Thursday 9 July 2009

, , ,

Interview with Joanna Kenrick

Joanna Kenrick was lovely enough to put by some time to answer a few questions for us on her YA novel, Screwed.

How did you come with the idea for screwed?

It was when I was writing Red Tears, my novel for teenagers about self-harm, two years earlier. It struck me that some teens were using promiscuity as a form of self-harm too, and I was also surrounded by reports in the papers saying Britain still had the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe. I thought, ‘but if all these girls are getting pregnant, what about the ones that aren’t?’ And I also saw a programme about teenagers who were sleeping with each other at parties because they got drunk, and they didn’t see anything wrong with it – but at the same time they didn’t really seem to enjoy it much!

Your book deals with what I feel is one of the biggest problems for teenagers; casual sex without really getting what they’re doing. Did you find this a difficult story to write?

No, because I see it as like most other things teens indulge in without understanding the consequences – drugs, drink, dares on motorways. Casual sex is easy, available, and free. However, I should point out that my teenage years were NOT spent in endless one-night stands; far from it! So in that respect, yes, it was difficult to write because I had no personal experience. But I could imagine Marsha in my head, and so I just pretended I was her when I was writing the book.

I loved how you separated the sex scenes from the rest of the story, a visible way of showing how Marsha disconnected herself from sex. Was it important to you to show Marsha’s disconnection?

Yes, because I think a lot of people do disconnect. Sex in itself is quite a detached activity if you’re not emotionally involved. Most adults will admit to having sex they didn’t really enjoy, but they felt they ought to, or ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to refuse. The media often portrays sex as something all-encompassing; a passionate affair. When in fact, for many people, a lot of the time, it isn’t like that. Marsha is doing something she loves and hates at the same time: she loves the attention that sex gives her; the feeling that she is ‘special’ to someone – but at the same time she finds it somewhat disgusting, and she never seems to look back on the experiences with any pleasure. Like I said above, she’s doing it as a form of self-harm; a way to deal with feelings she has buried, but not in a positive, long-lasting way.

Although graphic, the sex scenes in Screwed don’t seem so bad as there is a lack of emotion and thinking through most of them; it makes them less shocking which is disturbing in itself. How did you come up with the style in which you wrote the sex scenes?

I’m glad you said that, because although I knew I was writing an ‘issue’ book about sex, I never wanted the sex scenes to be something teenagers would necessarily enjoy reading. The sex scene on page one was the first thing I wrote for the book, and it set the tone. I wanted Marsha to notice other things during the act, like the moon, or the sky, because as a woman you do tend to be looking up rather a lot… Curiously, the first draft of the book was written entirely in the present tense (which was what I used for Red Tears) but I then realised that it would work much better if I used present tense only for the sex scenes – it’s like the experience is very immediate but as though viewed from above. Marsha is almost seeing herself from the outside, rather than taking pleasure in her own body.

You covered some important topics brilliantly in my opinion, such as virginity and your first time through conversations with Beth and STDs through Marsha’s scare. How important did you feel it was to cover such subjects for teenage readers?

Very important. Sex is a complicated issue. Most teenagers are aware of the risk of pregnancy, but I saw a TV programme two years ago in which teenage boys went for STD tests. Their ignorance was terrifying. First time experiences are almost universally disappointing. A lot of young people have huge expectations of losing their virginity, and that in itself is a shame. Sex should be explained as something you can practise over a period of time within a relationship, not the mind-blowing orgasmic experience between strangers it so often is in the films.

Several people have said to me that they thought Beth was going to get pregnant after losing her virginity, and actually that did happen in an early draft of the book. But my editor very rightly pointed out that that subplot then started to detract from the main thrust of the story, which is Marsha and her relationship with Rich, along with her journey of self-discovery.

What is your view of the hook-up culture that has come about?

I think it’s an inevitable outcome of the current society. There are so many aspects that contribute to it though – the binge-drinking trend; the fact that so many children grow up in ‘broken’ families, where often they don’t see positive relationships around them; the lack of feeling part of a community; the dearth of sex education in schools – and of course the simple fact that teenagers will always rebel because that’s what being a teenager is all about. In a way I think it’s sad that a lot of young adults don’t value themselves and their bodies more highly. But on the other hand, I also think there is an over-reaction from many adults which doesn’t help the situation. Teenagers are always going to be curious about sex. That’s not the problem. The problem is when no one will talk to them about it!

What’s your opinion of how YA novels are dealing with the topic of sex?

I haven’t read very many that deal with it directly. But I think it’s good that more books are daring to deal with it as a topic. I think there need to be more stories that deal with the issue of sex itself, not just the one outcome of pregnancy (although that is very important).

Do you think there is a limit on what should be covered in YA novels?

Topic-wise, no. Absolutely not. BUT I do think authors should deal with the topics in a responsible way. Promiscuity should not be promoted as a good idea, for example. On the other hand, you have to be careful not to be too ‘preachy’. Kids can smell a moral a mile off, and they don’t like an obvious message, such as ‘sex is bad’. They know life isn’t that simple. We need to treat our readers with respect. They deserve good stories about real things and let them draw their own conclusions.

What books did you read as a teenager, and how well do you think they dealt with talking about sex?

Well, when I was a teenager, there wasn’t anything like the number of YA books there are now. It just wasn’t a booming market, though there were some books about sex – Judy Blume’s Forever, for example. But I didn’t come across it back then. Actually, what I read at the age of about fifteen or sixteen was Mills and Boon. Now there’s glorified sex for you! I thought them intensely romantic and exciting but even then, I knew the stories weren’t very realistic.

What do you think about parents not allowing their teenagers to read novels with a certain sexual content?

I think they are closing their eyes to a huge problem in this country. If so many teenagers are getting pregnant, then it stands to reason there are a lot of them having sex. Parents sometimes think they need to protect their teenage children against certain issues so that they don’t ‘get ideas’. And yet, by denying their kids access to those books, they are also making sure they’ll ‘get ideas’ from their friends at parties – which may not be the right ideas at all!

Anything else you wish to add/discuss?

I feel quite strongly that there should be a more comprehensive and universal programme of sex education for teenagers in this country. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘teenage pregnancy’ in the news, I always feel sad. Many teens make excellent parents, but nine times out of ten, the pregnancy was a mistake because they didn’t take precautions. That’s something we can fix, if only the people in charge were brave enough to tackle it.

I’d also like to add that ‘Screwed’ was not my choice of title. I wanted to go with ‘You Don’t Have To’ but the publishers felt that wasn’t punchy enough. I also wasn’t sure about the jacket cover, but it was felt that it would appeal to teenagers. I would be interested to hear what other people thought, particularly from teens themselves.

Thank you, Joanna, for an incredible interview! It was such a fascinating read! If you have any other questions for Joanna, she'll be popping by today to answer them, so get asking!


  1. Great questions, Jo! Love the interview :o) Thank you!

  2. That was a fascinating interview. Thanks so much to Jo and Jo! :)

    I'd love to ask Joanna Kenrick about her boy characters. I was really struck by how realistic they were - how a lot of their 'big talk' was fairly empty, and they were actually often scared, or full of hidden romantic feelings. Was it difficult to work out the boys' points of view, and did you deliberately set out to show that boys can often be as lost as girls in these situations?

  3. You're both welcome!

    Joanna has emailed me saying she's having a problem with her computer, and it wouldn't let her comment earlier. She'll try again later, but if not, she'll email me her answers, and I'll comment with them :)

  4. Hi, am using my husband's computer now so this is a test before I reply properly! Jo Kenrick

  5. hurrah!
    Right, firstly thank you so much to Jo for the stonkingly good review - I am really thrilled you enjoyed it so much!

    Luisa - hi! Good question and I'm so pleased you felt the boys were as 3d as the girls. I never really worried too much about the boys, since this was always a story about Marsha and Faith and Beth. But I was determined to challenge the stereotypical view that 'all boys are up for it'. There are plenty of boys who aren't ready to sleep around at the age of fifteen, and there are lots of boys who are secure enough in themselves to value the other parts of their lives.

    Will and Sanjeev I saw as very much secondary characters, but I was keen that Rich should come across as a really 'nice' boy - the sort of boy you could take home to meet your mother but also would treat you well, with respect. It occurred to me that a boy like that, whilst finding Marsha fascinating, would also find her rather intimidating. And I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if his family was churchgoing too - so Rich has a feeling of security because of his belief in something outside himself as well as good self-esteem.

    I am pleased with the character of Rich. I think he comes across as nice-boy-next-door without being too good to be true or unrealistic. I think he also makes a good counterfoil to Marsha, who is so used to being 'in your face'.

    Was it difficult to work out the boys' point of view? Hmm - well, Sanjeev and Will aren't fully developed, so I didn't have to delve into them. Rich's point of view - I just thought about my own life and the boys I came across growing up - and I have a younger brother, so there was a certain amount of personal experience of meeting 'nice but shy' boys as a teenager.

    But no, I didn't deliberately set out to show that boys can be as mixed up as girls. Primarily this was always Marsha's story.

    Best wishes
    Jo Kenrick

  6. Awesome answer Joanna, thanks! :)

  7. Yes, thank you very much for that comprehensive and very interesting answer!

  8. Okay, I'm definitely going to have to get this! Thanks for a brilliant interview :)

  9. That is so awesome! I'm so glad! :)

  10. A terrific interview both Jo's - thank you! I'm in the middle of reading 'Screwed' and I admire the stance you've taken Jo. It's not preachy, but it is moral, and would I imagine make a good discussion book in schools, youth groups etc if teachers, leaders had the courage to use it. I'd be interested to know what prompted you to start writing such gritty books for teens in the first place? (Sue Barrow)

  11. Hi Sue! It sort of just happened. My first published book was a picture book, and I'd had a fantasy teen novel rejected before that. So for a while I thought maybe I should write picture books, but unfortunately the next twenty stories all got turned down!!

    I went back to teenage fiction partly because I felt I could really get to grips with things and partly because I started reading more YA fiction. I was blown away by the sorts of books being published and what good stories they were telling in such a high quality way. I wrote two other teenage novels, one an adventure coming-of-age, and one science fiction and they were both turned down too!

    So I suppose I began to realise that perhaps I wasn't writing to my own strengths. I came across self-harm and thought it a fascinating issue. I was surprised there weren't any books for teenagers that dealt with it, so I started researching. And that's sort of it, really. I found I really enjoyed getting into people's heads, trying to work out how they dealt with their problems in such different ways and how it must FEEL to be someone else. I think emotional realism is vital in 'issue' books - well, in all books really, but especially if you're dealing with 'real life'.

    I got an agent on the strength of 'Red Tears' and she found me a publisher, though it took several months and about nine rejections! But she was so encouraging, and I'd found the whole process so rewarding, that I decided I wanted to do more 'gritty' fiction. I was also keen to tackle issues that adults won't talk about. When I was growing up, I had endless conversations with my mum about sex, relationships, bullying, stress - everything. But a lot of teens these days don't get that kind of helpful advice at home. I thought maybe novels could fill the gap - be entertaining and gripping but also provide thought-provoking experiences and ideas.

    I have tried writing fantasy again since, and I'm rubbish at it! Which is a shame in a way, because 'gritty' YA fiction is never going to make me a millionaire...sigh! But I suppose I feel for the moment it's something I'm good at and find rewarding.

    (I probably shouldn't mention it because it'll jinx it, but I am working on something else for teens at the moment that really is SO FAR from gritty as to be in the 'pink and fluffy' corner...and I'm quite enjoying it! *blushes*)

    Best wishes Jo

  12. Jo, don't be ashamed of 'pink and fluffy'! There's a reason it's my favourite genre - there's always so much more to it than meets the eye, even if not everyone sees it. And it is brilliant fun to write - and hopefully to read!

    Thanks for another fascinating answer - I'm enjoying these discussions very much. :)

  13. P.S. I should add that I also love gritty YA fiction, and that I thoroughly recommend Jo Kenrick's Red Tears to other readers here too!

  14. Thanks for the awesome answer, Jo! It's really fascinating! Thanks also for coming back :) And I agree with Luisa, 'pink and fluffy' can be good too! Though I am a sucker for fantasy, so it's a bit of a shame that your fantasy novels haven't got through.

  15. Thank you for a fantastic interview. Screwed sounds like an excellent read.

  16. You're most welcome :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!