Our first interview for the Week Of YA comes from Ayesha, who got to speak to author of The Bone Dragon, Alexia Casale. Here’s what she had to say…
What inspired you to write the Bone Dragon? A rib getting carved into a dragon is not something usual in a novel which is what adds to the charm of your book, was there something in particular which inspired you to write about this?
Once upon a time, shortly after my university finals, I went into hospital. When I woke up, my surgeon handed me a little plastic pot with a marigold-yellow lid and said, ‘Here. That’s your rib.’
I wasn’t expecting to be handed one of my own bones (it wasn’t the plan for the operation), and I was still doped up on the anaesthetic, so I looked blearily up at him and said, ‘If the Bible turns out to be true and God got all of womankind out of Adam’s rib, I’d better get something pretty amazing out of mine.’
The surgeon laughed and asked, ‘What would you want?’
‘I’m a writer,’ I told him with my best cross-eyed, drugged-up glare, as if he’d asked the dumbest question in history. ‘I want a book.’
And a book is what I got. So I guess there is something to having one of your own ribs to hand.
But just in case anyone’s read the book and is now *very* worried, I’d better state for the record that it’s not autobiographical. Evie’s rib came from mine, but her story is her own.
What moral stories or principles would you say there are in this book?
It’s very important to me as a reader – and by extension, as an author – that books don’t tell me what to think, feel and believe. The best books leave room for readers to determine those things for themselves. While lots of moral issues and principles are explored in the book – including the notion of justice versus the workings of the criminal justice system and the differences between justice and revenge – I tried to ask questions rather than offer answers… not least because these are such thorny issues I don’t think *anyone* has the answers yet.
If the books ‘says’ anything in this sense, it’s that the ‘one size fits all’ approach of the law only works for some cases – which is not to suggest there’s a better alternative but rather that it’s important that people in the criminal justice system use discretion where possible: for instance, Evie talks about how traumatic the experience of giving a police statement was and how insensitive she felt the officer taking her statement was. Police training has developed hugely over the last decade and there is now a much, much higher change of victims engaging with officers who are trained to be sensitive in the way they carry out their duties. But as the news shows, the training hasn’t infiltrated all parts of the police service and some victims still get very shoddy treatment indeed, often from officers who makes simplistic assumptions instead of using their discretion to appreciate the nuances of individual situations. But even that is as much question as anything, asking the reader to think about what the police can and should do to make the experience of reporting violence less traumatic.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors to influence them to write books?
Read as much and as widely as you can – and get writing! Just don’t expect to write well when you start out. Prepare to write 1 million shoddy words before you begin to produce anything remotely publishable. If you’re not willing to write 1 million practice words, then adjust your expectations and enjoy writing for pleasure rather than to be published. If you are prepared to practice, and then practice some more, cut yourself some slack during your first 1 million words of fiction. It’s fine if they aren’t very good. That’s the whole point. Just keep trying to get better. And eventually you will. Partly by writing, but also by reading… and taking advantage of all the brilliant opportunities that are opening up to talk to other readers and writers, including events like YALC and UK Extravaganza and YA Shot… and also all the online things like blogs and UKYAchat, which are not just fun but really useful for anyone who wants to be involved in books, whether as a reader, writer or future publishing editor.
What made you think of such unusual ideas such as Evie keeping her shattered ribs a secret?
This is actually incredibly common. Children who are victims of serious violence are often not given a chance to tell anyone about their injuries until after they’ve healed or, as in Evie’s case, seem to have healed. They may also be too frightened of the consequences to speak out. Or they may not have the words. Evie is so traumatized that she never actually tells anyone (except the police) what happened to her. She never tells her beloved adopted parents, her favourite teacher, or her Uncle Ben, or her friends…
For Evie, her one experience of speaking out with the police was necessary but incredibly traumatic and she’s decided that it’s more harmful for her to speak in detail about what she went through than keeping silent. That’s why she couldn’t even bring herself to hint about her broken ribs for so long. Like so many other children in her position, she didn’t really know how to do this without believing it would make her situation worse. She was taught to keep her injuries a secret and it’s a lesson she never fully manages to unlearn.
Yet, despite that, she *does* finally manage to tell Amy, her adopted mother, just enough that she gets the medical help she needed. And, by the time the book starts, she is on a path to physical recovery. In that sense, the book is about the fact that it’s not always possible to ‘get over’ something… but if you can get passed it so it’s not ruling your life, maybe that’s enough. It may even be more than enough for happiness and for life to move forwards. Ultimately, that’s what The Bone Dragon is about: Evie doing what she believes she needs to in to move forwards with her life and be happy.
What made you choose to mix thriller into a fairytale genre? The narrative becomes increasingly unreliable and therefore confuses the reader. Why did you choose to do this in your book?
These questions sort of answer each other. I mixed genres because I knew Evie was going to be an unreliable narrator… though maybe that term is technically correct but not accurate in relation to Evie. Evie doesn’t tell the reader any lies: she just tells her own version of the truth – the truth she chooses to believe in. Truth is far more subjective than we tend to consider it. The truth of an event can be different for different people – or even over time for the same person. The truth is more than fact and even those can subject to interpretation. One of the themes of The Bone Dragon is the importance of the imagination for transforming reality when we can’t cope with it.
Blending genres also lets me offer questions I couldn’t otherwise present. What can and does and should happen when the criminal justice system fails? What are the alternatives? What do these alternatives mean for individuals? And where does that leave society? Some of those questions play out in the book, and some are raised but remain unanswered. Ultimately, the book offers a way forwards for the characters that represents an ending they can live with and perhaps live with happily. However, in order for them to get their happy ending, there’s a gap between reality and what is possible in the normal world – a gap that has to be filled. Evie fills it with a Dragon. One of the big questions the book asks is what would she do – and what do we do in the normal cause of events – without Dragons? How do we create an ending we can live with happily when terrible things happen? Is there an answer, or is the only answer somewhere beyond the normal world in the place where there be Dragosns?
What was your main intention when you started writing about Evie? How did you want her to appear to the reader?
This is a really tough question for me because, as I say above, I try not to tell readers what to think, feel and believe. I don’t like that as a reader, so I try not to do it as a writer! I guess if there was one thing I wanted to convey it was Evie’s inconsistency. Like many damaged children (and adults!), Evie is lots of conflicting things. One moment she has incredibly deep empathy and sympathy (as in her dealings with Lynne and Phee), but the next she can be cruel and entirely blind to other’s intentions and emotions (as in her dealings with Sonny Rawlings). Similarly, one minute she’s extraordinarily mature, but the next you see she’s developmentally stunted in some areas: unlike her friends, she is not willing to talk or think about anything to do with sex or being attracted to other people. She also struggles to understand how to help the people she loves.
This issue of inconsistency is rarely discussed but is so important. When dealing with children who’ve had terrible experiences, people need to understand that maturity in one area cannot be treated as a general mark of maturity. It’s important to look out for the areas where these children and young people are struggling and help them bridge the gap so that they can be kind as often as possible and they can learn the things they’ve not been able to. Critically, though, it’s an important lesson in terms of patience: you can’t assume things about traumatized children. You need to watch carefully and be ready to patiently lend a helping hand over the most unexpected problems – like Evie’s issue with dropping the glass at Phee’s party and becoming hysterical: it’s just as well no one tells her to ‘stop being stupid and pull herself together’, but this apparently over-the-top reaction might well elicit that response. And that would be damage on top of damage for someone like Evie. So to the extent I ‘say’ anything about Evie it’s that, like many other children in her position, everything with her is complicated, for better and for worse, and that is the key to understanding and loving her. Of course, that’s true of all children but for children like Evie it’s true to a greater and more important degree.
Looking back at your writing process for this book, what would you say was the most difficult part and why?
Not knowing I would ever be published! I’d been trying for a while, and I’d written more than 1 million practice words, so I decided that if The Bone Dragon wasn’t published I’d have to give up the idea of writing for a living. But it did get published. And now I get to write as part of what I do to earn a living – and it’s even more wonderful than I thought it would be!
This is a story of a young girl seeking power and strength due to her awful past experiences and thus turns to her ‘Bone Dragon’ for help. Why did you choose a dragon out of all other creatures to represent inner strength and power?
I can’t answer this without spoilers for the end of the book! Suffice it to say that the Dragon can offer Evie something most other creatures – real or mythical – can’t. A related issue is that the Dragon has a lot in common with the fire demon, Calcifer, in Howl’s Moving Castle, Evie’s favourite audiobook, which she is listening to during the period she carves the Dragon and makes her fateful wish. Howl’s Moving Castle, and the fact that it is such an important part of Evie’s current daydreams, play a huge but silent role in how she reacts to the Dragon and what she expects of it.
But a little bit of the reason is that although ‘a book’ was top of the list for what I’d wish my rib to turn into, the next item on the list would definitely be a Dragon.