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>> Making a dangerous journey

Making a dangerous journey
04/04/2018

Making a dangerous journey


BOY 87 by author and editor ELE FOUNTAIN is a devastating and powerful story of a boy refugee as he makes the life-threatening journey to Europe. We spoke to ELE FOUNTAIN about her novel, writing and tips for YA writers.

ELE FOUNTAIN decided to write BOY 87 while she was living in Ethiopia during the height of the refugee crisis, when she wanted to explore the real lives behind the media reports she was reading.

Here, she tells us more about BOY 87 and shares some tips for young writers:


Q: What is your 'day job' and how did you come into writing?

A: I was a children's book editor for 15 years, and lucky enough to work on novels by many amazing authors. I never wanted to write one of my own though, until Boy 87. It's sometimes quite strange being on the 'other side'. Now I edit as a freelancer, and write. What could be better?


Q: In Boy 87, your main character, Shif, travels from an unnamed African country to Europe, facing many dangers. Why did you want to explore a child refugee's journey?

A: Four years ago my family and I moved to Ethiopia. Our move coincided with the height of the refugee crisis. Refugees were so frequently described in terms of numbers on a boat. I wanted to hear about the people - who were they, what sort of journey they had endured to even be on one of those boats. I wanted to tell that story.


Q: As well as the dangers on his journey, you show the danger Shif faces in his home country. Why did you decide to make him a refugee rather than an economic migrant?

A: It's only when an application for asylum has been accepted that a person can be officially called a refugee. So the labels we give to those attempting the perilous boat crossings to Europe are essentially arbitrary.

I think we often decide, based on where we think people have come from, whether their lives were at risk or whether they are looking for a better job. Shif's life was at risk. But if he had left one day earlier, he would simply have been in search of a better life. Yet his life would have been so bleak, that it would have seemed strange to call him an economic migrant even then.


Q: Why don't you name the country that Shif is from?

A: Shif's experiences echo those of children all over the world today - in Chad, Syria, Myanmar and many other countries. Naming the country would, I thought, distract from the story of a child refugee, and turn it into something more political.


Q: How did you research Shif's journey?

A: Through charities, NGOs such as Amnesty, UN reports, aid workers in migration.


Q: How important was it for you to have lived in Africa before you wrote this story? How did you get to know the local culture and people where you lived?

A: I lived in Ethiopia for three years. I spent a lot of time in the city, but also in more rural and remote areas. Spending time in a country allows you to see seasons and festivals, and have an opportunity to absorb daily life. As I took my kids to school in the morning, or went shopping at the market, I would see something different every day.

Ethiopia is massively diverse, from the Eastern town of Harar to the ancient churches carved into the hillside in the North, there is no 'one' version of life there. I climbed up to rock churches like Abuna Yemata Guh where Christian Ethiopian mothers take their children to be baptised, and learnt to speak Amharic.

I also learnt how to cook wat, and other traditional Ethiopian food. Whenever possible we travelled with our children. Children have fewer fixed ideas about the world, and I find viewing things through their lens much more real and interesting.


Q: Was it difficult to develop Shif's character given his very limited experiences growing up?

A: Boy 87 is about a refugee, but it is also about a boy facing adversity. Many of us will go through life without ever facing the things which Shif has to deal with. One of my favourite things about writing the book was being inside Shif's head and seeing how he would react to different situations. We get to see him change and grow up before our eyes.


Q: What would you like the reader to take from having read Boy 87?

A: That very little in life is black and white, but trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes can often show you the way.


Q: Do you plan to follow up Shif's experiences in another book?

A: I'm not writing about Shif at the moment, but you never know.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: Aha... I'm working on a book with a girl protagonist, and there may be a journey of a different kind.


Q: Where and when do you write? What would your dream writing shed look like, and where would it be?

A: I write in a wonky office in the middle of our ancient, wonky house. My dream writing shed would be like the inside of a Viennese café. Full of young and old, cool and nerdy, people meeting friends, people on their own. Cafes there are a way of life, and a place where all life meets. I love that. I would put my Viennese café shed halfway up a mountain, with a gorgeous view.


Q: What are your top tips for teenaged writers? And who are your favourite contemporary YA authors?

A: My top tip for teenage writers is to simply put pen to paper - or finger to keyboard. There is no better way to learn about yourself as a writer, than getting something down on a page. It will lead you to new ideas and help you to work out what style feels comfortable.

My favourite contemporary writers include John Green, Sarah Crossan, Lisa Williamson, Patrick Ness. There are so many fantastic YA authors writing for young people today.


Q: What's your favourite escape from writing?

A: Being with my kids. Playing pop-up-pirates or having forty hair clips applied by the 'princess hairdresser' is the perfect way to relax.


Q: Can you tell us three things our members won't know about you?

A: I wrote Boy 87 under a nom de plume, which was a combination of my eldest daughter's middle name, and the surname of a friend at the British Embassy in Addis Ababa.

Unusually, I did a science degree rather than an English degree, and the first thing I ever had published was a paper in a scientific journal, titled 'The Electrophysiology of the mammalian cochlea'. Catchy.

I had an accident when I was a teenager and ended up severing an artery in my head - it was spectacular. I still have a Frankenstein-esque bump running along one side of my head.
 
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