09 July 2012

James Treadwell: “Teenagers are basically fantastical beings”

My conversation with James Treadwell about his new novel, Advent, wraps up with a question about the book’s young protagonists.

Advent’s main character is Gavin, a teen-aged boy. Horace and Marina, two other important characters, are younger adolescents. Did you conceive of the book as for readers of that age or a little younger, or is adolescence just a good period of life for a transformative fantasy?

This is another great question, and I don’t think there’s much hope of responding briefly, but I’ll do my best.

To take the second part of the question first: yes. Yes it is.

Which is brief, but not very helpful …

I think it’s because teenagers are basically fantastical beings. They don’t quite live in the real world. They’re intensely aware of the inadequacy of things as they are, they’re intensely resistant to the idea that the world has to be the way adults say it is. They also have a strange and wonderful mix of freedom and unfreedom. They can’t choose their own course in the world, they don’t have their own houses and incomes and they can’t decide what to do with their time; but at the same time they’re not caught up in the web of obligations and necessities which makes adults unfree. Someone else deals with bank accounts and dentists and bills and wills and the possibility of being fired or going hungry or having to move to Peoria.

(Of course there are all sorts of social and economic and ideological determinants that affect children massively; but their relationship with those forces is much more oblique than it is for adults. Anyway, if we’re going to have even slightly brief answers I’m going to have to generalise …) I suppose what I mean is that teenagers are unplaced, as it were. Their lives haven’t dried hard yet. They’re closer to being seven-year-olds than we (or they) think. So where an adult might just dismiss fantasy as a distraction or a delusion or a nice-idea-but-we-all-know-things-don’t-work-like-that, a teenager might hear it speaking to them directly, honestly, intriguingly.

As for the first part of the question: I have a distant memory of wanting to write specifically for YA readers, just because my own reading experiences between about twelve and eighteen don’t seem to be going away no matter how much older I get or how much other (and, sometimes, better) stuff I read.

The difficulty, for me, is that “writing for an age group” actually means “writing the way books for a certain age group are supposed to be written, according to current commercial requirements.” Publishers’ ideas of what a book for (say) fourteen year-olds ought to look like were very different in the 1970s from the way they are now, and very different again in the 1920s, and the 1870s, and so on. It’s a marketing issue, essentially. For all their differences, if you think about what Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and the Hunger Games have in common — imagine a sort of stylistic Venn diagram — then I’d say you’d have a good idea of the minimum current requirements for something to count as YA fiction.

Alas, whether I’d like it to or not, my pen just won’t write that way.

The simple answer is that I didn’t write Advent for any age group. Of course, I didn’t write it against any age group either; I very much hope readers of Gavin’s age (fifteen) will enjoy it. But all I could do was tell the story the way I felt it wanted to be told.

Thanks, James! This photo by Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins shows me with Godson, Godson’s Brother, and their dad (James) during a hike a few years ago. In just two more years, we’ll see exactly how fantastical teenagers are!

No comments: