Q&A with Martyn Bedford

Martyn Bedford is the bestselling British author of The Houdini Girl, Black Cat, and The Island of Lost Souls . His new book, Flip, was released on Tuesday. You can read the first three chapters of Flip now on Figment.

1. In Flip, two boys’ bodies get switched unexpectedly. Why do you think the idea of changing bodies is so fascinating ?

I don’t know many people who are entirely happy with the way they look, especially in their teens. I certainly didn’t like what I saw in the mirror when I was 14, the age of Alex and Philip in my book. My best friend at school was better looking, more popular, physically fitter and sportier, and more successful with girls than I was. So, while I didn’t actually want to be him, I did wonder what it would be like to have a face and a physique that good.

That’s partly where the idea for Flip originated. More generally, I was interested in why our culture is so obsessed with appearance and how that affects us as individuals – to what extent is our sense of “self” tied into the way we look as much as it is to the way we think?

2. Can you give us your best tip for keeping readers hooked?

For me, writing starts with character. If the readers aren’t interested in the characters they won’t much care what happens to them, so gunfights and car chases are only dramatic if we are involved with the participants on some human, emotional level. Once you’ve created a “real”, living, breathing character you’re half-way there in the battle to hook the reader into your story.

3. How does one manage to write a love story without over-sentimentality?

By keeping it true to your own experience of love. I’ve never had an overly sentimental relationship and I don’t know anyone who has. Sentimentalised love is only found in trashy fiction, TV dramas and movies. When writers over-sentimentalise romance in their books it’s usually because they’re recycling this mythologized idea of love – in other words, using love as a fictional device instead of writing from life.

4. What do you think is the worst part about being a teen? Did you try to capture this in Flip?

I hated being a teenager. Well, from 13 to 15, anyway – being an older teen wasn’t so bad. In my younger teens, I really struggled for a sense of who I was or who I could become. At that age, you don’t consider yourself a child anymore but you’re not yet an adult and so it can be really tough to figure out a sense of “self” that you feel happy with. Of course, the changes in your body as well as in your mind during this period are integral to this crisis of identity. And the adults in your life – parents, teachers, and so on – don’t quite know what to make of you either. One minute you’re acting and talking with a cool maturity, the next you’re raging like a spoilt brat. And, worst of all, your face is a constellation of zits!

I’m not sure Flip tackles this head-on, although it’s there at the margins of the story. Mostly, Alex is preoccupied with being the teen he was rather than the teen he’s trapped inside and so it isn’t really an attempt to escape, or confront, teendom itself.

5. You’ve written many successful books for adults. What made you want to write Flip, your first book for teens? Did this distinction matter to you or change how you wrote?

There were a couple of reasons. First, I had an idea for a story which seemed more suited to a teen/YA readership. Second, my editor at the time advised me not to write for teens – he didn’t really give a good reason and, anyway, like most writers I didn’t appreciate being told what to write (or what not to write!) Third, I’d written five adult novels in 14 years – and two unpublished ones in the seven years before that – and I fancied trying my hand at something a little different.

The distinction wasn’t all that noticeable, in fact, and I wasn’t acutely conscious of changing the way I wrote. I had characters to bring to life, a story to tell and ideas to explore – same as always. I was aware of some differences, though. I knew that teen/YA publishers get jittery about swearing and sex so I kept the expletives down to just about zero (though not quite) and avoided sex scenes altogether. I also used more end-of-chapter cliffhangers than I normally would, because I’d read somewhere that younger readers will give up on a book quicker if the plot doesn’t hold them. I don’t know if that’s true.

6. What is it like to be an author, in 3 words or less?

My dream job.

7. Which book, story or poem brought you greatest comfort as a teen?

This is going to sound bad, but I didn’t read much at all when I was a teen. In those days, there wasn’t a lot of teen/YA fiction around – there was Enid Blyton and adult novels and very little in between. What I wouldn’t have given for a Neil Gaiman or a Meg Rosoff or a Philip Pullman. The books I remember liking the most when I was around 15 were Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. But I wouldn’t describe them as comforting, exactly!

8. In closing, what single best piece of advice would you give to a hopeful young writer, in a sentence?

Write. (This isn’t meant to be flippant – you’ll learn more about writing by writing – and rewriting – than by any number of how-to books or writing courses.)

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