Annabel Pitcher: On Ketchup Clouds and winning the 2013 Waterstones Children's Book Prize
Published on: 24 January 2014
Annabel Pitcher was the overall winner of the 2013 Waterstones Children's Book Prize for her second novel, Ketchup Clouds. Here, she talks to Katherine about the challenges she faced when writing the book.
'I was completely and utterly daunted by setting out to write a second book,' admits Annabel Pitcher, as we chat over tea in the Covent Garden Hotel on a chilly January afternoon. We have met to talk about
Ketchup Clouds, Pitcher's second novel, which was published at the end of December. Her debut, My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece was a phenomenal success, racking up an impressive number of awards, including the Branford Boase Award and the Royal Society of Authors' Betty Trask Award, as well as being shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal. With a two-book deal in place with Orion Publishing, Pitcher was able to leave her job as an English teacher to focus on writing, but as she acknowledges, the runaway success of her first novel made it something of a hard act to follow.
'The first book I wrote as a hobby, but with the second book, I'd suddenly turned professional. It was a completely different experience writing to deadline: I had to learn as I went along. I was always very aware that it was a nice problem to have, but that doesn't mean I didn't find it hard. I was scared I'd write a book that nobody liked, and for a good few months I had stage fright.'
To make things more difficult, she didn't have a clear story in mind: 'I didn't have a strong idea, but I did have a clear feeling about what I wanted it to be like. I wanted to write a love story because I grew up loving teen romances: Dawson's Creek, the Sweet Valley books, the Making Out series. I loved those stories where you really cared for the characters, and you're always wondering which boy the heroine is going to choose. I wanted to write something like that, but I didn't want to do it in a cheesy way. So I set myself an impossible task: writing a teen love story that didn't feel like a teen love story.
'With Mantlepiece I had the plot in my head first, but with this, I started with the feel of the story, and the themes. It was quite hard to work out how I was going to make this novel about guilt and first love and teenagers making mistakes come together. It wasn't very spontaneous. There wasn't a moment when I thought "aha!"
'I started by imagining this girl with a terrible secret, and I tried to work out how she would unburden herself. I thought of lots of different ways – diaries, phone calls to The Samaritans – and eventually I settled on the idea of letters. Much later, I thought that she could write to a guy on death row. That idea came from my own personal experience of writing to someone on death row when I was a teenager. I got involved in an Amnesty International pen pal scheme because I was against the death penalty, which I still am. When I remembered that, I thought someone like that would be the ideal person for her to confide in.'
The result was Ketchup Clouds – an extraordinary story of a 15-year-old girl who comes to terms with something terrible that has happened to her by writing letters to a convicted murderer awaiting execution. Although it is very different from My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, it has a similarly distinctive first-person narrative voice, and also deals with some dark and difficult themes.
'I don't think there are any topics that writers for teenagers can't address, as long as it's done in a tactful way,' Pitcher muses. Asked about her views on a Daily Mail article, in which some recent young adult novels touching on subjects like terminal illness and self harm are criticised as 'sick-lit', she is very clear on her position: 'It's absolute and utter nonsense. It does a massive disservice to some fantastic books. Before I Die is not a miserable book: it's beautiful, and it's so uplifting. The Fault in Our Stars is another example: it just isn't true that it's a depressing, harrowing book. It's about life, loss, endings but also beginnings. These are important books with characters that teenagers might identify with, because they are going through things that they might be going through themselves. I thought it was a very irresponsible article.'
Does she feel any responsibility, then, to explore these kinds of challenging themes in her own writing? Pitcher shakes her head immediately: 'I don't feel any responsibility to my readers. The only thing I ever worry about is that they might be bored. I dread the thought: having been an English teacher, I know how quickly teenagers can turn against a book. I used to do library sessions with Year 7, and some books they would pick up and be completely engaged with from the very first page, but others they'd abandon after five pages. I live in fear I'm going to write one of those books. That's my main concern when I'm writing: is it entertaining? Is it moving?'
But Pitcher nonetheless believes that fiction has an important role to play in young people's lives today. 'It's a tough time to be a teenager,' she explains. 'The world is a scary place. There's this ridiculous obsession with celebrity and fashion and being thin. There are a lot of sensible teenagers who turn their back on celebrity magazines and Big Brother, but there are others who are completely sucked into it, and who believe their sole purpose in life is to pose beautifully for a Facebook photograph... And we all buy into it. I'm so frustrated with myself, because even though I've said this, I still get annoyed if someone posts an ugly photo of me on Facebook.'
She cites reading Caitlin Moran's book How to be a Woman as something of a personal 'eureka' moment. 'It was liberating because someone else was expressing all of those angry thoughts I'd had – not even just thoughts about feminism, but thoughts about the world. Someone was blowing up the myth and telling us that you don't have to be Jordan, you don't have to have a boob job and get botox. There is another way.'
It's evident that for Pitcher, part of what makes teenage fiction so powerful is that it can offer just such 'another way' for young people. She explains: 'I like crafting a novel, putting it all together and saying something with it. I didn't ever make a conscious decision to be a young adult author but I think I'm naturally drawn to that age. It's such an exciting time of your life: you're working out who you are; you're challenging everything; you're rebelling; you're forming your opinions; you care passionately about things. I'm very connected to my teenage self.'
Pitcher talks enthusiastically about contemporary writing for young adults she admires, citing last year's Carnegie winner, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, as an especial favourite: 'it's so beautiful and lyrical'. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff is another book she particularly admires, as is Before I Die by Jenny Downham. John Green 's work is a more recent discovery 'but I'm so excited about him' but her all time writing heroine remains J K Rowling 'I love her... she's my idol. If I met her I'd be totally star-struck.'
Her own next project though is very far removed from the fantasy world of the Harry Potter series. Her third book will be 'a novel about two teenage boys in a very disruptive friendship. One is manipulating the other, without the other boy realising it. It's loosely based on the characters in Othello.' Explaining how the idea for the novel came about, Pitcher continues: 'I started thinking about how the characters of Othello and Iago would work in a modern-day context. You hear on the news about high school shootings in America, or something like the Jamie Bulger case, and often what's happened is that there's one ringleader, and one boy who has blindly followed. I started to think about what might have happened between those two beforehand. How did they meet, and why might one be so vulnerable? That dynamic was really fascinating to me. But there's going to be some lightness in there too. I like to write books that blend heavier stuff with moments of lightness.'
Unlike either of her previous books, the new project will be written in the third person. 'I've done two strong first person voices, and I wanted to see if I could do something different. Also, I needed a break because writing in the first person is quite heavy – you really get into the mind of the character. It took me a while to get going because I'm not used to it.'
Pitcher looks thoughtful and continues: 'That's the really interesting thing about being a writer – you only ever learn how to write the book you're working on at that moment. I've written in the first person, I've written in the form of letters, and I've learned to do that. Now I'm writing in the third person and I've never done it before. Maybe when you've written as many books as Michael Morpurgo, you've done everything, but for now I'm learning on the job.'
Check out Annabel's book
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