Saturday 23 September 2017

It's 'Gone Girl' for teens in a very lucrative market

Irish author Natasha Mac a'Bháird on breaking into the lucrative young adult demographic

Teen genre: Natasha Mac a’Bháird reads ‘Missing Ellen’ to twin daughters Sarah and Rachel Fitzmaurice
Teen genre: Natasha Mac a’Bháird reads ‘Missing Ellen’ to twin daughters Sarah and Rachel Fitzmaurice

Edel Coffey

There was a time when young adult and children's fiction was treated like the armpit of publishing. It was the area that failed novelists went to publish. There were stand-out writers such as Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, of course, but, until JK Rowling's Harry Potter came along and made its author (and her publishers in the process) vast sums of money, it was an overlooked genre, and one that was looked down on too.

Now, with franchises like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga and more edgy titles such as The Fault In Our Stars by John Green and Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, the young adult category has become one to be reckoned with.

There was a time when contemporary Irish fiction for young adults was thin on the ground.

Not so any more, says Irish author Natasha Mac a'Bháird. "I was always disappointed when I was younger that there were so few books set in Ireland. But I love reading teenage fiction now. You get to read about the Leaving Cert instead of high school or A Levels."

Natasha's latest book, her first for teenagers, is Missing Ellen, and it tells the story of the friendship between Maggie and Ellen.

Like most teenage girlfriends, they share clothes as well as all of their secrets.

When Ellen goes missing, Maggie is left feeling bereft and lonely as she tries to figure out why Ellen has disappeared.

This is both a story of friendship, and how Maggie will cope without her best friend, and a mystery. A sort of Gone Girl for teenagers, if you will.

"This story was always in the back of my mind, it's a slow-burner. I wanted to write about friendship, which is hugely important as a teenager, and I wanted to write something that had a mystery at the heart of it."

Now that the teenage genre is so lucrative, did she think about the sort of market she was writing for?

"I don't think about that. You write for yourself. If you try to write a book for the market, by the time it comes round to putting the book out, the fashion has moved on. You have to put that out of your head and write the book you want to write."

Natasha's previous books comprise a non-fiction wedding book and a book for children. Missing Ellen was her first foray into young adult fiction. "I always wanted to do a teenagers' book. It's difficult to write fiction, but I was determined.

"It took about three or four years to write and I got stuck along the way. At the time I was writing it, I was at home with the twins, who are eight now. Life was chaotic. I think I was probably identifying with the characters at the start but I ended up sympathising with the parents."

Natasha first started writing stories when she was just eight years old.

"I was reading a lot of Enid Blyton and my dream was to have my name on a book just like Enid.

"I have been writing ever since, whether it's in a diary or on a blog, I've always been writing something. Writing for me is a way of self-expression, it's a great way of getting things out.

"I write in the mornings when the girls are at school. It's not the day job. I do proof-reading and write articles. I write fiction long-hand and then type it up that evening." This acts as a kind of editing process as she redrafts in the transcription part of the exercise, transferring what she has written that morning on to her computer screen.

"It works very well for me to take a notebook out to a café and just write. If I stay at home, I'll find jobs around the house to do. I have a rule that I don't take out my phone and I don't bring a book or any other distractions with me. You have to be disciplined."

So what is it about that particular era – adolescence – that resonates so strongly with her?

"It's a defining part of a person's life. You're forging your identity, your independence, you're starting to break away from your family a little bit, your friends are becoming more important.

"I don't think you ever forget those years. You certainly remember them clearer than your 20s. I like the simplicity of books for this age group. There's not as much waffle.

"Adults are reading them too. The sales of The Hunger Games can't all be based on teenagers alone.

"Roald Dahl said there is no such thing as a children's book. If it's worth reading at seven, it's worth reading at 70."

MISSING ELLEN BY NATASHA MAC A'BHáIRD IS PUBLISHED BY THE O'BRIEN PRESS.

The best teen fiction

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

My tiny pre-pubescent mind was blown by Judy Blume's look at American adolescence. It's a window into the much-longed for mysterious happenings of nascent puberty.

The Twilight saga

Stephenie Meyer's teenage love story was a barely veiled lesson in sexual restraint.

Harry Potter

As the characters start to have relationships, JK Rowling's best-selling books became a rite of passage.

The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins's novels see heroine Katniss take part in a televised battle-to-the-death. The sense of adversary to be overcome reflects the adolescent experience.

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment