Last week Tuesday, I went to the Exploring Other Worlds event at Waterstones Piccadilly which featured young adult authors Philip Womack, Sally Gardner, Chris Priestley and Taran Matharu. They were there to have a discussion, led by Philip Womack, about fantasy worlds in young adult fiction, what fantasy means to them, and the ways in which they engage with these worlds in their books. It was a really interesting conversation to witness, and I really enjoyed myself (free wine was a bonus), but I just didn’t write about it earlier because every time I came home I fought to keep my eyes open, and I like to be fully conscious when I write.
When Philip started a conversation about how they got themselves into fantasy worlds at a young age, what I found most interesting was Sally Gardner’s admission that she couldn’t read until she was fourteen-years-old – so to make up for her lack of reading, she would make up worlds in her head. This struck a chord with me particularly because, having experienced several mental health problems from a young age, I would often create worlds and characters in my head that I’d turn to in times of difficulty. It was fascinating that someone who spent the better part of her childhood years unable to read, now is a well-known and successful writer. Her comment made me think: “I really need to get off my arse and write something…”
Another topic of discussion I found interesting was their writing strategies. Whilst Taran mentioned having started off writing in chronological chapter order to keep his readers and followers interested on Wattpad, Chris explained that his mind works with what comes to mind first – if the end comes first, he’ll write it. I suppose, like he also said, that may sound weird to some people, but my mind has never been one to give me information in the right order either, so I understood him perfectly. It does, however, make structuring things all the harder, so the fact that he can produce a coherent book is amazing (though they all laughed at the thought that their writing is fully coherent).
There was some discussion about fantasy in young adult novels being heavily seeped in coming-of-age themes, which of course makes perfect sense if you consider that the target audience are teenagers. A fair bit of the conversation also hovered around political correctness policing imagination and creativity, especially where children’s and young adult books are concerned – and this is something Sally seemed to feel strongly about. The general idea behind this was that writers for these age groups feel constrained and unable to fully explore dark themes because they will be deemed inapropriate for the target audience. Sally told us she gets around this by setting her dark themes in the past – dark events in past eras are facts, they have happened, and no one can police that. She has a point. Just have a look at horrible histories for starters, though I know that’s children’s non-fiction.
When their conversation ended, Philip told us they would take questions from the audience. One of the very first questions really pissed me off. It was a middle-aged woman asking them a question about video games, suggesting that they rely purely on fantasy, but I really saw red as soon as she said games are so linear that they don’t help creativity or imagination in the slightest. She admitted that she doesn’t play games, so of course she would know…Anyway, I was grateful that Taran, a self-confessed gamer and fan of Skyrim, politely told her that games have come a long, long way since the last time she clearly set eyes on one. He also spoke about getting inspiration from video games for his work in creating different levels and species of demons etc. Thank you Taran, that was the final thing that made me put down Philip’s book and buy yours instead.
Since no one else had a question I decided to ask the authors if they feel any pressure to keep up with the changes in modern fantasy – as in, A Game of Thrones has made high fantasy popular on TV, The Hunger Games has made teenage dystopian fantasy popular in the cinemas (cue Divergent), and Ernest Cline has now brought video games to novels in Ready Player One and his new novel Armada. But each of them admitted they were so busy writing that they barely had time to read. Philip chimed in saying he didn’t even have a TV(!), and Chris answered saying he mostly picks up non-fiction when he reads, and finds it more helpful than a distraction.
All in all, thanks again Waterstones Piccadilly for being my second home. If you live in London and love books, do give them a go. When I tweeted @WaterstonesPicc telling them how much I enjoyed their event, they suggested I might like another: Dark Societies on Tuesday 29th September at 18:30, exploring “the fate of humanity and the familiar made strange”. Jojo Moyes will also be launching her new novel After You at Waterstones Piccadilly this Thursday at 18:30, so if anyone is interested, go! I can’t since I’ll be working…gah.