A New Genre. David Belbin’s Outing into Undiscovered Territory
David Belbin is a prolific Nottingham author known for his young adult (YA) novels, which explore social issues. More recently his Bone and Cane crime novels have proved very popular.
He is a writer who never seems to rest on his laurels and constantly experiments with the medium. His new book Student is an example of finding yet another new way of writing.
Student is an interesting book, because it’s not young adult, nor is it adult fiction. It feels as if were written in the young adult style and yet is not a young adult novel because the content could not be put in the young adult genre. So why did you decide to write it?
The narrator of Student emerged from stories I wrote at the beginning of my writing career. Allison just appeared one day. I remember the moment very well. I woke up really early in the morning, far earlier than I would normally get up, because I’d eaten some dodgy mussels the night before. It was a Saturday and in those days when I was a full-time teacher, I used to spend every Saturday writing. So I decided to write a story where the character got up really early and just took it from there.
Allison lives in a house that was just up the hill from where I used to live, when I was growing up in West Kirby. I used to go for long solitary walks up on the common. That’s where I saw the location for the assault for Allison. Then I honestly don’t remember when I decided to write about that character again.
The third or fourth story I published is what now appears as the chapter, ‘Eating Out’, in Student, although when it was first published (in issue 3 of Sunk Island Review) it was called ‘Scenes in Restaurants’ and when I wrote it this time I don’t remember whether I knew that I was writing about the same character. Those ten or eleven stories I wrote between 1987 and 1992 were drawn on my own experiences, but I distanced myself from them by writing as a young woman. I did at one point put them together in a book of adult fiction. One of them appeared in the ‘Best Short Stories of the Year’ anthology. I tried putting all of the stories together in one collection. In those days it was called ‘Drive’. A couple of people read it for me, but I didn’t submit it anywhere.
By that time my Young Adult (YA) fiction career took off. My first book did well, but of the second two, one wasn’t published and the other was only published in Denmark.
I was publishing literary stories regularly until I was commissioned to write for the Point Crime series. Within a year of the first book being published, I was making enough money to make a living as a full-time writer. If you look at my bibliography, this is where you see the short stories tail off.
You’re reworking old fiction. That’s an unusual thing to do in fiction writing. How did you feel about that?
I always wanted those stories to come out. I saw them as being a section in a collection of short stories, but there was a long period when I didn’t look at them, maybe about ten years. What changed was I began to teach at Nottingham Trent University.
This (a part time university writing job) was a minor ambition of mine, when I was trying to be a literary fiction writer, as I knew it would supplement my income, because literary writers generally don’t make much. Happily for me, I got a job with the University just at the point when the YA income was going way down. The Harry Potter books killed off the YA market. Although it did contribute to an increase in reading for that age group, it took that readership away from YA fiction and everyone’s sales plummeted, with the result that some publisher’s sales halved, and some writers went out of business. It turned out that the job I got at the University was also a godsend because it put me back in touch with students again.
The students on the MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent produce an annual anthology. Most years they ask the staff to contribute something, so sometimes I gave them stories that had been published before, but one year I gave them an ‘Allison’ story I’d had lying around for fifteen years. This was because Alan Ross had accepted it for The London Magazine. It had always been my big ambition to be published in The London Magazine, but although he accepted it, he never published it. So I thought ‘they can have that’, and I dug it out.
Looking at it again made me realised how much I had improved as a writer and I could edit it much better than I had back then. So I cut it by nearly a half and it was better as a result. After it appeared it was also taken up for the In the Frame YA anthology by Rowena Edlin-White.
Then time passed, so much time that it’s difficult to be precise about the sequence of events, but I think what happened next is that I had my first sabbatical for a semester in 2006. There was a book I wanted to do, which was a YA novel and the contract didn’t come through in time. I did actually get the contract, as the sabbatical ended. I wouldn’t write without one because I always saw my YA fiction as a commercial business. After I began to get published I made sure I never wrote a book again without having a contract first. So because I couldn’t do the book I’d planned to do until later, I thought I’d go back to the ‘Allison’ stories.
I managed to find all of them, but there were some that didn’t seem to work any longer. I thought there was still a novel in them, but I didn’t know what kind of novel. What I considered, but didn’t do, was to rewrite the stories to target them as YA fiction, because clearly it didn’t fit within the genre confines.
I didn’t know what they were. That was still at a time when YA fiction was still pushing forward and changing a lot. YA fiction works on the pendulum principle and each time the sweep of the pendulum comes across it seems to swing just that bit further. That point was not long after the country’s first national conference about YA fiction, ‘Turning Point’ in 2004 (which I organised). YA writers were pushing the boundaries again, so there remained a possibility that the ‘Allison’ stories would somehow fit into that.
I got some notebooks and rewrote the stories I already had, seeing how I could improve them because I felt I was a better writer than when they first appeared. And I began to add to them. I had to make sure there was continuity between the old stories I had written and the new ones, as well as making sure I took out the things that tied them to a particular era. I’m fairly sure I wrote them consecutively so I’d write a new one before I went back to an old one that was, (but I’m not entirely sure because we’re talking six years ago). Once I’d done that in longhand, I then transcribed all this onto the computer. Now I had a book, but I still didn’t know what to call it. It was only later I come up with a title that was so blindingly obvious I’d missed it.
What happened then?
I sent the novel to my YA fiction agent first (this is 2007 to 2008). She said ‘Sorry but this isn’t YA fiction’. She then mentioned it to my main editor at Hodder who said ‘This sounds interesting, but it’s not the sort of thing we’d ever do’.
Knowing my adult fiction agent at the time was not likely to be interested in it, I decided to sell it directly to Ross Bradshaw at Five Leaves Publishing. He knew my work well and was very enthusiastic. He’d already taken on The Pretender.
But then I got a new agent for my adult fiction, who worked out really well, Al Guthrie, a prize winning crime writer and part of JBA associates. He’d been advising me previously on where to send my crime novel (The Bone and Cane novel, although it wasn’t called that then). I therefore felt honour bound to show Student to him. But it didn’t seem to fit into any category.
Al loved it, but it was pretty hard to place because as he said ‘This is a novel written by a middle-aged bloke, about a teenage girl that you’re trying to sell to an audience that doesn’t quite exist.’ But we did get some interest (I think he may have sent it out under a pseudonym to some people, just as a way of getting round that bias). One editor said they would be quite happy to advise me on what the difference was between adult and YA fiction and how to change the book. However, when they found out I was a middle-aged bloke, who’d published thirty YA books already, they backed off.
Eventually, Ross got it back, and the question became how to publish it.
Tell me a bit more to the background of the story.
One of the people who I showed the book to was Eileen Armstrong, the organizer of the North East book awards, which I’ve twice been short listed for. Her students had read one of my most controversial books Denial and their comments on that were very useful in terms of combating the censorship I faced when I tried to get that book through my publishers. I asked her to read Student as a favour when I finished it about 2007 and she wrote back to me and said ‘This is great. I love this, but I think it’s in a category that doesn’t exist, called “sixth-form fiction”. I’m not sure how you’ll get this published.’
I recently got a message from her on Twitter, because I’d offered to send her a copy of the book as a thank you and also mentioned her on my blog (I like to inform people when I mention them as a courtesy). She said ‘Have you seen this? It’s really timely?’ It was a blog post from a website called ‘The Edge’, a YA fiction website. It’s all about a new emerging genre or kind of literature called ‘new adult fiction’. In other words fiction that’s writing about and aimed at late adolescences.
This is very interesting, because it means that there may just be an emerging space for this rather liminal kind of thing I’m doing here, because there are aspects of YA fiction to it.
So what is the difference between adult and YA fiction?
The difference between adult and YA fiction is something that interests me. I will be talking about this at the Nottingham Festival of Words next February. I’ll be interviewed by my old friend Michael Eaton about the difference between writing young adult fiction and writing crime fiction.
Certainly one of the aspects of YA fiction is that it’s educational. This is inevitable to some degree for a number of reasons. At this stage young people are just learning to really read books in a different way, while at the same time learning to live through a point in their life when things suddenly become burning black and white issues and assume great importance for them.
But then I think all literature is about how to live and I’ve learned a great deal of what I know about human character and morality from reading novels.
So what is the difference between adult and YA fiction? I generally think there is fairly simple way of doing it for me, but bear in mind this is my definition and not one that applies to everyone.
If it’s written from a teenager’s point of view, not someone looking back on being a teenager with hindsight, then it’s YA fiction. Equally in the kind of book I’m writing in Student, Allison the lead character, is not shown with any hindsight, she doesn’t have any more experience than the point at which she’s narrating the story.
You made the point in your review about the book being like a radio play and that’s right. In The Pretender it’s all written from the point of view of the narrator at the end of the book. You realise at the end of the book what age he is and that it’s been written in retrospect, although he’s still virtually a teenager. What you’re getting in Student is not that far from a stream of consciousness: it’s written in present tense from Allison’s consciousness at the time the events are taking place. So in Student, the first story’s from the point of the seventeen year old and the last chapter’s from the point of view of someone who’s a few months off twenty-one.
If I were writing this book with hindsight, where ‘Allison’ at twenty-one might turn round and meets up with someone who she broke up with when she was seventeen and it all brings it back, then that would make it an adult book. So I guess what makes it into this new adult category, insofar as it exists, is the consciousness of the person at the time. It’s in the moment.
You mentioned earlier you feel you’re editing better now. What is it about your approach to writing now that makes you think this? What are you doing now that you didn’t do before?
Partly experience, but also distance between drafts. David Hare said ‘Twenty per cent of all my plays are wasted. They could be cut out. The problem is I don’t know which twenty per cent.’ I’ve had such a long gap between writing the story in 1990 and republishing in 2005 that I could see the difference.
At the moment I’m doing a third draft of a Bone and Cane novel. The first and second draft is pretty obvious. For the second to third draft, you need a long break in order to think ‘I don’t need that sentence’ or ‘I can get rid of those three sentences’, or ‘They’re good, but they don’t really belong here and they don’t add anything to it’.
So I think a lot of it is distance between drafts, but there’s also experience, which does help you see these things more quickly. That’s why it’s good to do course like the BA in creative writing you’re doing at the University of Nottingham or the MA at Nottingham Trent, because you can crowdsource an edit by workshopping a piece. This helps you to make the corrections on a manuscript that you need as quickly as possible.
So is it like music? The more you practice the better you get?
I think that’s true in the craft side of it. I’m not sure that, after a certain point, writers improve an enormous amount in other ways.
For example most of my books go through five drafts and I’ve just had the strangest experience of reading one for the first time in sixteen years. That’s what Pippa Hennessy of Five Leaves is doing for me at the moment; formatting one of my old The Beat novels for Kindle. I wrote this twelve novel sequence, about young police officers in Nottingham, between 1993 and 1999 and I’d quite like to see them out again.1995 was the year I wrote five books and a number of commissioned short stories. Rereading them, they’re as tight as I can get them, so I don’t need to cut them in any way.
So I think I knew what I was doing seventeen years ago. Have I improved substantially since then? Well I no longer misuse the word ‘which’ when I should be using ‘that’. I think that’s about the only significant change since then.
I wouldn’t write quite the same story now, but the weird thing about reading this old writing was that I’d actually covered a lot of the same areas I covered in the last novel I wrote two years ago (What You Don’t Know).
Writers only have a fairly limited number of subjects when it comes down to it and, fortunately, I managed to forget that novel (Dead White Male) so that I could write this new one. Had I re-read it recently it would have been useful research for the novel. But one of the things YA fiction forces on you is to learn the value of brevity, because the novels used to be a limit of 40,000 words. It’s a bit longer now. Student is only 50,000 words long, which is very short for an adult novel, some would call it a novella. But I would argue it’s that short because of the compression involved. It has the feel of the novel because it doesn’t have the limited palate of the novella.
How did you manage to capture Allison’s character as accurately as you did?
I’m quite often asked why I use the female point of view so extensively. I don’t chose to psychoanalyse myself too much and I do write about blokes more than I used to. But it’s true that the female point of view used to dominate my fiction. For example in The Beat series, the central character throughout is Claire Coppola. So I have form when it comes to female central characters.
Why do I choose a female voice so often? When I was sixteen, my family moved from a relatively middle class suburb called West Kirby (which is the setting for half of Student) to Colne in Lancashire, which was a very run down working class mill town. I went to a Catholic sixth-form in Burnley, though, by then I was no longer a Catholic (but not yet an aetheist). In West Kirby, I’d had lots of girlfriends but that stopped when i moved to Lancashire as I found it much harder to connect with the working class Catholic girls. What I did have was lots of correspondence, both with girls I used to know and one particularly, who now lives in Canada, who became a pen pal and was, I suppose, the closest I had to a girlfriend in those two years. I have a suitcase full of letters from her in my attic. We would write long letters two to three times a week. We lost touch for decades but are close friend again and she’s now the first reader for all my Bone and Cane novels.
So I did get a really large correspondence from girls aged between fifteen and seventeen which has stood me in good stead for understanding women and being able to put that into my writing, as well as being able to feel confident about writing in a female voice. Although I should point out that while I wrote those short stories in the first person voice, it wasn’t until 2004 (fifteen years into my writing career) I actually published a novel with a female first person narrator (Denial). I suppose the other thing is that being a bloke and being committed to writing as honestly as I can about human nature and the way the world is (as far as one can in fiction), it’s probably easier for me to be nicer about women. It’s easier to write a sympathetic female character rather than a sympathetic male character, because I know what men are like. The really nice men are so boring you wouldn’t want to write about them!
While stocks last and for a limited time only, a signed copy of Student will be available from Inpress for only £4.99.