Q&A with Tracey Mathias
Welcome back to our author Q&As! Today we’re thrilled to be welcoming Tracey Mathias to talk about her YA novel Silence is Also a Lie!
1. What inspired you to write Silence is Also a Lie?
Silence is Also a Lie is a love story, a mystery, and a political dystopia, and each of those three main threads had its own moment of inspiration.
The decision to write a love story came just as I was finishing a novel about the relationship between a brother and sister: I knew that I wanted to write something with a different emotional heartbeat next. But for a while that’s all I knew! The names Ash and Zara came to me early on, as did the idea that the story would take place in the shadow and aftermath of Ash’s sister’s death. I set out with that, and nothing else.
The mystery element came out of the blue, as an unexpected moment of revelation. I used to attend a play writing course run by the writers Bernard Kops and Tom Fry. At each class we would be given about 45 minutes to write a scene. There were always two actors in attendance, and the evening would end with them performing what we had just written. It was the most intensive writing I’ve ever done: sometimes terrifying, sometimes inspiring. So I started using the classes to explore possible stories for Ash and Zara. About four weeks in I found myself writing a scene between Ash and Zara in which he learns, weeks into their relationship, things that she has secret kept from him: that she knew his younger sister Sophie and that she was at the party where Sophie died. As the actors finished reading it, Tom said, ‘Ooh. That’s story,’ and I knew immediately that there was a novel hiding there – pivoting around the mystery of why a girl would stay silent about something utterly and absolutely important to the boy she loves.
That gave me the mystery – but it for months it remained a mystery to me too! I had no idea why Zara wouldn’t have told Ash what she knew about Sophie. There could have been many answers to that question, and I spent months turning over possibilities: this could have become a psychological thriller, or a crime novel… But all this was happening at a particular moment in UK politics when right-wing voices on immigration, national identity, membership of the EU and so on, were increasingly audible, and one morning I found myself wondering ‘what would a fascist govt in 21st century Britain look like?’ The idea of setting the novel in a near future dystopia was the thing that really gave the story a clear drive and shape, as well as solving the mystery of Zara’s silence. Finding that third thread enabled me to start writing.
2. What do you want young readers to take away from reading the book?
I suppose every writer hopes that readers will fall in love with their characters! – and I think that’s another way of saying that I hope readers will be able to imagine themselves into Ash and Zara’s lives and reflect on the experiences and difficulties that they encounter. I’d like the story to prompt questions like, what’s it like to suffer grief? What’s it like to be declared illegal in the only country you’ve ever called home? What’s the nature of privilege? What would force you to take part in political action? How do the big events of politics and history affect the personal and private lives of individuals?
3. Silence is Also a Lie is a dystopian fantasy. Why did you want to write a dystopian novel and what is your favourite dystopian story?
I think there are a number of reasons! The first books I ever wrote were pure fantasy, and one of the things I most loved about writing those was world building: conjuring up a whole place and society and culture out of imagination. So when I decided to write about something more contemporary and more realistic, I instinctively looked for a way to keep that space for invention – so Silence is Also a Lie ended up being set in a recognisable world that’s almost, but not quite, ours; and some of the most exciting bits of writing it were thinking about how our world might be different if one big thing changed.
As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed speculative fiction: both historical and futuristic. Where might we have ended up if history had taken a different turn? Where might we end up if we take a particular path in the future? When I was writing this book, I read Julie Mayhew’s The Big Lie, which is a powerfully imagined story about what modern Britain might have become if Nazism had triumphed in the 1940s – and I guess I was aiming for something like that, only with the question set in the future – where might be if fascism triumphed in C21st Britain. Fiona Shaw’s novel Outwalkers does something similar: imagining a society rather like that of Silence is Also a Lie, but set further into the 21st century.
Dystopia is also a way of commenting on the present, and for me, as I wrote, this increasingly became a book about how the world seemed to be retreating behind nationalist borders at a time when we most need to recognise our common humanity. There’s a silent epigraph to the book: I wrote the later drafts with the words of the murdered MP Jo Cox ringing in my head: We have more in common than that which divides us.
4. How can young people get involved with politics?
Political power sits with elected leaders and institutions, but even if you’re too young to vote I think there are increasing opportunities for campaigning and making your voice heard. One of the most dramatic and encouraging features of politics in the last few years has been the mass mobilisation of youth protest and opinion, especially on the issues of climate change and Black Lives Matter. Increasingly young voices are making themselves heard and effective against established authorities that have been reluctant or slow to change. Check out the TED talk given by Luisa Neubauer (a German climate change activist who was a key organiser of the school strikes there) – she has a really great description of what it takes to become an activist: don’t hold back, find the places where you can have an influence and raise your voice, join forces with others, take yourself seriously.
5. What was the most challenging thing about writing Silence is Also a Lie?
The basic story fell into place quite easily: what was difficult was deciding how to tell it, and especially where to place the key revelation about Ash’s sister Sophie, and Zara’s role in Sophie’s story. In early drafts, I kept thinking of this as a pivotal scene – the turning point of the story – and wanting it to come at the mid-point of the novel. I also wanted my readers to learn the truth at the same time that Ash did: I had an idea that it would be good if readers went on his journey from confusion to understanding with him. But both those decisions created really big problems. Probably the main one was that this approach meant that, because Zara’s truth needed to stay hidden, I couldn’t write anything in her voice in the early part of the book. As a result, she came across as vague and rather passive. Also, I came to realise that it’s all very well wanting to build a sense of mystery, but if that mystery is too undefined then it just becomes frustrating rather than intriguing for your readers. The break through came in a conversation with a member of my writer’s group which went something like:
Me: I want the revelation scene to be the turning point of the novel.
Me: I want the reader to learn the truth at the same time as Ash.
Once I started to see that those weren’t fixed parameters but could be changed, the book really gained momentum, and crucially, Zara came to life as an active character, wrestling with the awful dilemma of how to weigh safety against truth, and making her own difficult decisions: from having been very passive in early drafts, she came to be the person who really drove the plot.
6. Do you have any tips for aspiring YA writers?
There’s so much advice out there! The key things that have helped me, I think are:
Stay in touch with real teenagers – and with the teenager you used to be. I think both matter: you need to know what it’s like to be a teen now, but you also need to be able to conjure what it feels like from the inside.
Learn to read like a writer. That you should read widely goes without saying, but I think it’s so important for writers to read from the point of view of craft – alert to how other writers achieve certain effects, manage technical challenges, and so on.
Find your community. It took me a long time to join a writers’ group and it was definitely one of the things that most helped my writing to improve. I found it really hard at first: it’s a very raw and risky feeling, handing over unfinished writing to others to critique and I had to grow a writers’ group skin and develop a relationship of trust with the group. But once I had it was so helpful: not just because of the comments I was receiving on my work, but because critiquing others’ stories really helps you to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Be you. There’s so much advice out there about writing: about routines and plotting and editing and so on. Lots of it is really useful and helpful – but you need to balance it with a clear understanding of who you are as a writer and what makes the writer inside you tick. So listen to yourself and learn what kind of a writer you are (when are you most creative? Do you write best if you go steadily or in bursts? What gets you unstuck? Do you like to know where the story’s going before you write, or to explore? – and a hundred other questions.) Another aspect of this, I think, is to be aware of what I’ve heard described as your DNA as a writer: what are the common threads in the stories that you really love and that you long to write?
Cultivate stubbornness and humility. Sometimes as a writer you need to dig your heels in – not just to persist through the long job of going through draft after draft and edit after edit, but to stick to your sense of what your story is, what its heart is, what’s essential and non alterable about it. But also you need the humility to listen to – and act on – advice and feedback; especially when you get to the truly collaborative stage of working with an agent and an editor – at which point the book becomes a joint project as much as an individual one.
7. What have been your favourite YA books released in 2020?
There’s a lot I still have to read! I relished the second volume in Matt Killeen’s second world war spy series – Darling, Devil, Spy, which ventures into some fascinating and not usually explored corners of history that threw up huge moral complexities; I also loved the way in which his protagonist, Sarah, had really grown up from the previous book. I was hooked by Melinda Salisbury’s Hold Back The Tide; a fable of climate change with a brilliantly imagined historical fantasy setting, and moments of pure terror and heartbreak. I’m currently reading and loving Elizabeth Avecedo’s Clap When You Land.