First published in Cinders Issue Three
Claire Hennessy has been a published writer since she was twelve. Since the release of her first book Dear Diary, she has been at the forefront of Irish teen literature. Now as a children’s book editor and author she has even more feathers in her very large cap! Meabh McDonnell had a chat with Claire about her last book Nothing Tastes as Good and her upcoming release, Like Other Girls.
Let’s get started with first things first- between being an editor, an author and frequently writing articles for different publications – you must never stop working – when do you sleep?
Claire: Yes. It’s kind of a problem, I need more sleep!
How do you fit it all in?
Claire: Sometimes I don’t. I often feel guilt for not doing enough but I think that’s really normal for freelancers working in the arts, you do have to take on so many things to pay the bills. Or sometimes I will see something going on that is good for the world of kid-lit or YA and you say to yourself – ‘Oh, this is a really cool thing and I really want to do it!’ Then you end up looking at your schedule and realise – I have not factored in sleeping or tidying things! I think there’s a constant attempt to try and make sure that I’m not taking on too much!
You’ve been in the writing world since you were twelve – I remember reading your first book, Dear Diary and being so impressed that someone who was my age could produce a book! You then continued as a teen author – what did you pick up from that experience?
Claire: I think that the experience of being in school and having a book deadline but also having to do my homework was important. Like you can’t go into school and say, well I haven’t done my maths homework because I had a book deadline!
It’s easy to forget how full a teen’s schedule is between all of the work they have to do in school but also all of the work they have to do outside of it as well!
Claire: Absolutely! Adults kind of moan about having to take work home, teenagers are just expected to do it. It’s ridiculous really, I mean, they’re spending so much time in school in a very intense learning mode and then they’re expected to go home, eat, and spend two, to three to four more!
Do you find it harder getting into that teen mindset now than you did when you were a teenager?
Claire: I still find it very easy to get inside that head and I think the reason is because as a writer you’re always trying to improve and grow and I would hope that I’m always trying to become a better writer. A big part of that is empathy with characters of all kinds and I still read an awful lot of YA fiction and I think that helps to stay in that mind frame.
Do you find that your own experience as an editor informs your writing?
Claire: Not a to a huge extent when I’m writing the first draft because if you have ‘editor brain’ on all the time you’d never get anything written, but I think it has helped my instincts a little bit. I think particularly it helps with the opening of novels. When you’ve read 20 manuscripts in a row that open with ‘A teenager waking up and getting out of bed, going about their morning routine, looking in the mirror so they can describe themselves for the reader’, you’re thinking maybe avoid this! But I’m also very conscious about trying not to get too jaded about those types of cliches, I think they do come from how we were taught to write stories in school. Like, ‘You need to describe the character, and you need to set the scene and you can’t do this and you can’t do that’. And you realise out of school that you were being taught those things for your vocabulary, not for your writing.
With being an editor on one hand and writing on the other, what do you find informs the themes of your own writing?
Claire: That’s quite a deep question, I think there is a little bit of feminism in there, I always try to have a bit of humour in there, I think that it’s very difficult to write about everything that teenagers are going through without having a bit of humour. Even if it’s black humour! I hope that there’s a sense of empathy with teenagers, because I think it can be a really tough time in their lives, which makes for great dramatic potential!
You use humour to great effect in Nothing Tastes as Good with Annabel- so often I found myself thinking ‘Oh she didn’t just say that but at the same time, she’s so funny!’
Claire: Annabel is a bit of a wagon. I think if you had the story without Annabel being herself, being a little bit snarky, then it might just be 300 pages of misery! With Nothing Tastes as Good I really wanted to try an unusual narrative style, something I hadn’t tried before! I didn’t want to tell the story from just Julia’s point of view, so bringing Annabel in gave me two characters who worked well together. It was really fun to write.
It comes across as very entertaining and it’s refreshing because so often books that are ‘about’ a serious topic fail to have that much humour. It doesn’t feel like a voice that is talking down to the reader or trying to teach them a lesson.
Claire: I hope so. I find that can happen a lot in books about eating disorders, especially about why she has an eating disorder. We always want the reason for something like that – where as we never want that for a story where someone has cancer. So I really wanted to avoid that, or a big reveal moment when Annabel realises ‘Oh my god, I’m sick because this happened!’
It’s not the way it works in real life, people don’t have an epiphany moment of realisation and then change everything about their lifestyle, it’s much more gradual. Especially when dealing with something in your head.
Claire: Initially I was a little reluctant because there was a part of me that was wondering ‘am I allowed to write a book about an eating disorder, something that I have never experienced personally? But when someone described it as not just writing about an eating disorder but writing about mental illness – I felt much better about how I would represent it. I’m so glad that that’s a connection that people are making because I think that so often people treat eating disorders as ‘oh they’re diets gone wrong’ when really they are diets gone wrong but in a mental health way.
I think because it’s a mental health disorder that can manifest in a physical way people often expect someone suffering with one of them to be stick thin or morbidly obese when in reality it’s not necessarily going to be obvious. It’s about their behaviours and so much more than that.
You released a new book in May didn’t you?
Claire: Yes, I did. It’s called Like Other Girls. It came from a place where I look at Irish reproduction laws and am filled with rage so I felt that we really needed the YA abortion novel in Ireland right now. It’s been a project that’s been on the cards for two years.
I presume the title is taken from the phrase ‘Oh she’s different, she’s not like other girls’?
Claire: It is and also the main character is bisexual as well – or as she describes herself ‘an equal opportunities cuddle slut’. So it’s that she also likes other girls! It works on so many levels!
You don’t get enough bisexual lead characters I think
Claire: No you do not. I think there can be this awkwardness around bisexuality in the queer community. With any marginalised community there’s always the in-fighting, it’s not just this happy place where ‘oh everything’s wonderful and everyone agrees with everyone else! So in the book we have sexuality and we have reproductive rights! And we have a musical because – why not?!
With all of those different topics and themes, do you do much research for your books?
Claire: I kind of do more passive research than active research. Like in terms of I’m more likely to write about something that I’ve already read a lot about and then read additional material in that field. I do that rather than take I topic I don’t know anything about and decide to write about it and start from scratch. I’m not someone who likes research for the sake of researching. Writing about how tricky it is for women who have crisis pregnancies in Ireland all I needed to do was read the newspapers!
It’s something that’s very topical right now and it definitely seems like the right time to be writing about it.
Claire: It’s something that I’ve been annoyed about for a long time. I also wanted to write about abortion in a compelling way that also tells a good story. I think it’s a difficult thing to do because the more interesting narrative arc is the woman has an abortion and regrets it but that’s not the story that I wanted to write. That might be the more dramatically interesting story but it’s not representative and because this is such an important issue and that’s not the story that I wanted to tell. At the same time I didn’t want to have the story be ‘now everything’s fine and perfect and rosy’ because that’s not dramatically interesting. So it was about figuring out how to tell this story while also keeping it dramatic and compelling but also representative and not preachy. I was conscious all the way through that I was writing a novel and not a manifesto. I wanted to have some light moments in their too -that’s why having the musical in there was so important! I mean, everyone loves a musical!
Is there any genre you haven’t worked in that you might like to in the future?
Claire: At some point I do want to write a sci-fi novel, but I find world building really tricky! There are definitely new things like that I want to try but I feel that I’ve identified the things that really interest me, like sad teenage girls dealing with stuff, with a bit of humour! But ultimately I’m keeping an open mind!
If there was one parting thought you could leave young teen readers and writers what would it be?
Claire: It’s okay to be weird.