Karen Gregory’s ‘Skylarks’ shows a relationship between two girls from very different social and economic backgrounds, highlighting the struggles of class divides and social/political activism of young people. We sat down with the author, Karen Gregory, to get to know her and the inspirations behind the novel a little bit more.
For those who haven’t yet picked up a copy of ‘Skylarks’ how would you entice them to pick one up?
Skylarks is a f/f contemporary which looks at love across the class divide through the eyes of Joni and Annabel. It’s set against the backdrop of austerity Britain, but also the magic of Avebury and the Marlborough Downs landscape. If you like your romance with a side of politics and activism as well as a celebration of nature and place Skylarks might be for you. Also, anyone interested in lesbians and libraries will hopefully be satisfied customers!
The book features important themes such as how to stand up for what you believe in and also looks at social injustice, the poverty gap and activism – what made you broach these subjects and do you think there’s a lack of openly speaking about them in YA?
I’d been working first in Local Government and then in the NHS so austerity was really in my consciousness over the years between 2010 – 2015, when I first had the idea for ‘Skylarks’. I tend to gravitate towards subjects I’m deeply interested in in some way, so it felt quite natural to explore some of this in a novel. I definitely think we’re seeing loads more books which look at different forms of politics and activism coming through in YA at the moment: the obvious one is Angie Thomas’ outstanding ‘The Hate U Give’, but I can think of several other books which look at different elements of poverty, politics or social injustices such as Muhammad Khan’s ‘I Am Thunder’, which tackles Islamophobia or ‘The Bone Sparrow’ by Zana Fraillon which is set in a refugee camp. Of course, we always need more, written by authors from all backgrounds.
There’s a beautiful LGBTQ+ relationship in the book, we’re starting to see more of that within YA writing which is amazing. Can you tell us a bit more about that and did you pull inspiration for this from anywhere?
The relationship between Joni and Annabel really evolved as the book did. When I first started ‘Skylarks’, it was actually from Annabel’s point of view (though she had a different name at that point) and it was essentially me trying to explore the ethics of private companies in the care home sector, which is possibly why it never quite went anywhere! What did happen though was I developed a character who I initially envisaged would form a friendship with Annabel and spark her development into a much more politically aware person. That character was Joni, and she very quickly took over the story. Once I’d found her voice, things clicked into place and I always knew she was a lesbian. The relationship developed quite naturally from there. There’s probably bits of me in both girls, but they’re very much their own characters.
We love the fact that young adults are activists in the book, can you tell us a little bit about why you chose them to take on this role – when primarily it’s left up to older individuals.
One of the loveliest pieces of feedback I’ve been getting from teenagers reading ‘Skylarks’ is that they found it empowering that Joni and her friends do stand up and take action. I think there’s always a strong element of hope in my writing: things may be tough, but there’s a possibility of change. It was important for me to have Joni realise she does have power, maybe not always in the ways she wants, but in choosing how she reacts to things, what sort of person she decides she wants to be. I’ve personally really enjoyed her journey so I hope readers do too!
Can you tell us what a typical writing day looks like for you?
There isn’t really one, to be honest! I fit it around the children and my day job for a children’s reading charity. I’m not someone who writes every day; sometimes I find I need a break of a few weeks just to read, connect with people, or watch Netflix! When I’m really into a draft though I do tend to get bits done most days, usually after the children are in bed for an hour or so. I’ve been experimenting recently with early mornings which has been interesting as I’m not usually known for being a morning person, but I do get so much more done first thing. I’ll also manage much longer chunks of writing during the weekends the children are with their dad too.
What’s one book you could read over and over again and never get bored?
Hmmm, there aren’t many actually! I’ve really enjoyed re-reading all the Harry Potters with my daughter – she’d get me to read half a chapter then carry on by herself. If I’d been asked this even a year ago I would have had a long list, but I think things have been shifting quite quickly on a personal level in the last year or so, and I’ve found some of my old favourites are really not doing it for me at the moment. For sheer volume of re-reads with the kids, a really decent picture book is brilliant. If I had to pick one, it would be ‘Mog The Forgetful Cat’, by Judith Kerr.
What’s one character you wished you created?
I don’t quite know how to say this without sounding a bit pretentious, but I’m not sure I can say any, because all the best characters could only have been created by the authors who created them (if that makes sense!) Although, Jane Eyre is possibly still one of my favorite characters.
Lastly, what advice would you give to people looking to start writing their own novel?
Go for it! Try not to look back too much on the first draft and just write until you’re done, then leave it a while before you re-read. Nothing’s going to come out perfectly first time – that’s what edits are for! On the other hand, if it works for you to go back and edit and re-edit every page before you move on, do that! Never be afraid to approach people for help and advice, but remember that everyone has a different process and you’ll find the one that works for you. Finally, be kind to yourself and celebrate all the milestones, large and small.
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