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Why I’m Happy to Write Controversial Fiction
Guest post by Rachel McIntyre
I never wanted to be a princess or a bride. Job interviews give me palpitations. I’ve side-stepped promotions and opportunities because panel presentations make me physically ill. I’m happiest on the edges of a crowd. I chronically overthink social media and selfies make me cringe. In short, I’ve never been the kind of person to court controversy. But when I wrote my first book, ‘Me & Mr J’, that’s exactly what I did.
Writers do have a responsibility to their readership, particularly if you’re marketed to a teenage audience and that’s why writing controversial fiction is a tricky task. Has that ever put me off? Well, fast forward a couple of years and two more books- ‘The #1 Rule for Girls’ and ‘This Careless Life’ – and I’m still writing about toxic relationships, bad decisions and exploitation. So I guess the answer is no!
Let me take you back a few years to when I was teaching English in a college in northern England. In class one day, a group of female students began chatting about a girl they’d known (then in her twenties) who was rumoured to be in a relationship with a man who’d taught her years before at school. Whether this was true or not, I don’t know, but my immediate ‘that is every shade of wrong’ contrasted pretty spectacularly with their unanimous ‘how romantic!’ Our perspectives literally could not have been more polarised.
That conversation sparked the idea for ‘Me & Mr J’. The character of Lara- a 16 year old girl watching the wheels come off her life- dropped fully formed into my head as I threw every possible teenage trauma at the poor girl. Family breakdown? Yep. Money worries? Yep. Crippling insecurities? Yep. Awful bullying? Yep, and then some. The one person she trusts is the one person she can’t have- her teacher. Except…things take an unexpected turn.
The forbidden relationship is a well-worn path in YA so I wanted to travel it in a different direction and that’s where that class discussion came in. Why was my students’ take on this hot potato so different from mine? I decided to write the book in the form of a diary, written by the girl involved. I wanted to look at the how of the situation. Why would she risk everything? Why would he risk prison? What would make someone do something they know is doomed? And that’s the way I wrote it. Of course their relationship wrong, everyone knows it’s wrong and the ending makes it very clear the book is an exploration of an illegal relationship not a how-to guide. But I didn’t want to write a finger-wagging moralistic tale. I wanted to understand WHY my students might think it romantic.
‘The Number One Rule for Girls’ again has a controversial topic at its heart. Daisy, the main character, is sparky, lively, witty and has a fantastic circle of friends. So why does she put up with being treated badly by her new boyfriend? Now, that was a difficult one. The controversy here, I think, we want to see out main characters make mistakes and quickly learn from them. What Daisy shows is that sometimes, it takes a while to navigate our way through to the right path. We all take wrong turnings, we all go the wrong way.
‘This Careless Life’, my third book, is a departure from the girls-making-mistakes concept. I was down about the whole world when I wrote it. Politics. Terrorism. Climate change… Every time I turned on the TV, there were new examples of unhappiness and the misery people can cause for those around them. So in this book, I decided to examine the ways our behaviour impacts on others. It started with the image of a Tube map, with the different coloured lines linking and diverging but still hanging together as part of a whole. I imagined how our interactions with others are like that map, a map of humanity. We’re all focused on our own lines, but ultimately, everyone of us is part of a much bigger network and our lives constantly cross with other people’s. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but sometimes we see these others in terms of their roles in our lives (What can this person do for me?) rather than in terms of an individual with needs and desires of their own. That’s how the story came about: I took the lives of four fairly self-centred 18 year olds and highlight the impact their thoughtless actions have on a stranger.
Fictional worlds present all kinds of dilemmas and that’s the beauty of books- you get to inhabit someone else’s skin for a while, immerse yourselves in their problems for a bit, live their mistakes within the pages…then come back to within your own four walls, no harm done, but with plenty of food for thought.
Thanks for having me on the blog.
About Rachel McIntyre
I love everything to do with stories: reading them, collecting them, talking about them and writing them. One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is where do authors get their ideas from? The answer is everywhere. TV programmes, conversations, news stories…anything that triggers of the what if..? part of my brain. Sometimes a character drops full-formed into my head. Sometimes it’s a setting or a phrase that could become a poem or a short story or grow into a novel. I have a million notebooks on the go at any time, each filled with the seeds of stories-yet-to-come.
When I’m not writing novels, I’m busy working as an FE Lecturer, doing creative writing workshops in schools, travelling the world with my family or out and about with my beautiful dog, Smudge. Live music is my other big passion- I’m a devoted gig and festival goer. Part of being an author means I get to read lots of other people’s books, and that’s how I spend a lot of my free time, reading…and reading…and more reading!
My favourite books have influenced my writing in different ways. ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a big one and is the key influence on ‘This Careless Life.’ I’ve loved the play since I read it for GCSE at school. ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ were in the back of my mind as I was writing ‘The Number One Rule for Girls’ because of the classic bad boyfriend-ness of Heathcliff and Stanley. And in ‘Me and Mr J’, Lara has elements of Jane Eyre in the way she feels isolated and alone and also Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate forbidden romance story.
My study is packed to the roof with books and I’m surrounded by them while I work.