Friday, 23 November 2012

The Edge, an uncomfortable place to be … by guest author, Celia Rees

This week we are delighted to welcome award-winning author, Celia Rees as our guest at the Edge.

I have to thank Miriam Halahmy for introducing me to The Edge and asking me if I’d like to contribute to a site devoted to ‘Sharp fiction for young adults and teens’. I have always believed that there is a place for just this kind of fiction, positioned between children’s books and fully adult writing, offering a staging post, a stepping stone between the two. It is a vitally important, necessary fiction, but a tricky area. The Edge can be an uncomfortable place. Get it WRONG and you will be accused of preaching, patronizing, being out of touch in an embarrassing ‘Dad Dancing’ way. Get it RIGHT and you might delight the readers but dismay the gatekeepers and risk not being published at all.

Tricky lot, older teens.

I began writing as a response to just this difficult group. I was an English teacher and my 14 – 16 year old students seemed to have turned themselves off reading because, they said, there was nothing for them, nothing that reflected life as they experienced it. They were almost adults, but the fiction on offer did not treat them that way. There wasn’t much to intrigue, engage, engross them on a grown up level. This didn’t mean that they read nothing. 
There were authors they consumed with great appetite. American authors like Robert Cormier, Lois Duncan, Patricia Windsor and Ursula Le Guin but their output was relatively small and when these readers wanted to, they could read fast. It seemed to me that what these writers had in common was an ability to write exciting, genre fiction with teenage characters at the centre of the action but with added value. These books were uncompromising, not just in subject matter but also in the complexity of the story telling, the way they were written. I liked that. I enjoyed reading these books myself and that is still my test. If I enjoy the book as an adult reader, it is YA. If I don’t. it’s not. A rough rule of thumb, biased I know, but there it is.

My first novel, Every Step You Take, was based on a true story about a group of students from another comprehensive school in the city who got mixed up in a murder hunt. I wrote it like a thriller because I knew that was a popular genre (and I like thrillers) but it had ‘added value’: strong themes - a continuum of male violence from date abuse and rape to murder and powerful female characters (these were the days of early Val McDermid and V.I. Warshawski).

My latest novel, This Is Not Forgiveness, is also a contemporary thriller, taking in events happening now, soldiers returning from Afghanistan, post traumatic stress disorder, other kinds of social disorder, all mixed into the complexities and stresses of 21st Century teenage life. I’ve written in a lot of other genre, notably historical fiction and horror, but I’ve always kept those first principles in mind: strong stories, added extras, keep it real, be honest, don’t patronize. Even with all that, you still might not get it right…

The Edge can be a difficult place and uncomfortable, but then how comfortable should it be?

For more information please visit Celia's website, her official Facebook Fan Page, or follow her on Twitter @CeliaRees

Huge thanks to Celia for being this week's guest author at The Edge.


  1. Great post, Celia, and you're absolutely right - the edge can be an uncomfortable place. There is a very fine line between getting it right and getting it through the gatekeepers. I've just read Robert Cormier's Chocolate War, which was brilliant, very real, very dark. He struggled getting it published, and I think it's still banned in some places in the US. The edge is never a comfortable place.

  2. I absolutely agree - YA is a bit like walking a tightrope. If it's not relevent and authentic you won't convince your teen reader, but there are so many gatekeeper restrictions on "real" teen issues such as sex, violence, and swearing that it can be difficult to get the balance right. Great post, Celia!

  3. Thanks for joining us on The Edge, Celia! One of the challenges of writing tales set in modern times is that teens today live in a very different world than we did. I'm not sure how I would have been changed by 'living out loud' -- through Facebook, Twitter, etc -- and with constantly being connected via mobile phones. But I think there are certain fundamental truths and universal experiences in our teen years and it's taping into those -- as you said -- with compelling stories and honesty.

  4. It's being patronising I fear so much and I agree its so difficult to get it right, Celia. But well worth the struggle. Terrific post, great to have you here on The Edge and hope to see you again sometime.

  5. Right on the button as usual Celia.

  6. Great to have you here on The Edge, Celia. I agree, writing stories for teenagers that involve strong themes is a tricky business but, for me, 'This is Not Forgiveness' is an example of really getting it right. I keep hearing about Robert Cormier so I'm off to buy 'Chocolate Wars'.