Rosie Talbot chats subtle reps and the `Britishness’ of Sixteen Souls

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Rosie Talbot, known on BookTok as @merrowchild, has finally released her debut YA novel, Sixteen Souls with Scholastic after an unusual publishing journey. The heartfelt novel follows Charlie Frith as he realises that one of his own ghostly friends has gone missing and he must put aside his own safety – and reclusive existence – if he is to find them. Charlie reluctantly teams up with Sam Harrow – the new seer in town – and a rag-tag group of ghosts, to save their friends from a fate literally worse than death.

We had the honour of chatting with Rosie about everything Sixteen Souls, from the `Britishness’ of it, to including subtle reps and consulting sensitivity readers.

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You have had a very interesting publishing journey! Please tell us more about it.

My publishing journey was definitely unusual, but it started off in very familiar territory. Like many authors I found myself stuck in the querying trenches during the pandemic with a book I knew in my heart was the one. Sixteen Souls was the story I wanted to share with the world and it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. It was a very frustrating time because I could feel in my bookseller bones that Young Adult novels with vibes like Sixteen Souls were on the rise, and I didn’t want to miss that wave of interest in the haunted and macabre.
I had a choice: keep querying with the odds stacked against me, or carve my own path. Just under a year ago I announced my intention to self-publish, which is possibly the scariest thing I’ve ever done. The support of the Booktok and Bookstagram communities, where I talk about books and reading as @merrowchild, is what made me brave enough to give it a shot. Booktok in particular is a brilliant platform to reach readers and build a community. I’ve been very lucky to have their backing and encouragement.
Then came the biggest surprise of my life. Less than three months before my intended publication date Scholastic offered on Sixteen Souls and a sequel. Although I think self-publishing is fantastic and I would have been happy to continue down that path, having the support of a professional team means that I can focus more on what I love doing – writing, and making a fool of myself on tiktok. I’m thrilled to be working with Scholastic. Their passion for Sixteen Souls was palpable from our first conversation and they have given Charlie and his ghosts the kind of launch I only ever dreamed of.

And being a bookseller, I’m sure this has been extra special for you. What has the response been like?

Incredible! Unboxing my debut novel and shelving copies beside the works of authors I have so long admired was a very special experience that will always stay with me. And I get to tell customers about my book while I’m at work – which is a surreal experience! I have the most wonderful colleagues, in my home shop at Horsham, local cluster, and also in the wider company. Since its release, booksellers at Waterstones all across the country have shared photos of Sixteen Souls arriving in stock and sent me messages of encouragement and support.

 

Sixteen Souls is honestly the perfect UKYA representation, especially with the spooky York descriptions, and the dry British humor that make the book very heartwarming to read. Were you making a conscious effort to rep UKYA or did they just flow naturally out of you?

Thank you! Sixteen Souls is indeed very British in its humour and tone and I feel that was a very natural thing for me as an author. I’ll be honest, it didn’t even occur to me to set the story outside of the UK. We have such wonderful ghost stories here and I wanted to choose a setting that reflected that. York is known as the city of a thousand ghosts and is said to be the most haunted city in Europe, so it was a natural choice. However, I’m not from York myself. I’m a southerner, so getting the nuances of Charlie’s northern language right took research and the help of friends from Yorkshire.

York is of course famous for its ghost stories. How did you ensure the world of Sixteen Souls honors the traditions in York while retaining its individuality?

Research, a lot of it! I really wanted to honour York. I read many novels and travel writing set in York and Yorkshire, spent hours on Google Maps ‘walking the streets’, read countless blogs and books on ghost stories and York folklore – trying to immerse myself in the essence of the city and distil that into Charlie’s version of York. He sees and experiences the city through his unique perspective and I found that refining everything I’d researched through his point of view made for a very specific version of York – one that is very haunted!
Although the world building principles would be the same if the book were set elsewhere, I feel that this story couldn’t easily be told anywhere else. The history and ghostlore of York and the ‘Britishness’ of it all, is a fundamental part of the story. Hopefully I’ve been successful in capturing something of York’s magic. If anything, this book is a love letter from me to my favourite city!

And in a world where you can literally pick and choose any type of souls to feature, how did you decide the backstories and personalities of the ghosts in Sixteen Souls? Did you draw inspirations from historical figures, famous ghost stories etc?

Some of the ghosts, like Ollie and Heather, are purely from my imagination but I also drew inspiration from both York’s history and ghostlore. Mad Alice, the Ragged Children of Bedern and Geoff Monroe the unfortunate Canadian airman are all famous local ghosts that I included. I wanted haunted York to feel full of the dead, thousands of ghosts all living out their afterlife, all a potential friend or threat to Charlie.

I also read into the history of the city and included various historical figures as ghosts. Saint Margaret Clitherow, the famous catholic martyr, is one, as is the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus who died in York, but was buried in Rome. George Villiers is unique in that he’s not a ghost from York (although there are ghost stories told about this son) but one who has travelled there as a free spirit who is able to roam wherever he wishes. He was a lot of fun to write. I’ve certainly been influenced by what historical records say, but I’ve also allowed myself to interpret their personalities and motivations beyond the records to make them uniquely my own.

I love that with his peers, Charlie never really had a big coming out moment, nor a big discussion on his disability. More books should do this! How did you balance between not making these the focal point, but still doing a well-rounded representation of being queer and being disabled?

I always knew I was aiming for a casual approach to the queer and disability rep in Sixteen Souls. Subtle rep can have huge impact and power because it’s not making a big deal or drawing attention to itself, it just is. It’s normalising. As an author I aim to write the diversity that I see around me. Queer and disabled people are busy being the main character in real life; falling in love and having adventures. So why not on the page too?

Ultimately, it isn’t a novel about what it’s like to be a gay teen amputee, that’s not the focus of the story, it’s about friendship, falling for someone unexpected, and the mystery of the missing ghosts. Charlie’s sexuality and disability are just part of his bodymind. They don’t define him, but they are a significant part of how he experiences the world and at times they limit him or offer unexpected challenges – very much like seeing the dead also impacts him. Despite taking a subtle approach, I didn’t want to just throw in disability rep for the sake of it. Charlie’s being an amputee weaves into the worldbuilding and is a fundamental part of his backstory.

In terms of writing well rounded representation, I think that comes from diligent research and speaking to people with lived experience. I’m queer myself, but I’m not a gay teen boy, and I have a chronic pain condition, but I’m not an amputee. My experience of being queer and of disability is therefore different to Charlie’s and I wanted to ensure I’m not telling a story that’s not mine to tell. I was very lucky to work with some amazing sensitivity and beta readers who gave me valuable feedback on both Charlie’s disability, the trans experience, and on the queer representation in Sixteen Souls. This helped me bring a level of authenticity and nuance to the aspects outside of my lived experience.

It was clear in Sixteen Souls that conversations about these are welcomed as long as they remain respectful. What was it like when you gathered opinions from sensitivity readers? How was it different from doing research on York?

Getting the book to feel authentically northern in tone was really important to me. Although researching the history of York and researching life as an amputee and as a gay teen required equal amounts of time and dedication, when it came to the historical side of things, I didn’t have to worry about what might be hiding ‘between the lines’ as much.
We live in an inherently ableist society and it would be very easy for that ableism to creep into the novel in ways that I might not realise. This is why sensitivity readers are so vital, because you may think that you’re getting it right, when all along, a vital plot point actually accidentally undermines all of the positive rep you think you’re offering. The same goes for queer rep. Just because I’m part of the community doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically get it right. Overall the feedback from my sensitivity readers was along the lines of ‘very good, carry on,’ but being able to discuss such nuances with them helped me craft a story that I hope will offer a positive experience for queer and disabled readers. I hope that I’ve got it right in Sixteen Souls, but as an author I never want to be beyond criticism and I’ll always strive do to better.

In fact, the big coming out moment for Charlie was him announcing that he’s a seer, as well as the discussion about how Charlie and Sam’s parents’ viewed being a seer differently. When writing the parents’ perspectives on this, did you draw inspiration from how parents could react to a usual coming out?

Not consciously, but there is definitely a parallel drawn between seeing ghosts and being queer and I use one to indirectly comment on the other. Charlie is nervous about his parents finding out that he’s gay, but it’s a discussion he knows they will have one day, where as he shuts down any notion that his mum and dad could ever find out about him seeing the dead. It’s his nightmare and his fears are a comment society and our perceptions of those we deem as ‘other’ or different. Sadly, the fear of rejection is something that a lot of queer people still have to face in their coming out.
Sam’s parents know that he can see the dead, and his mother in particular embraces and celebrates that as a gift. But neither of his parents are really there for him, as a seen or as a trans guy. Yes they’ll support his medical transition, which for many trans teen is the dream, but they have little time for him and no real interest in supporting him emotionally. It’s all on their terms.

And finally, do you think being a seer is a gift or a burden?

Both. There are times when seeing the dead is a major advantage to Charlie and Sam, and other moments where it makes their lives complicated, hard and dangerous. Whatever it is at any given moment, it’s not something they can change about themselves, it’s part of who they are and how they experience the world. Realising, accepting and embracing that is part of Charlie’s journey in this book. Hopefully, it makes for an interesting adventure to read!

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