The YA Years / 2013-2018 / what the fuck was that all about?

I got my start in the Scottish publishing industry writing books for teenagers. They weren’t normal YA books but the weirdest, stupidest, strangest most cult fiction for teenagers ever – at least that’s what I told myself. Like most readers, I started reading as a child, visiting my local library every day, taking days off school to hang about in the wee room surrounded by shelves, books, and suspicious staff. Obsessively, driven by a need to get away from everything, I took to all the outcast writers whose books had one or two stamps on the inside cover. One day, I told myself, I’ll have one or two stamps in my books. Daft little tit. He thought money was something that came from the nice lady at the Post Office every second Monday. Now I’m older (eeeek), I’m far savvier about money. If delusion is a thin shield, then reality is a hard fist in your face. Ultimately, I wanted to tell stories because I was shite at everything else. And so, eventually, I managed to knock together a book. 2013 was a very different time for Young Adult fiction. Twilight was starting to fade a little, chased off-stage by The Hunger Games. My ideas were totally out of step with everything else. Oh, I thought about chasing the popular genres, but ultimately I went in stranger directions, which were not to my credit. Conjuring The Infinite, my first book for teens, was essentially The Breakfast Club versus The Devil. Probably the most traditional of those books, it was a greatest hits remix of my favourite things growing up, all the stuff that freaked the shit out of me. There were lashings of Doctor Who, Stephen King, Twin Peaks, but also (I hope) the excitement of someone being published for the first time. Ah, being published. I had no idea how the fuck to go about this, so I just sent out letters telling people I was fabulous and they should publish me. Of course, they were going to see this for themselves. How could they not with a manuscript covered in tea-rings from where I put my mug while I wasn’t drinking out of it?

Conjuring The Infinite was a scary Scottish ghost story with bitchy dialogue, damaged teens lost in the care system, and higher powers from other dimensions. If it had been out on a bigger publisher, it might have been a big hit. Actually, it did well all things considered. Mostly because I toured relentlessly. Oh God, I hated the thought of it. “You have to go into schools to promote your books to the target audience.” I fall asleep when I hear phrases like ‘demographic’ or ‘consumer platform’ – that sort of stuff means very little to me. Something I did hear was that I should charge money for every event. “Never do a free gig,” said one author, advice I barely heard because I was so desperate to be seen. “If someone says you should do a gig for the exposure, let them know you can die from exposure.” “Not me,” I cackled. “I’m wearing a fur coat.”

And I did. I went into every school in Scotland dressed in the most ridiculous ugly clothes. Back in those days, if it looked ugly, it was mine. You have to understand most authors didn’t see their job as performance, they didn’t dress up. When I saw authors dressed in cardigans and faded jeans, I took it as an insult. Zebra jeans, bloody big boots, faux fur coats, dressing as fruit (!), and a lot of hats became my way of getting hired. Now every author is turning up and turning out. Obviously, I don’t take credit for this, but it takes a special sort of bravery to walk through the gates of a Scottish school dressed as Little Red Riding Hood’s fat uncle whose basket was a fake Louis Vuitton (Louis Kiddon?) bag. Oh God, I was so scared at times. But this is how Conjuring The Infinite was sold. That and another secret weapon: the school librarians. They told all their colleagues about me. They passed me on, telling everyone to book me immediately. Eventually, I was able to get paid. Also, I met some of my childhood heroes, some of whom are friends. I was like the Scottish YA version of an urban legend. My background was in punk theatre, live and messy. Sometimes this translated well in my live storytelling, other times it didn’t. Hopefully, I was never boring. Even now I have a horror of being filed, stamped, and categorised. Something I did get to see on my touring was how many school libraries were being failed, each of them slowly turning into rooms where pupils were placed in between lessons. Computers, lined up in rows, slowly advancing against the bookshelves. Nearly every school is the same. Portobello High was a moment of particular horror when the librarian, who by that point was over it, told me her boss wanted to turn the room into somewhere to vaccinate the children. The dreaded BCG jab was still around. My arm ached at the thought. “A library,” gasped the librarian, similarly pained.

Strident, now defunct, loved the reaction so much they let me do whatever I wanted for my second teen book. A big mistake. Endless Empress (original title Bombers until someone pointed out it sounded like ‘Bummers’ and parents would riot) was a catalogue of all the worst mistakes, writing excesses, and marketing fuck-ups you can conceive. Cathy MacPhail told me she loved it. I knew she was lying to be nice. No one loves that book. Sometimes I might love it, but I also know it failed me. I was too smart, forever trying to prove it, but not good enough at writing to do the ideas justice. I’ve definitely improved because writing is a craft you can work on and get better, it’s true. At some point, I figured out that YA books worked to a formula. Girl meets boy, boy meets girl, girl meets vampire, etc. I decided to write ‘girl meets serial killer, girl goes insane, girl blows up her school with the help of her unicorn from a fictional country that exists in her head.’

It also received this review on Amazon UK:

Behind the scenes, things were happening. My second-eldest sister wouldn’t be around for much longer. This would come to impact on me for years, especially in my writing where she turned up in different guises, always meeting the same fate. I didn’t know this until fairly recently after someone accused me of deploying the ‘bury your gays’ trope in a review. Of course, she has no idea my sister is real and actually did die (I veer between past and present tenses when I talk about her because I keep her alive this way) and the writing is based on real life. But I still felt the stab of that criticism. Maybe I was a thoughtless writer? Not that I had too much time to think about anything. A week after her death, the polis turned up at my door looking for my sister. She hadn’t turned up at court, after being in a fight in a nightclub with two other women. We hadn’t buried her yet. Also, around the same time, the head of Strident decided to start marketing me as ‘the Master of Weirdness’. I got really upset when I saw this in Endless Empress, but felt powerless to complain.  You have to understand how grateful I felt that someone, anyone, wanted to put my weird stories out. I would have agreed to anything. I’m not weird. Eccentric, certainly. But when you tell people you’re weird, you’re usually not that weird. I hated it. Let me be me, whoever that was. Even I wasn’t sure.

Endless Empress bombed any attempt at making a living in YA fiction but, oddly, got me my first gig at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Oh, I loved it. Finally I had some recognition. Something I’ve struggled with over the years is a sense that I’m not really part of the world around me. Always on the outside, looking in, waiting for something to happen. It might be a form of imposter syndrome. Every now and then, I find a form of community within groups of writers. Sometimes I feel I’m not really taken seriously by the Scottish Book Trust, who never tweet or include me in anything. You can feel alienated, but also find a form of power in this isolation. Looking back, I was more than a little paranoid and in shock over what happened to my sister.

Quickly, I got stuck into writing North of Porter, which ended up being described as ‘Scooby-Doo on acid’, which I thought was amazing. At this point, I started to realise I’d gone into a weirdness cul du sac. I couldn’t get out. Alien invasions, handbags, murder, cannibalism, alternate states, unreliable narration, Giallo crime sequences… Why wouldn’t North of Porter be a huge smash? At this point, I was starting to think about doing something else. I was feeling a little irrelevant. Not in the industry, but in myself. My favourite writing always said something about the world and I wanted to do likewise. Also, around this time I started being harassed by a stalker. This lasted nine months and it was a ridiculous campaign of weird YouTube videos, friends being tagged on Twitter by a fake account, and other creepy moments. Maybe if I weren’t still grieving, I’d have rolled my eyes, but everything felt more intense, significant, and triggering. Eventually, I got the relevant authorities involved but I couldn’t help but think being the ‘Master of Weirdness’ might have put a target on my back.

Glowglass was my final YA novel if we don’t count Bubblegum & Brimstone or Veronica Sunday, both of which ended up on the discarded pile and it was another blast of what I took to be unreadable insanity. A story about a cult overseen by a tyrannical tax dodger with a love for VHS tapes and keeping his followers in check, it starred a lonely girl who wanted to be normal, and normal meant school with friends and fun. Oh, she would learn the hard way. There’s also a lot of poisoned porridge, Sweet Valley High pisstakes, and a nasty twist or two. Also, the character of Dan is my sister again in another form. It came and went, oblivious to the world, uncared for by readers and the author too.

This wasn’t a totally grim time for me. In the middle of everything, I organised a YA book festival for working-class kids, making it a free event at Cumbernauld Theatre. Before Brexit, it was easier to get funding. The brilliant staff at the Theatre were invaluable and so helpful too. North Lanarkshire Council was slightly more difficult in terms of funding, having it, than not having it after the event was put on. We held a few Yay! YA events, once a year for three years running. I hope it went well. Everyone deserved more and authors were basically brought in from local areas because no one could afford anything further away. At the theatre, I put together a book shop using Scotia Books, a local business. They were fantastic, so, so, so helpful. There was a celebration of YA happening online. But #UKYA was really a celebration of English YA fiction, a hurrah for London-based publishing. Besides, I was starting to drift elsewhere. Things were changing, me mostly. I wanted to say something else, reflect my world around me in all its fuckery and wonder. That’s why I wrote my first novel for adults. Not my last, of course. A new publisher, a different era, and maybe I might wear the faux fur coat again. Funnily enough, the past is always present. Since the success of Happiness Is Wasted On Me (a testament to all the readers and the interest in Scottish stories post-Shuggie), readers are making their way through my old teen books while they wait for Sadie, Call The Polis. I’m ambivalent towards those books now, but it has been interesting to see how people react to the books that got me started. Funnily enough, I’m seeing more authors from YA going into the adult fiction genre. Publishing is far weirder than anything I could write. And I’m still writing every day, trying to tell stories that people want to read, only now they’re getting more stamps on the inside cover than they used to, which is something I think the young version of me might find the weirdest idea of all.


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