Jenny Valentine’s debut novel Finding Violet Park, the life affirming story of how the discovery of an urn full of ashes leads a 16-year-old boy to find out the truth about his missing father, won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. That was followed by more witty, sensitive YA novels as well as books for younger readers and now, after a five year gap, comes the intriguing and compelling Fire Colour One, the story of sixteen-year-old Iris, another lonely young person looking for her father. Joy Court interviewed Jenny Valentine for Books for Keeps.
Having jointly decided that we had never met and fated this time only to talk over the telephone, I felt I had first to declare myself a true Jenny Valentine fan and promise faithfully not to abuse my knowledge of her number; since recording a telephone call did make me feel a bit like a stalker! But after her five year absence from the book world, which she took by storm in 2007 with her accomplished debut, Finding Violet Park, the response from her fans to her new book, Fire Colour One, actually makes her feel quite emotional ‘It is really nice to hear’. But how could they not love this book: it features the Valentine trademark of powerful characters – a troubled daughter and the missing father she finds in the last weeks of his life – layered with a passion for art, a critique of our consumerist culture and has a great twist in the tail!
Jenny makes no secret of the reason for her absence: her own illness and that of her father. She survived and he didn’t and the thought that ‘one day I will have written a book and it will be finished’ was what kept her going in ‘a very dark place’. Not only was the act of writing ‘like learning to write all over again’ but, however reluctantly it was approached, the subject matter has also been cathartic for her. ‘I tried really hard not to write about all this stuff’ she says, but Iris, the utterly compelling central character of the new book just ‘kept knocking and finally I heard her’.
She realised that there are oblique ways of looking at loss and that in fact all of her books have explored the spaces that people have left behind. Since we only met Violet Park in her urn, it is no surprise that this author firmly believes that relationships do not end with death, that you continue to re-evaluate people and continue to be influenced by them as Lucas, who found Violet’s urn, undoubtedly was by her.
Jenny was once asked who she imagined her reader to be and replied very firmly that she tried not to imagine a reader at all, since that would be to acknowledge that her characters were not real; she believes that disappearing into other lives has to be the aim for both writer and reader. ‘I meet them in my mind and they let me know who they are as I write’. The reader is ‘working it out at the same time as I do’. I think that this gets right to the heart of Jenny’s writing and helps to explain her impact upon readers. Her characters, however quirky and of whatever age, become entirely real and reading her books is a truly vicarious experience.
I wondered if this made her anxious about finding her next character. Did she carry a notebook to jot down moments like the inspiration she describes for Broken Soup, her second acclaimed novel: just glimpsing from a bus a girl framed in a Camden doorway and knowing that she was going to be ‘something’? Apparently not – the world is full of moments, which are stashed away in the ‘melting pot’ of her brain until needed. The challenge is ‘structuring my mess into a novel’ because she is equally fierce, both as a writer and a reader, about superfluous words. ‘Why use five when one will do?’ Every day of writing, until the end is in sight, will start with re-reading from the beginning, changing, adding or taking away layers. Her first draft is as close as possible to the finished product before the editor’s skill gets to work.
She admits to being an unrepentant eavesdropper and observer and I wondered where this trait had originated? It was probably her Army family childhood and moving house every two years that developed her people watching skills. ‘When you are new to a place, you have to suss out how it all works very quickly’. This constant moving built a slight detachment and self-sufficiency which enabled her to make friends quickly and then leave them behind, just as she has to relinquish her characters!
There is no doubt that her family are also subject to observation. Her editor told her that she could write very convincing younger characters like Bohemia in her third novel, The Ant Colony, and persuaded Jenny to write a series for younger readers, Iggy & Me. These delightful stories, inspired by her love of the My Naughty Little Sister books are unashamedly about her daughters. Despite the fact that they are now teenagers I expressed the hope that we might have some more. We desperately need writing for this age group that can be simple but not patronising and characters that are real, engaging and not stereotypes.
But she is currently working on another YA novel (although initially, with her first book, had no idea that she was writing for teens – until her publisher told her). Young adults are undoubtedly the characters that speak to her, perhaps because of what her father called her own ‘prolonged period of adolescence’! It was not until after the birth of her children and in her thirties that she thought she had better get on with it and started to write. The new book however will be much ‘lighter’ and is about a family of boys. At first she could not tell if the narrator speaking to her was a boy or a girl, which hints at another reason for her popularity with fans of both sexes and with librarians who really dislike the type of books published and promoted just to girls or boys. Why, she agrees, limit or restrict their imagination and view of the world?
She definitely does not set out to make any great moral intention or impact upon the reader. She wants to tell a story that they will, above all else, enjoy and lose themselves in, but if she can challenge their assumptions then so much the better. Yet upon rereading Franny and Zooey as an adult she realised that this book had defined her own development and view of the world. I am in no doubt that there are teen readers of Jenny Valentine’s books who, in the future, will acknowledge where they realised the fundamental truth that people, however diverse and quirky, have more qualities in common than keep them apart. For my part I am eagerly anticipating both the next book and finally meeting Jenny at the YLG Conference in Glasgow.
Formerly Learning Resources Manager at Coventry Schools Library Service, Joy Court is a consultant on reading and libraries, Chair of the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Medals, and reviews editor of the School Librarian.
Fire Colour One, HarperCollins, 978-0007512362, £6.99
Finding Violet Park, HarperCollins 978- 0007291243, £5.99
Broken Soup, HarperCollins, 978-0007229659, £5.99
The Ant Colony, HarperCollins, 978-0007283590, £5.99
The Double Life of Cassiel Roadnight HarperCollins, 978-0007283613, £5.99
Iggy & Me, HarperCollins, 978-0007283620, £4.99
Iggy & Me and the Happy Birthday, HarperCollins, 978-0007283637, £4.99
Iggy & Me and the New Baby, HarperCollins, 978-0007463541, £4.99
Iggy & Me on Holiday, HarperCollins, 978-0007283651, £4.99