Tanya Byrne describes her hit debut novel Heart-Shaped Bruise as like "a punch in the face", because of the shocking storyline which winds through the journal-style novel, but the metaphor could also be used for her career as an author so far.
Her journey from a full-time job at the BBC to full-time author has been a whirlwind, punctuated by the pressures of publicity for Heart-Shaped Bruise and the honour of being nominated for a Crime Writer’s Association Dagger and New Writer of the Year prize at the National Book Awards. “Actually, with hindsight I’m quite glad I didn’t win the New Writer award," she says. "I don’t know if I could have coped with that. I was stunned by the response to the first book.”
It’s clear that the young writer was under pressure, “With the first book, you’ve got nothing to lose. With the second book, you’ve got an entire career to lose. It wasn’t easy, it was really painful.”
Follow Me Down
Tanya’s new novel, Follow Me Down, is a very different book to her debut. Gone is the gritty, urban setting inspired by Tanya’s own surroundings while growing up. Everything for the “difficult second album” was new. “Emily’s story [in HSB] was controlled by her. In its journal form, her voice is so strong. With Adamma, my new character, she is a vehicle for so many stories. Adamma may be narrating it but it is Scarlett’s [her schoolmate's] story, too.” Even the writing needed to change. “I was quite restricted by the journal style in my debut. With this book I could explore certain parts of the prose. Emily wasn’t going to spend hours describing how an archway looks. She doesn’t care.”
Follow Me Down sees new girl Adamma, a young African girl, taken under the wing of Scarlett – the prettiest, bitchiest girl in their private school. “This is why it was so hard to write. There were so many things in this book I had no idea about. I’d never gone to a boarding school; I grew up in Stratford in London, which could not be further away from the small village of Ostley - which I had to create from scratch. I had to build this village that doesn’t exist, a school that doesn’t exist, as well as the people. I wanted you to have a sense of place in this imagined world.”
It’s clear that Tanya is passionate about allowing her readers to feel comfortable, despite her chilling storylines. “As a writer I try to take something that is abnormal and make it normal. The normal side of life is boring to me. I like the broken people and how their broken pieces go together. There’s a beauty in that for me. I think whatever character I write, no matter how perfect they seem, will always have something we can relate to. People assume that teenagers only care about the opposite sex, hair and clothes, but they don’t. There are so many insecurities in my characters that these readers can relate to.”
The young adult genre is very important to Tanya and her peers. The books are “a chance to escape life and relate to people like themselves. You have to know that when things happen, you’ll find a way to deal with it. I think that’s really important.”
Tanya Byrne is an honest writer, she is blunt and she understands her readers and what they want. Through both of her novels, she doesn’t only create entertaining plots for escapism but meaningful messages and ideas. Speaking about both of her novels, I think Tanya sums up the importance of this rampaging genre. “I knew I read YA, I knew I enjoyed YA. I wanted to write a book about a teenager, I wanted it to be honest, I didn’t want to talk down to the readers and I didn’t want to dumb down the prose.
"I just wanted it to be a book about what it’s like to be seventeen.”
Follow Me Down by Tanya Byrne is published by Headline.