I’m sitting in the second row at the ‘How Dare You’ YA panel featuring Cecelia Ahern, Patrick Ness, Sarah Crossan and Louise O’Neill at the Mountains To Sea dlr Book Festival and I’m feeling fidgety. My IKEA notebook with the bat on the front and the pink spine gets shuffled from one knee to the other, my biro rolling between the creases in my trousers. I should probably put them back in my bag. Taking out my notebook makes me feel like I’ve just lit a neon sign over my head, flashing ‘thinks she’s a writer, ha!’ in a bright orange glow. She has notions this one!
It remains closed and tightly gripped throughout the 90 minutes, fear getting the better of me and I relax a little in the hope that I’ll truly remember and engrave the good stuff on my brain anyway. Having it with me is kind of like my writing security blanket. Even closed, it has power to me. It has hope. Hope that one day perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to have my book published.
Early in to the interview, chaired by Easons YA guru and all round lover of cool things David O’Callaghan, my shoulders relax a notch further when Sarah Crossan describes how even still she gets impostor syndrome. That the feeling of not being good enough and someone calling you out on it may happen yet, even after you make it across the scorched plains to the juicy validation of an agent/publisher/book sales. Ness agrees. The uncertainty that comes with being a writer never goes away and that in itself is an important lesson to me. Get used to it. If I feel this way now, with my first out on the intrepid agent hunt, thinking its most likely rubbish and I’m just really exercising my fundamental right to mortally embarrass myself (again with the notions!) then I had best let this feeling settle in a bit, find a pair of comfy slippers for that insecurity and wriggle my toes in it. It’s part of being a writer.
I’m sitting off to the left and as I watch David ask a question I see Cecelia’s in my eye line. Morto! Don’t stare at her! Don’t catch her eye. She doesn’t want to see your face – the desperation etched into every nook and cranny starring back at her. Don’t embarrass yourself! There’s a way that Cecelia talks that makes her come across as (a) normal and unaffected by her success and (b) someone you’d love to sit down for a cup of tea with. She’s friendly and open and the moment she mentions her obsession with colouring books I think – now there’s a sound mind. She must be so good at switching off all the noise and bustle that revs around the brain, the screaming distractions that stop me so many mornings from actually getting any writing done. Note to self: buy colouring book and possibly some dot-to-dot puzzles on the way home. Mindfulness is key.
If the panel were some sort of rock band, than Louise O’Neill would definitely be the front-man or woman in this case. I look at her intently for the secrets to her confidence, enviously wishing I could take just a pinch of it to sprinkle over me. She has similar issues to the others but there’s a positive swagger to the way she speaks that you think – yeah, you go girl! She’s rocking it and everyone in the room, particularly the teenagers are loving it. She speaks eloquently about the public reaction to her novels and how it feels to know your book has reached people and touched them in some way.
The subject of book covers arises, both in terms of control and input and Ahern tells a funny story about how all of her covers in Poland having a smooching couple on the front, no matter what it’s about. That’s her brand if you will and her Polish publisher is sticking to what worked so well for her books in the first instance. It seems creative control wanes on foreign markets and there’s a lean towards trusting the publisher in that territory to know what image it needs to sell. I can but dream of a cover for my book and so I’m rapt listening to them talk. This is all, if you’ll pardon the pun, kindle for the fire of motivation and I’m lapping it up.
When asked about the ever-changing YA appetites and labels from dystopia to teen illness to cli-fi, they all roll their eyes, declaring that until a publisher points out to them that their book is for example YA dystopia, they do not concern themselves. The key is to write what you want to write, the story you have to tell, the one that ONLY YOU can tell. That’s what makes writing special. That’s what makes writers special. As Ness says, you do you and to hell with what anybody thinks. Someone doesn’t like it, well fuck them. His words seep into my pores and I wish I could have him on speed dial for those days when as a writer I feel worthless and question what I was thinking in the first place. His encouragement is brilliant and for a brief moment the room is empty and he’s just talking to me.
My writing journey such as it is, is a solitary one. Again in the wish to not embarrass myself I didn’t join the local writing group or take a writing class. So my peers are invisible and I with them. That’s why listening to the real deal, writers who persevered and continue to do so, is just the inspiration and the kick up the backside I need to keep going. One day perhaps I may count these writers among my peers. Perhaps they are already. We are all writers after all and they are just about the most encouraging and welcoming gang a writer could hope to meet.