Since the last time we chatted with Katya Balen, her novel October, October has won the Yoto Carnegie Medal and been recently shortlisted for the James Cropper Wainwright Prize. We have the honour of inviting her to our platform again, this time discussing The Light in Everything, which is shortlisted in this year’s Yoto Carnegies Medal for Writing.
Tom is still quiet and timid, even though his dad has been gone for nearly two years now. Zofia is the opposite. Inside her there’s a raging storm that makes her want to fight the whole world until she gets what she wants. And what she wants is for scaredy-cat Tom to get out of her life. Tom hates loud, unpredictable Zofia just as much, but he’s moving into Zofia’s house. Because his mum and Zofia’s dad are in love … and they’re having a baby.
How do you understand so well how children feel when their parents remarry?
That’s an interesting question. I suppose part of what makes me a writer is being able to imagine the emotions of others quite well, which probably comes from observation. I love hearing people’s stories, I love reading people’s stories, and I think you just start to absorb what makes people tick.
Whenever the parents talk to Zofia and Tom, only snippets of the conversations are featured in The Light in Everything. Why did you choose this?
I think because when adults talk, children only focus on the things that matter deeply to them. Adults talk a lot, and a lot of what they say feels irrelevant or not very important. But certain phrases will catch a child’s ear and can play and replay in their head, and usually the adult has absolutely no idea. I wanted to reflect this.
More importantly, we do not really see Zofia and Tom interact with each other directly. Why is it the case?
I think this is because they just don’t bond. They are so wrapped up in their own issues, their own worlds and wishes, that they just don’t take the time to lay out the interactions they’ve had with each other. They’re not reflecting on each other’s situation or trying to understand. If they took the time to do so, they wouldn’t be at such a distance. But then there also wouldn’t be much of a book!
Do you write Zofia’s and Tom’s perspectives in different setups in order to get into their opposite mindsets better?
Yes, I think it’s important to see how they perceive what’s happening to them as an individual. I also didn’t want to repeat the same scene twice – that would be a bit boring for the reader, even if it is from the other character’s viewpoint!
Zofia and Tom are so different – Zofia loud and fearless; Tom quiet and timid. Why is it that Tom seems to adjust more easily?
I think Tom is more used to change and despite his fear, has a certain resilience. He is also deeply connected to his mum, and she provides this touchstone of security and sameness. Perhaps he is also just generally a little more accepting, not confident enough to kick up a fuss. It’s a combination of factors – some good, some sad.
Children often think adults don’t understand their struggles and concerns. Do you think Zofia and Tom’s parents actually did enough to prepare them for this big change?
Yes and no. No parent is perfect, but equally no parent should live their life shaped entirely around their child, or that child won’t be prepared for the world and how it works. I think they did their best, and it was good enough. I think that being ‘good enough’ is perhaps the most important factor in human relationships – everything being perfect doesn’t work. Being good enough provides enough space for conflicts to arise and be resolved. This is again is important for life, and it also provides enough security to know that people are trying and will always try for you.
I also think that maybe they did a canny thing – letting the children find out who the other one is, without forcing them to understand. You learn a lot more when you find something out for yourself.
You are, of course, standing on the children’s side, supporting and understanding them. Was there, however, any point that you are frustrated by them?
Absolutely. I wanted Tom to shout and I wanted Zofia to reflect. Essentially, I wanted them to take on each other’s characteristics, but I guess that was the whole point of the book – meeting in the middle! Not becoming someone new, but understanding others and learning from the way they cope.
The Light in Everything is perfect for children who are struggling with big changes. What advice/message would you give to them?
Change is scary, but it’s also often important. It might not feel brilliant and it might not be what you would choose. But learning to, and being able to cope with, change is what makes people happy. I truly believe this. We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond.
Get your copy of The Light in Everything here.