Fifth in our series of interviews with writers discussing the impact of the pandemic on their work and creativity, Aisha Phoenix talks to Jenny Downham about publishing uncertainty and the importance of writing groups.
At the time of writing, there have been more than four million cases of COVID-19 globally and more than 33,000 people have lost their lives to the virus in the UK. In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, the UK has been in lockdown since March 23. However, the impact on businesses and the self-employed has been devastating, with nearly a million universal credit claims in the first two weeks of lockdown. Many writers are self-employed and in a precarious position, dependent on teaching, and literary events that have been cancelled or postponed. For example, important events such as the London Book Fair, the Hay Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival are not going ahead. In our Writing In The Time of COVID-19 series, I talk to writers at different stages of their careers on the effects of the virus on their lives and work and their expectations and hopes for the future. This week Prize-Winning YA Novelist Jenny Downham talks about publishing uncertainty, financial challenges and the importance of writing groups.
Congratulations on the publication of your latest novel, Furious Thing. You are a prize-winning young adult novelist, who has won awards including The Waterstones Teen Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you tell us about the kind of novels you write and Furious Thing?
I have written four novels. Furious Thing is the fourth one. They are all young adult, contemporary and based within the family. The protagonists are 15, 16, 17, that kind of age range. Young people are stepping forwards into adulthood, but they are also capable of stepping backwards into childhood. They are surrounded by gatekeepers, teachers, parents, telling them what they can and can’t do. They are full of urges and longing for things they can’t have yet. As a storyteller, that’s great material. I have always been very interested in putting my young people in the context of family and school because that’s where most of the readers live their lives. I write about the day-to-day complexities of being a young person.
Furious Thing has got a lot of critical acclaim recently. Can you tell us about that novel?
It’s the story of 15-year-old Lexi. She’s wildly rude, badly behaved and always in trouble, but she doesn’t want to be that person. She wants to be polite and amenable because she thinks that will make her family love her. She lives with her mum, her half-sister and soon-to-be stepfather — her mum is about to get married. She tries to push her anger down, but that doesn’t work because it keeps erupting and the boundaries imposed upon her are tightened. It’s ultimately a story about Lexi’s journey to answer the question, “What if it isn’t me?” in terms of her behaviour. There is somebody in her life who is emotionally abusing her, but she’s not aware of that at the beginning of the book. I wanted to look at coercive behaviour, female rage and societal expectations of how girls ‘should’ behave.
At the beginning of 2020, what plans did you have for your writing and professional work?
The book came out in October, and at the beginning of 2020, it was shortlisted for the Costa, which was very exciting. I went to America to do an American book tour — it was published by Scholastic in the States — and I came back at the beginning of February. I am so fortunate that the book is physically out there and I managed to get the tour in. The thing that is difficult is that on the book tour I met lots of independent booksellers and librarians and the book was uppermost in their minds — it had just come out — and then the libraries shut, the bookshops shut. There are still things happening. I have done lots of videos for them to put on their websites and we did a blog tour, which is a virtual tour. They are still putting lots of stuff out there, but it’s really difficult to know the impact of what it means to have invested in a book that has just come out and now it’s quite difficult for people to buy it.
In the UK, the London Book Fair was cancelled, I was supposed to appear at that. Hay, I was going to go to that, the Edinburgh Book Festival. All of these things have been cancelled.
My paperback was due out in June but now has a tentative 2021 publication date. I’m up for the YA Book Prize and because all of the promotion for that has gone online, it has been concertinaed into a much lesser space. It’s basically just Twitter interviews and stuff. The physical things where we would go out and meet readers and all go to Hay, none of that is happening. That’s difficult.
I am blessed to have been shortlisted for the Costa and the YA Book Prize, but all of the accompanying fanfare that goes with being shortlisted, none of that is happening, so it’s just a bit sad. I appreciate that I am incredibly lucky to have a book out there. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the paperback. I can only think of it as a queue of books that were all waiting and are now on hold. I don’t know what that means for publishing calendars, whether everything will be delayed or whether books will be cancelled.
Given that you are an experienced writer and Furious Thing has got such critical acclaim already, do you think that your paperback is less likely to be cancelled than the work of an emerging writer who doesn’t have that track record behind them?
I really don’t know. If the debut feels pertinent to the situation that we are all experiencing now, then I would imagine that the choices will be made commercially — one at a time. My publisher, David Fickling Books, is great because they are a very small independent publisher, so they are able to adapt in a very quick way. They tend only to publish a couple of books a month anyway. It’s not like I’m lost in a great big corporate machine. I imagine David Fickling will try to honour every book that he has committed to publishing.
How are you finding all the uncertainty?
Professionally, I am trying not to think about it too much. If I really think about it I can think of all the worst possible scenarios that could happen, so I try not to. But if I think about what would have happened, I would have been promoting this current book, it would come out in June, I would be going to bookshops, doing signings, and appearances. I would then be writing a new book. If the trajectory goes like it has done for my last four books, at some point I would get a phone call from my publisher, asking, “How’s it going? Do you want to show us any of it? Do you want to meet with one of the editors?” None of that’s happening. Therefore, I think, given the backlog that we just talked about, it’s unlikely that new books will be nurtured in the same ways that they would have been in the past because nobody knows what the future will hold. I feel quite alone with writing this new book. I’m just writing it into a void.
There is also a financial aspect. Authors are usually paid in tranches. You get paid when you sign the contract, when you hand in the manuscript, when the hardback comes out and when the paperback comes out. This means I won’t get my tranche for the paperback until it’s published and we don’t know when that will be. I sold the book abroad as well. In some countries where I’ve sold it, it hasn’t come out yet. Although I’ve signed a contract, it may or may not be cancelled completely. It all feels so uncertain.
Is this something that you are able to weather financially or is it putting a large strain on your finances?
I’m a full-time writer, so I don’t have another job. I do a little bit of teaching and that’s moved online, so I’m still doing that. My finances are completely tied up in what happens to my books, both the current ones and future ones. It is a bit anxiety inducing. Also, both my sons have come back to live at home and normally they live and study elsewhere, so suddenly my expenses have gone up considerably because I am feeding hungry young men, and the bills have gone up exponentially! We don’t know how long this is going to last for. They could be here for months. There are more expenses and less money coming in, so of course, it’s troubling.
Have COVID-19 and the lockdown led to any innovations in the way you teach or promote your work? You mentioned teaching online, were you doing that previously?
I was teaching in person previously on the Goldsmiths Creative Writing MA. Teaching online actually works very well. I am a dissertation supervisor, so it’s one-to-one anyway.
Have there been any other innovations as a result of the pandemic and lockdown?
My publisher and agent are still promoting all of their books. They are having giveaways and my publisher has made all of the eBooks cheaper for all of his authors. The prizes that I was shortlisted for have all gone online and I have been invited to do Zoom interviews, Skype interviews. It’s not me innovating, but I am happily responding to other people innovating.
How has the virus affected your ability to create work?
My average day, I sit at my desk for a number of hours and I go into the garden for a break. But it is different when you are forced to do that and there are no breaks from it. When I talk about my life as a writer I think, oh, I barely ever go out, but actually, when you look at your diary you do have a lot of social stuff that you do that does make you feel less alone as a writer. Writing is quite an insular thing to be doing, so being forced to stay in, it puts a different slant on the writing. It’s a bit like it’s no longer a choice, you have to do it. And the anxiety generally, I can often be at my desk trying to think about my work and my mind will slide off into something else. I work at my front window looking out onto the street. I am looking out there right now and there is one person. I am at the junction of two roads. Normally, there would be cars, cyclists, dogwalkers and conversations happening right outside the window. I love writing here because I feel less alone, but right now it looks like a film-set outside, it’s completely empty. That’s difficult.
Also, not knowing what might happen with the book I’m working on — nobody has commissioned it. I don’t like signing contracts in advance because they always have a date on them. I much prefer just writing something on spec, partly because I’m very secure in that David Fickling has published all of my books and has said, “I will publish everything you write.” That’s great. But now, will he still? That’s the question. Here I am writing something, I don’t know what the future for it is. It is tempting to think, I won’t bother, I’ll just read. Creatively, I am finding it much more difficult.
I know lots of people are saying they have space now to do the things they really wanted to do, but I wonder sometimes how true that is because lots of people must be feeling very anxious. Even if we feel pretty secure in our own situation, when you look at the world, there are people who are in such dire straits. Sometimes I get consumed by the generalised grief of everyone else.
Do you think there will be people who will see this as an opportunity to do creative work they couldn’t do previously?
I am sure there will. Lots of people in my family, if they are struggling with something, I say, “Write it down,” because I know it helps me. There will inevitably be lots of people who will be writing for the first time, keeping a diary, writing a poem, writing emails, writing longer letters to their family. We are doing things that we would perhaps not normally do.
I think lots of people will be keeping diaries. I heard on the radio yesterday that if historians in years to come find those diaries, they will see them as really informative.
One of the jokes that writers have at the moment, is that everyone is a novelist now. I don’t know whether that will be true. There might be a handful of people who will write the novel they have always wanted to write. Publishers might be looking for the COVID-19 novel and it might be a debut novelist, but our fear that the publishing industry will be saturated with all the novels that everyone was writing during the lockdown, I don’t think that’s going to happen. There’s so much grief around.
What do you think the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown will be on writers and the writing industry in the short term?
I feel like the writing industry is holding its breath. I have heard about small independent bookshops who are hand-delivering books on bicycles. Obviously, online books are still selling. I don’t know the statistics in terms of physical books being delivered still or people moving on to eBooks. But even those small independent bookshops, their volume isn’t that of a typical day. I can only imagine that a lot of them will really struggle.
If we think about what’s happening — authors’ tours being cancelled, book publishing is on hold, industry gatherings have all been cancelled — I worry will there be enough agents and publishers left? I’m hopeful that people will always love books. I heard people are reading more than they were. Maybe it will reignite a love of reading for people who haven’t read a book for a while.
Do you think any demographic of writers or kind of writer is likely to be particularly adversely affected?
There are many voices out there that are heard less than the majority, but whether we will go backwards with new voices, own voices, I don’t know. I hope that isn’t true, but there’s a bit of me that worries it might be.
I imagine debut authors might suffer. If you think of all the publishing slots that have been cancelled, all those books that were meant to come out that haven’t, what’s going to happen to them? If you are a debut author and you send in your new manuscript, are people going to think I am not going to look at you because we have got all these people that everyone already knows waiting for a publishing slot?
Has anything about the response to the virus and lockdown given you a sense of hope?
Kindness. We are prioritising kindness in ways that we didn’t. On a small scale, I see it — my neighbours are being kind. They were always very nice but they’re making an extra effort. As a result, I am aware of other neighbours that perhaps live alone, I am checking in on them in a way that I wouldn’t normally. There are lots of local schemes — people putting things through the door. All of that gives you faith that people are generally kind.
I just hope that the people who society would normally not elevate to a position of importance: the bus drivers, the people who work in the shops, the NHS staff — I just hope that we don’t forget this. I hope we continue to value them and that kindness carries on, community carries on.
People ask; what will happen? How will life be different? And we can think about things like the environment — people say you can hear the birdsong now or look at how the pollution has gone down. It’s not just a given that that will stay. We have to fight for that. We have to make it happen.
To which outlets or websites would you direct readers interested in purchasing your novels or finding out more about your work?
David Fickling Books, you can buy my novel there. They have a website that tells you about all their authors. I have a website, which is jennydownham.com. All of my books are on there, with links to where you can buy them. There are details about my writing process, and interviews and reviews as well.
What advice do you have for emerging writers at this difficult time?
I tell my students that being an unpublished writer you need to hold your head up. You are a writer. Before I was published, I really struggled to claim I was a writer. People would say, “What have you published?” And I would say, “Nothing.” They would say, “Do you have an agent?” “Well no.” I felt foolish. So, I found it really hard to admit that I was a writer.
One thing that is really important is that you are what you do. If you are writing, then you are a writer. To claim the space for that, to claim the desk, the time, the childcare, that doesn’t change — nobody knows what the future will bring. It might just be that the book you are writing will be the book everyone wants to read when this is all over. Maintain your faith, keep trying to keep some kind of pattern of work because you can’t edit without writing, but you can edit bad writing. So it’s good to sit there and write. Even five minutes a day, just commit to it. Eventually, the words will build up.
What support is available to writers at this time?
I am aware that the Society of Authors is helping authors. You have to join, but as one of their members, I get lots of emails from them giving updates about what support you can get. Also, there’s ALCS but you need to be a published writer to be a member.
My biggest support is my writing group. We had a virtual meeting last week where we decided to write for an hour and chat for an hour. Afterwards, I felt like my spirits had been lifted. Even if there is nowhere you can formally get support, you can always just join up with other writing friends and say, “Shall we just support each other during this?”
Thank you for that wonderful and reflective interview.
Click here to buy a copy of Jenny Downham’s “Furious Things”.
Jenny Downham trained as an actor and worked in alternative theatre before starting to write. Her debut novel, Before I Die, sold in 35 languages, won several national and international awards and was made into a movie starring Dakota fanning. Her second novel, You Against Me, won the Waterstones Teen Fiction Prize, and her third novel, Unbecoming, won the Stonewall Honor Award from the American Library Association. Her fourth novel, Furious Thing, was published in October 2019 and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the YA Book Prize.