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>> All afloat in 'Mud'

All afloat in 'Mud'
28/06/2018

All afloat in 'Mud'


Lydia's life changes for good the day that her father tells her they are going to live on a boat, together with his new wife and siblings. How will she cope? Author EMILY THOMAS tells us more about MUD.

Q: Your 'day job' is working as an editor, what does that involve?

A: I work in adult non-fiction: I sometimes commission and edit popular non ficton titles. This involves keeping a beady eye on the market for these kinds of books, and creative thinking in coming up with ideas, sourcing authors and illustrators and putting the books together to a schedule.

The switch from children's and YA (which I still love) came mainly from my own ambitions to write fiction, and to create more of a separation between what I do for a living from what I do for love, if that makes sense. This does not rule out going back to children's and YA, though; that is my heartland, but it is nice to have lots of different kinds of books on the go!

Q: What made you decide to write your own novel and when do you write, given your day job?

A: I don't know if writing my book was a decision so much as something I suddenly felt the urge to do. A few years ago I wrote some teen fantasy fiction, under a pseudonym, for Hachette (where I worked as teen publisher), and I almost stumbled into that, and did not think 'what will my next book be?'

A few years after writing the fantasy trilogy I found I had a first 'page' (of what was to become MUD) in my head and I couldn't shake it out. I sat down one night and started writing it, and found I couldn't stop. I wrote in the evening and at weekends - though depending on how busy my day job was, sometimes this would lapse a little. I enjoyed doing it, so it didn't feel like a task.

Q: How biographical is Mud, since like your main character Lydia you also moved to a barge aged 13, with siblings and step siblings and 'two warring cats'?

A: MUD started as very autobiographical, but I began to realise (and then later with my editors even more so) that it felt quite episodic (rather than a proper story, with a real 'arc') so I chopped in some fictional scenes and characters and altered the chronology from the real-life chronology.

Essentially, though, it is a lot more than just 'based' on my adolescence. All the significant scenes in the book actually happened (if in a different order) and most of the characters were very real to me. My father, and stepmother, and the siblings in the book are not identical to my real siblings, but the essence of them - their character traits, their ages, their relationships with me - are pretty much the same.

I wanted the book to be funny as well as have depth, though of course in real life, some of the more traumatic events didn't seem very funny at all at the time. But writing fictionally and with humour about a difficult adolescence is cathartic and also necessary, so that the book wasn't a big misery-fest! The cats were real and a huge source of comfort to me. They represent stability for Lydia, despite their being hugely selfish, as they did for me at the time.

Q: Is that also why you decided to set Mud in the 1980s and not in the present day, or were there other reasons?

I couldn't have set MUD in the present day. The landscape for teenagers of the early 80s is crucial to the younger characters' motivation and behaviour: no mobile phones (no technology), no easy access to phones to call friends, as well as it being an era where you lived in and enjoyed the moment more, without Instagramming it or taking endless selfies (Lydia would have died of self-consciousness had she been a teenager now) - they were all so important to how the relationships deepened and developed and the resourcefulness of children without a tablet or smart phone in their hands. They 'dreamt' a lot, they had possibly richer fantasy lives, they were more innocent, though they were in many ways more isolated and trapped with their feelings.

Lydia is a 13/14 year-old of her time, both sheltered and more of a risk-taker in some ways. Her world was her family and a good friend and her cats, she didn't feel the eyes of the world on her as perhaps teenagers do with Facebook and Instagram these days. Mud exposes teenagers to (and remind adults of) a time when things were simpler in many ways, and how children and teenagers found ways to have fun and deal with issues without being in constant communication with each other, and without entertainment at the press of a button.

Q: How did you respond to life on a barge as a teenager?

A: I didn't like the day to day of living on a boat. I didn't grow to love it. But I did learn to accept and cope with it. It was uncomfortable and often cold and inhospitable and I longed for my old bedroom (and the mother I had lost) constantly.

The worst times were the winter when the bedroom cabin walls would freeze, and rain would leak through the skylights, and when the electricity suddenly crashed (usually just in the middle of a really good TV programme or when you wanted to use the hairdryer). But, in the summer when it was hot, and we sailed out of the estuary and into the sea it was actually lovely. When we went on holiday I got to take my 'bedroom' with me so I never needed to pack a suitcase.

I think mostly I hated standing out at school, I hated discovering rust marks on my clothes and being looked at. I was a teenager though, so I was primed to protest and feel mortified (about lots of things, not only the boat)

Q: How did Lydia's character develop and what for you were her defining characteristics?

A: Lydia just came naturally as she is the younger version of me. I had such strong recall of how I felt then, how I could be a little melodramatic at times, how I loved reading and found that books and the cats were enormously comforting; how I was sensitive and hyper-vigilant to the emotions of every one around me. I was a dreamer, a romantic, with a slightly rebellious streak, and, it turns out, pretty resilient. Lydia is simply a version of who I was. I have to say I felt in awe of Lydia sometimes while I was writing Mud. The optimism and innate sense of trust (even in trauma) that teenagers can have.

Q: Why did you decide to write Lydia's story as a diary?

A: I think the diary format helped to cut out all the extraneous stuff I didn't want in there. Lydia records 'noteworthy' events, but which run as a linear story. The diary was also a good link with her mother, who before she died gives it to Lydia for that very reason - as though she knew that trouble was coming... I didn't feel any constraints to be honest, it felt like the perfect format.

Q: The reader can see that Lydia's family is starting to fall apart before she does - was it difficult to create that sense of awareness on the part of the reader while Lydia remains oblivious?

A: No, it wasn't difficult, because keeping Lydia innocent, albeit intuitive, was true to her character. She trusts like a child, though as she is hypervigilant she does 'feel' atmospheres and interpret them (thought not always accurately).

Q: You deal with some difficult issues including bereavement, alcoholism and separation in the story, how did you prevent the novel from getting too dark?

A: Humour. All the way. It was how I got through difficulty at the time; by making myself and other people laugh, even when some things were really upsetting or destabilisng. Weaving in everyday life and boy dramas, as well as the relationship between Lydia and Kay. I wanted to pick out all the comical/endearing and sweet parts of the characters, too, such as Lydia's very normal - and hence earthing - relationship with her brother Sam, who infuriates her, but who is also rock-like and familiar in an increasingly unfamiliar world for her.

I think the more regular domestic moments throw off the grimness in Mud, just when you feel sad or start to feel disturbed, something ordinary or funny or entertaining happens. Like with Lydia's relationship with her sister Elsa (who is a slightly Mitfordesque and glamorous character and Lydia is in thrall to her, always seeking her approval). When Lydia visits Elsa at Cambridge it shows the reader that while awful things can be happening, normal, experimental teenage life goes on too, and fun and frivolous stuff happens, as it should.

Q: Would you recommend to young writers that they write what they know about, as you have done in Mud?

A: For a first time writer, writing what you know about is a good way of easing yourself into the writing process - describing and evoking situations and people who feel recognizable is a safe place from which to sharpen your descriptive skills and to draw characters.

But it does depend on what you want to write...if you want to write a fantasy novel for example, you will need to dig deeper into your imagination to create a premise, scenarios and characters that you have never experienced, but you can and will still use what you know in ways - in terms of emotional responses, perhaps.

Writers are all different and their comfort level when it comes to what they write about expands, or not, depending on their ambition for their story.

Q: Would 'keep a diary' be among your top tips for today's young writers? What else?

A: Keeping a dairy is never a bad idea, though these days it might feel a slightly old-fashioned notion. What is a good idea is to write down things you have felt during a day, or any challenges you are facing - what has stuck out at you as significant or affected you. Not only is that a very good idea for emotional health, it is also an excellent chart of your emotional status and your progress and will spark inspiration for storylines and characters.

Q: Will you follow up Lydia's story? What else are you writing?

A: I have no immediate plans for a sequel to Mud, but I wouldn't rule it out. I would quite like to see Lydia as a young woman, see how she has turned out...I am halfway through a second book, for adults - a story of family secrets with an unreliable but sympathetic heroine at its heart.

Q: What are your favourite escapes from work / writing?

Writing! But writing in non-book forms too. Really well written TV for example. Also reading, of course. I am a huge fan of audio books and good podcasts so am constantly looking for the next one of those.

I love walking, and do a bit of running. I have ambitions to learn sign-language too; something quite different from what I do all day at work, but I suppose it's still all about communication - reaching people with language - so maybe not so different after all.
 
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