Just a week to go Non Pratt’s highly anticipated Barrington Stoke debut Unboxed hits the shelves! Friend and author of The Next Together series Lauren James helps us get to know more about Non and the book in this brilliant interview.
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Unboxed is an incredibly personal story of a group of friends reuniting to mourn the member of their group who died of cancer. Unboxed is one of the only books I’ve ever read which made me cry BUCKETS. So I jumped at the chance to interview Non about it!
The characters in Unboxed are out of school, and at a different place in their lives than is usually found in Young Adult fiction, yet it is the perfect YA novel in every way. Do you think that YA as a genre should be judged by the ages of the characters? What is YA? [Just an easy question to start with!]
Thanks for leading me in gently…! To me, YA is not a genre. SciFi/Fantasy/Contemporary arise from what is within the book, but categories like 9-12/YA/Adult are dictated by the readers. For a book to fall into the YA category, the only rule is for it to address the issues that affect and interest young adults (and the teen-minded) the most. As characters age their focus changes (Mortgages! Childrearing! Mid-life crises!) so that’s why most YA features teenagers. In Unboxed the characters’ are eighteen, but the focus is on their history as younger teens, so maybe that’s what keeps it feeling youthful?!
Alix’s coming out experience is very unique from anything I’ve read before, as she’s out at college and has a girlfriend, but feels closeted amongst her old school friends, who only ever knew her as a young teenager. Do you think that coming out is a continual process over a lifetime? Why is it so important to show these experiences in YA?
Much as I would like us to live in a Utopia where everyone accepted each other as people, we don’t. We live in a heteronormative society laden with gender prejudice (and the rest…) which means that anyone who deviates from what is perceived as ‘normal’ must constantly state their position as ‘other’. Having talked to people with more experience than me, you never stop coming out, and yet (understandably) most YA focuses on that first big step. But not everyone comes out to their first friends, first – Alix skipped that step, because she found it too hard… and because of my obsession with slipping back into certain roles amongst certain friends I wanted to look at how that might affect her.
Much as I would like us to live in a Utopia… we don’t. We live in a heteronormative society laden with gender prejudice (and the rest…) which means that anyone who deviates from what is perceived as ‘normal’ must constantly state their position as ‘other’… You never stop coming out, and yet (understandably) most YA focuses on that first big step.
Unboxed is one of Barrington Stoke’s ‘readable YA’, and the print edition has a special font and printing background to make it more readable for people with dyslexia. Did you know this was going to be published in this way before you started writing – and did that have any effect on the style in which you wrote it?
I’ve long been a supporter of Barrington Stoke since my Catnip editorial days so I knew exactly how the book would be formatted on the page. A well-spaced serif font is easier to read and the yellow paper offers a less jarring contrast that your usual black/white as well as the paper being thicker to avoid what’s called ‘ghosting’ of words printed on the other side of the paper. Barrington Stoke’s brief to all the authors who write for them is to write in your usual style. Any grammatical quirks that make it hard for a slower reader to process are taken out in a special language edit.
If you think about it, someone who is dyslexic or less-confident in reading must hold phrases in their heads longer than someone who reads faster, which means overly long sentences with lots of sub-clauses (like this sentence – on purpose!) is unnecessarily hard to read when it could be edited to be several shorter sentence containing the same information. Most writers (me included) haven’t got a clue about sub-clauses and hanging participles so there’d be no point worrying about them as you write.
Having said all that, first person present tense does lend itself to shorter sentences and when I chose Alix as my narrator, I deliberately chose someone who isn’t especially chatty, who is more practical than imaginative and keeps her thoughts naturally brief. The language edit wasn’t too heavy as a result.
What made you decide to make this story in particular a novella?
Actually it was the other way around in that I was asked to write a novella and this was the idea that came to mind! I sat down at my desk on a Wednesday morning and hunted for all the things I’m most interested in that would work over a single night/day and by lunchtime I had Unboxed.
Which is your favourite member of the group: Alix, Dean, Zara, Ben or Millie? (You made Kendra ask me to choose between Kate and Matt in my book birthday interview for The Next Together, and I have to return the cruelty of the question!)
I love that you think this is in any way retribution for what I’m sure it the meanest question I’ve ever asked anyone! Sorry, but the answer is easy – it’s Dean. When we first meet him, Alix tells us “He could riffle shuffle a deck of cards, skim a stone up to five times across the surface of the sea and raise one of his eyebrows into a perfect arch. He was everything I wanted to be…” That’s me talking as much as Alix.
Please tell us about your own ‘time capshoole’ mentioned in the dedication. What did you put in it? What would you put in a time capsule now?
So a group of about nine or ten of us made a time capsule (a word I didn’t pronounce correctly and got mocked for mercilessly, hence the spelling) when we were fifteen. I can’t remember much of what went in there, other than a tape of us singing “Basket Case” in the Hollywood Bowl and letters we wrote to our future selves. The thing about time capsules is that you should put something precious inside, but I’m so attached to all my precious things that I wouldn’t want to give any of them up! Assuming that I might sacrifice my favourite things, here are some of them – I’d also print some photos and pop in a memory stick of my favourite songs and a letter to my future self for good measure.
Are you still in touch with your friendship group from school? How do you find your friendships are different now to as a teenager?
I went to an all-girls’ school and six of us are still close, even though one of us has been living in Canada, one just moved to Australia and one is in the Navy and keeps going off to sea for ages. About a year ago I had an epiphany that these are the friends I will have for life, whatever happens. We all see each other at least twice a year, maybe not all at the same time, but in some combination or other.
I am easily the worst at staying in touch and yet they’ve made the effort to travel to London for both my launches… In some ways we’ve changed, closeness and allegiances evolve with who you see the most, but when we’re together, I think all of us revert to how we were. Friends I’ve made as an adult think I’m enthusiastic and friendly, but the people who’ve known me since I was a teenager think of me as the anti-social sarcastic idiot most likely to get on the dancefloor and do my Ally McBeal dance. I’m both the same person, and yet someone entirely different.
As someone whose best friend died at the age of nineteen, I found the portrayal of young death almost painfully realistic, to the point where I don’t think I would have been able to read this book a few years ago. Was it daunting to write about such an emotional topic? Did you do any research into this? Are there any books/articles/websites you would recommend for people in this situation who might be struggling?
This question made me cry because it’s a huge honour for someone to say that I’ve got this right. Also, I’m a bit horrified by how undaunted I was by this considering how big this issue really is. I’m very lucky in that the only loved ones I’ve lost have been significantly older than me, but I’m a watcher, and I remember one of my closest friends at university grieving for the loss of one of their home friends.
The thing about loss is that there’s no one way to process it – only your way of grieving will give you what you need. My best advice is actually for those supporting someone going through this: grief is private and necessarily selfish and you have no right to tell someone how to do it. Need trumps want: be there in the way they need, not the way you want. I’ve not always got that right. As for a helpful website, my recommendation in any situation is to check out TheMix.org.uk – a magazine-style website with a wealth of well-written, funny and relatable articles for any issues that might affect under-25s, or perhaps the NHS website for more clinical language and support.
Everything we see of Millie is taken from Alix’s memories of her, because that is how people live on – we only cease to exist when there is no one left to remember us.
Throughout the book I was desperate to see the events from Millie’s point of view. I think it was a really strong decision to keep that back, as it intensifies the reality that Millie is gone, and we will never know what she was thinking before she died. Was this why you decided not to include flashbacks? Why did you decide not to?
Everything we see of Millie is taken from Alix’s memories of her, because that is how people live on – we only cease to exist when there is no one left to remember us. (Also, and this is mundane in the extreme, my editors at Walker have always been so flashback averse during the editorial process that I’m now super strict with them in my writing! The only flashbacks/memories permitted were ones that served the present-day narrative and didn’t take up too many words.)
Finally, did you cry when writing this? Can you choose the page of the book which you think is MOST likely to make people cry, so they can brace themselves in advance?
Best question ever. Yes, I did cry at a couple of points. I would maybe say that page 136 is the ‘Page Most Likely To Induce Sobbing’. But there are others before then, don’t worry…
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About Lauren James
Lauren was born in 1992. She started writing during secondary school English classes, because she couldn’t stop thinking about a couple who kept falling in love throughout history. She sold the rights to the novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university.
The Next Together series has been translated into five languages worldwide, and was described by The Bookseller as ‘funny, romantic and compulsively readable’. It was longlisted for the Branford Boase Award, a prize given to recognise an outstanding novel by a first time writer.
Lauren graduated in 2014 from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. She is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and all of her books feature scientists in prominent roles.
Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. You can find her on Twitter at @Lauren_E_James, on Tumblr at @laurenjames or on her website laurenejames.co.uk.
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Can’t get enough of Non and Laura?!
They will be appearing together in the Time Slips & Time Capsules panel at Waterstones Piccadily on September 1st, Thursday, 6.30pm. Also on the panel are Holly Bourne, Harriet Reuter Hapgood, and Katherine Webber.