Getting into writing with two Sides Two Sides II Author Emma Norry
Badger publishing fans will be aware of our best-selling Two Sides series of thought-provoking stories on hard-hitting themes that are breaking new ground in accessible literature. Emma Norry is the author of United, one of the books in the Two Sides II series, and she kindly agreed to an interview about this book and shares some tips on becoming a writer. Danny Pearson, our publisher, also gives us some insight into the commissioning process for this series and the reaction from readers.
How did you research and prepare for writing this novel?
My husband is a massive football fan, both playing and watching it. So… I watched games with him, tried FIFA and PES on the PlayStation and asked my son about playing at school.
United is a story about Zane, a football-mad teenager coming to terms with his sexuality. He has to cope with homophobic comments from his dad and coach — how do you think this affects his mental state?
Everything is amplified when you're a teenager. The good and the bad. Teens can be sensitive about many things, a stereotype that they 'don't care' isn't necessarily true, and when you have a secret, or are particularly worried about something, it often plays on your mind a lot and can easily become all consuming. Poor Zane ends up quite depressed and finds his personality changing in some respects as the comments he hears from respected and trusted grown-ups make him doubt any faith he has in the adults around him and make him feel isolated.
You pack a lot into a very short story and Zane has a lot to cope with at the same time. How important was that to creating his character?
Very important. I wanted Zane to get to a point where we almost wondered if he might snap again, and if so, what would that be like, because he had so much to cope with. Worried about his friend's new relationship, as well as trying to accept his own sexuality and possible attraction to his best mate. But, sometimes teen years are like that. It's just one big thing after another: friendships changing, exams, pressure of school, home, etc.
Zane's friend, Ola, is the other narrator in this novel. How does his personality balance the story?
Ola is the balance, I think. He's not as much of a worrier as Zane. Takes things in his stride a little more, so hopefully makes Zane worry less.
There's a lot of jealousy and misunderstanding in the book — how does this drive the plot forward?
When emotions run high and intense feelings are involved, it's easy to say and do things that we might not mean, or that we haven't considered. It's also more dramatic of course! Jealousy is a feeling most of us have experienced at some point and if we, as readers, can recognise the feelings, it gives us empathy and understanding of the characters. By Ola having a new relationship, it makes Zane's issues more prominent. Like, he can't ignore it any longer, you know? It was time he faced up to it.
Zane doesn't know anyone else who's gay, and worries that he can't be a footballer if he comes out. How important are real-life role models to young people?
Hugely important! It's vital, I think, that if you're in the public eye you use that privileged position of responsibility to speak up and out if you've experienced anything that might help young people. If it's a topic in which you're comfortable in speaking about, I truly believe it's important to do so. All too often we can put public figures on pedestals and begin to not even see them as human. But, everyone is unique and we've all experienced different things. How else can we empathise and learn from each other unless we open up and share those experiences? Adults don't need to be perfect. We just need to be honest and human.
Who do you hope reads this novel and what impact can finding yourself in stories have on people?
I hope that anyone and everyone reads my stories! In particular, teenagers who like football might learn something... or just might not expect the topic of sexuality to be so vital to the story. Although it's also very much about the power of friendship with a message that if you choose to share your secrets then you might be surprised by the reactions you receive, especially from friends and family. We aren't alone, even at those times when we really might feel that we are.
Did you always want to be an author?
Yes, I always wanted to write, ever since I was about ten. I wasn't sure what form that would take though. I enjoyed short stories, reading and writing them because it was satisfying being able to finish something fairly quickly. It wasn't until I turned forty that I attempted a novel. I'm a huge film and TV fan and dialogue and characters are my favourite areas to explore, as opposed to descriptions or world building, for example. And actually, there are areas I've never tried yet that I'm passionate about attempting: playwriting, writing for games and radio. I'll try anything!
How did you get started in writing?
I wrote short stories in my teens and 20s. I started sending a few shorts off to competitions and magazines. I didn't get very far but I kept on going because I really enjoyed it. Things didn't really happen for me until my mid-30s, when I started getting a few wins in short story contests.
What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in writing?
Read lots and widely. Anything... Comics, poetry, short stories. Try and note why you like what you do. You don't need to study English though, I deliberately chose not to. I studied film instead. Watch films and TV and learn to recognise what makes a good story. Where do you get bored? What excites you? What do you find funny or scary or emotional? Be curious about anything and everything because stories are all around us and can be found anywhere! Engage and exercise your imagination. If you saw a shoe in the street... Where do you think it came from? Whose is it? Ask yourself 'What If...? ' often.
Lots of writers take a while to get established, have you had any interesting jobs along the way? Have you learnt anything from them?
I'm still getting established! I think we're always developing and learning, or should aim to be. Apart from one, most of my jobs have been not terribly fancy nor interesting. I was a waitress and barmaid for years. I worked in a video shop. And a contact lens factory. The best job was being an editorial assistant for a year when I was about 22. What I learnt was... speaking to and meeting lots of people. Without people, all sorts, there are no stories.
Do you think the digital revolution has made writing careers easier or harder to establish?
Probably easier because there are now so many opportunities around! Kindle, self-publishing, not to mention the digital platforms where you can share stories and engage with people and read one another’s work to offer feedback. Places like The Arvon Foundation offer retreats and courses for schools and are worth looking into. The Radio 2 competition 500 words is also brilliant.
Danny Pearson, Publisher of the series tells us more about how these series were conceived:
Two Sides is a different direction for Badger publishing, what prompted the idea for a series tackling a range of issues young people have to deal with?
I was really surprised to discover that there are almost no books that deal with the issues addressed in this series for reluctant or struggling readers. I think this is because it is a very difficult task to give the issues raised the space they need to be covered appropriately. However, I managed to put together a very skilled and diverse team of writers, copy editors and various support and charity organizations to make sure that what we published was authentic.
Why should accessible literature cover hard-hitting themes? Is it better to use escapism to hook in reluctant readers?
Not all young adults want to read about wizards, magical kingdoms or hormonal vampires and I think it is important to talk about the issues we have decided to highlight in a real-life setting. The environment and scenarios we have explored will be very familiar to our readers or their peers. Life is not always easy and we hope that these books give the readers the ideas and tools they will need to tackle and understand the difficult and challenging situations that could confront them days, weeks, months and years ahead.
The two-sided structure runs throughout the series, how important is this to the narrative?
I believe it splits up the texts into comfortable chunks that will not overwhelm our readers. It also allows room for discussion and reflection after each chapter. The thoughts, emotions and reactions from the two-sided structure help the reader to empathise with both the main character and the people around them, giving them the opportunity for insight and reflection.
What's the reaction been from teachers and young people to the series?
Really positive, in fact, Girl Next Door has been shortlisted for a Reading Rampage award which we’re thrilled about.