YA or not YA? That is the question!
I’m so grateful to Stephanie for having me here today where I can reach out to readers on this side of the Atlantic, and to the YA market. But is that where my book belongs? I’ve never been quite sure!
A Kettle of Fish is about a girl who uncovers secrets in her family’s past with some startling consequences for her and those around her. It was inspired – indirectly – by my childhood in Scotland (secret-free I’m happy to say!) I decided to make the setting and the heroine contemporary but I wanted to reflect the atmosphere of small-town life, and in particular how scandals that took place were rarely talked about openly. What would it have been like to be embroiled in one of these whilst growing up? Originally there were to be two main characters – mother and daughter, and it was only after I decided to focus on the daughter that I realised the book might be seen as YA. The trouble was, I had never written for YA previously, nor had I read much of this genre. My instinct was to write for an adult market, and so that remained my target audience.When challenged on this I’ve always pointed out that novels with younger characters aren’t necessarily aimed at younger markets – I mean think of Lord of the Flies! –other ‘coming-of-age’ stories I’ve enjoyed recently have been Sadie Jones The Outcast and David Mitchell Black Swan Green. And from Catcher in the Rye onwards there must be loads of US examples (excuse my ignorance, please!)
But surely younger characters will attract younger readers, and so adult fiction of this kind will be snapped up by teenagers making their first adult fiction choices? (Which probably explains why Golding and Salinger are popular texts in schools. So if we have a book with a teenage heroine, what might make it ‘adult’ rather than YA writing?
I can say for a start that most of my readers felt the sex in my novel (not that there’s a lot of it, but it is a significant theme!) was a bit too explicit for parents and teachers to recommend it to teens. Is this an issue? I suppose it would be the case for younger and pre-teens, and surely older teens are reading adult fiction anyway? That was certainly the case in my day, when YA fiction did not, as I recall, exist as a separate category.
Shall we call A Kettle of Fish adult with YA crossover? I’d certainly be keen to hear from you what you think characterises YA fiction, and one of those days I’m going to recruit some teenagers to see what they make of it!
Excerpt from Chapter One of A Kettle of Fish by Ali Bacon
It’s hardly the distant past, but things were different then. In 2007 only the cool and arty were on MySpace. Facebook was barely a rumour. Life went on, for the most part, in the cliquey huddles of dim school corridors, around the draughty entrances to shopping precincts or, on special occasions, at the corner table in Hot Shots Italian Coffee Bar.
And this was a special occasion. From April we’d been counting down the days. Our last exam, our last sports day and finally, yesterday, our last last-day-of-term. School was officially over. Faye and I were ready for take-off.
Between us on the fake marble table was an entire lipstick collection; not the stub ends from our grubby make-up bags, but a complete new set of testers, the cases still gleaming, the colours ranked in order from palest pink to crimson, each tip chiselled to a sharp edge. I’d borrowed them from Mum’s Avon cupboard. She knew I borrowed things and I knew she knew. Back then, that’s how it was between us.
Faye was deep in concentration. I watched as her hand hovered, hesitated and dropped with hawk-like precision on number fourteen, Wicked Plum. She picked it up and twisted the end so that its waxy length was revealed. It was a good choice.
“Go for it,” I said.
She took out a heart-shaped mirror, drew a careful outline around her top lip and filled it in. Pressing her lips together to set the colour, she gave me an extravagant purple pout.
“What d’ye think?”
“Nice,” I said. It was. Dead nice. Dead Faye. “You should wear it. Tomorrow.”
I nodded. Tomorrow Faye’s dad was driving us to a summer camp in the Highlands where we’d be paid to round up kids and keep them out of trouble. We’d be away from home for six whole weeks. And after that, there was uni.
Faye leaned forward, peering at my own mouth. “What’s yours?”
Suddenly, Sugar Ice felt like a cop-out. Okay for meeting Faye to celebrate the end of school, but not for the start of the rest of my life. The lipsticks stood erect in their black plastic caddy like rockets on a launch pad. Before I could change my mind, I made a grab for Faye’s mirror, and obliterated the pearly pink undercoat with a manic layer of Showstopper Red.
“Get you!” Faye hooted. “Hot or what?”
Behind me, the outside door swished open. Faye, facing the street, gave me a kick under the table. I scooped the lipstick collection into my canvas bag just as Laura Patterson sauntered in. It would have made her day to have spotted me doling out Avon booty when her gang could afford the big brands.
Laura was at the head of a three-girl posse. “Hi, Faye, hi Ailsa!” She swanned past, swinging a carrier bag, its upmarket logo in full view. At the counter she nudged the girl next to her in an exaggerated way. Their heads inclined towards each other. Over the whoosh and gurgle of the milk steamer, the words “Ailsa Robertson” and “saddo” were clearly audible, followed by muffled laughter.
Faye was watching them. She fixed me with a look. “Pay no attention, Ails. It’s time we were out of here.”
This scene, this town, this life.
On the street outside, we did a high five then fell silent, contemplating our so-called High Street in the fag-end of a Saturday afternoon.
Faye said, “Come back to mine. Help me pack.”
I shook my head. “I said I’d get our tea. I’ll have to go up to Kingsgate for it.”
Faye rolled her eyes. “All right then. I’ll let you off. But remember, tomorrow I’m taking you away from all this.” And she gave me a push to send me on my way.
* * *
I was used to being in charge of tea, not to mention dinner and breakfast too. Mum wasn’t an invalid, but she suffered from allergies that varied with the season, or sometimes the day of the week. Sunlight usually made them worse. On a Thursday night, her pal Liz took her to do a weekly shop, but I did the rest. Even when it was cloudy like today, she preferred to be at home with a cupboard-full of pills and potions for company. She described her weird collection of ailments as ME, a convenient label that to most people signalled hypochondria – in other words, a head-case.
But that summer Mum was better, better than she had been for ages. And so I was going off with Faye, away from home at last. And if Laura was going to call me names, I really didn’t care. After today, there would be no more housework and no more running messages for six whole weeks, and so when Mum had said, “I fancy some fish for our tea, for a change,” I was surprised, but I didn’t argue.
I jogged past the string of estate agents and charity shops until I came to the fistful of concrete and glass that was Kingsgate shopping centre. Before I turned inside, I stopped to take in the view. From this corner, where the High Street became East Port and the New Row ran all the way down to the Nethertown, I could see the red triangles of the Forth Bridge poking above the Ferry Hills, and next to them the grey lattice towers of the road bridge. Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh looked only a stone’s throw away. In between and out of sight was the sea, or rather the estuary, where the silver links of the Forth emerged from valleys and mudflats to bump up against the choppy grey waters of the North Sea. That’s where the fish came from.
When Mum bought fish it came in a plastic tray, wrapped in film, or frozen into an unappetising brick. But when Dad took off and Mum fell ill, I had lived with Gran. Every week, Gran took a plate from her cupboard, a white one with a faded snowflake pattern, and sent me out to the fish van for “two haddock, not too big.” The van came from along the coast. The fish, when it was cooked, flaked open like the top of a lacy wave.
Gran preferred herring, but the herring had been stolen by greedy fishermen from other countries. Gran had been stolen too, struck down by a heart attack when I was twelve, but the plate had found its way into the kitchen cupboard at home, where it guarded its fishy inheritance like a seashell keeps its echo of the sea.
On a recent and more crucial shopping mission (new life, new wardrobe), I had spied two additions to the shopping centre. The Dunfermline Deli sounded like a contradiction in terms, but by now even the east of Scotland was experiencing a bit of a gastronomic renaissance. Next to the deli was a real live fishmonger’s shop. The sign above it read: Catch of the Day, then in smaller letters: brought to you by Mackay & Son, purveyors of quality fish and game.
The Mackays had always had a fish shop, and in the days when it was still in the High Street, Gran had taken me there. Not for the fish (“not as fresh as off the van”) but to call on her crony, Mrs Mackay. Mrs Mackay, with her pebble-thick specs and chest as big as any man’s, had scared me half to death. While she asked me how I was getting on at school, she folded her hands across her blue-and-white striped stomach and looked at me as if I were an undersized haddock that she might choose to save or toss back in the water. But old Mrs Mackay was long gone. As I drew level with the shop, I saw that the business had skipped a generation. Inside was her grandson, Ian Mackay, wiping down the counter with a damp cloth, very much alive.
About the book
A Kettle of Fish is a rollercoaster family drama set in Scotland and published by Thornberry Publishing .
Buy the Book
About the Author
Ali Bacon was born in Dunfermline in Scotland and graduated from St Andrews University. Her writing has been published in Scribble, The Yellow Room and a number of onlinemagazines. She was shortlisted for the A&C Black First Novel Competition 2006. She now lives near Bristol. A Kettle of Fish is her first published novel.