Thursday, 30 August 2012

ARABESQUE and all things YA: Chatting with Colin Mulhern

Colin Mulhern

‘Sometimes, Amy, there's no prize for second place. Do you know what I mean?'
 can get you killed.’

Amy would look away with a disapproving scowl. She understood exactly what he meant: second best in certain situations meant being killed.

Second place won’t do for Amy May. She’s always been told to be the best, which is why, at the age of 15, she is an Olympic-standard gymnast. Those skills might come in handy when she and her best friend Mia are kidnapped by small-time crooks. Events become even more sinister when the kidnap goes wrong and the girls fall into far more dangerous hands. They are separated and soon Amy has to perform the most terrifying challenge of her life if she wants to save her friend.

After his brutal debut novel, CLASH, which showed an 11-year-old boy thrown into the world of cage-fighting, Colin Mulhern has produced another story that will thrill, shock and grip you right until the end. I was a bundle of nerves and mentalness throughout reading ARABESQUE – mainly because the events seemed so horribly real.

This week Colin and his editor at Catnip, Non Pratt, were in conversation about the new book, the previous book and many other books - mostly of the YA variety. Themes in ARABESQUE of shock, strength of character and a violent adult world led into some fascinating discussions about boundaries, censorship and what makes a novel YA.

A teen in the adult world

Amy and Mia are only 15, but the criminal life they become entangled in is a brutal and scary one. Colin said that for him what makes a story YA is when a young person is thrust into the adult world. This was the theme in CLASH, where Alex Crow is a child cage-fighter and is pushed to the limit not just by what he experiences in the ring, but from what he sees when the violence spills over into normal life.

My favourite thing about ARABESQUE was that we meet Amy and Mia in their everyday setting - the rundown school gym where they train together. Amy might be an incredible athlete, but we meet her bantering with her best friend like any other 15-year-old. The two friends leave the gym and walk straight into the kidnapping. The increasingly frightening events that follow all develop from this time when things were normal and we can see how ordinary people are changed by extraordinary situations. 

Of course Amy is not your average teen. Her ex-military dad has trained her in combat and instilled in her a ruthlessly competitive streak. As a result the criminal mastermind, Mr Galloway, realises she might have an aptitude for crime. Mia on the other hand has always been in Amy's shadow. She lets her terror at the kidnapping show far more than Amy and her journey to showing the bravery she is capable of is a more difficult one. I related to Mia a lot more than Amy, who, with her dad's training, keeps her emotions heavily guarded. I was never sure what Amy was going to do next, especially as she starts off training as a thief to save Mia, but becomes gradually more attracted to the job. 

Colin noted that Mia in his mind went from being the sidekick to the central figure in the book and I felt that she did this in the book too. She begins in the background, following Amy around, but when the two are separated Mia’s own courage and confidence begin to shine through. 

Blood spots on the page

Reading ARABESQUE you might notice that the kidnappers and their associates don’t swear much for criminals. In fact they don’t swear at all. I don’t know if I would have noticed, because while I was reading the book I saw a link to Colin’s website to a discussion he’s taking part in on swearing in children’s literature. On the link he said that he’d taken all of the swearing out of ARABESQUE at the last minute.

When I asked him, Colin explained that there is a moment in CLASH when the book’s other main character, quiet, arty Kyle, swears at Alex. He then immediately freezes in panic because he’s just sworn at the school psycho. Moments like that, Colin said, have an effect if they are isolated – the reader has not become numb to it and the word or scene shocks them. He likened it to a spot of blood falling on page, standing out against the white space around it.

In ARABESQUE if there was some swearing, it would only make sense that there was swearing throughout and so in order to isolate the shocks, it was taken out. When he said this I realised that the bits of the book that really imprinted on my mind were exactly those isolated moments. There is a particular incident near the beginning where one of the kidnappers makes a threat that is completely heart-stopping – if up until then you had thought the kidnappers were dim and not that frightening then that single blood spot in the page changes everything. 

Giving the option

Talking about shocks, violence and effectively placed swear words led to discussion of what is appropriate in a teen novel. With Colin experimenting with how much a young protagonist can take, should we in turn ask how much the young reader can deal with? His editor Non pointed out that swearing easier to spot. You could count the bad words, if you enjoy that sort of thing, and have a warning on the cover. For something like violence you have to actually read the book to work out if the content is ‘too much’. And even then how do you judge? A scene of out-and-out gore could be less upsetting than a whole story where violence remains an unarticulated threat.

Non put it best, in my opinion, when she made the point the reader will self-censor. If they are not mature enough to understand something then details will go over their head and they will likely to be bored by those bits of the book. It they do understand what’s going on, then the book offers them the chance to explore and think about it. There are details in ARABESQUE about the place that Mia is being kept hostage that for some readers will add to the picture of what goes on there, but that some readers will miss. It was decided to keep them in, Colin and Non said, so that the reader was given the option.

The End

Well I couldn’t possibly comment on the ending of ARABESQUE. You’ll just have to read it, won’t you? But we did talk about endings in general and Colin told us how he is usually unsatisfied with endings in which all the loose ends are tied up. He called them ‘Diagnosis Murder endings’, when they’ve solved the case, someone makes a clever quip, all the characters laugh and then the screen freezes. He said he prefers a book that ends suddenly in the middle of the

Do you see what I did there?


Some other posts you may like:

Author Sally Prue's guestpost on this blog about swearing in books
Non Pratt's recent post about censorship in YA
An interview with Colin Mulhern about his previous book CLASH in Armadillo Magazine 

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