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14.04.08 | Katie Allen
Celia Rees' latest young adult novel, Sovay (Bloomsbury, 2nd June), is an exciting tale set during the French Revolution that embodies the epithet "swashbuckling".
Inspired by a traditional ballad about a girl, Sovay, who disguises herself as a highwayman in order to humiliate her faithless lover, the novel follows the eponymous heroine as she discovers the thrills and freedoms of her masculine persona. Yet, when her radically-minded brother and father go missing, caught up in dangerous events overseas, Sovay must fight to find them—facing sinister plots and romantic encounters along the way.
Rees says: "I find ballads very redolent, very powerful, because they give you a snapshot of the time. They’re the stories of the people." She has always been fascinated by social history, studying it at university. Her writing is meticulously researched, bringing the 18th
century to vibrant life from the noisome London streets, swarming with thieves, spies, murderers and prostitutes to the brutalities of Paris' Terror.
Rees' YA titles span genres from horror to contemporary psychodrama, most recently The Wish House, a modern-day thriller, and The Stone Testament, a fantasy involving mythology and time travel.
The publication of Sovay marks a return to the historical books that made her name, in particular the 2000 novel Witch Child, about the witch hunts of the 17th century, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, and followed in 2002 by the acclaimed sequel Sorceress. Another historical novel, Pirates!, was published in 2003. She hints that her next book, provisionally titled Illyria, is to be about Shakespeare.
Rees begins research for her historical novels about three months before she begins to write, taking another nine months to complete each book. "I try to write so much a day. I set myself a small target, i.e. to write for an hour or perhaps 250 words and not to do anything else. You find once you start that you've written for hours or 1,000 words. I have to con myself into that really."
Is historical fiction escapism? "For me, no, inasmuch as all fiction is escapism really," she adds. "I’ve always loved [historical fiction] since I was very small. It was a way of discovering things that I didn't know about, a way of entering into people's lives that were unknowable any other way."
She admits that she "never wrote" when she was younger "unless I had to for school", but she was an enthusiastic reader; in her teens she found "there were very few books actually written for teenagers" so she read adult books, from romance series and crime novels by Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie to her brother's collection of horror stories, later disovering Hardy and the Brontës. But it was not until she became a teacher that she was first inspired to write.
"I did a masters in teaching English and a small unit was creative writing . . . the tutor was the first person who ever said anything I had written was any good!"
Her young students were reading "American thrillers, which treated teenagers as though they were adults really . . . gritty and hard hitting. I thought: 'Why doesn't somebody—why don't I—write this kind of thing but about British kids, ordinary kids." The result was Every Step You Take, published in 1993.
Rees is passionate about writing for teenagers: "You need to have a commitment to it, you need to have read a lot of children's books and to have thought deeply about it because you are actually writing for an important readership, at a developing time in their reading."
So she is vehement on the subject of certain celebrities penning books for youngsters: "[It shouldn't be] another avenue to make money." She explains, "Celebrities 'writing' books when someone else is [actually] writing them, ghosting them; I find something distasteful about that . . . children will expect the person whose name is on the book to have written it. When they write to you [the author] they want to know about you as a person . . . if it's not that person it's someone anonymous they don't know about; it feels like a betrayal."
When asked whether, with all the 21st-century distractions of TV and the internet, children are still reading Rees is positive: "I still think some people are readers and they will always read . . . it's wrong to say 'children don't read' like they're all the same." She adds, "The internet opens [reading] up—children can get in touch with other people who like the same authors and books, they can leave comments and reviews, they can discover authors they’ve never heard of . . . it's quite significant when people list their favourite authors on social networking sites. That's the way children are encouraged to read, by each other. In my day if a teacher recommended a book it was the kiss of death!"