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Interview: September 2011

September 2011

After the success of her first novel, BEFORE I DIE, Jenny Downham took on the complex project of her newest book,YOU AGAINST ME, which deals with teenage sexual assault in a small, tight-knit community. With elements of suspense, mystery, psychological trauma and star-crossed love, YOU AGAINST ME delves deeply into the minds of its characters as they face life-changing events.

In this interview with’s Sarah Wood, Downham describes her extensive research on sexual assault and its aftermath, and shares her unique hopes about what readers will take away from her approach to the highly sensitive subject matter. She also discusses her admiration of Shakespeare, her freestyle writing techniques drawn from her previous career as an actress, and why she loves writing for young adults. Your first book, BEFORE I DIE, dealt with the difficult subject of death and dying. YOU AGAINST ME deals with love, family loyalty, and sexual assault. Which was the more difficult topic to write about?

Jenny Downham: Writing Tessa’s death in BEFORE I DIE was the most emotionally draining writing I’ve ever done. I’d been inhabiting her head for over two years and suddenly she was gone. That was difficult.

However, the workings of the legal system and the ramifications a charge of sexual assault can have on individuals and their families was incredibly challenging to research, so I would say that writing YOU AGAINST ME was harder overall. I interviewed criminal lawyers, social workers, family support workers and police officers. I watched court cases and read lots of books. I often felt overwhelmed with responsibility. I didn’t want any girl or young woman to pick up my book and think after reading it that they shouldn't bother reporting an assault, and yet I wanted the novel to accurately reflect the very difficult realities of prosecuting a case such as this.

I tried not to let my fear inform the writing. The danger was that I would hold back on tackling anything too difficult in case I offended anyone. When the first draft was finished, every single one of the people who helped me with research read it and gave feedback. I wanted any gender bias or prejudice to come from the characters, not from the author. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t perpetuating any myths or stereotypes around sexual assault.

TRC: What inspired you to write this story? It’s not just about sexual assault, but about justice, class differences, and young people making the choice to break away from family or tribal identities.

JD: I don’t really think in terms of themes or topics when I begin a project, I’m more interested in characters and the stories they have to tell. I start with them and see where they lead me.  

Pinter once said that the writer’s job is to “arrange and listen,” as if following clues. He believed that characters arrive at their destination through their own impulses, rather than being manipulated to suit a pre-ordained plot. My previous career as an actor supported this. My approach to writing strives towards improvising in theatre --- a state of “no mind,” where an actor stands on the edge of a stage and very deliberately empties their head of all pre-conceived ideas to allow a character to fully live.

I do seem to have a tendency to be drawn to the extraordinary in the everyday and vice versa. In BEFORE I DIE, the protagonist is dying, but the novel is actually an examination of what it means to be alive. In YOU AGAINST ME, there has been an allegation of sexual assault, but at the book’s heart is a love story.

TRC: YOU AGAINST ME contains some thematic similarities to Romeo & Juliet --- forbidden love, feuding families, friends caught in the crossfire --- but does not read as an “updated” version of the tale. To what extent did you have to take comparisons into consideration in writing this story of “star-crossed” love? To what extent did you want it to be similar or different?

JD: Years ago, when I was an actor, I played the role of Juliet, so I know the play relatively well. I was interested in the central theme of “star-crossed love,” but I didn’t go back to the text or try and base the novel on the play at all. In fact, about a year into the writing, I realised I was more influenced by Hamlet and the notion of “something rotten” in a family, than by Romeo and Juliet.

TRC: One of the really interesting things about YOU AGAINST ME is the way that non-victims get drawn into the ordeal. The crime that happens in the book doesn’t just impact the perpetrator or the victim --- it reverberates through the entire community. Much of young adult literature focuses exclusively on the experiences of the teen protagonists. One of the things that really intrigues me about your work is the way the protagonists are situated amidst a web of connections, whether it’s the doctors or social workers in BEFORE I DIE, or the law-enforcement officials and lawyers in YOU AGAINST ME, or even Mikey’s boss. Could you talk a little about your choice to include this extended range of characters? And your choice to write about the impact the crime has on the community, rather than just the perpetrator or the victims themselves?

JD: All of us are connected, whether we like it or not --- to our neighbours and colleagues, our family and friends, even to strangers whose actions influence us somehow. When I’m writing, it’s important to me to reflect that. I used to be an actor and I use a lot of acting techniques to write. I keep notebooks for each character, even the minor ones, researching them as if I’m going to play them on stage --- what they like to eat, what their hopes and fears are. I want every character’s actions to be motivated, so that readers are able to put themselves in anyone’s shoes and find something to relate to.

As for the impact the crime has on the community --- I’ve always been fascinated by what I call the “ripple effect,” how when something terrible happens, the people at the centre of it need to give their grief away because it’s too much to handle alone. They might speak of it with friends, or cry with them, make journeys with them, look at photos, attend court cases or funerals together. Even people who don’t know the individuals involved might be saddened or furious, might send condolences or lay flowers in the street. A community can be judgmental, but it can also be absorbing, empathetic and forgiving. I deliberately set YOU AGAINST ME in a small town so that the young people involved would have to go to the same school as each other, would know the same people, would risk bumping into each other, would have to work out the moral implications together. That intrigues me.

TRC: Since a big part of YOU AGAINST ME hinges on whether one of the characters will act as a witness for the case, I was curious to find out if you knew how the story would turn out before you started writing.

JD: I knew very little when I started writing the book. I had a few ideas, but they were abstract, theoretical, as if I knew the tone of the piece, but nothing else.

I always use free writing techniques when I start a new project.  This is a bit like improvising in theatre --- throwing words down and not planning anything in advance. Most of it goes in the bin, but the strongest themes and voices keep returning.

After months of this, I began to know more and that’s when I started to talk to criminal lawyers and social services to gather material. I watched court cases and interviewed police officers. At that point, maybe a year into the project, I knew how I wanted the book to end.

TRC: One of my favorite moments in the book was in the middle when Mikey’s best friend, Jacko, finds out about his relationship with Ellie. Jacko says, “You cursed us…you changed the rules of the universe when you fell in love with the enemy.” In some ways I thought this statement functions as the heart of the novel. Is Ellie and Mikey’s relationship a blessing or a curse?

JD: I’m not sure love can ever be a curse. Even in Romeo and Juliet, when the lovers die tragically young, one interpretation would be that their deaths reconciled a community and broke the curse of generations. YOU AGAINST ME is a love story, but the love is fought for under very difficult circumstances. Out of their love comes truth and healing.

TRC: Do you think Ellie and Mikey would have met or even fallen in love without the conflict that exists between their two families?

JD: They may have come across each other in the small town they live in, but I don’t think they would have spoken or considered spending time together. I wanted them to have to tackle their own prejudices about each others’ backgrounds, as well as their preconceptions about the assault. I wanted them to fall in love “despite themselves.”

TRC: While there is a lot of incriminating evidence against the character accused of sexual assault, you never make it 100% clear if this character committed the crime. Did you want the reader to question whether or not a crime had actually been committed? What kind of evidence is required for conviction for this kind of crime in the UK? Are there any other differences between perceptions of class or justice in the UK that you might want US readers to know about?

JD: I want the reader to go on a journey, to confront their own presumptions about such a crime and to see how the truth can be a slippery thing. Sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute because there are often only two witnesses --- the defendant and the complainant. Other factors, such as use of alcohol and drugs, can muddy the situation further. Often it comes down to issues of consent. If a case even makes it to court, there is the “thirteenth juror” to consider --- the fact that juror judgments in rape trials can be influenced more by the attitudes, beliefs and biases about rape that jurors bring with them into the courtroom than by the objective facts presented. One juror might believe that any girl or woman who dresses provocatively “is leading a man on,” another might suppose that any girl who drinks alcohol before going to a guy’s house is “asking for it,” another might wonder why any girl flirts all night with a boy if she didn’t “want it.” I think these prejudices are common within the UK and the US judicial systems.

I actually think it’s very obvious if Tom is guilty or not by the end of the book. The reason I avoided a concluding chapter set in a courtroom where the judge delivers a resounding verdict is because that doesn’t allow the reader to decide what they think will happen in court. The issue for me by the story’s end was not “is-he-guilty-or-not?” but “will-he-be-convicted-or-not?” One of the lawyers I worked with told me that Tom would never be successfully prosecuted in the UK because the evidence against him came down to Karyn’s word against his. But when she read the final manuscript, she changed her mind, based solely on the strength of the witness statements. That fascinated me --- that a criminal lawyer was scratching her head wondering what wouldactually happen in court. To leave a reader asking questions of the judicial system is far more exciting to me than giving a neat solution.

TRC: One of the major themes of the book is the question of how one can continue to love someone who does terrible things. There is not only the question of Ellie’s brother, but also of Mikey’s mother, who loves her family, but is irresponsible in caring for them. Do you have any advice for people who might be making their own decisions about loyalty to their friends or family, and their responsibility to the larger community?

JD: I don’t want my job as a writer to be about looking at “issues” or giving moral guidance or advice. Teens don’t want to read about things adults think are good for them, or about how they ought to behave.

Of course, books can address difficult situations and confront social issues and help readers deal with real-life challenges. They can transport you, make you think, move you…. the list is endless. Ultimately though, it’s the story --- with all its complexities, with the emotional truths it uncovers, the experiences beyond the everyday that it gives --- that will be the real reason why young people read.

Ultimately, I was attempting to write a good story, one that moved readers emotionally, but also made them think. I hope that the book encourages debate for the very reason that I am not telling anyone what the right answers are.

TRC: Why do you write for/about young adults? What are the differences in writing for this audience versus any other?

JD: I want to write for and about teenagers because they are on the cusp of adulthood, and that interests me. A teen protagonist can do almost everything an adult can, but because they are boundaried by adult rules and expectations, they have to be far more creative to get what they want. It’s much more exciting to tell a story when there are lots of obstacles in the way.

The distinctions between children’s literature, YA literature and adult literature are more flexible and loosely defined than ever before.  Despite the plethora of other entertainment available to teens, they read in huge numbers and are becoming increasingly sophisticated. There was never such an exciting time to be a writer for the YA market.

TRC: BEFORE I DIE got a lot of critical attention. How did its reception change your life?

JD: It changed my life irrevocably and almost overnight. The practical things were a blessing --- an agent, a publisher and a contract for a second book. But the most important change was that I began to believe in myself as a writer and ask for the things I needed to enable me to continue being one. BEFORE I DIE was written (as so many books are) in snatched moments between childcare and paid work, in corners busy with children’s toys, in bed at night in 10-minute bursts, on the bus in the morning, etc, etc. Before I was published, if anyone asked what I did for a job, I would never mention writing, although it occupied much of my time and gave me such pleasure. Virginia Woolf argued for both a literal and figural space for women writers, and I think this is still a massive issue.  Demanding to be taken seriously by those who care about you is hugely important. Even if a “room of one’s own” is metaphorical, it is vital to have.

TRC: You’ve written two nuanced titles on difficult topics. What’s next?

JD: I’ve started writing book three, but have no idea where it will take me. Inspiration comes from everywhere. I watch the world for stories in a very energized way --- newspapers, overheard conversations, etc, anything can be used. I don’t like knowing in advance. I never plan a structure. I like surprises. I’m quite disciplined and sit at my desk every day and just write.