The University of St Andrews has a fair number of successful writers on its staff: poets, academics, novelists. But strolling the streets of the town, risking conversations with eccentric bird men, you’ll find Foz Meadows, an Australian-born young adult writer and author of Solace and Grief, the first of a trilogy, published in 2010. In March, Foz, gave an engaging talk to the University’s Literary Society about why Young Adult (YA) fiction matters. I talked to her about the genre of YA and her life as a writer.
What first got you into writing?
Growing up, I was surrounded by stories. They’ve always been central to how I view the world. Writing my own stories just felt like a natural extension of reading them – and apart from anything else, no one ever told me not to. By the time I started high school, I’d been writing short stories and attempting novels for a good few years, which is when I started to think seriously about being an author. In retrospect, it feels strange how long it took me to realise that writing was a real career, but at the time, it was like being told that I could eat chocolate for a living: you mean someone might actually pay me for this? I still went through phases of wanting to be an archaeologist or a journalist, but the idea that I’d stop writing never even occurred to me.
What’s a typical day for you as a professional writer?
Most of the time, writing isn’t my sole job – though making it my only means of employment is certainly a long-term goal. When I’m writing, I tend to do things in regular bursts of activity: I’ll work for a few hours every evening when I have a day job, or solidly through the day if I don’t, every day for about a fortnight, then rest for a week while I plan what happens next before getting back into the swing of things. I also tend to nibble away at worldbuilding whenever I have a spare moment – I have literally a whole folder full of handwritten story notes scribbled on spare bits of paper or the backs of envelopes, all written on the fly during previous jobs.
Who would you say has had the greatest influence on you as a writer?
Douglas Adams is definitely high up on the list – I first listened to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series when I was eleven, and it’s still one of my very favourite things in the whole world. Neil Gaiman is also important. Before I discovered him, my experience with fantasy novels was largely restricted to either epic fantasy or SFF: the Sandman comics and American Gods were my first introduction to the idea of magic in the real world. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books contain some of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read. And Kate Elliott and Katharine Kerr introduced me to genuinely original epic fantasy, where the greater narrative emphasis is on creating different cultures, languages and societies and exploring how they work.
Did you find that you struggled to get a work of YA urban fantasy published? What obstacles have you encountered in the publishing world?
I didn’t struggle overly – there’s a good market for YA urban fantasy at the moment – but then, getting published is never easy. Though it’s certainly possible to pick out examples of people who were ‘discovered,’ like Matthew Reilly or Christopher Paolini, those moments of success always come after a long period of hard work, whether in terms of self-editing, endless submissions or general perseverance. In some ways, the publishing industry is its own obstacle: trying to break in can be so exhausting that you want to give up, which is the only guaranteed way not to get published. I’ve said elsewhere that submitting a manuscript can feel like masochism, and I stick by that, but it’s a necessary sort of self-flagellation. Authors tend to be half mad, I think, because on the one hand, you’ve got to be confident and fearless enough to keep flinging bits of your creative soul up against the hard brick wall of other people’s opinions, but on the other, you’ve got to be humble and flexible enough to accept editorial changes, and to know that you’re not always right – that even though what you wrote was the absolute best thing you were capable of producing at the time you wrote it, there’s still room for improvement next time around. Call it a species of acquired cognitive dissonance. But then, what else would you expect from a species of person who spends most of their waking hours in alternate realities?
How would you summarise your first novel, Solace and Grief?
Solace & Grief is the story of Solace Morgan, a seventeen-year-old girl raised in the foster system; she’s also recently realised that she’s a vampire. After an eerie encounter with a faceless man prompts her to run away, she soon becomes tangled up in a strange new life, sharing adventures with a group of Rare: teenagers who, like her, are something more than human. But dangerous things are happening, and somehow, they’re centred on Solace. Who is she, really? What happened to her parents? And since when has there been a medieval dungeon under Hyde Park?
What’s your attitude towards the Twilight phenomenon, and how do you feel your book differs from the multitude of other teen vampire books on the market at the moment? (That wasn’t supposed to sound like an attack, I promise!)
No offence taken! In terms of being different to other vampire stories on offer, I tend to say two things about Solace & Grief: first, that it’s not a romance story, and second, that it’s not set in high school. Prior to Twilight, those qualifications would have meant much less than they do now, but whatever else you might say about the series, one thing it certainly has done is ensure that the adult attention J. K. Rowling’s work brought to bear on YA novels has stayed there, and in terms of inviting new authors into the genre and encouraging publishers to rethink the market for such books, it’s been an entirely positive thing. That being said, now that we’ve established that the Twilight formula is a successful one and that adults as well as teenagers are reading YA fantasy, I’d like to see more variety in the type of story that gets published. But then, the freedom to take narrative risks is provided in no small part by knowing that if a particular idea fails, there’s still something safe to fall back on, so that, too, is part of Stephenie Meyer’s legacy.
Aside from The Rare, do you have any other books in the works?
I do, though not for young adults. I’ve got a full manuscript and I’m shopping around for the first volume of an adult fantasy murder mystery series set in a world of magic and crystal technology, and I’m about to start work on an epic fantasy I’ve been worldbuilding for a while. But I definitely have a lot of other YA ideas I’m keen to explore in the future!
Could you summarise your opinion on why YA matters for The Tribe?
YA matters because it’s a cultural barometer. The stories we tell to teenagers are, either consciously or unconsciously, an expression of our own ideals: the worries we have about society, the challenges we think we face, and – most importantly of all – the changes we want to see in the world. At their core, many YA stories are about old beliefs and systems giving way to new, the same way history and successive human generations all must eventually give way to their heirs. So when we look at YA stories, even though they’re written by adults, what we’re seeing is a reflection of that change: the uprising of one generation, and the recession of another. That, and it’s just plain good storytelling.