The debut young adult novel Fish Boy (Faber, £9.99) tells the story of Billy, a young boy whose mother has a mysterious illness and whose father works too much, leaving him alone with David Attenborough documentaries and his obsession with swimming in the sea.
Who was the real life Billy Shiel and why did he inspire you?
The original honest answer to that is the name is all I know! I love being in Northumberland and wanted the place to be part of the book. I particularly love the Farne Islands and the seal and bird spotting Billy Shiel boat trips that run there. With it being a watery story the name just popped right into my head. Being as you ask though I looked into it and the Shiels have been doing boat trips at the islands since 1918 in a family tradition that’s still going, with William head of the fleet right now.
You are a mother of two sons. Did you write with them in mind?
In many ways I did. I wanted the kids in it to feel real – the way they speak, the stuff they do. And it feels great to do a book about boys that’s also really emotional as well as an adventure. Plus I put in specific details from our lives to make it fun. It’s good to be able show positive non-stereotypical masculinities and that it’s actually a really great idea to be able to talk about problems and feelings.
You also have a background in art and chose to include some illustrations in the book. What does the imagery add?
I think the illustrations are so beautiful they’re a real treat for the reader. Making images with words is really important to me and I don’t think they replace the reader’s own imagined imagery, but add to it. They’re kind of like a “we’re in it together” arm around the shoulder.
You wrote the book while living in a caravan and wild swimming in the nearby river – how did that help the writing process?
Writing in my caravan helps me concentrate and I love watching the wildlife out of the window while I’m working. Swimming in the river is important metaphorically and for research and fun. I needed to know what it felt like so I started out with a wet suit, which I ditched pretty soon and just went in. When you’re standing on the edge about to jump and feeling excited and terrified – that’s the before-writing feeling. So you jump!
Comparisons have been drawn between Fish Boy and the work of fellow Northumbrian David Almond, as well as Mark Haddon. Were you inspired by their work?
Yes, I’m a big David Almond fan and I love Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It’s a beautifully written zap and probably inspired the quirkiness and honesty. I love the way David’s stories are their own creations – they’re there for whoever picks them up and wants to read them. I think great stories are like that – they’re there for everyone regardless of age. Skellig and My Name is Mina are particularly fantastic, fun and inspiring – plus the short chapters made writing a book feel achievable and that’s important when you’re starting out.