Book Awards: the Young Adult finalists

As part of our coverage of this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, we asked the five finalists of the Copyright Licensing NZ Award for Young Adult Fiction to interview each other. Here’s Erin Donohue, Eileen Merriman, Cally Black, Mary-anne Scott and Gareth Ward on titles, inspiration and why they write YA. 



Erin Donohue: Why have you chosen to write Young Adult rather than another genre?

Eileen Merriman: I find adolescence such a fascinating transition period, with so many changes going on, both physically and emotionally. I haven’t forgotten what it was like, and find that writing in this genre comes naturally to me. Ultimately, I like to feel as though I’ve reached out and touched my readers in some way – to show them that they aren’t alone, and that it is possible to push through times of darkness.

Cally Black: I love to write fiction focussed on the future. I think young people are incredibly interested, and often worried, about the future, so this age group and the science fiction genre naturally go together in my mind. Young adults are people who are trying to figure out who they are, where they fit in, and what they’ll do with their lives. They’re open-minded, intelligent, and uncorrupted by the thousands of compromises adults have had to make in their lives. My characters usually are too. Also I love reading about young people finding their way in the world, YA books and other books with young protagonists. I think because they’re not yet part of the adult world/rat race, their observations are so much keener.

Mary-anne Scott: When I began writing Snakes and Ladders back in 2009, I had four sons ranging in age from 14 to 22. Creating a fictional teenage boy helped me make sense of the chaos, and a new world opened up for me. I’m still here because I like the pace, the dialogue and the humour of this genre and I like the contact with young adults that writing for them brings. However, it’s similar to taking a job in a new town: no matter how much I love the topography, I want to look around at other places, perhaps the picture-book town.

Gareth Ward: I think my love of YA came about when my children were in their teens. I would buy them books and read them first to check the content was appropriate. There can be a big difference between a book written for a 13-year-old and that aimed at an older teen. The genre quickly hooked me. YA novels tend to be fast-paced and high-interest; they get into the story, get the job done, and get back out again without any messing about, and that appeals to me.

Eileen Merriman: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block, and what are your strategies to overcome this?

Erin Donohue: I don’t know if I suffer from writer’s block. Maybe Writer’s Procrastination. Or Writer’s Paralysing Anxiety. I find it hard to get into a writing routine. Once I’m there, I can’t get out. I live my novel – it’s all I think about and it’s all I work on. It’s when I’m my happiest. But getting to this place? Almost impossible! I suffer from the good old if I don’t start it, I can’t get it wrong. For me, getting out of that place is about admitting defeat and accepting the writing, regardless of quality. Then I can build from there.

Cally Black: If I don’t have the voice of the viewpoint character working for me, I lose the drive. Then I’ll read for a while, try to figure out who this person is. Once I have the voice working, then I write like mad… I write myself up blind alleys, get mugged by irrelevant details and plot derailments and crawl, wounded, back to the crossroads and set off again in a different direction… I waste lots of time doing this, but if the voice is strong, I’ll usually find the right path again. Endings will pull me to a halt again. Because I’m so mean to my characters I don’t always know how to save them. Generally, I write an ending, think, write another, think, write another, until I hit on one I like. Then my editor will probably tell me to write another!

Mary-anne Scott: If I don’t write regularly, I lose the thread, I fall out of love with my characters and the story grinds to a halt. It takes a real effort to find my way back again. But even if things are going well, I can stumble and stop some days. I’m a keen walker so it helps if I get out alone and walk in a place where I can talk to the missing characters and haul them back to the story. Interestingly, the less time I have to write, the more I get done, and these days I have more time…

Gareth Ward: I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I endeavour to write 500 words every day and so insist on putting pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard, to be more precise. If I’m struggling, I start writing anything and that gets the ideas flowing. I don’t care at this stage that it’s far from perfect; I’m going to go back and edit many times anyway. If I’m ever stuck on a particular plot point then I take our dog, Tonks (yes, named after the Harry Potter character) for a walk, and her boundless enthusiasm for life seems to inspire me.

Cally Black: How much did you draw on your own life and experiences when creating your main protagonist?

Erin Donohue: Caleb is me, or at least a large chunk of me. When I wrote this novel, it was a way to write of my experience with mental illness and the horrors of high school, without writing myself into it. It allowed distance between me and my story and, at that point, that’s what I needed. In saying that, as the story grew, Caleb grew into himself. He became a person who was gentle and pissed off and loving and scared. He was entirely his own. Seeing this, and having others see it too, made me feel like a writer. I was no longer journalling. I was writing a story. I was writing a book.

Eileen Merriman: In Catch Me When You Fall, 17-year-old Alex battles with relapsed acute leukaemia. I completed most of my haematology training in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Christchurch Hospital, and during that time treated many adolescents (albeit from the other side of the bed!). It’s bad enough facing a life-threatening illness at any age, butto throw in loss of hair, mouth ulcers, and months of isolation when teenagers are already going through so many changes is just cruel. Despite all that, I saw many such adolescents face their battle with such strength and humour. This also influenced some of the decisions Alex made, whether right or wrong. The small things cease to matter when you suddenly realise that your life may be much shorter than you thought.

Mary-anne Scott: I draw on my own life and experiences quite a bit; not so much with the main protagonists, as they’ve been teenage boys, but with the tone of the families. Sometimes, I’m tempted to give the ‘mother’ cleverer, wiser words than I ever mastered in a crisis. But when I wrote Sticking with Pigs I drew on the occasions I’d been out of my depth, wanting to quit, or just plain terrified, and I found those emotions transferred to any age or stage.

Gareth Ward: A key element of my protagonist’s character arc is that he was abandoned as a baby. His only clue as to why is a torn photo he has of a lady he believes to be his mother. Part of his journey is the unravelling of what happened. Although I was in my late-twenties when my mother unexpectedly died, I still felt that this was far too young and so I guess this element of the story is perhaps an echo of my grief. This wasn’t an intentional decision, and to be honest it’s only just struck me that this might be the case.

Mary-anne Scott: How did you come about the title for your novel? Was it your choice or the publisher’s?

Erin Donohue: This novel has had a few different titles. The first was once the title of an angsty poem I wrote as a 16-year-old that I managed to sneak into a line in the manuscript. This title had mixed feedback and so it changed a few times at different stages of manuscript’s life. When I first sent it to my publisher, I settled on the title Because Everything Is Right but Everything Is Wrong. The title was, of course, a point of discussion, but I stood up for it. The title had grown on me and I wanted it to stick. I liked its length, its intrigue, the way it started with the word ‘because’. I liked what it said about the story and Caleb and his experience with mental health. I liked it so much I think I made everyone else like it too.

Eileen Merriman: My novel was originally titled Schrödinger’s cat, which features in the novel, but it was thought this would give potential readers the wrong impression. It was my good friend and critique partner, Nod Ghosh, who came up with Catch Me When You Fall. As soon as my publisher saw that, she said, Yes, we have our title! It really does fit, as both Alex and her boyfriend, Jamie, each learn that they need to draw strength from the other in order to face their demons.

Cally Black: It was something I suggested, one of 50,000 titles I suggested. I’m rubbish at titles. For so long, I called it The Translator, which is pretty boring but accurate. In the Dark Spaces works because it’s where Tamara lives her life initially, hiding out on a freighter, spying on the crew, and then she’s dragged off into Dark Space. It was ultimately my editor and marketing who approved the title. I wouldn’t dare choose one on my own. Have you noticed all the best books have one word titles or full sentence titles? It’s really hard to do that!

Gareth Ward: The original title of the manuscript that won the Tessa Duder Award was The Sin Chronicles – New Blood. I thought this was jolly clever because my hero, Sin, is recruited as ‘New Blood’ to a spy organisation, while there is also a sub-plot about the development of a new type of blood to make super-soldiers. My publisher said that New Blood made it sound like a vampire story and so we looked for an alternative. Many suggestions were batted back and forth and my editor ended up coming up with the title, The Traitor and the Thief, which I must say I am delighted with.

Gareth Ward: I love editing, but I know that many authors hate it. What is your favourite part of the writing process?

Erin Donohue: For me, editing and rewriting is where the magic happens. The first draft is a hard slog. It’s about getting something (anything!) down. Getting something that vaguely looks like a story into some kind of shape. Usually it’s a mess. It has bones, and sometimes good bones, but still only bones. The first draft is my least favourite part. The rewriting is where I focus on the words. How they sound, what they look like, how to make them surprising and unexpected, even to me. This is where I find the intricate and exciting plot points. Where the story unfolds and grows and becomes what it’s supposed to be. The only reason I write is so I can rewrite.

Eileen Merriman: I don’t mind editing, but it’s not the favourite part of the writing process for me. I particularly enjoy creating the first draft – I love the dreaming that goes with it. When I’m deep into a novel, I think of it when I go to sleep, and when I wake up – I can’t leave it alone! Once my first draft is complete, I find it very hard to set it aside for weeks or months, as many authors recommend. I wish I could, but once I’ve started a project, then I keep chipping away at it until it’s finished. Of course, then I send it to my publisher and that’s where the fresh pair of eyes come in, and the inevitable editing.

Cally Black: I love the initial creating, living in the story and exploring its potential. I particularly like it when I write something in a strong voice, or that explores an important theme, or that’ll make the reader connect or be surprised, or even some witty dialogue. Those moments when you think, ‘Ooh! Look what I did there!’ I can’t believe you like editing, Gareth. Sometimes when a publisher asks me to change too much in a scene, I throw the scene out and start again. It’s more like creating that way and less like editing. I feel like I’m chopping up the flow and the honesty of a scene if I change it too much. I do appreciate the editing process though. I really need it!

Mary-anne Scott: I love the chat. I’ve been an eavesdropper since I was a young child, when I used to squeeze into the hall cupboard by our telephone. There’s something fascinating about overhearing conversations; I know it’s not something to be proud of. When my sons used to sit at our kitchen bench chatting to their mates, they’d scarcely notice me if I armed myself with an onion, a chopping board and a knife. A furrowed brow of concentration threw them off the scent if they bothered to glance over at all. So dialogue is my favourite part of writing and I love the way it can surprise. Even I’m surprised at the things my characters may come out with.

Because Everything is Right but Everything is Wrong

By Erin Donohue 

Published by Escalator Press


Catch Me When You Fall

By Eileen Merriman

Published by Penguin Random House


In the Dark Spaces

By Cally Black

Published by Hardie Grant Egmont


Sticking with Pigs

By Mary-anne Scott

Published by OneTree House


The Traitor and the Thief

By Gareth Ward 

Published by Walker Books


The Non-Fiction finalists get the publisher treatment

The Wright Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction finalists answer some Sapling questions

The Russell Clark Award for Illustration finalist titles give us some samplings

Quiz: The 2018 Book Award for Children & Young Adults