“I can’t think of anything harder than being a teenage girl,” says James Dawson, explaining the inspiration for his forthcoming book, Under My Skin (Hot Key Books, March). The story was inspired by an episode of “The X-Files”, and has elements of the horror genre—it is about a girl who gets a tattoo of a pin-up model called Molly Sue, which drives her to commit darker and darker deeds—but it is also Dawson’s most introspective title to date.
“Molly Sue represents any of our dark sides and that voice in our head that tells us to doubt ourselves or that we’re not good enough,” he says. “Sally gradually becomes more and more possessed by Molly Sue, who makes her do terrible things. Molly promises her the earth, she can be the leader of the popular girls, and she can be beautiful.
“When I started writing, I was thinking about what it must be like to be a teenage girl and the privileges I have had as a guy—and the privileges I haven’t had as a gay guy—and what we are telling girls to be when they’re surrounded by Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande.” He adds: “There will always be that voice in your head telling you you’re not good enough, and all you can do, as in the novel, is tell it to shut the fuck up. It’s about accepting your demons in both the literal and metaphorical sense.”
Dawson grew up in Bradford and, like Sally, was bullied at school. “It’s a shame I had to suffer but I have bloody thick skin now, so it’s worked out for the best. There is a theme running throughout all my books, and it’s that it gets better over time. Being a young adult can be very turbulent.”
He says that Molly Sue is his favourite character from all of his books to date, adding that she was a “joy” to write every day. “She’s not entirely a villain. While her methods are brutal, she is a powerful female character who is empowering Sally to be more powerful.”
Dawson became an author after several years of working as a primary school teacher specialising in personal, social and health education, and started writing after a summer of going “a bit mad”, doing nothing besides watching episodes of “America’s Next Top Model” back to back. “I’d never finished a novel but I thought, ‘why not give it a go?’ I was reading a lot of YA from the kids in my class—Noughts and Crosses, the Hunger Games and Twilight—so I wrote Hollow Pike, and pretty quickly managed to get an agent.”
Hollow Pike was picked up by Indigo after a six-way auction in 2012. Indigo also published his second title, Cruel Summer, and then Dawson switched to Hot Key for his subsequent books; fiction titles Cruel Summer (2013) and Say Her Name (2014), and non-fiction books Being a Boy (2013) and This Book is Gay (2014).
Dawson enjoys playing with horror, and thinks that it is “fantastic” that teens can buy a book that is scary but doesn’t have blood, guts or swearing. He is also particularly pleased with the “amazing” reaction to This Book is Gay, a guide to being LGBT for teenagers. “There are other horror novels and ghost stories but there isn’t another book like [This Book . . .] . More than any other book, I get letters from young people saying it helped them come out.”
Dawson is a big champion of diversity in general and hit the headlines earlier this year after saying that there are too many white faces in children’s books. “We need more authors to write diverse characters and we need more publishers to publish diverse characters,” he says. “While there is a huge amount of good feeling towards the LGBT community and getting that community reflected, we seem to have stopped talking about characters of colour. When we talk about diversity, we want all kinds.
“There should be more ethnic minority [characters] on covers and books should proclaim their diversity loud and clear. That’s why I’m so proud of the This Book is Gay cover, because that book isn’t hiding. It’s called This Book is Gay and the cover is a rainbow flag. I don’t want to hear the ‘it won’t sell’ marketing argument. Be bold, be brave.”
Recognition from organisers and judges of book awards is starting to come; Say Her Name is on the shortlist for The Bookseller YA Book Prize 2015 and has been nominated for next year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal. In July Dawson was named Queen of Teen, an award organised by The Book People and voted for by teenagers, and he wants to use the position to champion British writers and books.
“So many YA titles are American,” he says. “I would love to work with The Book People to organise a tour and get into schools to talk about the writers young British kids might not have heard of. They’ve heard of Malorie Blackman usually, but it’s surprising how many haven’t heard of Patrick Ness.”
Dawson also wants to spread the message that anyone can be an author because “it’s a real meritocracy in that if you’re talented and you finish a book, whether you come from a super wealthy background or a poor background, you can be an author”.
He is working on a YA LGBT love story for next year, because he felt it would be fun to write “a love story that didn’t have the complication of a ghost or a murderer or an evil tattoo”. He says: “It’s about a girl who moves to a dreary, run-down seaside town in Devon and becomes very strongly attracted to a bass player in a band. She also falls in love with a girl. So it’s about how she comes to terms with how she can be so strongly attracted to two people. It’s also part poetry as well, in that the girl, Victoria, best expresses herself through her poetry, so that’s been a completely new challenge.”
However, Dawson is also looking forward to taking a break. “This year it feels like I can slow down, I feel like I have done enough in the first three years to be able to, not relax, but breathe a bit. So many nice things have happened this year but I didn’t take a lot of time to celebrate what I’d done. I just want to relax and enjoy it.”
Editor: Emma Matthewson, Hot Key Books
Agent: Jo Williamson, Antony Harwood Ltd
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