"I've been working on Moonrise for what feels like forever," says Sarah Crossan when we meet in early June. She was 14 when she watched "Fourteen Days in May", a documentary about Edward Earl Johnson’s final days on death row in Mississippi. "I’ve rewatched it several times and find it so affecting. I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. One of the moments that is particularly disturbing is when Edward is saying goodbye to his family. It's a few hours before the execution and there's a sibling in the background. I always wondered what that felt like, to say goodbye to your brother."
Moonrise tells that story. In the book, Joe hasn't seen his brother for 10 years for the most brutal of reasons: his brother Ed is on death row and an execution date has now been set. The story follows the final 30 days of Ed's life and Joe's determination to spend that time with him, no matter what people think.
Crossan's passion for the case is tangible; she's conducted "masses and masses of research" over many years. "I watched every documentary, read every book I could find," she says, including those of Johnson's lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, his warden Donald Cabana and Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, which examines the perceived injustices of the American justice system. Crossan admits to being "so entrenched in the research" that her first draft, in verse, felt like "an issues book, a lecture".
She rewrote it as 87,000 words of prose - "it was still terrible. I threw it away and started again" - then reassessed what the book was about. "Yes it's about the death penalty and it was my intention to make people feel horrified. But when I pushed that too far, it didn't work. When I brought it back to family, creating a domestic drama, a story about brothers, then the book came together for me."
On the agenda
At its heart Moonrise shares themes with much of Crossan's other work: family bonds, love and belonging, the choices we make against all odds. At one point it looked like the Supreme Court was going to make a big decision "and then Trump got into power and everything changed. I had half-hoped my book was going to be irrelevant by the time it was published." Political issues loom large in her books: immigration in The Weight of Water and We Come Apart, healthcare in One and the death penalty in Moonrise. While she acknowledges that "it's very difficult not to be political, not to write about the world that we see", Crossan very much prefers her work to do the talking. "I'm not interested in lecturing anyone. I think of myself as a storyteller."
She says "stories and singing" were a big part of her Dublin childhood - "I grew up in the Catholic Church, which is all about stories and the poetry of prayer, and perhaps we don't acknowledge the extent to which that influences children" - and she sees a more democratic approach to books and reading in Ireland, compared to the UK. "Culture is on the agenda in most households. People in Ireland don't believe you need to be from a certain socioeconomic background in order to access books and literature. It really feels as though it belongs to everybody."
Crossan taught English for 10 years, but always yearned to write. "I was teaching a class with kids, saying: 'Live your dreams, you can be anything you want to be.' A student put up their hand and said: 'Have you always wanted to be a teacher?' And I thought... 'Oh! Maybe not.' That's when I applied to do a Masters in creative writing."
The graft of writing
For a number of years she worked on an adult novel - "my apprenticeship" - until events in her personal life caused her to stop writing for a period. When she returned, she wrote The Weight of Water in just six weeks and got an agent almost immediately. "It happened quite easily on the surface but my legs were working very hard underneath, for 10 years, to make my writing better."
Books in verse were considered a hard sell in the UK, but Bloomsbury "had a really confident plan" which included a diary format and Oliver Jeffers illustrations on the jacket. "I've been really lucky that Bloomsbury trusts me to do whatever I do. I don't think a lot of authors have that luxury." A lucrative US deal for her dystopian novel Breathe meant she could leave teaching and write full-time, but the book didn't catch on in the US - something of a blessing, says Crossan. "Things could have looked very different... I would have probably been a dystopian genre writer."
The publication of One in 2015 was a definining moment. The free verse novel about conjoined twins won the Carnegie Medal, the YA Book Prize and CBI Book of the Year. Crossan, however, was still nervous about poetry, believing that prose would mean a wider audience and more overseas opportunities. But a prose draft was abandoned and it was only in verse that the voice felt true. "It's been a really good lesson, that you have to do the honest thing. You have to write from a place that's genuine rather than thinking about the market."
You sense that authenticity, both to herself and to young readers, is vital for the author. "When I was teaching, I understood how teenagers spoke, how they interacted, their fears, their insecurities." School visits are an essential way for her to keep this connection and she takes this relationship with her readers seriously.
We talk about the current trend for authors to reveal personal issues as a way of validating their work, something she finds problematic. "It's a personal choice but as a YA author I have a responsibility to young people. One of those responsibilities is to enable young people to understand that you don’t have to put everything on social media. So much of my fiction is personal but I'm not prepared to say which. That pressure on authors I find distasteful."
Next is another free verse novel - "I always think they'll be quick and easy, but they take forever!" - about the friendship between a girl and an older woman, and perhaps another collaboration with compatriot author Brian Conaghan. "I strive towards finding a way to make YA fresh. I want to read about the spirit of a human and what it can do against the odds, and that's really what I want to write about. You'll get to a spot in the light, even if you have walked miles in the dark."
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