‘Katniss Everdeen is kick-ass, feisty, fantastic. I love her to bits. But I don’t think she should be the only role model out there. Let’s give girls a realistic range of characters so there’s someone for everyone’.
Sophie McKenzie is a pretty feisty character herself. Her sheer determination to find success as a writer led to a four-book deal in 2005, and since the publication of her multi award-winning debut, Girl, Missing in 2006, she has established a huge following for her teen novels.
McKenzie’s forthright and engaging opinions about YA fiction are lent credence by the teenage girl still evidently alive inside her. ‘I think you write because you’re in touch with the child that you were, or to sound a bit precious, for the child in yourself. I’m not saying that I understand all teenagers, but I can access the teenager I was. At the beginning, I tried writing for all sorts of different age groups, but I really felt I’d come home when I started writing as a 14 year-old girl.’
As a young child, McKenzie, who was born and brought up in South-East London, was a voracious reader. ‘I was fortunate to grow up with parents who read to me, and I learned to read quite young. My Mum took me to the local library every week and I read my way through Enid Blyton and, when I was slightly older, Nina Bawden, Elizabeth Goudge, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Willard Price adventures, the Jennings books. I loved all of those. But when I was about 14 I more or less stopped reading altogether’.
She describes her teenage reluctance to read as a kind of reverse rite of passage. ‘I see it when I go into schools. Around Year 9, teenagers often do stop reading. I suspect that if you’ve read a lot as a child, you associate reading with your childish self, and so feel the need to separate yourself from it. You’re trying to find a new way of being’.
Despite falling out of love with reading, McKenzie retained her love of words. After an English degree at London University, she became a journalist, working both in-house on trade magazines, and later after her son was born, as a freelance. Being made redundant from a job as an editorial manager at a business publishing company proved to be the catalyst for her writing career. To cheer herself up, she enrolled on a year’s Writing for Children course at London’s City Lit centre for adult learning in the autumn of 2003. Why did she opt for writing for children? McKenzie cackles at my question. “I thought very wrongly that it would be easier because the books are shorter. And of course I learned very quickly not only just how challenging writing for children is, but that shorter is harder’.
Despite this steep learning curve, McKenzie fell truly, madly, deeply in love. So much so that she is still wont to compare her relationship with writing to a flesh and blood relationship. ‘Now we have a more mature and emotionally sophisticated arrangement. But I started off completely infatuated’. A month into the course, she remembers turning to her classmate and friend, Moira (now the prize-winning YA novelist, Moira Young) and telling her ‘this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life’.
‘That saying it out loud to someone helped make it real as an ambition. Writing fiction was such a perfect fit for me. It was like the answer to absolutely everything’. Despite her new-found passion, McKenzie admits to an ‘almighty struggle’. ‘I started seventeen books during that first year on the course, and I didn’t finish any of them. I was really committed, but struggled with virtually every single aspect of writing. It was far harder than I thought: I had, after all, been a journalist and a professional writer for a long time. But writing fiction is completely different’.
Was she was still trying to find that elusive inner voice? ‘Voice is not something you can go looking for. Bob Dylan said this great thing about how he developed as an artist. He said that he went to New York to – and I’m paraphrasing – “look for people who are doing it for real and try to work out how they are doing it”. You learn, you absorb from other writers and eventually your own voice emerges. It’s not a coat you can put on. It’s something that comes from just doing the writing. And from reading’.
McKenzie drew considerable help and support from being part of writers’ workshops –including one she established with some of her fellow writers. ‘I got my work torn to pieces for about a year. And honestly I would have given up had there been something I wanted to do more, but there wasn’t so I persisted’.
Towards the end of 2004 McKenzie had the idea for Girl, Missing. ‘I found something on the internet, which made me imagine seeing a poster for a missing child. I thought, what if that missing child was actually looking on the internet and saw this information about themselves? What would they do? And then I thought, wow, that’s a really gripping idea, and if it grips me, maybe it will grip other people’. Girl, Missing was written rapidly during January and February 2005. ‘It was the first book I’d written from a teenage point of view, and immediately it felt like a much better fit for me’.
Two months of hard, inspired graft swiftly paid off. In March, McKenzie sent the book to agents, and was taken on by the late Maggie Noach. Within a month, she got a deal with Simon & Schuster. ‘A four-book deal, because by that time I’d also written the first Luke and Eve book, Six Steps to a Girl’. It was a staggeringly intense period. By August 2005, McKenzie had written eight books: Girl Missing, the three books in the Luke and Eve series, the first three books in the Flynn romance series, and Blood Ties. ‘There is no way I could do that now. I was constantly in the zone of writing. I was going to sleep thinking about it, waking up thinking about it. It wasn’t particularly healthy. I recognised by the end of that year that I would be better off with a bit more balance in my life’. So the infatuation passed? ‘Yes. It’s a proper marriage now. I totally trust that writing will be there for me, and I will be there for it. It’s a commitment for life’.
McKenzie has forged a reputation both for taut and gripping thrillers, and for believable, charged romances, though she frequently melds the two very convincingly. ‘I guess I write the kind of books I want to read: really strong stories – for me, the story is always king – but which are also about relationships between people. Things have to matter, there have to be high stakes’.
Though it’s tempting to think of McKenzie as a genre writer, she claims she never sets out to write a particular kind of book. ‘I had no idea Blood Ties would be categorised as SF until after I’d written it. Somebody said: this is SF because it’s about human cloning. But the subject didn’t come because I sat down and thought: now I’m going to try writing SF. Human cloning is something that has always fascinated me. And the Medusa Project series – which is essentially fantasy – came about because I was daydreaming about what it would be like to have psychic abilities, and which superpowers I’d like to have myself’.
Are there common themes which run through her work? ‘I think a lot of my teenage books are about identity, about working out who you are. Again, I don’t do that deliberately. I don’t say, oh, I’m going to write a teenage book so let’s make sure I weave the theme of identity into it. I think it arises naturally, because it’s something that teenagers have to grapple with. They know they’re not children anymore – but they’re still working out how to be adults’.
‘I think you can push the realism of what happens in a teenage thriller more than you can in an adult one. I find that when I’m writing a kids’ thriller, I allow myself more leeway because I think children want the freedom. They’re partly reading to have the power they don’t yet have in their own lives. All the people who complain about implausibility in my teenage books are adults. So are all the people who complain about my female characters not always being kick-ass’.
Ah, those pesky kick-ass girls. ‘I really don’t see why every teenage character has to be like that. Again it’s one of these things that adults impose on girls. They want role models in books who are the kind of girl they would like their daughters to be. Not girls who are insecure about their looks. Or if they are insecure, then they must grow through the story and have some miraculous transformation. What I’m saying is: a) it’s okay to be whoever you are, and b) stop being so prescriptive, telling these poor teenage girls how to behave. Rachel in Blood Ties, and River in the Flynn series are insecure. I think there’s a real value in having characters like that’.
2014, which began with the publication of Defy the Stars in January, is set to be another packed year for McKenzie. Every Second Counts, the sequel to Split Second will publish at the end of July, and her second adult thriller, Trust in Me will also be out this year. ‘My plan is to carry on doing one adult and one teenage thriller for the next couple of years’.
Throughout, Sophie McKenzie says her goals as a writer will remain as they ever have been. ‘Get published. Support myself through writing. Become a better writer. There are no bigger ambitions for me really. I’m in an incredibly fortunate position because I’m able to earn my living from writing which is a huge privilege. And I’m really driven to hold onto that’.
Caroline Sanderson is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.
The books, all published by Simon and Schuster
Girl, Missing 9780857074133 £6.99 pbk
Six Steps to a Girl 9781416917335 £5.99 pbk
Three’s a Crowd 9781416917342 £5.99 pbk
The One and Only 9781416917359 £5.99 pbk
Falling Fast 9780857070999 £6.99 pbk
Defy the Stars 9780857071057 £6.99 pbk
Blood Ties 9781847382757 £6.99 pbk
Split Second 9781471115974 £12.99 hbk
Every Second Counts 9781471116049 £6.99 pbk nyp
Close My Eyes 9781471111730 £7.99 pbk
Trust in Me 9781471111761 £7.99 pbk nyp