Friday, 17 May 2013

An Edge Too Far? – by Guest Author Cathy MacPhail

This week we are delighted to welcome best-selling author Cathy MacPhail as our guest at The Edge …

A boy witnesses a man tumbling to his death from the top of a tower block, and landing with a Splat!

This is how my next book, Mosi’s War begins. Well, you’ve got to hook them from the beginning, haven’t you? 

From then on there are machete fights, riots, murder, a bit of slicing and dicing, cannibalism … oh, and a vampire … did I mention a vampire? All in the name of gritty realism.

But this is a book about a young African asylum seeker who harbours a terrible secret, and who then sees, right there in the Glasgow estate where he lives, someone from his past, someone who terrifies him. So in order for it to be truthful, it had to be violent.

But that’s the dilemma about writing young adult fiction, especially when, like me, you write for the younger adult age group. 

Just how truthful, how graphic, should you be?

I know there is a debate at the moment about just what subjects you can tackle in young adult fiction. And the answer seems to be, you can tackle anything you want, it is the way you handle the subject that matters.

You want your book to be as honest as possible, but you also want your book to be accessible not only for the age group you’re writing for, but also acceptable for teachers, parents and librarians too.

Personally, I look at it is as a challenge to be overcome, rather than a problem that has to be faced. 

I think there are always ways to get round it. For instance, we all know a lot of children swear, but I wouldn’t get away with a load of swear words in my books, nor would I want to. And after all, if you were adapting your book for children’s television you wouldn’t be allowed swear words. The challenge is to depict your characters’ dialogue honestly without using any actual swear words in your story.

Overcoming that challenge is something I enjoy. We know dark things can go on in a young person’s life, but we can hint at it, without being too specific or graphic. What you leave out can be as important as what you put in.

I’ve been lucky, from the beginning I have written about dark subjects, and I have never had anyone say, that’s too dark, cut it out. In Grass, a boy witnesses a gangster blast the life out of another gangster and I’ve read that scene out at schools, even primary schools and you can hear a pin drop when I do, and never once has a teacher told me it was too graphic.

I wrote Roxy’s Baby after hearing a report on radio about a girl who had come to this country and then found out she was pregnant. People offered to look after her and she thought they were being kind. When the baby was born they told her the baby had died. Only later did she find out the horrific truth. The baby had been sold on for its organs. I had never heard anything so horrific. I knew I wanted to write that book, but how could I possibly write a book about such a horrific subject when I write for such a young market. How could I make this book accessible to my readers, and still be honest? Then I realised I could put a young girl, perhaps 14, into my story, and at fourteen I would never suspect such a horrendous truth. My fourteen year old imagination’s worst nightmare would be that they were witches, and wanted my baby for some kind of blood sacrifice, and so Roxy never finds out the truth till the very end, and neither do the readers. And once again, I have never been told at any high school not to talk about Roxy’s Baby.

So I think there are always ways round any topic, no matter how dark and edgy and gritty. Put a young person in there and see it through their eyes, see how they would deal with it at their age.

I’m so glad I was allowed the violence and blood that there is in Mosi’s War. It’s a book about a boy soldier, and the terrible things he has had to do to survive. It had to be gritty. But it’s also a book about a boy, who has had his childhood taken away from him, who has lost his belief in everything, and who, in the end, gets his faith back.

And that was the only thing I wasn’t allowed to mention … God.

It seems He was an edge too far.


For more information visit Cathy's website and blog.
Follow her on Twitter @CathyMacphail


  1. This is fascinating. As a writer of YA, I've been wrestling with similar challenges myself in terms of language and the depiction of violence. I haven't felt the urge, yet, to get into really dark territory, but the observations you make here give me hope that anything is possible with this genre. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for this very interesting post, Cathy. Fascinated that you weren't allowed to mention God - who banned you, how and why???

  3. A very interesting post, Cathy. I'm in the dark teen/YA territory too, and it is definitely a challenge keeping everyone happy whilst staying true to the story. Looking forward to reading Mosi's War.

  4. You make a good point - how can you write about a boy soldier without including any violence. Unfortunately violence is part of many teenagers lives, not writing about it will not take it away. Bringing it out into the open might allow us all to process and think about the issues involved and perhaps, in some cases, to do something about it.

  5. Yes indeed. When writing for teens you are in a way giving their truth a chance to be heard. And truth is not easy to take. Thank you for this insightful post.