Saturday 8 February 2020

Happy birthday to Joe (or me) by Keren David

(I wrote this entire blog post, and then realised that it is FEBRUARY and not JANUARY. Oh well. Just add one month to everything. This is what happens when you combine work, life and writing.) 

Three days ago I celebrated my 10th anniversary  (err, and one month)  as a published author of Young Adult fiction.
On January 5 2010 my debut, When I Was Joe, was officially launched into the world - on a day so snowy that I couldn't even go to a bookshop to see if it was there. Instead a lovely blogger held a virtual book launch party for me.
Ten years (and a month!) on, there was no time to party. I have a day job, and on the 5th I was at work until 7pm. My writing has to fit around it, which is quite a challenge.

When I Was Joe is contemporary YA, told in first person present tense. It's about a 14-year-old boy who gets taken into police protection after witnessing a stabbing which leads to the death of another boy. The narrator, Tyler, takes on a new identity (Joe) and starts a new life. It's a thriller, but also an examination of identity, of how much you can leave behind when you try and start again. 

I say 'is', because When I Was Joe is still in print. I still get emails about it, I am still asked to come into schools to speak about it. Today I got one such email, from someone who volunteers in a large comprehensive school. She told me about a boy who hates reading, and has only ever read one book that he enjoyed. It was -  I am proud to say -  When I Was Joe. I was thrilled, of course,  but not 100% surprised. I have heard the same before. Somehow I managed to write a book that is enjoyed by boys who don't like reading. Many of them have written to tell me so. (It's quite funny, because I wrote it for a girl  - 13-year-old me -  who loved reading, and would have absolutely devoured a book about a good-looking boy in terrible jeopardy. In fact, several of my books fit that description. I'm not sure what this says about me)

I am not saying this to show off (OF COURSE I AM)  -  well, not just to show off. I think there's a wider point to make about contemporary British teen fiction. Because, I'm sad to say, we rarely feel valued. Our books are often dismissed (by people who don't read them) as dreary 'issue' books. Because we work hard to write authentic voices, we are often not seen as literary. And because the world moves fast, its often assumed that our books cannot become classics, that they are effectively throwaway fare, soon to be superseded by the next 'issue' book.  And, as well, somehow contemporary voices are just more interesting if they aren't too close to home. American voices in particular. I'm not sure why that is.

When I Was Joe did not get me a big advance or a big marketing campaign, or any of those things that a debut author might hope for. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if it had. But it has achieved exactly what I hoped for it. It entered the lives of many young people, it spoke to them, it made them feel seen and heard, it made them think. Some of them had words from it tattooed on their skin. Maybe (who knows) it helped a few of them think about their choices, about knives, gangs, fighting, violence. Certainly, I've been told by more than one librarians from Young Offender Institutions that it was a much-stolen book from their libraries. I've been told that it was a book that passed from one teen to another, that it was a 'cult' book, that 'everyone' read it. I've no idea how widespread that was. But all the prizes it won were voted for by young people.

It was translated into German and Brazilian Portuguese -  I regularly hear from Brazilian readers (who are lovely and chatty) and rarely from Germans. It has had three different UK covers, and it spawned two sequels. I suppose, if I'd had a different sort of career, I'd have continued writing similar thrillers. But I didn't. Partly because I like trying different things, and partly because of the 25 publishers who turned it down. They couldn't all be wrong, I reckoned, what if there were no market for this kind of book? Now, you know what, I think that they were probably wrong. But I'm glad that I kept on experimenting, testing myself as a writer, trying new things. I've published 11 books since 2010. I'm waiting for the edits for book 12, and starting to think about book 13.

Ty, if he were real, would be 26 now, as I started writing the book in 2008. I sometimes think about him, where would he be? What would he be doing? And his little sister Alyssa (born in one of the sequels) would be nine. One day, I tell myself, I'll write about her.

I would love to think that the subject matter of the book was no longer relevant to young readers. That knife crime had not multiplied, that young witnesses were not having to be given new identities, fearful for their lives for doing the write thing, that our criminal justice system was not in danger of collapse, that boys like Ty felt safe and secure on the streets of our towns and cities. Alas, things have gone worse. And now the 2010 mayor of London -  mentioned in the book on page 358 as "the weirdo blond guy off the telly" - is our prime minister. He was suggesting more youth facilities were needed then - boxing and Latin. Let's see if he remembers that now.

There are things I'd do differently now. The name, unfortunately, is one of them. I love it  -  but everyone thinks it is My Name is Joe. That's a 1998 film by Ken Loach, set in Glasgow, I say. Or it's a 2000 album by R&B singer Joe. It's one of those things. I'm used to it now.

Contemporary novels age badly, I've told, I'd regret mentioning 2008 politicians, singers, whatever. But I grew up reading books which had been written 10, 20, 30 years before I was born, and not worrying about it. Eventually contemporary morphs into historical. And I'm hoping that Joe will still be around in another 10 years at least.
 And anyway, I have a new book due out in exactly (yes, February!) one year.

1 comment:

Penny Dolan said...

Good to hear of a book that's still out there and speaking to its own audience.

Congratulations, Keren. Must say that the responses you received to I WAS JOE do make it sound like a winner to the readers..