Keren David and I have tried to meet up several times. Finally she has an event at a local school, and we decide that she will come to my house for a cup of tea afterwards. For such a nice woman she is a little intimidating, simply because she has written some terrifyingly good books. And before she arrives I check out Keren’s website again, and come to the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing left to ask her. She has put everything on her site. I suspect this is what happens when people do their own; they put it all in, including all those FAQs.
Keren laughs when I point this out to her. ‘I also think it’s being a journalist. It’s like my little magazine about me.’
‘Yeah, it’s quite clear you know what you’re doing.’
‘All that self promotion thing – though it’s very against the grain as it were – once I started doing it I really enjoyed it. I see it as a kind of extension of journalism. That element has been easy. Time consuming, but not too bad.’
‘I was thinking of the way you’re racing through writing those books…’
She laughs. ‘I’m going to crash and burn quite soon, I think. I’ve got an end of August deadline for the book I’m writing at the moment. I’m already thinking it’s too tight, but then I also think I work best with deadlines. If you’ve spent a whole career working for newspapers, and you know if you don’t do the work, there will be a horribly big blank space in the paper the next day.’
‘You can’t very well save it for next week.’
Keren has just told me she has rewritten her latest book four times in a month. ‘That is pretty quick. Are there any writers in your family background?’
‘Not my parents. They are both scientists. My dad trained as a textile chemist and my mum was a radiographer, although then she had a second career as a guitar teacher. Both retired now. No writers at all in the family. My sister’s sister-in-law – so not related to me – was Melissa Nathan who wrote several really good chicklit novels. She was a journalist and then she started writing novels and was very successful. And then she died when she was 37. I think this was part of what made me get on with it. She was so young but she’s left something very tangible behind her, and you can pick up her books and hear her voice. It made me think “what are you waiting for? If you want to do this you need to get on and do it.” Life can be shorter than you think.’
We talk a little about Keren’s 11-year-old son who started blogging about books last year.
‘He has slightly given up, he was very self-conscious about it. He reads well, and hopefully he will come back to it at some point. He’s good at reviewing, and it was good for him to think critically. And then he got more interested in writing for himself. He won’t read my book, partly because he’s a bit young, and partly because I wrote it. His older sister takes ownership of my books.’
‘Ever since I first came into contact with you, I’ve been quite aware of your religion.’ Keren laughs. ‘It’s interesting, as with most people you don’t actually know.’
‘But for you it’s obviously important.’
‘I’m not really very religious, but it’s part of my identity.’
‘How come you didn’t make Ty (in When I Was Joe) Jewish?’
‘If he’d been Jewish that would have taken over the book. It would be about his Jewish identity. I didn’t want that. And then I made him a Roman Catholic because I wanted him to go to a school that was not in-area.’
‘My husband said “who’d have thought you’d be writing Catholic novels?” It was interesting to think how his religion affected him. I never wanted to be a “Jewish writer”. In Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery (Keren’s next book, out in August) her best friend is Muslim, so it sounds like I’m working my way through religions,’ she laughs. ‘Where I grew up I was the only Jewish girl in my class. We went to a very little synagogue, and I honestly thought that all the rest of the Jews had been killed and that these were all that were left.
‘You could obviously have made the book non-religious, apart from your need for a school.’
‘Roman Catholicism touched on a lot of the book’s themes – guilt, for example, and sin. Even stigmata. But not in a heavy way! Funnily enough the third one in the series which I’m writing now, may have a Jewish character in it.’
‘Is it still about Ty?’
‘His cousin is the narrator, so it’s pretty much his book, his story. But there will be lots of mentions of Ty, because Arron has never had a chance to tell his story and the stories kind of weave together, but it’s a different narrator and different angle. I thought having done two books from an internal voice, it’d be interesting to see him from the outside. One of the things about Ty is he’s constantly being misinterpreted, so if you get someone’s view from the outside, especially a cousin who’s sort of looking up to him a bit, it could be quite interesting.’
‘I like Archie. Stealing his mother’s credit cards.’
‘Well, he’s a naughty boy, and he’s quite funny.’
‘I started writing Almost True, mostly to entertain myself while I was sending out When I Was Joe to agents, because it’s such a horrible process. I took the first five chapters to my writing group. They said “yeah, you know, it’s interesting. There’s something wrong with it, but we don’t know what it is…”
And then I was talking to Amanda Swift, the children’s writer, who facilitates our group. She said “the thing about children’s books is that they need other children, children always need other children to balance it,” and I thought that is what is wrong and went home and rewrote it and introduced Archie as someone for Ty to bounce off. All he was going to be was this annoying spoilt boy, and I had a lot of fun creating him. And then my daughter really liked him; she said “bring him back, more Archie, more”, so he kept on coming back. So he had a much bigger part than intended, and now he’s taken over the next book.’
‘He’s a charming character.’
‘He’s bouncy, that’s the main thing. And he’s the opposite to Ty, because Ty is all thinking whereas Archie is all talk.’ Keren laughs.
‘Thinking about Reddish Vale, the school you visited today; you have a lot of boy readers don’t you?’
‘The letters I get are pretty much even. A lot of boys who say “I never used to read until I read your book, and I enjoyed it.” On the one hand I think this is great. On the other hand I think I’ve chosen the world’s most difficult market, which is teenage boys who don’t read. To try and actually get to the point where they do read and find out they enjoy it, I think is an absolute triumph. But I get a lot of girls, and they like Claire and identify with her, and that’s nice, because I wrote it for me; what I’d have wanted when I was 13.’
‘Ty is nice looking, he’s a good athlete, he’s got the languages, he’s almost too perfect…’
‘Well, I think he’s very flawed, and he’s not that bright. There’s a slightly inflated view of how perfect he is, because he is a little bit more striking, a little bit older and and he gets off on the confidence. In Almost True he’s screwing up the whole time, and also his looks are going.’
We laugh at poor Ty. ‘His hair is all different colours, but I think people feel sorry for him, and can empathise with him. I don’t think you want him to be so perfect. I think he thinks he’s better at languages than he really is.’
‘At first I thought he was simply making it all up, but opening the book at random I found him whispering all these ridiculous Turkish words into the ears of that girl, and her believing it’s words of love.’
Keren laughs. ‘He’s a mimic, really. He mimics lots of things, rather than actually being able to hold a conversation in Turkish or whatever. He’s a big show-off, you know. I’ll probably take him down a peg or two.’
‘Do you get a lot of fans writing to you? Do you have time for them?’
‘Oh, yes. Because I’m pretty new to it all, it’s so exciting, and I always write back. For someone’s who’s only been published a year, it’s a very nice thing.’
‘It’s good that they feel strongly enough that they want to sit down and write.’
‘When I think back – and I loved reading – it never ever occurred to me to write to an author. And that a person has taken the time to find out what my email address is, it’s really nice.’
‘One thing that strikes me about your books is that they don’t ever manage to get boring. You keep going from one thing to the next. You race through, and it’s one thing after another.’
‘Yeah, I think that’s just me. I get bored really easily, so I need to keep myself interested. My first idea for the book was for it to be one of these long thoughtful, introspective things. I got about two chapters in and I couldn’t sustain all that philosophical, thoughtful stuff without having some action. I put in plot twists to keep myself going. I do like writing dialogue and left to my own devices the whole thing would be a series of people just sitting talking. So I had to put in action to stop it being about people talking.
I had hardly read any teenage books then, and I just plunged straight in. I am a newspaper journalist, not used to having space to do long descriptions, or anything like that, just tell the story and pack it all into small elements. And also living in Holland. Dutch literature has the shortest sentences ever, with multilayers to it. That’s really what I was going for…’
‘Did you read much in Holland?’
‘I did. My Dutch isn’t very good, but I tried to read as much in translation as I could. I wanted to get a feel of the culture, you know, through literature and through language and it’s quite frustrating. I really admire you for coming and engaging with English literature, because in Holland I was always a foreigner and a stranger.
One of the most memorable things we did in Holland was going to the Dickens society in Haarlem. They have this fabulous dinner, and the guests read Dickens to each other and give speeches and I was so impressed and inspired by how much they were all in love with Dickens. I thought why don’t we do things like this, with Tolstoy?’
‘What took you to Holland?’
‘My husband’s job, he got a job and he said “let’s go to Holland. We’ll go for two years.” So I went kicking and screaming, and we stayed for eight years.’
‘A bit longer than we thought. The first four years were hard, but the second four years were great, so I’m glad we stayed eight years, or I would have looked back and said it was really hard and tough. Whereas having found it tough and then making a go of it and actually enjoying it, gave me lots of self-confidence. It sounds pathetic because Amsterdam is such a lovely place.’ Keren laughs apologetically. ‘To say I went and I suffered…’
‘No it doesn’t.’
‘It was hard.’
‘But I’ve done this too, and I knew England well and it’s still not the same when you actually come “for real”, so I understand what you’re saying.’
‘Coming home and then feeling like a foreigner in your own country is strange. That’s when I wrote When I Was Joe. You’re really aware of all the things that are different and you’re observing things and thinking “well if I’d lived here all my life I’d have taken that for granted,” but now I can see how strange it is. Frustrated by things like how in London you can travel for forty minutes to school.
‘Yes. It’s good to learn about somewhere else, that things are different.’
‘And then you start looking at stuff you do take for granted and you question absolutely everything and you realise how narrowly you’d been looking at things, and I think that was really valuable. But hard,’ she says with a rueful laugh. ‘I fought it for years. And I think it’s harder to be the trailing spouse because you’re not going for your own reasons.’
‘That all goes into Joe’s mum. She’s not in the witness protection for anything to do with herself, and it’s much harder for her. Also, she’s imagining gangsters turning up, whereas he pretty much forgets it most of the time.’
I say that when people were talking about Keren’s Branford Boase nomination on facebook, I couldn’t find anything official at the time, so wasn’t sure when it would be.
‘The longlist is up, I’m not sure when they do the shortlist. And it’s really nice to be on the Carnegie longlist. It’s amazing. And I’m on quite a few shortlists regionally.’
‘Yes, like the Lancashire Book Award.’
‘Yes, and the Northeast one, which I won, and Redbridge.’
‘Will you be coming to Preston for the Lancashire award?’
‘Yes, it sounds like it’s a really good event, and they tell you beforehand who’s won, which is nice.’
‘You deserve to be on the shortlist.’
‘There are so many books out there. I’m not complaining. It’s such a friendly world, encouraging and nice and open. I don’t feel it’s been hard to get to know people at all. People have welcomed me with open arms. It’s been marvellous, and especially good for me after eight years in exile. Once I had a publishing deal I thought it’d be nice to get to know people. My blog, facebook, things like that. I was quite surprised how easy that was to do, and everyone was so lovely.’
‘People do seem to be very supportive of each other.’
In order to avoid our conversation turning too sweet and sugary I turn off the recorder and we settle down to more toasted teacakes and a rather more varied discussion of the book world. Which is very nice.
And when Keren has to leave to get to the Wirral ‘before sundown’, we walk over to the railway station behind my house. I believe I have almost stopped feeling intimidated by her writing skills.
(All photos by Helen Giles)