A warm welcome and a big thank you for being here tonight. Thank you, especially, to Michael Herrmann for hosting me in his wonderful bookstore and to Elisabeth Jewell, my fellow mother-of-a-newborn girl (our daughters were born a day apart at Concord Hospital) for organising tonight.
Standing in Gibson’s Bookstore, launching my first young adult novel, feels very special.
Let me explain.
Sixteen months ago, my husband, Hugh, flew across the Atlantic to interview for the position of Director of Theatre at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Before heading back to England, he decided to visit the local town – and of course, true to both our natures, his first stop was the local bookstore: Gibson’s.
He came in through the children’s section and bought a Dr Zeuss book for our daughter, Tennessee Skye.
Then he walked through the young adult section and, fortuitously in the light of the book I’m launching tonight, he bought me a young adult book called Eleanor and Park, by the awesome Rainbow Rowell.
After that, he wound his way round to the adult section, where he met the wonderful Hillary Nelson with whom he talked about books and Shakespeare – and me, his writer wife. He also took a photograph of the local authors section.
Hugh finished in the coffee shop at the back of the bookstore. He ordered a latte, opened his laptop and sent me an email – it was the middle of the night in the UK but I was waiting up, anxious to hear about how things were going.
Hugh wrote that he’d found us a new home – by which, of course, he meant Gibson’s as much as St. Paul’s. Oh, and he sent me the picture of the local authors shelf with the caption: ‘I see you here.’
And then he came back to England and, together, we waited:
To find out whether he would be offered the job;
To see whether we would get our visa;
And, simultaneously, I waited to know whether my debut YA book would be picked up by a publisher.
Wonderfully, all three came to fruition:
Hugh was offered the job;
After endless bureaucratic hoops, America decided that it was safe to let the Macgregors onto US soil – for a few years at least;
And I was offered a book deal for Wishbones by HarperCollins in the UK but also, crucially, by HarperCollins US.
The last year has been a whirlwind.
I’ve written two more novels, one adult and one young adult, which will be coming out in 2018.
We’ve had another little girl – Somerset Wilder, 7 weeks old today.
We’ve made extraordinary friends, many of whom are here tonight – and experienced kindness and hospitality on a level that we could never have imagined.
And I’m standing here, where my husband stood, sixteen months ago, launching Wishbones.
So you see why being here tonight is particularly special for me and for us as a family.
So to my writing.
Many people ask me what the difference is between adult and young adult fiction, what makes YA novels distinctive and even necessary.
On the one hand, categorisations in fiction, especially when related to age or gender, are, in my view, there to be transgressed. Nevertheless, there is something special about YA literature, which is worth unpicking.
I asked my agent and my publishers on both sides of the pond what they thought.
Lucy Richardson, my UK publicist said the following:
There’s something about YA fiction that makes it compelling, addictive and transformative. It explores firsts. First love, first heartbreak, first journeys. YA isn’t afraid to explore new avenues and create new genres, new worlds even, which makes readers relive their own experiences. It’s no wonder that YA is read by teens and adults alike in equal passion.
And my publicist in the US, Laura Gianino said:
YA, more so than adult fiction, is fearless in its resolve to take on new issues (much more so than adult fiction). And I think that while YA isn’t scared to tackle big issues – like eating disorders, like sexuality – it also offers something seldom seen in adult literature, which is hope. And we SO need hope, especially in these times.
These two women who work at the heart of the publishing industry, sum up my feelings perfectly:
In my view, good YA fiction is courageous in the issues it tackles;
The voices and characters we encounter are strong and original – and compelling;
It focuses on that remarkable transition between childhood and adulthood in which so many of life’s most important experiences are encountered for the first time.
As Laura said – and this is something I believe in very strongly: the kind of YA fiction I love to read and aspire to write, offers hope.
William Faulkner wrote that it is a writer’s duty and privilege to lift his reader’s hearts.
Hope is uniquely human characteristic – a characteristic which allows us to endure, even under the most difficult circumstances. I see it as my privilege too, to offer such hope through my stories.
And as my UK publicist, Lucy, said, young adult books are for everyone, not just for teenagers. I write for adults and I write for teenagers but above all, I write about families and so I hope that families will pass around my books, across generations, and share my stories.
Now, to Wishbones in particular.
People often ask me how I generate ideas for novels and what my writing process is. Well, here’s how Wishbones came together.
As is often the case with the genesis of my novels, my curiosity was triggered by a real event.I read an article about a woman who had become so obese that when she died, she had to be lifted out of her bedroom window by crane. From this fact alone I realised that she probably hadn’t left the house in a good many years.
This vivid image set my imagination whirring.
And so I began to ask questions.
What made this woman start eating so much?
And why didn’t she stop?
And why did she feel the need to hide from the world?
And where were her friends and family in all this and what impact did her life have on them?
Then, my writer’s imagination transposed this story into the life of a character who I felt could carry my novel:
Enter Feather Tucker, my sparky, determined, courageous and idealistic fourteen year old protagonist.
Once I had a strong protagonist, other ideas began to cluster, also in the form of questions:
What would it be like for a young girl, on the cusp of adulthood, to live with a morbidly obese mother?
What if that mother was only given a few months to live?
What if no one was helping that mother to get better – and so Feather, her daughter, who loved her mother more than anyone in the world, felt burdened by the need to save her?
And once this young girl set off on the journey to help her mother, what questions would she begin to ask herself about how her mother came to be the way she was and who the old mother was, the mother before she was born?
Although Wishbones explores issues specific to Feather and her family, I do to think it acts as a more general metaphor for growing up: when we leave childhood behind we go from idealising our parents to questioning them and seeing their flaws. We come to see them as separate from us. And we begin to wonder who they really are – or were, and how that relates to us, as young people, in the process of becoming adults ourselves. All YA books are really coming of age stories.
I loved writing Wishbones: I wrote it very much from the heart. Feather’s voice came naturally to me. And I felt it was a story that needed to be told. On the one hand, it is uniquely different from the other novels I’ve written and yet, there is real continuity too. For those of you who have read and enjoyed my other books, you should feel right at home in Wishbones:
There’s a quirky, loveable animal – a runaway goat called Houdini;
There are some fun and outlandish characters, like Mrs Zas, the Russian woman who runs the fancy dress shop on the village green.
There’s a bit romance (there’s always romance, where I’m concerned);
There’s a fictional but nevertheless very real setting – Feather lives in the smallest town in England where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Above all, Wishbones is a book that I hope will make you cry a little and think a little and laugh a little too.