Q&A with Sarah Naughton

He's making a list

1. Can you tell us in your own words about your new book, You Better Watch Out?

My protagonist, Eleri, is gifted a real-life advent calendar from her school Secret Santa, but as the days to Christmas tick down, the treats waiting for her behind the doors of a nearby abandoned tower block become more and more sinister. The book is divided into 24 chapters, one for each day of the countdown to Christmas, so you can use it as an advent calendar too, if you like (though hopefully you’ll have to do what I do and open all the doors at once and scoff down the treats in one go).

2. Where did the idea for You Better Watch Out first come from?

Ah, the million-dollar question. I think the idea of a real-life advent calendar came first, and then I had to hammer and twist it into an exciting plot. That’s the bit that makes your brain ache.

3. How would you describe the book in three words?

Fantastic Christmas present.

4. You’ve written several thrillers, both for adults and for teens. Why does this genre appeal to you?

I may have the body of a middle aged woman, but I have the heart and spirit of a 16 year old. I can’t quite bring myself to get excited about parenthood and careers and mortgages. I’m far more interested in those exhilarating, magical years when we’re coming of age. Teenagers are clever and honest and curious and brave. They’re trying to navigate the shocking metamorphosis from child to adult, whilst beset on all sides by the stresses of work, friendship, parental expectations and the insane hallucinogens that are teenage hormones. Teenagehood is the best of times and the worst of times and whilst I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to venture back there, it certainly makes for the best stories.

5. You Better Watch Out also sensitively explores important issues facing many young people, such as the housing crisis and mental health. What do you hope readers take away about these things from reading your book?

I didn’t write with that in mind, I just wanted to present what I saw and experienced around me, and those things are happening. To immerse yourself in a story, you have to believe in the characters, so they must have problems that we can relate to. Primarily You Better Watch Out is, I hope, a piece of entertainment. I hope it gives people pleasure (by which I mean edge-of-your-seat anxiety). And for those teenagers suffering with their mental health (as I did at that age; as are many of the young people I know now), I hope that escaping into a good story will provide respite from their worries. It did for me. Books were always my most loyal friends and refuge.

6. What was the most challenging part of writing You Better Watch Out?

I loved every minute of it. The writing of a book is always the best part for any author. You are in flow, doing the thing you love best in the world. I would pay people to let me write for them (you didn’t hear that, Scholastic!). The challenging part is when you kiss your baby goodbye and send it out into the world. Then you have to hear what people actually think of it, the reviews start coming in, and reality bites.

7. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Start young. It’s a craft and like any craft it takes practice to master: 10,000 hours supposedly. I’m a much better writer than I was ten years ago. Read forensically. Work out why you love a particular section of a book, and why you’re bored by another part. A book has a number of vital internal organs and if one isn’t working properly it will be detrimental to the whole. Have a checklist in your mind: plot, structure, characterisation, voice, pace, tension, jeopardy. A story is an intricate puzzle whose pieces you have to slot together. Oh, and never mix your metaphors.

8. What are some of your favourite YA books, and/or which upcoming YA releases are you excited to read?

I have friends and family members with excellent taste, so have become horribly lazy in researching new books, and tend to just wait for them to lend me a good one. A loan I recently very much enjoyed was ‘Shy’ by Max Porter. ‘Tender Morsels’ by Margot Lanagan is a work of genius that I am amazed is not more famous. I love any ghost story and any good horror, but I am picky with my thrillers. I’ve been really looking forward to reading ‘Treacle Walker’, by Alan Garner, who was one of my favourite authors, along with Robert Westall, when I was young: I’m saving it up for Christmas. My favourite book is ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver (who also wrote the excellent ‘Wolf Brother’ series): a brilliantly creepy ghost story for when the nights are drawing in.

9. And finally, Halloween or Christmas?

Christmas. And not because it’s all shiny and lovely. It isn’t, unless you are one of those vanishingly rare things: a non-dysfunctional family. When normal families get together, simmering tensions reach boiling point, people get drunk and fight, secrets come out. And that’s before you get into all the disturbing traditions. My children were always terrified at the prospect of the strange bearded man crawling down the chimney with his sack, and don’t get me started on the Elf on the Shelf that creeps around your house when you’re not looking. In my favourite carol, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary with ‘eyes as flame’: hardly cosy. And, anyway, the original date was nothing to do with the baby Jesus being born in the manger. Christianity decided to piggyback a pagan festival that took place in the darkest, coldest depths of winter, in which the people prayed for light and warmth to return to the land. Germans honoured Odin at this time, and they were so terrified of his habit of making nocturnal flights to spy on them and decide who would prosper and who would perish, that they hid in their houses. Christmas contains all the unsettling, ambiguous aspects of Halloween within it, and then some. Dickens knew that, which is why his most unsettling story is based at Christmas, where the protagonist narrowly avoid eternal damnation in the fires of hell.
You Better Watch Out: You Better Not Die DNFO
You Better Watch Out is out October 2023

Dark, moreish and chilling – the countdown to Christmas is on … and time is running out.

Every day in December, a gift is left for Eleri in the abandoned tower block opposite her flat. At first, she can’t help but be flattered, hoping that her Secret Santa is enigmatic Ras – a boy she has history with. But with each day that passes, the gifts get darker and more dangerous. Is this a harmless bit of festive fun? Or does this have something to do with Nina’s disappearance last year? If so … will Eleri be next?

The countdown to Christmas has never been so terrifying

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