When my father told me he didn’t quite know what audience I was pitching Shadow’s Talent at, I had to admit that I didn’t really know either. I’d written the story without really thinking about who would read it, but the first answer I gave was that I knew it wasn’t marketable under Young Adult, and what was really behind that observation was me thinking ‘Nor is ever going to be.’
Being the way I am, I did stop to consider how much conviction that thought really had. In front of me, I had a novel written from the point of view of a seventeen year old protagonist, who has hopes and dreams of flying space ships and has a father with a past he’s reluctant to talk about. And he’s secretly sleeping with his tomboy best friend Ebony who even goes as far as to wear boys’ clothes. When he insists that he’s straight, is he actually that certain? Not to mention that Shadow Hatcher is disobedient in ways that are probably going to get him killed sooner or later. Is there any teenager out there who wouldn’t read for the thrill of climbing 20 metre trees with no safety ropes?
I did consider the potential. My story might just have been hugely marketable as YA, and aside from being an easier sale might have been a great read when written like that. Except that when I thought about it, redrafting Shadow’s Talent to create a YA version was not as straightforward a task as simply going through and deleting every use of the word ‘fuck.’ When I thought of all the content I would have to change, I was faced with one simple conclusion: if I had wanted to write YA fiction, I would have done it in the first place.
I decided it didn’t matter that Shadow’s Talent was a book that could be hard to sell. Most publishers would not take a chance on a book written for adults with such a young protagonist, but why was I bothered about that? I’d already decided I was going to self-publish, and there was yet another reason to do it: getting readers for a book like that would one hell of challenge. What if I actually rose to it and succeeded?
Stepping back from the challenges of self-marketing and being an indie author and stuffing my own ego with thoughts of success, I realised that part of the reason I hadn’t been inclined to write YA fiction lay in what I was once like as a so called ‘young adult’ myself. Back then I think YA actually was called ‘teenage fiction,’ but back then I never wanted to read it, and the lack of appeal lay in the name. Whatever you wanted to call it, I didn’t want to be a teenager or a young adult: I wanted to be an actual adult. I never wanted YA, because I wanted AA.
Looking back, I know this was never a conscious decision. I never said to myself ‘I want to be treated like a grown up so that means reading grown up books.’ Even the most off the wall teenagers probably don’t knowingly come up with that idea. What I wanted from reading was worlds I didn’t know about yet, and better still, perhaps wasn’t supposed to know about. I wanted reality presented in a way that actually felt real. I’d long since looked at what was on my parents’ bookshelves and there came a time when I realised that now I could reach the books and take them down, and I owed it to myself to do it.
When I picked up James Clavell’s King Rat at age thirteen, two things happened: I got my first history lesson about Shanghai prisoner of war camps, complete with the spotlight pointed right at the morbid details, and I realised I was bored of the world where everything was sugar coated and that same spotlight was pointed away from the stuff that a kid wasn’t supposed to see. Now I had the full on access to the grown up world through books, and it would have been a crime to waste it.
King Rat was a book written about WWII prisoners of war by a man who actually was one, and a man who even after his experiences with the Japanese still became engaged enough by Japan’s history to write Shogun – one of the most renowned epic novels ever. When I tried reading that too, I didn’t quite follow it, but it didn’t matter, because I was now in the world of Samurai swords and bloodthirsty Japanese in the 17th century. I had graduated to the world of fiction by adults for adults, and that was where I was staying.
Not content with grim reality, I went for grim imagination. I first saw the name ‘Stephen King’ in a video rental shop, on one of the shelves I wasn’t old enough to rent any of the tapes from. I found Clive Barker the same way. If I couldn’t watch horror in real life then I wasn’t going to wait until I was eighteen; I was going to get those books and devour them. I even remembered seeing the ‘Horror’ shelf in WHSmith’s as a kid and asking my mum if books could be as scary as a film. She told me words used the right way could be far scarier. I promised myself that when I had money to choose my own books one day, I was going to check that shelf out. When I was old enough to have a paper round, guess what use I put that hard earned money to.
When I think about how the trail went from there, I conclude that it was unavoidable that I’d ended up writing the sort of things that wound up in Shadow’s Talent. When I joined Litreactor in January 2013 and found Jack Ketchum’s craft essay ‘The Importance of Not Looking Away,’ I finally started to understand why so many of the authors I’d read had such an appeal: they did the equivalent of pointing a film camera at exactly what was going to make me uncomfortable. Or if not uncomfortable, then I’d at least be seeing something that real life would probably (and sometimes hopefully) never show me. Or something I secretly wanted to see despite it not being ‘nice’ or ‘decent’ or something my family or the Legion of Decency would approve of.
After the thrill of experiencing things real life would never give me, getting out of a comfort zone and getting that ‘Why the fuck am I reading this?!’ moment, came creating my own versions of that moment. Trust me when I tell you that ‘Why the fuck am I writing this?!’ is the one sensation more powerful and deep-reaching. It’s one thing to receive someone else’s imagination. It’s quite another to drop your inhibitions and go for full on camera-pointing-at-the-unthinkable when it’s you creating the moment, just because you feel the need to, and never mind what your family might think of their darling son if only they knew what was in his head.
Shadow’s Talent has a little less of this than some other stories I’ve written, but a fair amount of it, especially the last third of the story, is very much the kind of writing where I refuse to look away from what’s disconcerting.
What would a fall out of a twenty metre tree actually feel like? Not content with that, writing as Shadow Hatcher became an exercise to asking ‘What would that feel like?’ around much less pleasant scenarios still. I’ll make an admission at my own risk here: a lot of Shadow’s Talent is perhaps tame compared with what I’ve done before, and certainly compared with what I’m gearing up for in the sequel, as if I’m trying to out-write myself and always rising to the challenge of giving the reader that gobsmacking moment of surprise. And I like to think there are readers who might say ‘If that’s tame then what the hell’s wild going to be?’
It’s hard to give details without spoilers, so let’s take one from the beginning. I recently talked about the book to a couple of people at work, and revealed that in one much earlier draft, I had Shadow fall out of the tree in the opening scene and land on one of the dogs that had been watching him climb, then had him describe the resulting mess in his confused and concussed narrative. No details spared. The reaction I got from my colleagues was vocal to say the least, and I had to admit that a falling climber crushing a dog and coming round with the result quite literally in his face wasn’t the worst idea I’d come up with by a longshot.
Trying to shock or disgust a reader is actually pretty hard, in this day and age, and perhaps even pointless if that’s the only effect a writer attempts to achieve, but for me the importance of presenting a reader with that full close-up of something less than nice goes further: it’s giving back to an audience the same sort of thing I once got the thrill from reading. No holds barred means the reader is treated like an adult.
Treating the reader like an adult meant giving them that close up of what happens to Shadow during the climatic scene of Shadow’s Talent, where all the threat of something grim happening to him finally comes to the boil and explodes. To point the camera away from the trauma of that moment would be to cheat the reader. What happens to Shadow Hatcher in that scene and the ones that follow it are things that no YA novel could point the camera straight at. Or perhaps more accurately: I couldn’t take that sort of idea and turn it into a story I would want to read if I wrote it as YA. Especially not when my protagonist discovers the age old idea of pain having a certain amount of erotic appeal. I love that scene. It’s one of the ones where I sat back after writing and thought ‘I should probably be ashamed of myself. I’m not. Awesome!’
Writers have long been telling me to write stories I would want to read myself. Some even say words to the effect of ‘Imagine you’re in Waterstones and you find your book on the shelf. Would you buy it?’ When I think of myself as a teenager, a YA version of the things that happen to Shadow Hatcher would have made me put the book back on the shelf. Put it on the adult shelves though, with the cover and writing style that promised the same stuff I always wanted from my heroes, and guess what I’d have done.
Still wrestling with who my audience for Shadow’s Talent might be got me asking how many other teenagers were out there who had discovered full-on AA fiction. I already knew the answer had to be plenty – I was not the only person in my school library checking out Steve King’s back catalogue, and a couple of my friends were probably far more voracious readers of adult books in general than I was. I don’t sit in the library nowadays looking at what teenagers read (if only because they mostly read on Kindles now), but I like to think I’m safe in hoping that the surge in YA’s popularity has not stopped young readers looking at the adult shelves and either seeing a challenge or seeing forbidden fruit.
King Rat, it turned out, was a book my mother had read in secret by torchlight under her bedsheets, because my grandmother wouldn’t have approved of the language in it. When I think about neither of my parents ever denied me any book I picked up no matter what they surely knew I must have been reading about, I always think on how their liberal attitude to books is one of the things I should be most thankful for. It was certainly one of the things that went through my head when I asked myself if a teenager would ever read Shadow’s Talent.
If I had a teenage son or daughter, would I give them the book? Absolutely. If only because I’d trust them to get their hands on it anyway if I denied it to them. That’s exactly what Shadow would do himself.