Last week I popped down to my local Waterstones in Oxford to see James Dawson as part of his book tour for the release of his latest book, 'Under My Skin'. Here's the mini lowdown on the evening as he talked feminism, his own writing journey and crazy characters.
On 'Under My Skin': Dawson opened the evening by reading an extract from his latest YA novel, 'Under My Skin, a book about a young girl who succumbs to the bidding of an evil tattoo. The passage he read leads up to the end of the first act and climactic turning point in the novel towards the darker themes readers will have seen in his previous novels, 'Cruel Summer' and 'Say Her Name'.
He went on to describe Under My Skin as a 'teenage feminist version of Jekyll and Hyde' drama and talked of how he wanted to write a novel centered around the different representations of women in the media, as well as the choices young girls have between acting like some sort of saint or choosing to appear more provocative (Sally and Molly-Sue represent these juxtaposed opposites in the book) In addition to this, with Sally, Dawson, wanted to explore the idea of not having control over your body and the peer pressure voices in your head, in this case the voice in Sally's head is the confident and provocative Molly-Sue.
Dawson admitted Molly-Sue was one of his favourite characters to write as, unlike his other novels, she was present as the villain in the story throughout the entire plot of the book. He also loved her devil-may-care attitude and the fact that she also represented the dark side that everyone harbours within. In his own words Molly-Sue is the voice in your head "when you're stood on the right side of the escalators on the tube in London and someone is just stood in your way and you have to stop yourself from wanting to push them down the stairs..."
Feminism & women in YA: Dawson lead into this part of the Q&A discussion by asking the audience how many of them would call themselves a feminist - rather reassuringly the whole group (which consisted primarily of teen readers) put their hands up *throws confetti*.
He went on to speak about strong female characters’ in YA and how, nowadays, we see them written as female warriors wielding weapons. Dawson made the point that very rarely do we see the ‘strong female character’ not in battle armour anymore and very often don't consider someone like Hazel in TFIOS in the same way. Sally, for him, represents this more vulnerable side of a strong female character, where she doesn't need to be a warrior to be brave. He amusingly commented that she can’t exactly start attacking her enemy in the book like Katniss or Tris as "...Molly Sue is literally 'under her skin'. What can she do? Start stabbing and poking herself or something?".
Though the feminist issues were important for him to consider whilst writing, he implores to us that we as readers shouldn’t read too much into it - "Ultimately it is a book about me torturing a teenage girl with a demonic tattoo."
From teacher to author: Dawson was also asked about his transition from teaching into becoming a full-time writer. As a teacher, he at first juggled writing and his full time job, utilising the long Summer holidays he has to start on his first novel - though he did confide that he pulled a sickie and took a week off when nearing the end of writing Hollow Pike!
He made the point that he was first and foremost an avid reader of YA fiction, and was inspired by fellow writers such as Malorie Blackman and Phillip Pullman, before venturing into writing himself. Keeping on the feminist theme for his debut novel, Hollow Pike, Dawson admitted he wanted to fill the void that books like Twilight had in regards to the importance female relationships.
He commented that his second novel, Cruel Summer, was the hardest to write because of the twists and turns of a murder mystery, quick turnaround and that fact he was still settling into the fact he was now writing full-time.
In contrast, 'This Book Is Gay' was described as a whole different experience altogether, requiring him to heavily rely on others input and stories as he felt that he couldn’t speak about LGBTQ issues on behalf of an entire community. Despite being offered the option to write personal book on his experiences with coming out and he admitted he simply couldn’t do that on his own. Though a stressful process it’s the book he feels the most proud of, not only because of the stories in it but the overwhelming amount of positive feedback from individuals and the LGBTQ community as a whole.
Future plans: Rather excitingly Dawson also revealed plans for his upcoming book releases, which he likened to ‘phase 2’ of the Marvel Movie Universe. His noted that the next few books will follow a different set of themes to previous ones, starting with his next novel ‘All of the Above' - due to be released this September.
'All of the above' is planned to be a more serious romantic novel rooted in the real world exploring themes of bisexuality as the main character, Toria, falls in love with a girl and a boy. Dawson revealed the book will be written in prose but it will also see him writing poetry - as part of Toria's way of dealing with her romantic struggles. As a much more character driven novel rooted in the real world, there will be no freaky ghosts, mad killers or demonic tattoos in this one!
There are also two more books due in 2016, one of which will be a non-fiction title about mental health - presented in a similar format to This Book Is Gay - with a focus on such topics as eating disorders, anxiety and depression.
Thanks to Waterstones Oxford for organising such a fantastic event and for James Dawson for being such a great speaker on the night - and generally rather lovely when I spoke to him!