It’s back! My Behind The Book series returns for its third season today – and I couldn’t be more excited to be kicking off with author Miriam Halahmy, who has a new YA novel, Always Here For You, out this week.
There are many strings to Miriam’s bow, including working as a teacher for 25 years, but in the writing world she is perhaps best known for her books for children, teens and young adults.
Based in north-west London, Miriam was nominated for the prestigious Carnegie Award for her book Hidden, which was also made into a stage play.
In the Q&A below, she explains more about the inspiration for Always Here For You and shares her top tips for those wanting to write for a younger audience.
I couldn’t have asked for a better start to this latest series, I hope you think so too.
Can you please tell us about your new book, Always Here For You? I understand it’s inspired by real life events?
My book focuses on Holly, 14 years, who is lonely now that best friend, Amy, has moved to Canada and doesn’t stay in touch. Mum and Dad are preoccupied with ‘Gran’s Crisis.’ Home alone, Holly meets Jay, 14, online. Caring, funny and with so much in common, Jay seems the perfect guy. Holly knows to be careful, she’s heard the horror stories. As they grow closer, chatting with Jay is all that makes Holly happy. Mum and Dad’s rows get more intense and Amy’s radio silence continues; the only one who understands her is Jay. As Holly lets her guard down, is Jay all he seems? Is Holly in too deep? And is it too late?
My book was inspired by two very sad cases of teens who were groomed online by pedophiles and ultimately lost their lives. In the past five years, there has been a rising concern about Online Safety. I decided that I would write a book about meeting someone online and the possible consequences.
Storytelling is obviously a great way to explore sensitive topics. In your book, Hidden, you highlight the issue of asylum seekers. In Behind Closed Doors you take on mental illness and sexual predators. You’ve written about a boy fleeing Nazi Germany and about the huge number of pets put to sleep in Britain just before the Second World War. How much research do you do on the topics? It is hard to know how far to take each storyline? Do you feel pressure to get it right?
My books focus on contemporary and historical realistic issues and I love doing research. I have always read widely and I love learning more. I also love winkling out those tiny details which will make the narrative feel truly authentic. Because of the topics I choose to cover, I do feel pressure to get it right. But I am also realistic. I’m writing fiction and therefore I might not always get every detail right and I also move things – providing it is convincing – to make the story work. In relation to writing for young people, I put in relevant information but make sure it is appropriate for the age group. In Always Here For You, there is nothing overtly nasty or sexual described – these things are implied so that young teens can safely read the book and hopefully gain insight from this important topic.
Can we take a step back for a moment and talk about your journey to publication? When did you start writing? Were you supported at home? Can you remember what it felt like to see your first book in print?
I have written since childhood. I was a voracious reader and wanted to write my own stories and poems. I also wanted to be a teacher and taught for over two decades. My first YA novel, Hidden, came out in 2011 and I have published six novels since then, in the UK, America and other countries. Hidden was adapted for the stage which was an utterly magical time. Holding my first published book was like a dream come true. My family have always supported me and now I have the added joy of my grandsons coming to my book launches – and talking about my writing at Show and Tell in school.
I know you were a teacher for 25 years, did you still make time to write? How did teaching help with writing?
Teaching is a very creative profession and there was no time or creative energy left for novels. I published collections of poetry and also wrote song lyrics and articles. The novels came later. But yes – my teaching career gave me a lot of material to work with and many characteristics of young people to draw upon.
You don’t just write for children and young people but adults too. Do you enjoy one more than another? Is it hard to switch between them?
I have published a novel for adults – Secret Territory ( available on Kindle now) short stories and poems. I then moved into writing YA and more recently I have written three MG novels. It has never been a problem which age group to choose – it seems to decide for itself when I have the initial inspiration. Once I have decided if the writing is adult, YA or MG, then the narrative unfolds for that age group and I don’t have a problem consistently writing for that audience.
You have said you want to inspire “peace, tolerance and diversity” through your work, which is wonderful. Why is it important to you?
I have a strongly developed sense of justice and fairness, which was there from childhood. I am a British Jew and growing up aware of the Holocaust gave me a thorough distaste and horror for any kind of prejudice. I believe that all divided communities can build bridges and that we can all live together. I work for peace, tolerance and diversity and use my pen to promote the kind of world I would like all living creatures to inhabit safely.
How important is social media for you in getting your work out there? Especially with a young adult audience.
I love social media. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I think that social media has given me a great deal of publicity; I’ve met a lot of interesting people in the industry and I think that Instagram has been very good for meeting my audience.
The Internet is a great place – providing you stay in control. That’s my Safer Internet Day message, folks.
Is there one of your characters you have found hard to let go of?
It is always the most recent character I have been focusing on so intently. Currently it is Kate, fifteen, who lives in a village in mid-nineteenth century England. She is a poor but gifted girl. I’ve finished the book – my 10th novel – and I am missing her very much.
What are the best and worst things about being a writer?
The best thing is being published.
The worst thing is rejection.
The most important thing is to write because you want to.
Accept rejection; enjoy your successes; write the next book.
Do you have a top tip for anyone interested in writing for children or young adults.
Read as much as you can written by contemporary and past writers of these genres.
Meet young people; listen to the way they speak, ask them about themselves, find out what matters to them.
When writing, keep adults in the background. Children and teens want to read about themselves, not about the grown-ups.
Good luck and Happy Writing!
Amazing advice from a talented and successful author. Thank you to Miriam for taking part.
Always Here For You, published by ZunTold, is out now in paperback. This Q&A is also part of the blog tour for the book, please check out the other fantastic blogs taking part.