AuthorTalk with Lisa Drakeford, author of The Baby

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(Just to let you know, I published this first over at The Big Book Project, and you can find them at bigbookproject.tumblr.com) 

I got to speak to the author of one of my favourite books of this year, Lisa Drakeford! Thanks Chicken House for helping me with it, and I present it to you here! Don’t forget, there’s a giveaway too which you can enter at the bottom of this post!

What were the origins of The Baby? Where did the idea for the book come from? 
I’d slogged away at some pretty bleak fiction and have a folder full of rejections from agents and publishers for their sins. So I decided to listen to a variety of advice from other writers and teachers who all said I needed a dramatic first chapter. A shock childbirth at a teenage party seemed as dramatic an opener as you could get. So there lay my premise. One which I found I couldn’t wait to sink my writing teeth into.

The Baby features five main characters, not including Eliza: Nicola, Olivia, Ben, Jonty and Alice. Each one has their own story that surrounds Eliza’s birth, and each character gets a section of the book to explain their own story and share their secrets. I really like this way of telling the story, but why did you choose it? 

I love reading books like this. I love being able to fill in the gaps as a reader. I’d just read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas where a child is slapped at a 40th birthday party, so I wondered if I could do something similar for YA.  Tsiolkas uses 7 characters all of different ages, genders and sexualities, so I decided to have a go at watering it down slightly to 5 of my own characters. The Baby has 3 girls, 2 boys, all seventeen years old apart from Alice who is eleven. They each come from a variety of backgrounds and one of them is gay. It was a challenge, but one I was completely up for. It was a bit like a jigsaw, fitting all the narratives together. But I’ve always liked jigsaws. (Now that’s a bit of an old lady confession!)

The Baby is about a teenage pregnancy, which at the moment is still a very controversial issue but the rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK are at one of their lowest levels right now, so it’s not as prominent an issue. Why did you want to write about a teenage pregnancy?

Teen pregnancies in England and Wales are at an all-time low but the conception rate is still higher than other Western European countries, so I feel it’s still an issue. It wasn’t really the pregnancy which I was interested in. I work with vulnerable youngsters in my day job (I’m a learning Support Practitioner for children with medical needs) and it was more this aspect that I wanted to concentrate on. I don’t think you can get more vulnerable than a teen mum with a surprise daughter who doesn’t have a partner or parental support. I was more concerned with showing Nicola’s isolation as a new mum. Her fashion ambitions, her education, her friendships and her teenage years, they all fall by the wayside. She has to contend with prejudice and judgements from complete strangers and I don’t think anyone deserves this. This was what I wanted to write about.

Non Pratt’s Trouble also has a teenage pregnancy as its plot, but Trouble focused quite a lot on the relationship and sexual side of the pregnancy whereas I found that The Baby focused more on the people. Was this something you chose to do or not, and if so, why did you choose to do so?

I love Non Pratt’s Trouble, but I read it well after I’d finished The Baby. Her writing is sublime and Hannah is such a feisty, wonderful character. However, I wanted The Baby to be about Eliza’s impact on all five characters and how it affects their friendship. I know that after food, shelter and warmth, friendship is a key contributor to positive mental health in young people. Having two teenagers of my own and some brilliant memories of my teenage friends I wanted to focus on what it does to their relationships. I hope this comes across.

Can you tell me a bit about how you formed the characters in The Baby? How did you go about choosing the different qualities and traits? When did you decide it was going to be Nicola’s baby?

I wanted Nicola and Olivia to be pretty standard teenage kids who move through the usual rites of passage which teenage girls normally experience. (Aside from pregnancy, obviously.) I wanted Jonty to be dangerous and damaged, but still strangely appealing. (I’m afraid I’d have liked Jonty as a 17 year old.) I needed Ben to be delightful. He’s sorted and brilliant and such a good friend. And Alice? Well, I’ve taught so many Alices over the years. I hoped I could highlight some of the difficulties that these wonderfully quirky kids have to face.

Eliza had to be Nicola’s. It was always going to be Nicola who was going to find motherhood difficult. The lack of money; the already mentioned lack of parental support; the ambitions to fall by the wayside and the awkward relationship with Jonty. Who else could it be?

Because The Baby is about an ‘issue,’ it’s been labelled by some as an issue book. Do you think The Baby is an issue book and are you happy with it being called one? 

Ooh, that’s a difficult one. I can understand its labelling; people will latch onto our high conception rate. But as we’ve both already said: The Baby deals more with the friendships than the pregnancy. I suppose I don’t mind really. It’s a talking point and there are other issues as well: sexuality, violent relationships, ASD and homophobia, so I’d be foolish to say it doesn’t deal with ‘issues’. But I guess I don’t want to be labelled as an issues author. I just want young adults to enjoy a good story and if it picks up on issues (which any realistic story will,) and it leads to the prodding and provoking of thoughts, then that’s absolutely fine by me.

A lot of people don’t believe we should be encouraging books like The Baby to be written, purely because they cover quite adult topics. But others think that they should be written because they form that crossover between children and adult books. Do you think that books on taboo topics should be written?

Yes, yes, yes. Surely it’s the safest way to learn about these subjects? If a young person can read about these topics from the security of their back garden, their bed or their comfortable sofa without having to go through these things themselves, then isn’t this a far better option, for everyone?

How and where do you tend to write books? Is there a certain way you write them? Where do you get your inspiration from?

Although I work with young people and have two of my own, I don’t base any of my characters on them. That wouldn’t be fair. But I’m truly inspired by their courage, their humour and their experiences.

I work full time, so have to do my writing in the evening when most people are watching TV or going out. My family get quite grumpy with me because I’ve become so anti-social. But what I keep telling them is that I LOVE it. It’s my relaxation, my therapy, if you like. If I didn’t write then I’d probably take up crocheting or knitting or- perish the thought – jigsaws!

To your readers, what do you have to say about The Baby if they are reading this interview? 

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Oh, and give Jonty a break. He’s done some inexcusable things – but he’s trying to rectify them and he’s doing a good job. And if you ever see someone like Alice – please be nice.

And finally, what tips or tricks do you have for aspiring writers who may be reading this interview?

I’d say keep going. I have documental evidence that I wanted to write a book at seventeen. (I’ve kept all my diaries.) I’m now fifty! I was too distracted by my job, my marriage, my friends and my kids. It was only four years ago that I remembered my old ambition. Thirty three years. THIRTY THREE YEARS!

Don’t get distracted and please don’t leave it thirty three years!

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