Simon P. Clark is the author of two excellent books – the dark and Gaiman‐esque middle‐grade fantasy Eren, and his very first YA novel Not Yet Dark, which hit bookshops at the start of October. We caught up with the author himself to have a quick chat…
Hello Simon! Thanks so much for joining us. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Not Yet Dark?
Thanks for having me – and for all of Shift’s hard work. The UKYA scene is so exciting and I love seeing things like this take off. Not Yet Dark is my second novel and first YA. It’s about two friends – Philippa and Danny, who’ve been friends for years, but are starting to feel themselves pulled in different directions. They’re fifteen – always an awkward age – and Danny’s mates are noticing that his best friend is a girl. They’re making jokes and he’s trapped between defending her against the infamous locker‐room banter and wanting to fit in. Philippa just wants things to stay as they are, even though it’s clear that can’t work. That all takes a backseat when the two of them stumble across a secret meeting, interrupt a society trying to summon and trap Death, and find themselves caught up in something much bigger than they can imagine. Now the world has magic, and other worlds, and there’s something following them …
Did you set out to write a YA book, or did it just sort of happen? What are the main differences between YA and writing for a younger audience?
I was actually asked to by my publisher, but it was always on my radar. Eren was for younger readers but I never saw the need to limit the books I write. I’ll write for everybody and anybody. There are some differences, of course, though I think the line between YA and middle grade is easily blurred (see Harry Potter, or Philip Pullman, or any number of authors who jump back and forth). I suppose writing about fifteen year olds was the main challenge – even though it was exciting. Do you remember being fifteen? What a weird age. Not a kid, not an adult, trying to be cool and almost certainly not managing it. A lot of YA leans to the older edge and very mature teens being cool and sexy and witty (looking at you, USYA), but I really loved diving into the lives of two British teens who weren’t particularly interesting before this huge adventure took over their lives. Plus, you can swear a bit in YA, which certainly makes things easier.
Friendship is one of the big themes in Not Yet Dark – Was it important to you to show something outside of a more traditional romance storyline?
This story was always going to have friendship at its heart – a real, believable friendship that never wavered into ‘will they, won’t they’ territory. That’s not a dig at romance, by the way – it’s just something I wanted to write, because that was my experience of high school. There’s not much of me in Danny, but there are aspects of the friendships I had growing up in how Philippa and Danny go through life together. So, yes, I suppose it was important that I showed the friendship as I remember them – tricky and raw and honest. Friends annoy each other and defend each other so that’s what I wanted on the page.
There are also a lot of other worlds touched upon throughout the story. What was your inspiration for those “in‐between spaces”?
I love “in‐between spaces” and there’s such a rich history of them in stories. C.S. Lewis had The Wood Between The Worlds, Stranger Things has the Upside Down – I think people have always liked the idea that there’s something there, just out of each. “For now we see through a glass, darkly” is how the King James puts it. Neil Gaiman’s a master of this – the home of the Other Mother in Coraline, London Below in Neverwhere – they’re places in the cracks that lead to so much more. In Not Yet Dark, the World Between does different things for different people. For Danny and Philippa it hints at untold wonders, the spectacle of unreachable worlds, unknown adventures, a glimpse of the true impossible size of everything. For Dee and Garth, it’s a limitation – letting them see but not touch, a place they go because they can’t get home to where they really want to go. It’s transient and odd. I like that. I do a lot of writing in train stations and I think that’s because they’re in‐between spaces, too. No one lives there or stays there. It’s a place of constant movement, leaving and arriving (plus, coffee shops that usually have free seats).
If you could spend a year in another author’s story world, which would you go for?
Wouldn’t it be terrible to spend a year in the Harry Potter world but living as a Muggle? Knowing it was all out there? Have to be careful here. Assuming I get to take part in the action, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust might be a good shout. His image of Fairyland was a good balance of fantastical and bloody. Though Diane Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle is another place I could happily get lost in. This is an impossible choice!
Both Not Yet Dark and Eren talk about the importance or stories and words – as a writer, what is about stories that you find so irresistible?
I suppose their universality. What culture doesn’t have myths to explain the world? Humans can’t stop making stories. We create explanations and then give those explanations life. There’s a scene in Eren about the ‘first story’ – a hunter boasting about a beast he’s killed. The monster grows in the imagination of the hunter’s friend, and the beast becomes a monster. I think that’s how it works – we imagine out of fear, out of wonder, out of boredom, and quickly lose control. It’s all very Frankenstein. I think my interest also comes in seeing how kids react to stories, how trusting they are and how willing to take part. Love it or hate it, good old British panto is a great example. We all know what to shout and kids love hollering that he’s behind you and boo‐ing the baddies. Telling stories to kids is so good because they’re not ashamed to enjoy them.
Your books tend to be quite dark, and more than a little creepy. How do you manage to balance that in a book for a younger audience – and where do you think the line is?
I never want to condescend when I write, so I think the darkness might just be a bit of literary honesty. There are monsters out there, after all. The creepiness is just for fun. I think the balance comes when the characters are good enough to stand up to the darkness or the push back. Friendship, loyalty, honesty, bravery – all those things that sound a bit silly when you list them like this – can make all the difference. That said, the ending of Eren has certainly divided some readers. I’m not sure there’s a line, really – perhaps it’s about how and why you’re putting things in. If it’s just to be mean, to shock for no reason, that probably doesn’t have a place.
You write alongside working – is it a struggle to juggle the work/writing/actual life?
I do – though earlier this year I went part time. Now I have two days a week to write, which is bliss. It’s always a struggle, though I think any writer will get their work done no matter what. Being perfectly honest, the struggle comes from envy – seeing other writers out and about when I’m in the office, at events when I have to work on something that isn’t my own. Social media has a sting in its tail, and that’s it – we all get to see the things we’re not doing. I have to work to remind myself how special this all is – that I have books, finished and on the shelves, and people care enough to read them. The balance will always be hard – I think you get that whenever you mix art and business – but for now I think I’ve found it. I love travel and seeing new things, and London’s certainly a great place to be for that.
What YA books are on your radar at the moment? Who should our readers be reading?
I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m a huge Martin Stewart fan. I read an advanced copy of his second book, The Sacrifice Box, which isn’t out until January, but I can’t wait to see what people think. His writing is incredibly rich – I think people are in for a treat. As for recent reads – Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf, Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (which is obviously on many people’s radar since it won the YA Book Prize!) – oh! Also Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Invasion, another one I’ve read in advance. It’s the sequel to The Call and goes even further ‐ it’s truly fantastic. Basically anything coming out of Ireland right now is brilliant – Moira Fowley‐Doyle, Dave Rudden ‐‐ Sarah Crossan, of course, who’s doing amazing work. There’s also a new David Almond book coming in May that I’m already excited for, because it’s David Almond.
And finally, what’s on the horizon for you – are we allowed to know what book you’re working on next?
I’ve finished a new book, and I’m not sure how much I can say. It’s different to Eren and Not Yet Dark – way more personal, I suppose, set in a Britain at war. It is still very new but I’m excited – it’s a story that’s been a long time coming. That’s not very helpful, is it? Watch this space, I suppose.
Thanks so much for joining us Simon! Not Yet Dark is out right now, published by Atom priced £7.99 in paperback.