Today in Prime Writer Towers, we’re celebrating with Kerry Drewery, whose YA novel, Cell 7, is published today. Kerry talks to Antonia Honeywell.
Sixteen year old Martha Honeydew is on Death Row, in a world where justice is conducted via reality television and guilt or innocence is decided by public vote…
In a socially divided world, only those with money can access the system – but Martha is from the wrong side of the tracks and her prospects, like those of her community, are startlingly bleak. To make things worse, the crime she’s confessed to is the murder of a universally beloved TV presenter. It’s a gripping and immersive read, perfect for fans of The Hunger Games, Robert Swindells and anyone who likes a hit of adrenaline with their social commentary.
Kerry, welcome and congratulations. Tea or champagne?
I don’t drink tea so it’d have to be champagne!
Cake or canapés?
Most definitely cake – I have a very sweet tooth.
The journey to publication is often a long and weary one – can you tell us your publication story?
Gosh, a long story, but one I’ll try and tell as succinctly as possible. I’d always made up stories in my head but never took it seriously or thought that being a ‘writer’ was something I couldn’t possibly achieve. When I was at school, you either went on to be a secretary or if you were really clever, a teacher – nobody became writers! Fast forward quite a few years and I found myself with lots of time in the evening but unable to go out, so I started writing. A couple more years after that and my youngest son began school – this was a pivotal point – I decided that if I was ever going to do anything with this idea of writing it was now, if not, it was go back to the day job and forget it. So I made the leap to go for it. I went back to uni and did a degree in professional writing.
On the course I wrote a novel and gained a lot of confidence. I researched how to approach an agent and started sending it out, but no one took it. So, when I finished the course, and had found a nice part time job which still allowed me time to write, I wrote another – A Heavy Sigh of Fear – and began the long-winded process of sending it out again. Then, while I was at a roller disco with my children, I got a phone call from an agent, offering representation! A Heavy Sigh of Fear became A Brighter Fear and was published the year I turned forty.
I’d like to be able to say ‘and the rest is history’, but the truth is that that is just the road to publication. Another one then starts which is often just as bumpy and as fraught!
Your previous novels, A Brighter Fear and A Dream of Lights, were firmly set in harsh reality, exploring life in Iraq and in North Korea respectively. What drew you to speculate about the future?
A very simple idea that I wanted to write about a teenager on death row. The idea of death row, and the death penalty, has always been something that fascinates me. I wanted to explore what people go through, who are facing this. Only, we don’t have the death penalty here, and even in America, they don’t allow it for under eighteens. I started to think ‘what if’. What if our government hadn’t abolished the death penalty? What would it be like now especially with the influence of other things on it? Eventually it morphed into Cell 7.
At first I thought Cell 7 was set in the future, but as I read, I felt that this was very much a story of our time – where do you see Cell 7 taking place?
I don’t see it so much set in the future, more set in an alternative present day, although I think this much depends on the reader’s interpretation and I do think it can be taken either way.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is described as ‘mostly harmless.’ The same could be said of our current reality television programmes – people dance and bake cakes. How did you make the leap to something as dark as live executions determined by public vote?
Yes, people dance and bake cakes, but people’s lives are also changed. You could also argue that people’s emotions are manipulated for the public’s entertainment. We laugh at the contestants on talent shows who think they’re good but aren’t, but that’s their hopes and dreams being crushed. To be honest, it didn’t feel a massive leap. I thought a lot about what would happen if we had a referendum on whether or not to bring back the death penalty, and I spoke for a long time with a defence solicitor about it, and we both felt that there would be a large section of society who would vote to bring it back for certain crimes.
Like Katniss in The Hunger Games, Cell 7’s heroine comes from the lower rungs of a horrifically unequal society. How important is this theme to you as a writer?
I think parts of our society now are horrifically unequal. Yesterday I was in London, I saw a homeless man lying in the street, a couple of minutes later, there’s a Jaguar driving by. Today I went into an area of Grimsby with high unemployment and poverty yet I drove home past grand houses with their own swimming pools. I think it’s an important, and interesting thing to explore. We’re seeing a rise in diversity within YA (which hopefully will continue) but diversity isn’t just race, gender, sexuality, it’s class too – we should make sure all areas of society can see themselves in books.
My novel, The Ship, wasn’t published as a YA title but it’s found its way to the YA community, which I’ve found it a fantastic, friendly and welcoming place. What makes YA so special?
I don’t know adult publishing so I can’t comment or compare, but to me it’s the people in YA (and children’s) who make it so special. They’re fun, they don’t take themselves too seriously. Maybe we’re all still kids at heart!
You organize a YA event, the UKYA Extravaganza….tell us about it.
The UKYA and Children’s Extravaganza are regional events which celebrate and promote the wealth of YA and children’s writing talent we have in the UK. It started with a very simple idea of seeing if we could get a group of authors and have a bit of a get together and promptly grew! We decided to hold the events outside of London, as so many authors and readers find it very difficult to get into the city. Many younger readers might find it out of their price range or just too far to go.
So far we’ve held them in Birmingham, Nottingham and this year we’re in Newcastle. We have quick-fire panels where each author gets 2 minutes to tell you about themselves or the book, or a funny story or such, followed by Q+A, books signings, mingling and, of course, cake!
What’s the worst thing about a writing career?
Having a book turned down that you really believe in. And turned down, not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because it won’t sell enough. But, publishing is a business after all!
And can you share your happiest career moment to date?
A phone call from my agent, Jane Willis, telling me I’d got a deal with Hot Key! Relief and joy and utter, utter excitement!
Cell 7, by Kerry Drewery, is out today (22nd September 2016) from Hot Key Books – click here to go to Amazon to purchase.