This year we’ve launched our first ever YA Literary Weekender, which will be led by Patrice Lawrence and feature guest speaker, Steve Tasane. Ahead of this, our Communications Manager Francesca chatted with Steve about writing for different audiences, what inspires his stories, being political through writing and the importance of paying attention. The full transcript for the interview is below.
Francesca Baker: I’m here with Steve Tasane, who is running a Masterclass session in our Young Adult Fiction Intensive Weekend in October. Thank you for coming in. You’re a poet and a writer, particularly writing for young adults. Could you tell us a little bit about your work and what it is that you do?
Steve Tasane: Sure, yeah. I’ve been working full-time as a writer for the last 20 years or so. For most of that time I was working as a poet, and that evolved into working in schools and then writing more poetry for children, and moving more away from the adult performance poetry scene and more into writing for children and young adults. Then bit by bit, that seemed to turn into my writing novels for children. Recently I moved back to London and I’m now back doing adult poetry in the performance scene as well. I’m enjoying all levels of it.
Francesca Baker: Having both sides of it.
Steve Tasane: Yeah.
Francesca Baker: What’s the difference between writing for adults and writing for young adults or children?
Steve Tasane: The main difference in fiction terms is that you have a much smaller dictionary to work from. I think that’s the only difference. In some ways, that makes writing for children a much more specific and creative endeavor because you’ve got stuff to say, but you’ve got fewer words in which you can say it. So you have to be really accurate and well-aimed with the way you use your language.
Francesca Baker: You’ve written three novels now for young adults – Blood Donors, Nobody Saw No One, and Child I. Can you tell us a little bit about those books?
Steve Tasane: With Blood Donors and Nobody Saw No One, I was working very much from a sense of the issues that have stayed with me through my adult life but that originated from my upbringing. Blood Donors, on the surface, is a horror novel about bedbugs, but it’s actually really about the idea of those bedbugs as metaphor for shame and for poverty. It’s a little bit of a bloody splatter fest book, but it’s about how [the main character] deals with his anger management and his perspective that if you have a problem, the best way to overcome the problem is to punish it. It’s exploring issues of male identity and behavior and poverty and class, really, more than it is about monster bugs.
Similarly with Nobody Saw No One, I’d just been writer in residence for the Dickens bicentennial celebrations and got this crazy idea to do a modern version of Oliver Twist. But again, what that book was really about is the idea of children being invisible and invisibility as a power and as a weakness at the same time, depending on whether you’re using it for your own advantage. Or from the perspective of children who are suffering various forms of abuse, invisibility then means that you’re not listened to and you’re not heard.
Both of those books work very metaphorically, at the same time being populist genre pieces of fiction. Child I is slightly different to those because that was me addressing, not metaphorically, the issues of child refugees globally. I’d been very moved by that and I wanted to write a book that addressed it. But at the same time, I think all three books, one of the things that draws them all together is the idea that all we want, and all children want, is to have a home and a family. The thing that would link all of those three books is the idea of where do we create our families? What happens if our family has been shattered? How do we find a new community and build up from that?
Francesca Baker: Obviously a lot of your poetry has similarly been quite socially conscious. When you moved from Yorkshire down to London, you became quite politically active and vegan. Is your writing another strand, another way of commenting on what’s going on in the world?
Steve Tasane: I made a conscious decision at some point, because political activism – if you dedicate yourself to political activism, then it takes up a hundred percent.
Francesca Baker: All-consuming, yeah.
Steve Tasane: Yeah. That’s all well and good, but almost by definition, political activism is negative. It’s protesting, it’s saying “this is wrong,” it’s saying “let’s change this.”
I felt that I could change the world through writing just as much as I could change it through political activism, but the key difference is that writing is a creative act rather than a protesting, negative [act].
Francesca Baker: Yeah, it’s something more positive and open and expansive rather than, as you say, kind of shutting down, “this is wrong.” More like “this is what it could be.”
Steve Tasane: Exactly. I was also very struck by the opportunities that I have working in schools. Running creative workshops involves playing games, it involves rhythm, it involves actions, it involves laughter and children feeling good about themselves and celebrating what they’re creating. So the sense of play for me is as important a part of politics as protest. You can’t have protest if you don’t have play. Working in schools and writing books allows me to focus on play simultaneously to writing about the things that I would like to improve in the world.
Francesca Baker: In your session, you’re speaking about the importance and power of the narrator and making sure that your narrator is very memorable, very reliable. Can you tell us a little bit more about why that’s so important, and why it’s particularly important for YA fiction?
Steve Tasane: I think historically, particularly I think with children’s fiction, there’s been very much an adherence to the idea of Queen’s English and the idea of “proper” writing. Consequently, most children’s books have been written in the past tense and in the third person, and surprisingly few in the present tense with a first person narrator. That is gradually changing, but by having a first person narrator, what you’re doing is allowing a voice to be heard. It’s very different to the traditions in English literature of having proper Queen’s English as your way of telling a story.
I think from performance poetry, I hear stories as much as I see them. I believe that fiction should work for the ear as much as poetry works for the ear. I think that if you write a paragraph – particularly if it’s in first person voice – the best way of knowing whether you’ve written that paragraph well is to say it. You can read it over and over and over and over, but unless it’s true to your ears, then it’s not a completed paragraph.
Francesca Baker: That makes a lot of sense. Obviously you’ve busked, you’ve done poetry pop stuff, you’re a writer and performer; I guess all of those things interweave. They’re not isolated art forms, but there’s a real overlap between them.
Steve Tasane: Absolutely. One of the things that I do with all three of my books is write poems that I can then use going into schools as a novelist. The poems can break up the sessions. But it’s also interesting, then, working with the different media over the same subject and over the same characteristics. One of the things that I found with Child I – Child I is a very poetic short novel, and it was very finely edited so that there’s not really any wastage in there.
But then when I started writing the poems for Child I and I was using the cut-and-paste technique, I found that even though the book had been through several drafts and a couple of editors, there was still the occasional wasted word, even there. And I only discovered that when I started taking the material and turning it into poems. With a poem, you look at every word on a line. That is also the case with fiction, but we don’t necessarily study every word. When we’re writing it, every word should count, but when we’re reading it, we go with the flow. So it’s easy to miss the flap.
Of course, the difference between a poem and a story is that a story flows in a way, it carries its own momentum over a longer period of time. Sometimes in order for it to have that flow, there are words in there that might be excessive to the story, whereas with a poem we would say, no, you’ve got to get rid of that ‘and’.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, it’s got to be much more potent and really tight.
Steve Tasane: Yeah. I enjoy looking at the way the two things relate to each other, because obviously poetry has flow as well. As a performance poet, I write mainly for my poems to be heard. I do write poems for the page as well. But one of the things I’ve found is that performance poetry can go too far with the flow. You can still have that flow, but still be very tight. I feel particularly privileged because I work on the page as well as the stage. I’ve got that advantage of being able to analyse what is written as well as analyse what is spoken, and I filter those through that.
Francesca Baker: Meld those two together. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
I read that you don’t have a mobile phone, and the mind boggles at this.
Steve Tasane: Yes.
Francesca Baker: I’d imagine as a writer that’s actually really helpful, because it means you have to pay attention to what’s going on around you and see what’s happening. You’re always a little bit more aware, which must be really useful when you’re writing.
Steve Tasane: It’s an interesting thing. I did get a mobile phone just over a year ago. I was looking for somewhere new to live, and I realised it just wasn’t going to happen without a mobile phone. But I got the simplest one I could. I still often go out without the phone. I was talking to my sister-in-law last night – I’m going for a short break in Krakow next week – and she was saying, “You need to upgrade your telephone so that you can use it internationally. Then when you’re in Krakow, you’ll be able to ring me up.” It’s like, no, no, no.
Francesca Baker: That’s the whole point.
Steve Tasane: When I’m in Krakow, I’m going to be looking at Krakow. I don’t want to be on the phone speaking to people in England. That kind of summarises the point you were saying.
And it’s true; when you’re on a train journey, for me that’s a great excuse to spend a long time reading a book, and not to be sending text messages. When you’re going on a walk, whether that is a walk in the countryside or whether it’s an urban walk through the city, then yes, as a writer, your eyes are open all the time. You’re thinking, how would this work if it was turned into a piece of prose? How would I capture this sense of what is around me? But if you’ve got your nose in your phone, then you don’t get any of that.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, I think paying attention is a good quality for a writer to have.
Steve Tasane: It certainly is.
Francesca Baker: What’s one tip for people coming to this YA course or someone who’s thinking about writing YA fiction? Do you have a piece of advice that you would offer?
Steve Tasane: Probably lots of advice. I think one of the things for me is that in that mixture of –whenever you’re giving advice to new writers, they say don’t write for the market, don’t write for what you think will sell; write for yourself. That is good advice.
However, that cannot exist in isolation, because when you’re writing for children and young adults, you’re writing for children and young adults. You’re not writing for yourself. However, I would say that my entire life experience, in one way or another, feeds into what is happening in the book. With Blood Donors, the main character, who’s clearly different to me, had a central issue that I had when I was growing up and that was quite substantial. In Child I, the circumstances of the children in the refugee camp – I’ve never been in a refugee camp, so that was less my experience, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t able to empathise and be able to understand the relativity of having a shattered family and trying to find a family.
But at the same time – and this is one of the big mistakes that you hear about with children’s fiction – people will write about their own childhood overtly. It’s going to be bought by children who are living their childhood now, and there’s an automatic distancing. It’s not even about ‘now’ now, 2018. It’s about this idea of you cannot write books for children looking back at your childhood.
Whatever you’re writing, you have to place it in the here and now. Even if it’s a historical children’s novel, you’ve still got to be in the present. If you’re just looking back to your own childhood, then the references, the attitudes, the language is all going to be so alien. It’s really about being in tune with children in the here and now.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, making that connection.
Steve Tasane: As I said, that here and now isn’t 2018. That here and now could be whatever time you’re writing, whatever book you’re working on. But it’s about this idea that it’s not your childhood. It’s universal.
Francesca Baker: Cool. Thank you very much. We look forward to having you. Thank you.
Steve Tasane: Thank you.