A Word With ...

A Word With ... - blog post image
BY Julia Thum | 0 Comment(s)

I am over the moon to welcome Mel Darbon to the site this morning. Mel is the super talented author of August's Book Of The Month, Rosie Loves Jack. You have probably heard about Mel's wonderful debut but if you've somehow missed the hullabaloo surrounding its publication, check out my review on The Bookshelf. It's currently my #1 contender for Book Of The Year

- it's a beautiful story brilliantly told and it got so far under my skin that when I reviewed it on BBC Berkshire I got a big lump in my throat and had to try very hard not to cry! 

I am also absolutely delighted to be welcoming the fantastic group of Student Librarians from Wycombe High School, who got together with me to discuss Rosie Loves Jack and came up with these brilliant questions for Mel.  So, without further ado, I will hand the metaphorical microphone to them:-

What motivated you to write Rosie Loves Jack - was it the story you wanted to tell or Rosie's voice you wanted to get across?

It was a combination of both, but primarily the voice I wanted to get across. This was so important to me because of my background and experience with people with Learning Disabilities.

I think it’s hugely important to have a first person narrator with impairment, as I wanted my reader to be able to view the world from the perspective of someone with Down’s syndrome, because we should never assume that someone who has difficulty communicating has nothing to say; we need to look beyond the labels and focus on ability and not disability. I wanted my reader to really feeland understand what it’s like to have assumptions made about you because of the way you look by ‘putting on Rosie’s shoes’ and walking with her on her journey. It’s a very intimate perspective that works well for a teenage /young adult reader.

How did you 'get into character' and keep Rosie's voice so clear and distinct?

I’ve discovered on my writing journey that one of the best things you can do is a very in depth character analysis for every person in your book. If you do this then it is easy to understand the way each character will respond to certain situations and then they develop organically through the story. It ‘brings them alive’ to the degree that they will take you by the hand and lead you through the story – often to places you would never have thought of by yourself! I felt Rosie was inside my head. For instance, my character Rosie has a brother called Ben. I decided that Ben broke his back as a small child, which meant that the continued focus on Rosie stopped for a period of time. This gave her a chance to make decisions for herself and be much more independent than she might have been otherwise, even though her mother and grandmother are determined that she will live as normal a life as is possible. This helps her navigate her journey to Jack more adroitly.

Doing this also helped give Rosie’s voice such clarity. After I’d mastered writing down the way she spoke – running words together at times, ‘okaythankyou’ and using her own unique way of seeing things, ‘An orange segment moon’ it was easy to keep her voice clear and distinct.

Did you seek editorial feedback from readers with Down's syndrome?

Yes! It was really important to my publishers, Usborne, that we did this and to me too. They used what is called a sensitivity reader. I wanted to give an honest and accurate portrayal of someone with Down’s syndrome, so that they instantly recognised themselves in my book. My sensitivity reader was called Rula and she wrote the most wonderful, insightful report, which concluded that Rosie was a very accurate portrayal of someone with Down’s syndrome and that at times she had felt that Rosie was her, Rula, in the book. I couldn’t have been more delighted!

How long did it take you to write the book (and how many drafts?)

Two years from when the seed of the idea came to me on my Creative Writing for Young People MA. It always takes much longer to get the first book out. My second book will have taken a year and is out in September 2019.

All together there were five drafts, but that was partly because the manuscript originally started in a dual narrative between Rosie and Jack. I hadn’t wanted to do this but my personal tutor on the MA said she didn’t think it was possible to do it all in Rosie’s voice. As soon as I handed in the final work for marking I started to write it the single narrative of Rosie’s voice. I’m so glad I did.

Did you ever suffer from writers block?

Not if I’m passionate about what I’m writing; but everyone has periods when it doesn’t flow at all. You have to push through it or give into it and walk away for a bit and ‘recharge your batteries’. For some people that means doing something completely different, for others writing something else for a bit, even if it’s just some writing exercises. The key is not to panic and accept that it is impossible to keep going relentlessly.

How many rejection letters did you get?

Five rejections. Strangely I got accepted and then rejected by three of these because they decided that they simply didn’t know how to confidently edit the voice of a girl with Down syndrome. They have since regretted this decision! One publisher didn’t take stories that went to such dark places and another publisher, ironically, was desperate for me to do it in a dual narrative with Jack, but they were the only ones. They called my agent five times trying to persuade me otherwise. Usborne ultimately won the battle of the book as I love the fact that they champion diverse books, were so passionate about Rosie and that their Fiction Director has a brother with Down’s syndrome. I knew I was in the right hands. They were really pleased to be the first to publish a YA book with a girl with Down’s syndrome.

How many times did the title change?

It didn’t! Somehow I happened on a title that stuck and seemed to work, though I expected it to change. I already know that I’ll be changing the title of the second novel.

Did you disagree with any of the editorial changes?

Surprisingly there were hardly any editorial changes. I had to develop the character of the father more and expand the ending, which I was a hundred per cent in agreement with. Apart from that it was tweaking certain scenes, which definitely needed tweaking. I think this lack of editing was luck. I was so passionate about what I was doing that it came out far more easily than some stories might. My second book is going to need a lot more editing than that!

What is your favourite part of the story?

That’s a difficult one. I think maybe my favourite part is where Rosie goes into the grooming house, though perhaps favourite isn’t quite the right word. I hate that she had to go through this, but what I loved was the understanding and love that grew between Lisette and Rosie and that their view of each other is completely changed. I found it very hard to write but very moving because I know there are so many girls like Lisette out in the real world (my daughter worked with young girls who have been groomed) who are completely misunderstood. I wanted my reader to learn to love her. I hope to write her story one day. I also wanted Rosie to see the world through different eyes and realise that she isn’t the only one who can suffer because of the way society thinks and behaves at times.

Did you have any input into the cover art?

Yes I did, which was amazing. Usborne were so determined to get the cover to perfectly reflect the content of the book. Throughout the process I was allowed to say what I felt, and why, and they always listened. I didn’t want a sugary, fluffy cover design that screamed love and romance, it had to be contemporary one with an edge, as the story does go to dark places. The final design, which was number four, was spot on and very striking. Whilst being aware that it is a love story, it is clear that it is no ordinary one and from a design point of view it is very eye-catching.

We made a list of books we could think of which broach the subject of mental illness:- Face, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, One Memory of Flora Banks, Still Alice and Wonder. Did any books influence you in the writing of Rosie Loves Jack?

I’ve read all of these books except for Still Alice, which is in my very large tbr pile, but I have seen the film - and I think they’ve probably all had a very slight influence on me. The Curious Incident because of the outstanding voice of the protagonist, Christopher; Wonder because it was so moving and uplifting; Face because of the strong voice and exceptional dialogue and The One Memory of Flora Banks because of the darker edge.

I always loved Of Mice and Men and have carried that voice of Lennie with me for many years. More recently Nathan Filer’s, Shock of the Fall had a huge impact on me as it was funny, compelling and heartrending. Finally, The Inheritors by William Golding – my book that I’d take on to my desert island. It is all voiced through Neanderthal man and I am in awe of Golding, who made it possible for me to really imagine how it felt.

There are no other YA books that are written through the voice of a girl with Down’s syndrome, so I was stepping out into new territory and doing something unique. It was exciting but terrifying, as I so wanted to get it right.

What can we expect from you next?

I don’t want to give too much away about my next book, but I can tell you it’s another love story, which touches on our drinking culture and features a severely autistic teenager – oh and a double decker bus.

Fascinating stuff and I for one can't wait for your next book. Thank you so much Mel, and thanks to the wonderful Wycombe High School Librarians for your great questions. 


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