Author Interview: Cethan Leahy

About Cethan

Cethan Leahy is a writer, filmmaker, and editor of Irish literary magazine ‘The Penny Dreadful’. His short stories are published in ‘The Looking Glass,’ ‘Wordlegs’ and ‘Five Dials’ and he has written two Fiction Express eBooks for Middle Grade, ‘The Chosen One (and his mum and his dad and his sister)’ and ‘Prince Charming and his Quest for a Wife’. Cethan’s animation short ‘The Beast of Bath’ was broadcast on national television. His short film ‘The Amazing’ appeared in Cork film anthology ‘Cork, Like’ in 2013. His radio programmes, including children’s drama ‘Tales from the Fairy Fort’, have appeared on LifeFM and RTEJnr digital radio. He has also contributed illustration work to Cork comics press Turncoat Press.

Tuesdays Are Just As Bad, Cethan’s debut YA novel, follows Adam, an Irish teen who struggles with his mental health. When he wakes up in hospital after a suicide attempt, Adam has company: a ghost. Narrated by this‘ghost’, Tuesdays is a witty, heartfelt novel that follows Adam’s journey back to the realms of normality – if such a thing exists.  I (Jennie) caught up with Cethan recently during an interview at Waterstones Belfast; here’s a print (and slightly expanded) version of what we talked about that day.

Jennie: Hi! How are you? Are you excited to have your first YA book in print as a real, physical thing you can hold in your hand?

Cethan: I’m super excited! I can scarcely believe it is a thing that happened.

J: Tell us a bit about the book. What inspired the title?

C: The book is about a boy who attempted to kill himself. He succeeds briefly so his ghost appears but on the way to the hospital he is revived but the ghost is still around. In essence, he is haunted by himself.

The title is a long story but it involves a terrible dinner, a moon and someone singing a blues song wistfully on the DART.

J: I know Tuesdays won the Mercier Press Award; can you tell us a bit about that process and the novel’s journey from idea to publication?

C: There was a call out for fiction entries, someone told me about it, so I decided to enter it in. Like most writers, I really did not expect to see my name published so it was a dream come true, if you pardon the cliché. The editing process was intensive but enjoyable and then eventually it was a physical thing I could hold in my hands and see in shops and point both loved ones and strangers to.

J: You’re a man of many talents, also dabbling in illustration and filmmaking. How have these areas influenced your writing, if at all?

C: The illustration not so much (other than my doodles when I should have been writing notes) but the film making I think proved very influential in two ways. The dialogue scenes I was very conscious of what it sounded like if it was spoken by real people and so I made sure it didn’t sound like aliens. Also it trained me in economy of storytelling. The book moves quickly and I think that is due to a film background than a literary one.

J: Tuesdays has been compared to Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It and Claire Hennessy’s Nothing Tastes as Good. How does it feel to have your debut novel up there with some of the heavyweights of the Irish YA scene?

C: Oh I’m honoured and slightly intimidated! Louise and Claire write excellent books that really encapsulate their subjects so it’s a good sign that if I’m compared to them, then I haven’t gone too wrong. I have to say the Irish YA scene seems to be very welcoming in general and I am delighted to be a member of it.

J: Tell us a bit about your writing routine. What’s a typical ‘day in the life’ for Cethan Leahy: author?

C: I used to write sitting in bed in the middle of the night, but that proved to be not very good for the old back so I now do most of my writing at various kitchen tables at more sensible hours. If I need a kick, I go to a cafe and write there. I also listen to music, either movie soundtracks or songs I know so well I don’t get distracted by them. I know some writers who need nothing but complete silence, but I always need some level of background noise. I write next to an open window as we speak!

J: Given the sensitive subject matter, when you were writing Tuesdays did you find yourself invigorated or totally drained? How did you distance yourself from the work?

C: I was so happy with the initial concept that I blasted through the first draft pretty quickly. After that, I was always careful to alternate between lighter and heavier chapters, so that I wasn’t spending too long in a particular headspace.  

J: The topics of suicide and mental health are being brought more and more into the spotlight at the moment – I’m thinking particularly of the controversial Netflix adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why. Despite what people might think, the book really beautifully blends humour and wit with the darker aspects of the narrative. That said, because you’re dealing with such a serious topic, did you feel a sense of responsibility while writing? How did you approach the challenge of discussing suicide sensitively in a YA novel?

C: Oh of course. It’s a difficult topic to approach and it’s easy to tip over into either saccharine irrelevance or lurid glamourisation. With “Tuesdays Are Just as Bad”, I tried to use the ghost to create a distance from the main character, Adam, which allows the reader to see the subject from a more digestible perspective while avoiding pat answers or easy solutions.

J: Recently, The Guardian reported on a study which found that only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) characters, while only 1% of books published in the UK last year had a BAME main character. Of course, one of the main characters in your book, Aoife, is of colour, but how do you think YA can do better? What are the steps the industry needs to take moving forward?

C: The main thing is to publish more BAME authors and to have more hiring diversity in the publishing industry. Beyond that, if, like me, you are a white author, writing POCs in your book is good, but you have to investigate your intentions. If they are characters by their own right, great! But if they are just props for your white protagonist, you need to reconsider your direction.

J: Other than your own (of course!), what are some of your favourite YA novels?

C: I am a big, big, big fan of Deirdre Sullivan’s “Primrose Leary” trilogy. It made me completely reconsider how one could approach an Irish YA book. Alice Oseman’s “Solitare” is a fascinating book I return to often and I would happily read anything by Sheena Wilkinson and David Levithan.

J: What do you get up to when you’re not writing? Any guilty pleasures?

C: I watch a lot of horror movies. Did you know that there is a movie where the ghost girl from “The Ring” fights the ghost girl from “The Grudge”? It’s everything you could possibly dream of. 

J: Any plans for Book #2 or other future projects?

C: I am working on a supernatural YA novel set in West Cork. It features unrequited love, missing persons and a lesser known creature from Irish folklore.

J: For any aspiring writers out there, YA or otherwise, what would be your main advice?

C: There is so much writer advice out there, my main advice is try out all of them until you find whatever works for you (which will most likely be a mishmash of several ones). Oh also buy a copy of “On Writing” by Stephen King.

J: YALMC founder, Leah Phillips, and her colleague Melanie Ramdarshan Bold are currently working on a research project called Adolescent Identities. As part of this, they’re asking what YA character you identify with. So, Cethan: what’s your YA identity?

C: Oh interesting question! The only person I can think of offhand is Cassandra from “I Capture the Castle” as I too like decrepit houses and am more of a Bronte than an Austen.

J: Finally, since we all love books (and are also insufferably nosey), what are you reading right now?

C: In YA I’m reading the most poetic “Spare and Found Parts” by Sarah Marie Griff and in non-YA, I’m reading “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

Thanks, Cethan! Tuesdays Are Just As Bad (9781781175644 ) is available to buy now.

 

 

 

 

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Flash Review: What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera – Jennie Gouck

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From the blurb:

Arthur is only in New York for the summer, but if Broadway has taught him anything, it’s that the universe can deliver a showstopping romance when you least expect it. Ben thinks the universe needs to mind its business. If the universe had his back, he wouldn’t be carrying a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things.

But when the boys have a chance meeting at the post office, they leave wondering what exactly the universe does have in store for them.

What if – in a city of eight million people – they can’t find each other again?

What if they do … and then can’t nail a first date even after three do-overs?

What if Arthur tries too hard to make it work and Ben doesn’t try hard enough?

What if life really isn’t like a Broadway play?

But what if it is?

What if it’s us?

 

Review by Jennie Gouck:

If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts…well, this novel would have a very merry Christmas.

Set in New York City, this collaborative title from (LGBTQ+) YA powerhouses Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera capture the essence of young love in one of the most vibrant places on earth.

Arthur Seuss, a dreamer and musical-lover from Georgia, is in the Big Apple for the Summer, having taken up an internship at his mother’s lawyer’s firm. He sees New York as a city of opportunity, the kind of place you can only look at with awe as your eyes drink in the bright lights of Times Square and dizzying heights of the skyscrapers on every corner. He dreams of seeing Hamilton on Broadway, of one day going to Yale, and of falling in love.

Meanwhile, Ben Alejo, a New York native from Alphabet City is more pragmatic. He’s been burned by The Universe one too many times and carries a hurt from his recent break-up with his boyfriend, Hudson. While he’s creative, privately writing his fantasy novel The Wicked Wizard War, school hasn’t gone so well for him, either, and he finds himself spending his holidays in Summer school in a desperate attempt to pass Junior Year and become a Senior with the rest of his friends. Ben’s Puerto Rican, working-class heritage is a sore-spot for him. Yale (or any college, really) is a pipe dream. Plus, he looks ‘too white’ and doesn’t speak enough Spanish to hang out with the other Puerto Rican kids, yet doesn’t feel at home with his peers who aren’t of colour. Ben, it seems, is an occupant of The Inbetween.

What If It’s Us follows Arthur and Ben as they attempt to navigate the beginnings of their relationship in the city that never sleeps, all the while tumbling toward Summer’s end. ‘Do-overs’ are a theme throughout the book; first dates and second-first-dates, writing and re-writing their story to find a scenario that matches who – and what – they want to be. The chapters alternate between Arthur and Ben’s point of view, sweeping us up in their whirlwind romance. The narrative is unstable. It’s rocky. It climbs to the top of the rollercoaster before throwing us through the loop-de-loop with reckless abandon. It reminds us that, even in New York, relationships aren’t what they seem in the movies. They aren’t Broadway musicals with a strongly defined beginning, middle, and end (although the tri-partite structure of What If It’s Us tries to trick us into thinking otherwise).

Most importantly, though, What If It’s Us is another book for the LGBTQ community – one which shows that not all queer narratives are ones laced with unimaginable sadness and hardship. The hardships here, from first date and first kiss nerves to meeting the parents, are like those faced in any other teenage romance. And that’s perfectly okay.

‘What If It’s Us’ (9781471176395) is due for release in the UK on 18thOctober 2018

Black Snow Falling (MacWhirter) – Flash Review and Author Q&A

BSF Front[1]

I was sent a copy of Black Snow Falling by Scotland Street Press in exchange for an honest review — I’m thrilled they reached out; I loved it.

Synopsis:

In 1592, a girl with spirit is a threat.

Ruth has secrets. An old book of heresy belonging to her long-absent father. A dream that haunts her. And love that she and Silas hide from the world.

When she is robbed of all she holds true, her friends from Crowbury slide into terrible danger. Hope is as faint as a moonbow. Dare Ruth trust the shadowy one who could destroy them all?

This is a story about hope overcoming evil, written with satisfying moral complexity. Ruth’s devastation breaks apart time. She sees that her hopes and dreams are a visceral halo of rainbow colours spinning to white… and that evil dream thieves are severing these halos from sleeping victims, many of whom she knows. Those disturbing dreams of black snow lead Ruth to a perilous discovery: one dream thief is connected to her past.

For young adults and up.

Before I even opened the book, I was hooked: secrets, heresy, black snow, a girl with spirit, dream thieves, hope. The premise felt simultaneously new and fresh as well as deeply rooted in the past — no small feat!

A time slip novel, the story opens with Jude’s dream being stolen, with dire consequences for his life, before transporting us to Ruth, some fifty years in the ‘future’ (it’s difficult to call 1592 the future). Ruth lives with her stepmother, stepsisters and an array of servants. Her father is off on an exploration. Yes, there’s a nod to Cinderella motifs, but it’s a nod more about the saturation of such material within our collective consciousness — a passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a quote from Queen Elizabeth I paratextually frame the story — than it is about telling *another* Cinderella tale. The way in which MacWhirter handles the many, many threads of story is the treat of this novel.

So, in lieu of my ramblings, let’s have Liz tell you a bit more about Black Snow Falling (as well as a few cheekily requested recs!)
For those who haven’t yet read Black Snow Falling (BSF), could you tell us a little bit about it — without giving anything too important away?

In this Elizabethan fantasy, 15 year-old Ruth is betrayed and trapped by monstrous sexism. Her devastation splits apart time itself, where she encounters dream thieves coming to steal her hopes and dreams.

Dreams, dream thieves, black snow – what inspired BSF?

The idea came to me a long time ago in 2002. I was volunteering for a charity in Glen Etive in the north of Scotland with young adults who had all suffered a very hard start in life. One was telling me how much he wanted to become a gardener. I was struck by his strength. He’d faced more trauma than most of us will ever have to cope with, and yet he still had hope. I found myself wishing that nothing would ever happen that could snatch this away… a chilling What If? struck me.

What if our hopes and dreams were actual physical entities that could be stolen from us? A physical dream, I thought, would surely be close to our minds, where we imagine and think. They could look like the halos in old paintings, which symbolised purity… a white dream halo.

William Wordsworth called Glen Etive ‘the land of rainbows’, because of the many waterfalls and incredible light in this dramatic valley. Rainbows are an ancient symbol of hope. I imagined a rainbow arcing in the sky then plunging down into dark, hard places and out the other side, a circle. White light refracts into the colours of the rainbow. So a dream halo would start as a tiny circular rainbow and spin to white as it started imparting its goodness to the sleeper.

I loved the idea. I knew I had to write about this. Ruth and her haunting dream of black snow came to me later.

Given the timeslip elements – but also not through them alone! – there’s a deep sense of history, an embeddedness in place, and almost mythological feel to the novel. How difficult was it to weave the strands of story together? (or, did they perhaps weave you?).

Good question, thanks Leah. The idea felt so simple but the weaving together was a challenge. I think the creative process is often like this. It can start with a simple idea, then you have to write through the complexity until the story starts to feel simple again, as though it has always existed.

I felt the idea would best work as magical realism, placing my characters in a real setting where they could lose all hope. This would have happened more easily in the past when there was no safety net in society. So I chose the time of the Tudors for all its fascinating dynamics – it’s early modern Britain grating against tradition, which traps my characters, Ruth and Jude. I loved the research, finding documents such as the medical records and personal letters of Elizabeth I in a very old book in a second-hand bookshop.

What’s the publication story? I feel like I read (maybe on your blog?) that the novel was a project of love.

It took 16 years from first idea to publication! For most of those years, I was a lone parent working as an advertising copywriter. So I wrote in the margins of the day and couldn’t have persisted unless I completely loved the story. The novel inched forwards.

Around 2007, I had lunch with a lovely editor with a major publisher, who suggested making the time slips closer. Ultimately the rewritten MS didn’t receive an offer. The rejection, while ‘positive’, I found discouraging and had to set the story down. I started another novel set in WW2 Paris, spent over a year researching it and writing three chapters, then had to set it aside while writing a 30,000-word website for a client. When I returned to the WW2 novel, the urge to write it had vanished, although I may return to it one day. I re-read the manuscript for Black Snow Falling, completely loved it and saw exactly how I wanted to restructure it.

Another major publisher then considered it. Their feedback was that my writing was ‘very strong’ and the concept was ‘fantastic’ but sometimes overshadowed the main character, Ruth. I rewrote it, adding in another point of view: Ruth’s secret love, Silas. At the end of the process, for the first time I felt that the novel had reached that ‘simple’ place, where it just felt real. Sadly, it didn’t make acquisitions. The editor commented that I had cracked it, but that it was ‘too serious’ for their list at that point. The publisher who made a firm offer, Jean Findlay at Scotland Street Press, said that it’s that very seriousness that she loves.

After so many rewrites, it was ready. My agent was willing to take it to Bologna, but I felt that Jean ‘got’ the novel and I decided to go with this small traditional press. They may be tiny but they have seriously invested in its production. It’s a beautiful hardback with debossed silver foil. It looks gorgeous! I am so proud of it.

BSF is effectively a book about hope, as well as its absence, across centuries. Do you feel that’s a particularly important narrative for contemporary culture?

Yes, I feel hope is such an important narrative. There are so many things that can take hope away – the modern monsters of today – especially for young people. Some monsters are faceless, such as the climate crisis, the tyranny of the beauty myth for women or masculine stereotypes that won’t allow men to be vulnerable or fail, or bullying amplified by social media. Other monsters have faces, a politician, teacher or relative.

Perhaps by reading shadowy stories about myth and monsters, we can connect with our fear, and somehow, following the narrative, move through it. Once we do that, we can do something about it, like Ruth in Black Snow Falling. Whatever is frightening us, by facing it, we ask ourselves if it’s okay? If it’s not, we can make the first small step and do something about it. Even a small step makes a difference. Taking action creates hope – hope that things could be better in the future. Going on a climate protest march, or voting with our feet and leaving an abusive relationship, or telling someone about a bully. Otherwise, we can get stuck, and hope shrivels away.

BSF has been published as YA. Did you set out to write it as YA? Did it just happen? Did someone suggest it?

I’ve worked as a copywriter in advertising for years, so I have a fairly good nose for ideas and audiences / ages. When the idea came to me, it ‘felt’ like YA… a spirited girl coming of age, where hope is the driver for the story. I love writing YA.

When the manuscript was under submission, we had lots of feedback saying that they felt it was genuine crossover with adult fiction. Perhaps this is why it took a while to find the right publisher.

Could we have a few recommendations? Books, Netflix…

Stranger Thingson Netflix, for the upside down world. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for making Cromwell and the time of Henry VIII feel so real. More than This by Patrick Ness for compelling science fiction.

Finally, anything else we *need* to know? About Black Snow Falling? About any works in progress?

Black Snow Falling is nominated for The First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. If you love it, please vote for it! My first ever book event was there on Saturday, Feisty Fantasy with Alice Broadway.

There’s a follow up bubbling away, but I’m currently writing a love story set 100 years earlier. There’s also a contemporary thriller set in a mining town in the North of England.

Thanks for interviewing me, Leah. I loved answering your questions.

 

L.J. MacWhirter[2]

L.J. MacWhirter was born just outside London, grew up in the North of England and today lives in Edinburgh with her husband and family. After studying English Literature she went on to become an award-winning creative copywriter. Black Snow Falling is her debut novel for young adults and up. @LizMacwhirter

 

Last but NOT least, Scotland Street Press is up to some pretty cool things, and they’re on twitter! @ScotlandStreetPress