent the whole of my teens not going out, not meeting boys – I was at an all-girls Catholic grammar school – and sulking. I failed dismally at school and was always an outsider.’ But she also remembers the fun and pain of teenage romance and she certainly bears no grudges towards her parents for their protection of her against the excesses of the Sixties.
Anne’s memories of herself make her very positive about contemporary teenagers.
‘Teenagers are the scapegoats for everything but I don’t believe they are any worse than we were,’ she says. ‘The difference is that they are louder and brasher than they once were. They live up to the image the media promotes – it is easy to find a Vicky Pollard in any group.’
Luckily for these readers, Anne wants to go on writing for them and offering them new challenges. She has never been short of ideas and isn’t now. She is confident of her contribution to teenage readers in the nicest possible way and she relishes the particular success of Looking for JJ. ‘It’s not often in life that you do something that people like and admire. That’s what I managed.’
(a selection, published by Scholastic in paperback)
Forget Me Not, 978 0 439 94290 4, £5.99
Hidden Child, 978 0 439 95002 2, £4.99
Looking for JJ, 978 0 439 97717 3, £5.99
Love Letters, 978 0 439 95096 1, £4.99
Missing Judy, 978 0 439 94998 9, £4.99
The Story of My Life, 978 0 439 94295 9, £5.99
Talking to Strangers, 978 0 439 95001 5, £4.99
Tough Love, 978 0 439 95475 4, £4.99
Just Jealous,978 1 4071 0404 1, £5.99 (January 2009)
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s books editor of the Guardian and co-director of CLPE (The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education).