Paula Rawsthorne and Writing on the Edge.
The Truth About Celia Frost is another book my friends had been recommending me to read ever since it came out. Bit by bit things got in the way, until I was asked to interview Paula Rawsthorne for the Nottingham Festival of Words.
I settled down to start reading Celia one Saturday morning, with the intention of breaking off from time to time to work on my assignments. By Saturday evening, the assignments hadn’t been touched, but I’d finished the book. I’d become too emotionally attached to the characters to leave their fates dangling in mid air. When I get Paula’s next book, Blood Tracks, I’ll have to start it with the understanding that nothing’s going to get done that day.
Go through how you ended up finally writing The Truth About Celia Frost.
I’ve lived in Nottingham for over 20 years. I came to study social work here and stayed. I’m married with three kids and was a social worker for a number of years.
The crucial point in my writing came when I had a career break after my second baby. Out of the blue, I got the urge to write. I hadn’t had any notion to write before and one day, when I was at home with my newborn baby and toddler, I just felt I wanted to sit down and write a particular story. The story was actually about something that had happened, which was quite comical but, tragic at the same time. I thought if I fictionalised it, I could get it down on paper. When I wrote the short story, it was like a light bulb moment. I really enjoyed the process and realised I should do more. So I continued to write until I had another baby.
By this time I was sleep deprived and needed motivation. Fortunately I saw an advert on BBC1 for a national writing competition. It had a theme, a word count and a submission date. That was exactly what I needed (all writers need motivation). I entered and was lucky enough to win. My story ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ was broadcast by BBC Radio Four and I was invited to go and see Bill Nighy record it.
They wanted a modern retelling of the Canterbury tales. So I chose ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ and made it into a comedy about three Liverpool priests and a dodgy bet on the Grand National.
This was a great boost to my writing confidence and I was determined to continue. Firstly I wrote short stories which were published in anthologies. A small, dynamic press in Yorkshire called Route began publishing my stories. I also started working on community plays. So basically I was getting creative and exploring different avenues.
I went to see Ross Bradshaw (who at that time was the literature development officer for the county). I told him that I’d won the BBC competition and wanted to continue writing and he hooked me up with Andy Barrett, a Nottinghamshire playwright. We ended up doing a community play together. That was a brilliant learning experience because I hadn’t done drama at school so it was all new to me. It was a baptism of fire as we were directing people and writing at the same time. Even so it was an enjoyable time.
By this stage all my kids were at school. I should have gone back to work but I thought this was my chance to have a go at writing a novel. Even though my stories had been for adults, I knew that I wanted to write a novel for teenagers.
Again, as with all writers, I had to set myself deadlines or it would have just gone on forever. It’s always possible to find an excuse and procrastinate. So I wrote during term time and at the end of a school year I had the first draft of The Truth about Celia Frost.
Why did you get this feeling you wanted to write for teenagers?
I guessed that writing a novel is like doing a marathon and you really need stamina. What you need to be able to do is still be in love with your novel at the end of the first draft and beyond. This is very hard when you’re working on something day in, day out. You can get very frustrated and feel as if it’s not going anywhere. So I knew what I wanted to write was a gripping, pacey story, but at the same time marry this with really meaty characters. I knew that I’d enjoy working on it and thought that this style would suit teenagers.
I realised that writing for teenagers would be a challenge, because they’re the harshest critics. They have no censorship in their reviews and tell it as they see it. I like that sense of a challenge. I thought that if I could write something that would get them reading and keep them reading, then I would have achieved something.
Completing the novel took a long time but the process kept me interested and excited. I love the way stories evolve. The fact that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out is one of the exciting aspects of writing. You mull it over and a week later, you realise where the plot line should go, or what a character should do.
So do you have a plot before you start and stick to it or do you just write?
I’ve never just started writing, but I’m not massive plotter before I begin. I know my starting point. I’m a very visual writer and I can see the story unfold in my mind. So I usually have the opening scene in my head and at a certain point it starts evolving. With Celia Frost, before I had a plot I knew it was going to be for teenagers and that I wanted it to be a pacey, psychological thriller. Then the characters of Celia and Janice Frost came to me. I could see them so clearly that I knew there was something going on between them and that there were secrets. It all started to evolve from there.
The plot is very complicated so how on earth did you think it up?
I love intricate plots and I find them fun to do. Although, just because I enjoy it doesn’t necessarily mean it comes easily to me, but I like the challenge. I did my research. I knew which areas I needed to look at. For example, I did a lot of research about Celia’s blood disorder. I like my stories to be contemporary. I want them to be based in reality; even if it’s a heightened reality. The premise has to be within the realms of possibility even if it’s never been done. For me, knowing something is possible increases the tension.
Did you realise when you wrote Celia Frost that adults might actually want to read it?
I’ve been delighted that so many adults have read Celia Frost and really enjoyed it. When I wrote it, I wanted it to be for teenagers, but I didn’t want to patronise them; so I didn’t dumb down the language or plot. I like to make my readers work, particularly with the plot. There’s no way I’d spoon-feed readers or underestimate them. If you read the book you want to get the adrenaline pumping, especially with a thriller. So I was hoping that adults would enjoy it as well and I’ve been over the moon with reviews and feedback from readers.
The relationship between Celia and her friend Sol is very interesting. There’s a hint of something special going on there, but it isn’t overdone. How difficult was that to write?
It wasn’t difficult to write, because it came out of their characters. Your characters shouldn’t do anything that will jar, just so it fits in with your plot. Once I had the characters, I knew how they would behave and what kind of people they were. I see The Truth about Celia Frost as a rites of passage story as well as a thriller. I knew how Celia and Sol’s relationship would develop. However, as well as providing a satisfactory ending, I wanted to leave the reader being able to imagine for themselves how Celia and Sol’s relationship progressed.
Has your approach to the second novel differed from the first, because of the feedback from your readers?
No, because I got a two book deal from Usborne, who have been absolutely brilliant. They are fantastic publishers and very supportive. So I started writing the second one quite a while before Celia came out. The feedback came later. They basically gave me a two book deal and told me to go away and come up with the synopsis for a second, standalone, book; which I did. This meant that it just wasn’t possible to respond to any feedback I’ve had from Celia Frost.
In my second book, Blood Tracks (which is coming out in June) the characters are slightly older. It’s another psychological thriller and it’s full of suspense but the plot is entirely different from Celia Frost.
I was very lucky because Celia Frost has won two book awards and has just been shortlisted for the Nottingham Brilliant Book Award. This has meant that I’ve got to do lots of school visits and meet the students. From their feedback I can see what characters are the favourites and the bits of the book they like best but it wouldn’t be right to duplicate the same kind of characters, just because people like them. You have to move on and create another original story.
I’ve really enjoyed being able to talk to the kids during school visits. It’s a side effect of having a book published that I’d never really considered. That’s been one of the most enjoyable things I’ve been doing since the book’s been out.
I’ve discovered that boys and girls seem to like Sol, because they found him a really sound character. He’s a good lad even though he’s got his own problems. But he’s such a good friend to Celia and he’s got a great mum.
I’ve met girls who’ve really connected to Celia. They’ll discuss the problems and how she dealt with them. They’ve asked me what would I have done in Celia’s situation. It’s really lovely to have that sort of response. Of course, in the book, the perception of the characters changes as you find out what’s really going on. So there’s been lots of response about different characters and how they develop. Many boys liked Frankie, the corrupt private eye and the dilemma at the heart of the book has also generated discussion.
So as a writer it feels great when people connect with the story and want to discuss it. The Nottingham Brilliant Book Award has got a website and the students are posting reviews on it. It makes my day to read people’s thoughts.
What do you do with the school visits? Are they just discussions or workshops?
They’re a mixture. When my book came out, school visits were completely new to me, so I spent time working on creative writing workshops and presentations. I do talks about reading and writing and my journey to being published, because it was quite unusual in that, I won a competition. I entered the first two chapters of Celia Frost, into a national competition ‘Undiscovered Voices’, which is run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I was one of the winners and that created massive opportunities because the judging panel of ‘Undiscovered Voices’ were highly regarded. One of the agents took me on and that was my route to getting published. We got the book into shape and Usborne bought it.
When I talk in secondary schools I encourage students to get reading. I suggest that they ought to look at the blurbs on the back of books in the library and just take one out that grabs them. I try and encourage them to get into any aspect of being creative, particularly things like school plays, which present all sorts of opportunities. I tell them that whatever their passion, they’ve got to persevere. Being a writer means getting loads of knock backs but you just have to pick yourself up and learn from them.
I’ve taught year 7s up to upper sixth. Luckily, up to now, I’ve had lovely experiences in schools and the kids have been wonderful.
What has surprised me about the book is that you looking at a very pacey thriller and yet none of the characters are flat or one dimensional. Do you think your background as a social worker has helped you write such interesting characters and relationships?
Maybe social workers go into their jobs because they’re interested in people and supporting them. They don’t like to see injustice or inequalities. And maybe all social workers have a natural curiosity and, hopefully, empathy with people. Of course once you’re in social work and see different sides of life, good and bad, it does make you appreciate the complexities. Not just the complexities of life in general but how life shapes people.
As a writer, you have to be interested in what makes people tick and why they’ve become the people they are. You wonder why some people can change whilst others don’t or can’t. So I love developing characters and getting inside their heads. Nobody in my book is hundred percent good or hundred percent bad, because people are complex and that’s what I wanted to bring out.
Sol and his family are the only people in the books that are vaguely based on people I know. I wanted to show what can happen when people come to this country and although they are dumped somewhere like the Bluebell estate, they’re still able to keep their dignity and hope.
Being a writer allows you to explore all this within your characters and story.
The book brings up issues like genetic manipulation. So does that generate discussion?
It does. When I’m talking to teenage readers, they do talk about these issues. You can cover all sorts of topics in the teenage books, but I think ethics are a really interesting and important area. These issues can be complicated and thorny but I think it’s worth engaging with them and giving teenagers a chance to debate and form opinions.
Again, and this must be because of your background as a social worker, you handled the difficult subject of Celia’s mother issues with alcohol in a realistic way.
It’s probably just that I’ve just soaked up life around me. Janice, Celia’s mother, is a complex character. But I wanted to present her (without saying too much to give away the story) in quite a different way throughout the story. It’s all about people’s motivation. What I also wanted to show is that when you’re a teenage girl your relationship with your mother can be rocky. You’re pushing against this authority figure and usually mums get the brunt of the teenage girl’s behaviour. However, sometimes your mum is doing what’s best for you, even if it doesn’t feel like that at the time. So I was interested in that kind of mother-daughter dynamic.
You did pack an enormous amount of action into the book.
Well first and foremost I wanted it to be entertaining. I didn’t want to be preachy or to have a plodding plot. But within that, I wanted to write something with some substance. If a teenager reads it and thinks it’s entertaining, then I’m really pleased. But if they read it, enjoyed it and it made them think, then that’s even better.
Without giving too much away, what can you tell me about the new book?
The new book is called Blood Tracks and is out in June. It’s about a 16-year-old girl called Gina Wilson. Her father dies in traumatic circumstances and Gina becomes obsessed with his death. All her family and friends are concerned that she’s having a breakdown and needs help. However, Gina won’t stop and her obsession leads her into a dangerous world where she doesn’t know what to believe or who to trust.
You’re going to be doing a reading at the Nottingham Festival of Words as well as judging a competition. Can you tell me about the competition?
Yes, I’ll be reading at the festival on the 17th Feb along with other writers who were shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award. I’m pleased to be a judge for The Nottingham Lace Competition which is a short story competition, open to anyone 18 and under who lives in Notts. Deadline for entries is 24th Feb. Further details are at http://bit.ly/nottinghamlace.
I’m excited about the Nottingham Festival of Words and the opportunity to attend so many great events with acclaimed writers and performers from Nottingham and nationwide. It’s about time we showcased the thriving creative community in Nottingham. Much of the literary world is London centric, but we’ve got so much talent in this region.
To learn more about the book www.celiafrost.co.uk
Paula is also a member of the Edge group, a group of UK based authors writing sharp fiction for teenagers and young adults http://edgeauthors.blogspot.co.uk/