I reviewed Claire Hennessy’s powerful new YA novel Like Other Girls recently, and was delighted to get the chance to chat to Claire about the book, her writing process, being an editor, and the joy of musicals.
Photo by Aisling Finn
Could you tell me about your writing routine? When and where do you write? Do you have any writing rituals?
I yearn for a proper writing routine but it really depends on what else I’m doing or working on at the time. For example, during the summer I teach on summer camps for teenagers, which means I might write in the evenings, whereas if I’m teaching a lot of evening classes then the writing tends to get done in the morning. It really depends on the stage the manuscript is at, too – when I’m in the middle of a first draft, getting new words down as often as possible (every weekday, hopefully) is really important, whereas when I’m revising I might think over things for weeks and then go and attack the manuscript again.
How do you find writing for teens as an adult, compared to writing for teens as a teen yourself?
I’m an adult? When did that happen?! I’m more wary of getting details wrong now, because I know that being a teenager today is different in certain ways – the endless encroaching presence of social media, for example – and I also try not to be preachy.
Do you think your work as an editor has changed how you approach your writing?
I am incredibly aware now of the importance of opening chapters, in a way that I wasn’t before – there are so many clichéd and tired ways to begin a story, and as an editor you really start to notice all the recurring and worn-out tropes. I actually overdid it slightly with Like Other Girls and had a scene that really belonged much later at the start, for dramatic purposes, but it didn’t quite work, so it got moved.
When in the process of writing Like Other Girls did you come up with the title?
It was when I was close to finishing the manuscript, and we already had a synopsis for the book before that, so it was quite late. But we agreed on it very quickly, which was brilliant.
Like Other Girls is a book that makes readers angry (to quote the wonderful Marian Keyes, it is a book that ‘all but quivers with righteous anger’), which books make you angry?
Oooh. Anything about feminism makes me angry at the world, for obvious reasons, and then I get angry at books for pulling cheap stunts or having twists that don’t quite work.
To my delight, musicals play a big role in Like Other Girls. What is your favourite musical, and your favourite song from a musical?
WICKED! And ‘For Good’. I just love the fact that it has two female leads, and that the love story isn’t everything, and that it’s basically set in a magical boarding school at the start. It’s very different from the book, of course, which is much darker and twistier.
I feel that the inclusion of newspaper articles and other media references really reflected what it is like being a young woman in Ireland at the moment, and also showed how Lauren’s story is one that happens every day, to many women. Was this aspect of the book there from the start?
I didn’t necessarily know I was going to include newspaper articles but I was conscious that I’d probably be addressing what the narrative is around reproductive rights in Ireland, as well as how such issues are handled in popular culture. And then as it went on, it seemed to make sense to include actual articles (and sadly the media continues to offer up many examples to work with…)
Like Other Girls is a book that confronts and explores real experiences and problems without turning into the dreaded ‘issue novel.’ What do you think is the importance of books and other art forms in exploring issues we are facing today?
Thank you, that is very kind of you to say! I did worry hugely about this turning into a big rant, which a novel shouldn’t be, and I was aware in certain chapters that I needed to go back and make things about the characters rather than The Issues. What stories are wonderful for is creating empathy – seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and learning to understand each other a little bit better. So much cruelty and ugliness in the world comes from a capacity to dehumanise certain groups of people, and empathy is the cure for that.
As both an editor and a reader, what would you like to see more of in YA?
More funny books for teenagers that still manage to deal with serious issues. More books set outside of the UK and the USA. More books featuring protagonists with disabilities, chronic illness, etc. And, as ever, more boarding school novels.
What are your favourite YA reads of 2017 so far?
Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer completely blew me away. I absolutely adored Moira Fowley-Doyle’s The Spellbook of the Lost and Found. We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan was, predictably, brilliant. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give lived up to the hype. And Sara Zarr’s Gem & Dixie is amazing.