Q&A interview with Mel Darbon and Sarah Stewart, author and editor of
A contemporary love story starring Rosie, who is 16 and has Down’s syndrome; and Jack, who attends the same college in a specialist unit. When Jack is sent away, Rosie is determined to see him again, whatever it takes.
The judges found Rosie’s voice unique and disarming and feel that every teenager should read this book.
What was the inspiration for Rosie Loves Jack?
I wrote Rosie Loves Jack to help change the way we see someone with a learning disability. I wanted people like Rosie, who has Down syndrome, to be seen and heard. People with a learning disability are overlooked and under-represented in literature, but everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages of a book.
The seed for Rosie Loves Jack began with the birth of my brother, Guy, when I was four years old. It soon became apparent that he had severe learning disabilities, which years later were diagnosed as autism. I grew up overnight. I was no longer that carefree child I was before he was born; but what I learned instead was selflessness, compassion, patience and empathy – and it was this that I wanted to pass on to my readers. We have so much to learn from the inclusion of people like my brother in books and I hope it will help bring about a new generation of acceptance.
It was when I was nine years old that an episode occurred which had a huge impact on me. I was out with my mother shopping when Guy exploded in a tantrum, shouting, kicking and screaming. Several people came up to us, not to offer help, but to tell my mother she was a disgrace, that my brother’s behaviour was disgusting and that he ought to be put away. I wanted to tell them to put my brother’s shoes on and try and comprehend what it must be like to be him, locked in a frightening world that made no sense, where even tackling a flight of stairs or a plate of peas can paralyze him.
I knew then that one day I would give my brother a voice and this became even more important to me as similar events unfolded with him over the years, fuelling my desire to build a world where people like Guy and Rosie are valued equally, listened to and included. My work later on as a teaching assistant with teenagers with Down’s syndrome validated this ambition, as every one of these young people had a voice inside them, which needed to be heard. It was at this time that I met the girl who was to help bring about my character Rosie. She was kind, funny and fiercely independent, determined to get a job, fall in love and one day get married. I learned from her how much people with Down’s syndrome are attuned to other’s feelings. They have incredible empathy and always see the good in the world. I realised how much we all had to learn from them, and I wanted my character Rosie to show this through her innocent but brave eyes - for the reader to wonder at the world with her and to learn through her that kindness and compassion are so important.
What did you enjoy most about the editorial process with Sarah?
I was lucky that having done an MA in creative writing that I was fully prepared for the editing process and had already learnt to let go of things that weren’t working for my book, not that it made it any easier to say goodbye to parts of Rosie Loves Jack - writing a book is, of course, a very personal experience and it’s hard to let go! So, I think for me one of the most enjoyable process of editing Rosie was to be able to share the procedure with someone who clearly understood my book, as much as I did, and what I was trying to achieve with it. Sarah had had no experience with people with Down syndrome before she read Rosie Loves Jack, so I was amazed at her faith in me and what I had done – and all the work and time she had put in to ensure that she knew exactly what she was taking on. I never felt that I had to explain any of the writing to Sarah, so it freed me up to re-examine the manuscript through her eyes, take her advice on board and let go of the story that wasn’t working. I have a habit of over-writing and with Sarah’s help I stood back, learnt to look at the whole picture and not just the individual events and characters.
Sarah also created a forum where we could discuss differences of opinion, which I loved because we could both listen with an open mind, so that I never felt I had to say yes to everything she suggested. For a debut author that was a real gift and gave me the confidence to be the writer I wanted to be and to establish my voice.
What did you find hardest about the editorial process?
I think for me the hardest part was learning to let go of my characters and put them in my editor’s hands. I take my characters back to birth and from there work out all the influences on their lives to date. For me they become real people, who exist out in the world and I find they take me by the hand and lead me through the story, so to think that they could be changed in any way was hard to envisage. Sarah soon showed me that the very process that was creating fully formed characters for me wasn’t necessarily translating onto the page. My readers needed to understand, for example, Rosie’s father’s motivations for his behaviour, as these weren’t coming across. Because I knew my character inside out, I was somehow assuming that my reader did too! Through the editing process I learnt to stand back from my characters, hand them over to Sarah’s experienced hands, knowing they would become the best that they could be.
What would you say was the most challenging part to write?
The most challenging part was when I put Rosie into Janek’s hands in the house where young girls are groomed for sexual exploitation. Very few authors have written about this, but from my daughter’s work with young people who have been groomed I knew it was sadly much more prevalent than we realize. I wanted my exposition of this to be valuable for young people, especially since social media ensures they cannot escape knowing what is going on in the world. But I felt hugely responsible for Rosie and my reader and knew that I had to handle these chapters with sensitivity and perception. At no point did I want to be sensationalistic. I had to get the balance right; the sense of fear and the threat of what might happen to Rosie, without it ever happening. I had to think very hard about not frightening my reader but providing a framework to open up healthy discussion within the safe pages of a book.
Which bits did you most enjoy writing?
This is a difficult one because I loved writing this book from beginning to end with all its characters from different walks of life; the troubled Jack with his anger issues; the lost, misguided Paris; kind, homeless Tom and poor abused Lisette - all with their different stories. Ultimately, I feel writing the character of Rosie herself was perhaps the most enjoyable - and a privilege to step into her shoes and really see the world from her viewpoint.
It taught me so much about just how special people like Rosie are - and what we can learn from them. Once I had established what had happened in her life to influence her, she became real and lived in my head and by my side – and she took me to some surprising places! Then when I felt I had got her voice right and the language she uses, I started to see the world through her lyrical eye and her words flowed onto the page. I felt I gained just as much as Rosie does on her journey and hope to pass that on to my reader.
I do feel I have to mention here Rosie’s brother Ben and little cheeky Charlie who pesters Rosie on the train. These were two of the characters that brought in some much-needed comic relief to the story and I had such fun inventing them. Ben’s character was based on my other, older brother, when he was a teenager, not that I’ve told him that, and I still laugh at the memory of him coming down for breakfast in the morning and my mother saying good morning several times until she got a reply, when she’d heave a sigh of relief and say, ‘Thank God for that, he’s still alive then!’
Are you working on a new book?
Yes, I am. I don’t want to give too much away but I can tell you it’s another love story, which touches on our drinking culture by experiencing teenage Ava’s battle with alcoholism and her journey to discover why her life began to fall apart. It also features a double decker bus. Originally it had a severely autistic teenager in it too…but he’s now decided he has his own story to tell. This character is based on my younger brother with severe autism, who has very limited language.
Will your experience with Rosie Loves Jack affect your writing?
Yes, it will, and it has already. Writing Rosie Loves Jack has given me the confidence to give a voice to those who otherwise might not be heard, which is what I wanted to achieve. I want to be as respectful and as accurate as is possible. Rosie opened my eyes even more than before and I want to share what I’ve ascertained through writing many stories with many different characters – and show that we should never assume that someone who has difficulty communicating has nothing to say.
What advice would you give debut authors?
Don’t be afraid of the editing process. The editor is there to help you make your book the best it can possibly be. Be willing to let some things go but have confidence in your story and fight for what you feel passionately about – but always be able to back up your opinions. There are no right or wrong answers when you do author panels or school talks. No one is trying to catch you out. Relax and be yourself, as your book and you are fascinating enough - and if you talk with passion your audiencewill love you and what you have to say. Don’t stress about all the social media. Of course, you want to help give your book the best possible start, but you will find your own rhythm with Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, so do some but don’t let it take over your life and feel overwhelmed. Switch your phone off when writing and remember, the children’s book world is a lovely one and everyone is very kind, supportive and willing to help you.
The last and best bit of advice I think I can give to a debut author, which my writer father always reminds me of, is to enjoy all the promotion around your debut, but get your head down and write the next book!
What excited you most when you read the manuscript for Rosie Loves Jack?
Rosie’s voice was like nothing I’d ever read before. It was the first time I had read a character with Down’s syndrome portrayed in fiction and the insight it gave me was humbling – it challenged my preconceptions from the very start and by the end of the book I felt like Rosie’s voice had honestly changed the way I look at the world.
What would you say is the one quality of Mel’s writing that marks her out as a talent to watch?
I think being able to get inside the minds of people who might sometimes struggle to express themselves openly is an incredible talent. Mel worked with teenagers who had Down’s syndrome so I had faith that Rosie was depicted accurately, but when reader Rula, who has Down’s syndrome herself, told us that she identified with Rosie almost completely, it confirmed what a brilliantly authentic character Rosie is. But the story is not just about disability – I think Mel’s talent also lies in creating a story that is equally a romance and a thriller, gripping the reader in so many ways to the very end.
What would you say was the main challenge you gave Mel as her editor?
I think it was to detach herself from her own story a little. Obviously Mel knew her characters inside out, and it can be easy for any author to forget sometimes that the reader doesn’t have the same back story in their heads, so I asked Mel to get a little more of Rosie’s history and day-to-day life across on the page without bogging the story down – always a tricky balance! And likewise, for Rosie’s story to pan out in the way Mel wanted, none of the secondary characters could actually put a stop to her journey, but it seemed likely that well-meaning people might try to, so Mel had to detach herself from the story to put momentary blocks in Rosie’s path to make it feel truly real
What do you think is the most effective scene in Rosie Loves Jack and why?
Oh there are so many to choose from as there are so many incredible characters Rosie meets on her journey! But one of the most effective scenes for me is when Rosie meets Ben, a homeless boy who lives under a bridge. She asks why he doesn’t go home and in one incredibly poignant line he explains, ‘I choose to be here, Rose, because here is far better than anything else I ever had.’ And when he tells her she should go home to her parents and be safe because she is vulnerable, she explains:
‘Why? Cos I have Down’s? I am the same as you. I. Am. Rose. Mum told me, “Above everything, Rose, you are a human bean...we love the same...we think the same...and we are as important as each other.” The words in my head are the same as yours. Sometimes they just come out wonky.’
It’s insights like this that make Rosie Loves Jack such a stunning book and I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with Mel on it. ·
Thanks to Mel and Sarah for answering our questions.
Photo of Mel Darbon - Harry Crowder