Writer and Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates talks to Caroline Carpenter about her first YA novel, The Burning.
What is The Burning about?
The book tells two parallel stories—one is the tale of Anna, a teenage girl whose whole life has been disrupted by a mysterious event that has sent her into hiding in a remote Scottish fishing village. Her past gradually catches up with her as the new life she has fought so hard to build begins to unravel. The other story is one I pieced together from old documents and local myths—the tale of a young woman named Maggie who lived in the same Fife fishing village almost 400 years earlier, a woman accused of witchcraft, whose story has terrifying parallels with Anna's own situation.
What inspired the book?
The book was very much inspired by the work I have done with the Everyday Sexism Project—particularly the work I've done with thousands of young women in schools across the UK over the past 6 years. I've heard from so many teenage girls about their experiences: from online pornography and sexting pressure to relationship violence and sexual assault, playground sexual harassment to online abuse. There is almost nothing that happens to Anna in the book that isn't based on a real-life story. It might seem shocking to many adults, but or thousands of girls across the country, this is the reality of their daily lives.
How have you found your first foray into writing fiction?
I have absolutely loved it! I was so lucky that Simon and Schuster were incredibly supportive and I had the wisdom and kindness of a brilliant editor, Lucy Rogers to guide me along the way. I adored the freedom that felt very different from non-fiction, and the opportunity to honour the voices and stories of the young women I work with in a new way, hopefully allowing their experiences to reach a different audience and start important conversations.
Why did you decide to write YA, and how have you found the experience so far?
I am a massive fan of YA myself and love the idea that the genre presents the opportunity to reach so many young people with important ideas but in an exciting and accessible way. When I was a teenager, I wasn't reading much non-fiction, but I absolutely devoured YA novels, and it was there that I learned ideas about sisterhood, independence and feminism, though I wouldn't necessarily even have known what the word meant at the time! It has been absolutely wonderful so far—the readers have been incredibly perceptive, responsive and enthusiastic about the book, with so many young women who have read it telling me about their own, sadly similar, experiences. And I've been blown away by the warmth and kindness of the YA community, with wonderful authors, bloggers and booksellers reaching out to support me and cheer me on. It has felt very different from my non-fiction work, which is more likely to earn me death and rape threats than supportive messages, so in that sense it has been a very welcome change!
Are there any messages you hope young people pick up from the book?
When I talk about the reality of what girls are facing in UK schools, people have a tendency to shake their heads sadly and bemoan all the problems the internet has caused for young people. But looking at Anna and Maggie's stories side by side, I hope it becomes clear that these are not new or 'technological' problems: this is the way we have always treated women and girls and it won't change unless we act! I hope young people take away the message that this is a fight we can win together—that each of us has the power to be a part of the change by daring to stand up for one another and speak out against abuse. And I hope it sends the message that girls are not to blame: they shouldn't be ashamed of their bodies or their sexuality and they are never 'asking for it'.
What are you working on next?
I'm working on a new non-fiction book which I'm really excited about. I'm not allowed to reveal too much just yet, but it focuses on a topic that I think will be new and extremely shocking to many readers, and I hope it helps to expose a problem in our society which is currently dramatically underestimated.
The Burning by Laura Bates is published by Simon & Schuster on 21st February.