Like Adèle Geras, Linda Newbery writes for adults and children – she has said that, as a writer, she wants to try everything. For many years, her books garnered excellent reviews and longlistings but success came, fully, with a move to large-scale, technically challenging novels for YA readers, published by David Fickling. Perhaps it was natural that Linda’s next book was a fully fledged adult novel, Missing Rose (or Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon). A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working with her on a clutch of novels for upper primary school-aged readers, two of which, Catcall and The Sandfather won prizes. But she hasn’t abandoned that age group – she has stepped back into that room through a different door, so to speak, and has achieved acclaim and success with books for Barrington Stoke, such as Tilly’s Promise.
So, how does Linda perceive her career so far? Here are her answers to our bookbybook questions …
What was the first book you wrote?
Not sure which one to mention! There was a short novel I completed at the age of 12 or so, but in terms of writing for publication it was one that never saw the light of day. After a couple of encouraging rejections, I stowed it in the back of my wardrobe, but it’s not there now so I must have thrown it out – a silly thing to do (Never throw anything away is one of my pieces of advice for young writers!) especially as this was back in the days of toiling away on a manual typewriter. However, I’m quite sure it isn’t good enough to resurrect. The first book I had published, a few years later, was Run With the Hare, a young adult novel in which the main character joins an animal rights group.
For which book would you like to be remembered?
The Shell House. I felt that this was quite a step forward for me – more ambitious than anything I’d written before in terms of subject and structure. It’s set around a country mansion burned to a shell in 1917 (based on Copped Hall, in Essex) which I fictionalised, showing it as a ruin in the present-day scenes but an aristocratic family home in the First World War, with episodes leading up to the fire. The story concerns Greg in the present, who experiences first sex (with a girl) and first love (for a boy), juxtaposed with Alex in the 1916-17 sections, who is also homosexual but feels comparatively more freedom than Greg does, faced with the prospect of imminent death. When I revisit the book now, it does have a particular intensity. I enjoyed moving back and forth between present and past, with all the resonances that arise simply from putting one thing next to another. I also liked writing Alex’s war poems, one of which prefaces each of his sections.
Is there a book you abandoned partway through?
I’ve never done that, and would never allow myself to unless something really drastic got in the way. I look on writing a novel as running a marathon (which I’ve certainly never done!). Just as marathon runners expect times when their legs and lungs ache and their energy is low, I know there will be times when it feels pointless or impossible. But the runner keeps going and finds a new burst of energy, and I know that I will, too.
Is there a book you know you’ll never write?
I would never write an autobiography or memoir, although of course bits and pieces of my own experience get into my fiction.
Which book do you believe should have fared better?
I think The Damage Done is one of my best young adult novels. It had some good reviews, but it was unlucky – it was the last book I wrote for Scholastic before leaving for David Fickling Books, and the last book to appear in their Scholastic Press imprint – which is never good, as all the publicity effort goes into the shiny new imprint. Sales were low and it soon went out of print, but fortunately it’s reissued now as a Kindle edition. It’s a novel about insecurity and recovery and being let down by those who ought to be relied on, with main character Kirsty lying to everyone to conceal her fear of going into public places.
(NB: Linda has written a great piece about The Damage Done on her own blog, here.)
Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to a particular book?
Yes, in particular The Shell House. I’ve received several really moving emails from readers in their late teens or twenties who have said the book gave them the realisation or the confidence to come out as gay. This is quite astonishing, because Greg doesn’t do that, and won’t admit even to himself that he is gay – he gets so much wrong, and hurts people on the way. I certainly didn’t set out with any kind of message, but it’s wonderful that my fictional Greg and Alex have had such an effect on these readers. More than one of them told me that The Shell House was given to them by a perceptive librarian at their school – evidence, if that were needed, of the importance of librarians who know and understand both books and students.
The other surprising reaction was to Set in Stone. At the end, I have written an obituary for my artist, Samuel Godwin, which serves to convey information about his life and relationships after the end of the novel. I’ve had several emails from readers who assume from this that he was a real person, and have tried and failed to find his paintings, or any reference to him, online. It amuses (and pleases) me that this fictional obituary apparently carries such authority!
What book do you wish you’d written?
That’s difficult and I could spend all day thinking about it, or give you a list of forty or fifty. But, quite off the top of my head, and because it’s hot today, I’m going to choose A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine. I know she’s a favourite of yours too, and I’ve enjoyed all her novels, but this one is particularly memorable for the atmosphere of lazy summer days, the tensions between the characters, the frightening, tightening web of their dilemma, the horrible consequences and the brilliant twist. And for something completely different (if I can indulge myself with two) The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift – a mingling of nature writing, horticulture, herbalism, folklore and history, taking us through a year in the writer’s Shropshire garden. She writes wonderfully about weather, birds, seasons, shifts of light.
What are you writing now?
I’m poised between projects and thinking of two new novels – one for adults, one for young teenagers. I enjoy this stage – gathering ideas and ingredients, reading and making notes, letting it come together. It’s a kind of extended warm-up before the marathon starts.
Linda also writes books that defy categories and publishers’ pigeon-holes – Lob and The Brockenspectre are heavily illustrated novels that appeal to readers of all ages. If you’ve catching up to do on Linda’s backlist, why not start there?