Two unique, thought-provoking posts by two unique YA authors. The first is Night Runner by Carnegie Medal-winning Tim Bowler and the second is Replica by Australian writer Jack Heath.
Writing Night Runner by Tim Bowler
Night Runner is a fast-moving story and it came to me at a sprint. It’s about a fifteen-year-old boy called Zinny and the novel begins with him hiding in his room at home because he has truanted from school. But within just a few pages we discover that his father is abusive, his mother has a dark secret, and there’s a dangerous man trying to break into the house. A few pages later Zinny is running for his life. When I first started writing Night Runner, I had no clear idea of how the story was going to work out. All I knew for certain was that Zinny was in terrible trouble. But I was hooked and desperate to find out what would happen to him. What appealed to me about Zinny, what made me care about him, was his isolation. He has no one to depend on. He’s not just isolated at school, he’s isolated at home too, and even in his head: he’s cut off from his dreams and confused about what he really wants. He doesn’t have friends to help him and his mum and dad have huge problems of their own.
Should we profit from suffering? by Jack Heath
Good writing usually comes from a bad experience. Philip K. Dick couldn’t have written A Scanner Darkly, his novel about a DEA agent hooked on Substance D, if it weren’t for his own crippling drug addiction. The Makedde Vanderwall series by Tara Moss drew heavily on the abuse Moss had suffered as a young model. Bryce Courtenay wrote movingly about his son’s death in April Fool’s Day.
When a character experiences grief or rage the author takes advantage of his or her own experiences with these emotions, even if the circumstances were radically different. I was once violently ill on an aeroplane and found myself temporarily paralysed and unable to remember who I was. In the prologue of my novel Replica, Chloe Zimetski awakens with all her memories erased, trapped in the basement of someone who looks exactly like her. Chloe’s terror is convincing because of my own.
This raises an ethical problem. On the surface Replica is about an android who assumes the identity of her creator in order to investigate a murder. But thematically it’s about what we leave behind when we die. I was compelled to write it after several people close to me passed away.
And now I’m selling it.
Writing can be therapeutic. Sometimes putting trauma into words can help you understand it and let it go. And yet, if a surgeon removes a life-threatening tumour from your abdomen, is it appropriate to put the tumour up for auction? My gut says no, if you’ll pardon the pun.
But this is not a new argument. News sites use tragedy to sell ad space. The advertisers, in turn, profit from universal human feelings of inadequacy. 12 Years A Slave took the plight of African Americans in the 19th century and sold it as entertainment (Django Unchained even more so.) The salaries of police officers depend on the existence of crime. Necessity is the mother of invention, and misfortune is the father of necessity.
If I don’t sell Replica, I can’t afford to write more books. The readers lose. My grief doesn’t get less potent – just less useful. I suffered for nothing.
Perhaps it’s time we stopped asking the question, “Should we profit from pain?” Maybe we should be asking, “Can we afford not to?”
About Jack Heath
Jack Heath was born in 1986 and started writing his first novel in high school. It was published when he was 19. He has since written several award-nominated books for teenagers, which are published all over the world. He lives in Canberra with his wife.
About Tim Bowler
Tim Bowler is one of the UK’s most compelling and original writers for teenagers. He was born in Leigh-on-Sea and after studying Swedish at university he worked in forestry, the timber trade, teaching, and translating before becoming a full-time writer. He lives with his wife in a quiet Devon village and his workroom is a small wooden outhouse known to friends as ‘Tim’s Bolthole’. Tim has written nineteen books and won fifteen awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal for River Boy. His books have sold over a million copies worldwide.
This post was originally published on the OUP Children’s Book Voices blog on 17 October 2014.