Joining us today for Death and Bereavement Week to talk about her debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, is authorAnnabel Pitcher.
Thank you, Annabel, for writing such a fantastic novel and letting me interview you for Death and Bereavement Week. How did you come up with the idea for My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece?
The idea came to me in a youth hostel in Ecuador, of all places! I was travelling with my husband and, having arrived in South America in the middle of the night, we were too jet lagged to sleep and a little nervous of venturing out of the hostel in the early hours. Instead, we went to the tiny TV room and found a pirate copy of a film about 9/11, which really affected me. The idea for Mantelpiece sort of fell into my head after that, that very night in fact! I started the novel in a notepad and wrote the rest of the book travelling round the world. It was a blissful existence!
Jamie has an incredibly authentic voice, and I fell head-over-heels over how adorable he is. How easy or difficult was it to get into the mind of a ten-year-old?
I found it incredibly easy. Jamie was so real to me – so three dimensional. I have a very strong memory of my own childhood and I have worked with young people in my adult life in various capacities, so it wasn’t difficult to create his voice. Very early in the first draft, I put ‘speech rules’ in place (for instance, Jamie speaks in a very matter-of-fact way, usually in short sentences, with little verb variation) and once I had those parameter in place, creating the rest of the character’s voice was easy.
There are some cleverly woven in issues in My Sister that the reader will understand a little more than Jamie, such as anorexia. Although Jamie doesn’t see the full seriousness of Jas not eating, the reader will, and adds more credibility to the story as we see everyone effected. Was it difficult to insert these issues so that the reader would notice them yet leave Jamie to his innocence?
That’s a good question! Yes, it was at times. I didn’t want Jamie to come across as stupid in any way, so I had to make the references subtle so that the reader could understand why Jamie might not pick up on them, but sufficiently strong for the reader themselves. It was a fine line, and one that took a couple of edits to perfect.
What research did you have to do for My Sister, if any?
There are two very different answers to that – very little and a lifetime’s worth! Very little because I didn’t feel the need to research anything that happens in the story, and a lifetime’s worth due to the fact I put absolutely everything into it, 28 years of knowledge and experience and everything that I’ve ever learned about life. It’s a book about human emotion, loss, love and family, so I wrote from the heart, drawing on my own and others’ experience, rather than looking up facts in books.
Why did you decide to write a story about bereavement for your debut?
I am fascinated by humans – their experiences, their stories, their emotions, their struggle to cope with the things life throws at them – and I suppose death and bereavement exaggerate all of this. However, the bereavement in the novel is very much the backdrop to what is (I hope) just an entertaining and moving story about all sorts of things – friendship, courage, coming of age, acceptance, bullying, love, the list goes on! I don’t see it as a book about bereavement. I see it as Jamie’s story, which just so happen to includes bereavement.
Not only does My Sister deal with bereavement, but also specifically with how terrorism can affect those left behind. Why did you decide to write a novel on the effects of terrorism? Was it hard to tell the story through the eyes of a ten-year-old?
It was important to me to write a contemporary story, set in a world young people recognise. I wasn’t interested in writing a fantasy, or a fluffy romance. I wanted my debut to be hard hitting and real. Terrorism, being such a contemporary issue that we’re all affected by in some way or other, enabled the story to become the raw, true-to-life one that I imagined.
What is your opinion on how YA novels deal with death and bereavement?
I don’t really feel qualified to answer that as I haven’t read a huge amount of YA novels about death and bereavement. However, the one book that qualifies is Before I Die by Jenny Downham, and I was in awe of the writer’s unflinching approach to cancer and grief. It captured the heartache and tragedy of the girl’s death without ever becoming sentimental. It is the most astonishingly real book – a huge triumph.
Were there any books you found dealt well with this topic when you were a teen?
Not really – and if there were, I didn’t tend to read them! I was always more interested in fantasy than I was in reading things that were too harrowing. I do remember Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume, but all I can recall is being gripped and moved by the story; I wouldn’t be able to say if the book dealt well with the topic.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thanks for having me and for your interest in the novel!
Thank you, Annabel, for such great answers! Be sure to check out Annabel's website. What do you think about what Annabel has said?