Keren David is the author of When I Was Joe, a bestselling YA thriller (currently published in England) that will be released in the US by Frances Lincoln in September 2010.
I wish I’d been a teenage writer. I wasn’t. Instead I was a teenage journalist.
When I was 18, I got a job as a messenger girl on a national newspaper in London. The plan was to go to university after a year. That plan got torn up. I was addicted to news. I was promoted to junior reporter and started learning how to listen to people’s stories, knock on doors. Later I became an editor chopping and polishing copy at speed, reducing long complex stories into short punchy headlines. It was fun, it was furious and it entirely filled the creative part of my brain for more than 20 years.
In 1999, I moved, with my family, to The Netherlands, where Iworked for a photo-journalism agency, studied art history and grumbled about missing career opportunities back home. We moved back to London in 2007, where I swiftly rejected the idea of looking for a job on a newspaper again. I realised that as a young journalist, I’d sacrificed something important. I’d lost my own voice. It was time to try something different.
I thought I knew how to write. But I only knew how to write in someone else’s style, and to someone else’s rules. I had to learn to trust the freedom that writing fiction gives you. To forget about other people’s feelings. To write the book that I wanted to read—and risk revealing myself as I did so.
‘Write about what you know’ is one of the first instructions you get when writing fiction. It used to make me despair. I thought I’d have to stick to my own limited life, just changing the names and a few details. But it doesn’t mean that at all. You make up the most exciting and extraordinary story you can, then reach into your own experiences to bring your scenes and characters to life. It’s amazing how you can find parallels to the most incredible tales in your everyday life.
I took an idea about identity and witness protection, and I listened to the voices and stories around me on the streets of London. It’s strange returning to your home town after years abroad. You’ve got a foreigner’s fresh eye (a peculiar level of detachment), and an insider’s understanding. It’s the perfect combination for a writer.
When I tell people that my first book, “When I Was Joe,” is a celebration of my coming home to London, they’re shocked. After all, it’s about knives and gangs and crime. But I was doing my old job as a reporter, reflecting the life of the city around me, then applying my imagination to convey a deeper understanding than I ever could as a journalist. The single most exciting moment for me since I started writing—even better than getting an agent or a bookdeal—was when an English teacher from a tough inner-city London school told me he thought my book captured the kids he taught more accurately than any other he had read.
The language of “When I Was Joe” is as much a part of the city as it is of the story. It’s a very British book! Now that it is being published in America, I’m curious how it will work in translation. Will U.S. readers be baffled by words like ‘slapper’ and ‘tosser’? Will Ty’s story work for a new audience? I can’t wait to find out.
When I Was Joe is about a teenage boy who has to take on a new identity. He’s excited by the idea of reinventing himself,but he finds it’s not so easy to leave the past behind. Writing fiction gives you the chance to take on multiple personalities and identities, to explore them all and develop different parts of yourself. Your own true voice is so much more complex than you realise. I envy teenage writers starting out on that journey. I’m happy I got there in the end.
You can pre-order Keren’s book here.