Karen Gregory is the author of Skylarks and Countless. Here she talks about her new tense, moving thriller for teens called I Hold Your Heart…
Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about your new book I Hold Your Heart?
Sure! I Hold Your Heart follows Gemma, a confident, happy 16-year-old with a passion for country music and song-writing, who falls into a controlling relationship with 18-year-old Aaron. It’s told mainly in Gemma’s words, but with some short chapters from Aaron’s point of view and explores gaslighting within teenage relationships.
I’m a big fan of one of your other books, Skylarks. How would you say I Hold Your Heart is similar to Skylarks? How would you say it’s different?
Thank you! I think different forms of love are themes through all my work. Skylarks is a romance between two girls, Joni and Annabel. They encounter difficulties due to class and inequality, but their relationship is ultimately a real force for good in both their lives. By comparison, I Hold Your Heart is very much concerned with what happens when relationships are toxic and unhealthy, and the devastating impact it can have on young people. I think both books have a love of family, friends, home and place running through them too.
What did you edit out of I Hold Your Heart? Why?
Ooh, I’m trying to remember back through the editing process! In the main, I left some scenes out due to repetition and for pacing. A lot of the material did make it through to the final book, but the order of certain events changed a bit. I felt like I was walking quite a fine line between being realistic, but not overpowering, so there were a couple of difficult elements to scenes which were cut during the editing.
Do you think your writing has developed or changed since your debut novel, Countless? If so, how?
I think I feel more confident with the process now. With Countless, I’d never worked with an editor before, so I would get really worried after receiving edit notes, wondering how on earth I’d manage to find solutions to all the issues being raised. The answers still don’t come easily now, but I just have more trust in myself that they will!
Your stories are primarily aimed at young adults and teenagers. Why do you particularly like writing for this age group? What specific challenges does it bring? Have you ever considered writing for younger children?
I love writing for teenagers and young adults because it’s such a vital time. I remember being a teenager really well – the emotions, the hopes and fears. I also love meeting young people at schools and other events.
I’m not sure if I see it as a challenge per se, but I am really conscious of my audience when I’m writing and I always try to tackle the difficult scenes as sensitively as I can and not include anything unless it is necessary for the story. There are times when I will hold back or not write something specific because it doesn’t feel right for YA. And obviously there are some practical issues, for example, certain life experiences it’s less likely a sixteen or seventeen-year-old would have compared to someone in their 20s.
I would definitely think about writing for younger children in the future! I have two children in primary school and there’s something very magical about that age.
What does a day in the life of Karen Gregory look like when you’re writing?
It really depends! I currently have a couple of days a week to write in term time when my children are at school, so on those days I’ll do the school run, then come back and write until pick-up time. I’ll probably stop to eat at some point, and check emails.
Previously, I was working longer hours and so I did a lot of my writing after the kids were in bed (I’m not a fan of early mornings!) Now they’re older and go to bed later this is getting harder to do, so I try to be disciplined on writing days. I do tend to write in big splurges and then nothing for a while. I find when I’m deep in drafting or editing, I’m thinking about my characters a lot and often dream about them or even ‘write’ in my sleep – where I dream I’m physically writing bits of a scene – so a notebook to jot things down as soon as I wake up is essential. I think for me lots of the work of writing and editing is happening subconsciously, so when I actually sit down to write it does all tend to come pouring out quite quickly.
I know that you are a Patron of Reading at a secondary school. What does this role involve? Why did you decide to become a Patron of Reading?
Currently, it has involved doing some creative writing workshops with Year 9 students based around my books and in September I’ll be running a lunchtime club in creative writing. I also donated an early copy of I Hold Your Heart to the school library prior to publication.
When I was growing up, I don’t recall ever having an author visit at school, but I think author visits can have a hugely positive impact on students. I remember thinking that being an author was something for other people and not for me. We weren’t well off when I was in my teens and had a number of years of really struggling. I was the first in my family to go to university so I felt quite out of place and it did have an impact on my confidence. Having said that, I feel I’ve been really lucky to have had three books published, and I’m aware of the privilege going to a top university has given me, so I wanted to give something back. I like being able to visit a local school near where I grew up and hopefully help to inspire some of the students there.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in writing?
I’d definitely say to read widely in as many genres as you can. Nothing is off limits so don’t think you have to read a certain type of book. I am a strong believer that if you get reading for pleasure right, then the rest will follow. Then I would say write as much as possible, and if you can, find someone you trust to give you honest but kind feedback on your work. Writing is a skill you can learn like anything else and it takes time, practice and patience so try not to get discouraged if your first (or third or fifth) draft doesn’t come out as well as you hoped.
What books have you enjoyed recently?
There’s so much amazing YA out there at the moment. I’ve just finished We Are Blood and Thunder, which is a fantasy by Kesia Lupo and I loved it. Toffee by Sarah Crossan is a novel written in verse and is stunning. Wolf Light by Yaba Badoe tells the story of three girls in different countries who share a magical connection with each other as protectors of the land. It’s a beautiful look at the impacts of environmental degradation and how we can repair our relationship to the earth.
On the middle grade side, I loved both Nevermoor and Wundersmith by Jessica Townsend. Like Harry Potter, they can definitely be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Finally, a book out in August is Aisha Bushby’s debut, A Pocketful of Stars, which is a book with a huge heart that I fell in love with when I was lucky enough to read as a proof.
Finally, can you describe I Hold Your Heart in three words?
Unflinching, intense, hopeful.