Where did you get the idea of writing about witness protection?
I was watching the news and I heard a report about this case . It struck me that the Dixon family had been through a terrible ordeal, had done the right thing by testifying against criminals and yet were now facing a life in hiding where they had to lie about everything. I'd worked as a news editor, so I knew a bit about witness protection, and I found out more by researching other cases, like that of Danielle Cable, and by talking to a lawyer who had worked with protected witnesses.
I decided to write about a teenager going into witness protection because I felt that taking on a new identity was a great metaphor for adolesence.
How did you think your way into the head of a 14-year-old boy?
I thought a lot about what it's like being 14 - all the changes, that feeling of being caught between childhood and becoming an adult, and not fitting into either description. I thought a lot about friendships, respect and feeling unsafe. And I tried to imagine the physical experience of being a boy - I asked my long-suffering husband a lot of questions about his adolesence...which was quite interesting. When he wasn't around I just asked the nearest man available- one friend is still traumatised by being relentlessly quizzed about exactly how he felt the first time he kissed a girl.
You use a lot of popular culture references in your books - do you think that will date them?
Yes, but I don't think it matters. I decided quite early on that the book was set in the summer of 2008, when I was writing it, and there was a spate of knife killings in London. (Having said that, I completely ignored the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics because they didn't suit my plot!) The chapter which talks about politicians and their responses to these killings, is all based on fact. In some ways I was writing a historical novel about the present day, if that makes sense. I hope that foreign readers will forgive its relentless Britishness. I'd just returned to London after eight years living abroad, and When I Was Joe was a little celebration of coming home.
Is your book an 'issues' book? Is there a message?
I don't like 'issue' books (although most labelled as such are more complex than that). I think life is messy and difficult, and most of us have to grapple with multiple problems...but seem to manage to get on and enjoy life anyway. I don't believe in easy answers and wrapped-up happy endings either. And, you've guessed it - I'm not interested in writitng books with messages. I do like unpicking moral questions and giving readers a lot to think about. At the end of When I Was Joe I hope readers will think: what would I do if I got this e mail? What should the recipient do? What should happen to Ty/Joe?
Is When I Was Joe based on real life? Did you do meticulous research to get all the details right?
It was very important to me that the legal side of the story was correct, and a barrister friend of mine checked all of that (his input was particularly important for Almost True) I also checked medical matters with my brother-in-law who, helpfully enough, is a doctor (he was also essential to Almost True ), and I talked to a headteacher. A Catholic friend read the Catholic bits because I am not even Christian, so the finer detail of Catholic practice was alien to me. Having said that I made up lots of things, especially little details about how the police treat Ty. It's fiction, not documentary, and I loved that aspect of moving from journalism to novel-writing.
You went from signing up for a writing course to publishing your debut novel in exactly two years, never having written any fiction before. Should we hate you?
Hah! Of course not. It may have been quick, but it was traumatic and very bumpy, and I had my fair share of rejection. For a longer response, read this
What are the best things about becoming an author?
1) Hearing from readers. What a thrill! If you're reading this and enjoyed the book please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org)
2) When a reviewer really gets what I've tried to do in the book.
3) Going into a bookshop and seeing my book on the shelf. Wow.
4) The people. I have met so many wonderful people in the last two years, I don't know where to start. The children's book world must be one of the most supportive and welcoming possible. And then there's my fabulous agent, and my marvellous editor and all the people who read my blog... (better stop now before I get into full foaming Oscar-accepting mode)
And the worst?
1) Reviewers who don't get it. Grrr. And you can't respond without looking stupid.
2)First-time novelist paranoia...no one will read it...everyone will hate it..it's rubbish anyway
3) Spotting little errors which fell through the editing net. Not too many I hope.
Will there be another book about Ty?
I am working on a third Ty book, provisionally called Another Life.
What is your next book about?
Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery is about a 16 year old girl who wins a £8million jackpot when her friend buys her a ticket as a birthday present.