Brian Conaghan’s latest book, The M Word, explores the friendship between two teenage girls, one of whom has died. The protagonist, Maggie, is dealing with the grief and anguish of losing her best friend, Moya, who committed suicide. “Maggie deals with her internalised pain by being a self-harmer. She does a lot of bad things to her body and mind, and she has difficult relationships: with her mother and peers. She never got an opportunity to say goodbye to her friend and she carries that weight.”
Lisa Williamson’s new instalment, Paper Avalanche, considers the walls we build to protect ourselves through life. Protagonist, Ro, is fourteen, her mum is a compulsive hoarder and her house is jammed with stuff, which Ro is just about keeping under control. “Ro feels ashamed of her house, and also worries that if the social services found out they could take her away from her mum. Ro is a loner but she’s very purposeful in that – she dedicates every day to making sure her mum is okay and making sure no one can get close to her.”
When asked why they wrote these books, Brian explained that he’s fascinated with the way that small things become insurmountable when you’re young, and he wanted to look at what happens when such huge, destructive things are thrown into the picture. Lisa wanted to explore the internal struggle of someone throwing themselves into a friendship when the personal stakes are so high.
Both of their protagonists find ways to step outside of themselves through the friendships they discover. Brian raised the point that often as adults, we grow apart from friends as our lives take us in different directions, and highlighted how empowering it is when you find your ‘tribe’. He mentioned that impostor syndrome is an issue which we all suffer from, encouraging the young audience to not let it stop them from taking leaps.
The authors agreed that emotion transcends gender – having each written protagonists of varying genders across their books. When it comes to writing, Brian tends to starts with a voice, then he thinks about the antagonist, playing around to see where it goes. He likes to feature mother figures in his books and he uses claustrophobic environments to force dynamics between his characters. Lisa doesn’t plot out her novels, preferring to write naturally and by instinct – she needs to go down an avenue to see if it works. She struggled to write Ro because she’s such a reserved character and Lisa writes in first-person to make it more accessible to the reader.
The pair contemplated that the emotions of young people are often underestimated and therefore overlooked by their adult contemporaries - when in reality their emotions are just as real and as valid as those which adults feel when they encounter problems in life.
By whatever road that got them there, both authors tackled the tough issue of young people struggling to open up and to build empathy with others, with consideration and sensitivity. It was an enlightening discussion both around the writing process and how personal experience can inform it. These are two stories that are incredibly important to have out there for young adults who will undoubtedly relate to the central themes, if not the experiences themselves.