I was delighted to get the chance to ask Susan some questions.
1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, what do you see?
This is the first time I’ve written for the YA market – so I’m imagining a brand-new readership! I think, in many ways, I imagine the teenaged me: I was quite a secretive reader, choosing cosy places – my bed, a corner, an empty classroom at lunch-break or under a blanket with a cat – to turn my pages in. I think this influences my imagining of my readers. But I’m also keenly aware that YA fiction can be crossover literature – and I’d love to think that it might find an adult readership too.
2. A Little In Love is the retelling of Eponine's story from Les Miserables - but which version of Les Miserables is your favourite, book, screen or stage?
It’s a hard choice – but I would have to choose the book. It isn’t an easy read – it’s 1400 pages! – and it brims with so much description and information that the pace can, at times, become slow. But even so, it’s an extraordinary, sprawling and mesmeric book; it is full of tremendous characters, and full of heartbreak. I felt stunned, in the days that followed reading it. No wonder it has inspired so many. Having said that, the stage and screen versions have, I think, captured the book’s passion and richness brilliantly. The recent film is just wonderful! I’ve seen it many times and absolutely love it.
3. Are there any particular actors whose performances in Les Miserables influenced your versions of their characters?
I tried very hard to empty my mind of all I’d seen and heard. It’s tricky to do – and certainly I could envisage several of the actors from the recent film, from time to time. Samantha Barks’s perfect Eponine, of course, and Sasha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter’s wonderful depiction of the Thenardiers were the hardest to put to one side. But Hugo’s book has very defined descriptions of the characters, and I tried to use those as the basis for my own – not the film’s. By the end of the first draft, I could see new people. I could see my own, personal Eponine wandering through Paris – and I still can.
4. While A Little In Love is your YA debut, you're an acclaimed author for adults, winning the Whitbread prize with your debut Eve Green. Do you approach writing for teens differently than writing for adults?
I was fazed, in the beginning. I thought I might have to do everything differently, and I didn’t know how! But I calmed down – and I decided that, actually, there is very little difference between the writing process for YA and Adult fiction. Both readerships want, ultimately, the same thing: a thoughtful and immersive story, a little excitement, a little love, likeable characters - and all told in a way that might, at times, make them read a sentence a second time just because it is beautifully done. That’s what I try for, at least. The only things I altered slightly were dialogue (more of it) and description (less). By doing this, the book’s pace is faster – and I think the YA readers have a greater wish for a speedy read than many adults do.
5. On a similar note, do you read much YA? Do you have any particular favourite YA authors you'd recommend?
Before writing A Little In Love, I hadn’t read any YA novels since my own teenage years. But having taken on the challenge, I did look at some of the most successful YA novels out there – The Hunger Games books, for example. During the actual writing process, however, I stopped reading other novels. I do this with my adult work, too: I find it confusing to have another author’s style and story in my head, when trying to create my own. So I stop reading, and just write …
6. The ending to A Little In Love - surely one of the most powerful of the year - had me in tears on the train. When's the last time you cried at a book?
Thank you. I am glad you cried! I hope that doesn’t sound cruel or strange – but it suggests that I managed to get all the emotion that I, too, was feeling into the pages. It suggests you cared for Eponine as I did, which is a lovely thing to know. I cried writing that scene. I often cry when I’m writing – I keep tissues on my desk! It’s hard to explain to non-readers why I do this, and sometimes I worry that I’m too emotional! But I also think (hope!) it’s a good sign: I am so immersed in my created world, and so in love with the characters in it, that they feel real to me. In terms of other people’s work, it’s been a while since I cried at fiction. But I often get tearful at poetry. Poetry is my first love, and I can be profoundly affected by it. I steer clear of Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ for what it does to me! That’s an extraordinary poem. And I cried, recently, at both Missing God by Dennis O’ Driscoll and Carol Ann Duffy’s Water – they are so tender, beautiful and sad. (In fact, I have just re-read them for the sake of this Q&A, and they both got me again!)
7. If you could host a literary dinner party, which six characters or authors would you invite?
What a great question! And virtually impossible to answer; I could change my mind daily, I’m sure! Off the cuff … I’d want Charlotte Bronte with me – and possibly Jane Eyre’s Rochester, too, because he’s flawed but rather fabulous, and I used to have a huge crush on him. Shakespeare. The late Seamus Heaney who made me want to be a writer. The novelist Sarah Bower, because she’s my friend and she’d be as excited by this dinner party as I’d be. And Eponine, too: a dinner party might overwhelm her somewhat, but she’s still a huge part of my thoughts so I’d feel compelled to have her there. And Charlotte Bronte would look after her, I’m sure!
8. Other than your own book, what's your favourite retelling of a classic story?
I recently read a novel called Ahab’s Wife – but Jena Seter Naslund. It is based on Herman Meville’s classic Moby Dick. In Moby Dick, there is a passing reference to the grizzly Captain Ahab’s young bride who is waiting for him, back on shore – and Naslund tells this bride’s story. It’s a wonderful idea, and gorgeously written. The protagonist is a true survivor, and tough in many ways – but it’s also a compelling story of lasting love.
9. What are you reading at the moment?
The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh … See below!
10. What's next for Susan Fletcher?
I’m returning to adult fiction – for now, at least. I am working on a novel that looks at a period in Van Gogh’s life, and a person he met during it. It’s all quite scary, because I am writing out of contract – and sometimes I’m worried that this book won’t be bought, won’t find publication … But I’m loving it. I wake up each morning with a sense of excitement, because of how much I am enjoying the writing of it. I hope this is a good sign! And, as ever, I have my box of tissues at the ready, just in case …