Jenny Alexander is an author with a wealth of books to her name. She has written both adult and children’s books; fiction and non- fiction. Her non- fiction titles include self help and creative writing books. Her first young adult novel “Drift” is released on 10th September which is World Suicide Prevention Day.
You have a new young adult book coming out. Can you tell us a bit about it?
It’s the story of 16-year-old Jess, whose older brother has killed himself. She’s stopped talking and cut herself off from everyone, because that feels like the only way she can hold things together, but when her Head of Year sends her to see the school counsellor, things fall apart.
On the counsellor’s advice, Jess starts writing to her dead brother, looking for clues in the time leading up to his death as to why he did it, and telling him about the bad and terrible things that have happened in her life since.
When Jess finds her voice, it’s like a storm breaking, and she has to somehow find her way through it.
It is being released on World Suicide Prevention Day, what inspired you to write about this subject?
Forty years ago, almost to the day, my older sister killed herself. Losing a sibling to suicide is a complicated grief, with very high levels of guilt, anger and confusion, not just for the bereft young person but also for their parents and other siblings, so it can feel like losing your whole family, not just the one who died. Siblings of suicides are at much higher risk of committing suicide themselves.
I always knew I would want to write about depression and suicide, because of what happened to me and my family, and not wanting it to happen to others. The first way I tried to write about it was as a YA self-help book, but I couldn’t find a publisher and in those days there wasn’t the self-publishing option. A few years ago, I told my own story briefly in the memoir section of my adult non-fiction book, Writing in the House of Dreams.
But I still wanted to write something for young people, something real and hopeful, telling the sibling’s story. So rather than a memoir set 40 years in the past, I decided to write a contemporary novel for Young Adults, and the resulting book is Drift.
You have written books for a range of ages covering different genres. What are the advantages of this as a writer?
Creatively, it’s exciting – I love trying new things. Also, one of my drives as an author is to share useful things I’ve learnt through life, and that requires different kinds of books for different ages. For example, when I was writing a lot about bullying, funny practical self-help seemed the most effective way to package the ideas for the 8+ age range, straight self-help with no jokes felt most appropriate for adults, and simple stories like my Car-mad Jack series and Finding Fizz the best way to talk about bullying with younger children.
Commercially, it’s not so great. It means I haven’t built a profile as a particular kind of author, and I’m aware that for readers who have enjoyed one or two of my books and might like to read more, I don’t offer more of the same.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Be adventurous! I think almost everyone who comes to writing assumes that adult novels are the golden goal to aim for – children’s authors often get asked, ‘When are you going to write an adult novel?’ and lots of readers don’t appreciate the style and creative achievement of good non-fiction.
Follow your heart and instincts – try everything and see how it feels. Every piece you write – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, journals or poetry – contributes to your development as a writer, and may spark surprising writing passions.
What is on your TBR list?
Like my writing, my reading’s pretty free range! Next up is The Secret Dog by my friend, Joe Friedman, which I know will be a feel-good story for 8+ children and is set on a Scottish island, like my latest book for this age range, The Binding.
After that, I’m looking forward to Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. I really enjoyed her memoir and I’ve just written a new book for adults on writing myself, When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow.
Third on my list is The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green – I’m still in the YA zone since writing Drift.