• Martyn Bedford

    Martyn Bedford



    FEBRUARY 2016

    We talk to critically-acclaimed author MARTYN BEDFORD about his new YA novel, a psychological thriller about teenaged Gloria who, tired of her ordinary life, disappears with a mysterious new boy from her school. Two weeks later, she returns alone.

    Here, Martyn Bedford tells us more about Twenty Questions for Gloria.

    Q: Why did you start writing for teenagers and what do you most enjoy about writing for this age group?

    A: I'd never given any thought to writing for teenagers until I had the idea for a book about someone switching bodies - the novel that eventually became Flip (Walker Books, 2013). It arose, in part, out of my memories of being a teenager and how insecure I'd been in my own body and how hard it was to develop a sense of my own identity during that period between childhood and adulthood. The subject matter and themes for Flip just seemed so obviously suited to a young-adult readership that I decided to try my hand at writing for them.

    The really nice thing about writing for teenagers is that you get the chance to go into schools and meet so many of your readers and share their enthusiasm for books. Writing for adults, you have far fewer opportunities to interact with your readership.

    Q: The novel is written as if Gloria is being interviewed by the police. Why did you decide to take this kind of format with it, and why did you decide on 20 questions?

    A: I wanted the novel to focus on why Gloria went on the run with Uman and what happened to them while she was missing (and, of course, on what has become of Uman.) The police interview scenes struck me as being a naturally dramatic narrative device, as well as a good way of delving into those mysteries and setting up the flashback episodes.

    Initially, I planned on having many, many more questions but that soon became unwieldy, so I decided to focus on the most important ones. Twenty was a manageable number and it also hints at the game, 20 Questions, with the sense of a race against time to find the answer to puzzle. In fact, I cheat at the end and throw in an extra question!

    Q: Which was the hardest question to answer?

    A: I'm afraid I can't really answer that without giving away a real plot-spoiler! Let's just say it was Question 20.

    Q: You also chose to write it in first person, what kinds of difficulties did this create for you?

    A: Both my previous YA novels - Flip and Never Ending - were written in the third-person. As a newcomer to writing for this readership (and being in my 50s!) I didn't feel confident enough with those books to write in the first-person voice of a teenager. But I knew at the outset with Twenty Questions for Gloria that this novel wouldn't be anywhere near as effective if we didn't go right inside Gloria's head. I hoped that, by seeing events through her eyes, readers would feel as if they were on the run with her - or in the police interview suite with her - experiencing everything she goes through.

    The difficulties of a first-person narration are that you can only narrate things which the viewpoint character is privy to. Also, as an author who hasn't been a teenager for forty years, I was worried that Gloria's thoughts and feelings wouldn't seem authentic for a girl of her age. Luckily I have teenage daughters who put me straight when I've got it wrong!

    Q: There is a gradual reveal through the story of how Gloria and Uman got together and what happened when they went away. How hard was it to get the pace right of the reveals and the tone of Gloria's account?

    A: This is always a tricky problem in mystery stories or psychological thrillers - how and when to reveal information to the reader. You don't want to give away too much, too soon, and puncture the suspense. But nor do you want to hold things back for too long, or too artificially, so that the reader becomes irritated. Pacing is an aspect of this because you want the plot to have a strong forward momentum and 'reveals' are one way of keeping those pages turning.

    For me, it's a matter of drafting and redrafting until you think you've got it right - then I let someone else read it (my daughters, my wife, my agent, my editor). As the author, you know what happens, so it's useful to get some input from readers who come to the narrative with no idea where it's going.

    Q: Gloria is restless and bored before she gets together with Uman. Are you exploring that sense of anticipation in a teenager's life, when they are moving towards a future but still have to live with the present?

    A: Yes. My recollection of being that age is of wishing to leave childhood behind and be more independent but feeling frustrated by all of the restrictions you face as an adolescent.

    Teachers and parents rule your lives to a large extent, at a time when you want to push the boundaries and discover your own capabilities and limitations. There's a whole world - a whole future - out there, just beyond your grasp.

    Q: Why did you decide to introduce a catalyst for change into her life and why did you make Uman that catalyst?

    A: The real catalyst for change is inside Gloria herself, except that she doesn't realise it (not at the start of the novel, anyway). Sometimes we need someone, or something, to ignite the spark within us. Uman is that spark for her. But I very much didn't want this to be a story about a girl who needs a boy to solve her problems. Gloria's 'journey' is that Uman jolts her out of a rut in her life but, with or without him, she has to find her own way forward from there.

    Q: Uman is an attractive character as he develops through Gloria's account, but this is challenged by the policewoman. How ambiguous did you want him to be?

    A: It's important, in terms of narrative tension, that the reader isn't entirely sure whether Uman is a force for good or bad in Gloria's life (or somewhere in between). We can see why she might be enticed into going on the run with him but, at the same time, we're not at all certain this is a wise thing to do.

    The policewoman's role, in this regard, is to help plant seeds of doubt about Uman in the reader's mind - but, also, to force Gloria to test her own view of him. And, of course, it's not uncommon for an adult (usually a parent) to criticise a teenager's choice of boyfriend or girlfriend, and for the teenager to defend that friend regardless.

    Q: We never hear things from Uman's perspective - were you ever tempted to do so?

    A: No. I think part of Uman's effectiveness as a character is that we only ever see him from other people's perspectives - mainly Gloria's. He would lose a lot of the mystique if we went inside his head and saw him for ourselves. Also, I wanted this to be Gloria's story, not his, and for the reader to identify with her throughout.

    Q: Did you always know what the ending would be?

    A: No. I had two or three alternate endings in mind all the way through and only settled on one as I wrote the final chapter. In fact, even that changed a bit when I redrafted the novel.

    I try not to have a fixed idea for an ending when I'm writing a novel because there's a risk that you make the characters do what you need them to do to service your plot, rather than giving them room to develop more naturally. Also, with Twenty Questions for Gloria, I think the scenes when they are on the run are much more naturalistic, spontaneous and exciting (I hope) for the fact that neither they, nor I, have any idea how things will turn out.

    Q: What are the best and worst things about being a writer?

    A: I love pretty much everything about being a writer. Getting paid to make up stories . . . what's not to like?! The days when the writing isn't going so well can be a drag, and there are times when you have a complete crisis of confidence (in the novel you're writing, or in yourself as a writer), but these are part of the process of being a writer. A footballer who hits the back of the net with every shot would soon get bored of scoring goals.

    Q: What recently published YA books have you enjoyed reading?

    A: I was privileged enough to be a judge for the 2015 Costa Book Awards, which were announced recently, and was on the panels that chose Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree as the winner of both the children's category and the overall Book of the Year. It's a fantastic novel - better than anything I've read in years. Other recent YA favourites include: Unbecoming, by Jenny Downham; Fire Colour One, by Jenny Valentine; and Sophie Someone, by Hayley Long.

    Q: Where do you write and what do you do to escape from writing?

    A: I write at a desk in the corner of my bedroom or in a local coffee shop. I write on trains, too, if I have to travel anywhere long-distance. I don't mind background noise and distraction when I'm writing in public - I can zone it out once I'm in the groove. To escape from writing, I take long walks on the moor above the town where I live, or go to the cinema, or read.

    Q: What are you writing now?

    A: I'm just finishing the second draft of another young-adult novel, provisionally titled Our Time To Sing. I don't want to say too much about it, except that it's about a school trip overseas that goes horribly wrong - and there are four main characters who take turns as narrators. I'm also working on a collection of short stories (for adults) which is due to be published later this year by Comma Press.