Class Conscious: Who Do You Think You Are? by Pauline Burgess
Back in the day (the seventies, to be exact) if you said you wanted to grow up to be a writer, your parents and teachers just smiled indulgently and said ‘Yes, but you need a proper job.’ And do you know what? They were right. So, I settled for writing random stories every now and again for the next twenty odd years or so, forging my way through school, university, a teaching career and eventually motherhood. I knew I was lucky and privileged to have all of that – and yet, something was still niggling at me. The writing itch just wasn’t being scratched sufficiently.
So, a number of years ago I started writing short stories, and as my confidence grew and my writing improved (a little) I started submitting to magazines and newspapers. When Ireland’s Own accepted my first story for publication and paid me for the privilege, I did the unthinkable – I went out celebrating on a school night. And a Monday night, to boot! More short stories followed and more successes, albeit erratically. But a few years later I decided to challenge myself and write a novel; something I’d first tried and failed to do when I was nine years-old. So I wrote Double Troubles: a story about two friends going their separate ways after primary school and after the despised Transfer Test (a little treasure we hold on to here in the north!) I genuinely thought that it had a really good chance of being published, simply because it was written. To be fair, I did have it professionally edited, but my naiveté knew no bounds as I sat around waiting for the offers to roll in. They didn’t. It was never published. Neither was the novel that followed it, or the one after, or the four others after that and thank goodness they weren’t. Apart from the fact that they were just not good enough, these novels became a really important part of my writing journey. I learned to be realistic; I learned that I needed to go on writing courses and I learned to be tenacious. Most importantly of all, I learned that I wasn’t ready.
More short story successes followed but the elusive book contract seemed as far away as ever. But one major bonus for me was that I had access to my audience day and daily; a daughter at home – and teenagers in school. I loved reading through a plethora of fabulous fiction with my students, gauging their reactions, seeing what worked and what didn’t. I grew passionate about finding the right book for the reluctant readers; about finding the magic key that would unlock the barriers to reading for pleasure. And then I started writing for the students; short stories here, drama scripts there – extracts that I would use for literacy exercises in class without them ever knowing that I was the author. When they started asking for more and more, I knew I was getting something right, but I was no longer naïve about the chance of publication. I just knew that I was doing something authentic. I was managing to capture the right voice or create believable characters – somehow I was hooking my readers, and believe me, they were a tough audience.
Driving home from school one day my mobile phone beeped with an incoming email from Blackstaff Press. I pulled in and read it, scouring it for the usual ‘we regret’ or ‘not for us’ phrases that I had grown accustomed to. I was so busy looking for the negatives that I missed the ‘yes.’ Twelve years after sending my first novel to a publisher I had secured a book deal for not one, but three books. This particular series – Pony Friends Forever – was aimed at 5-8 year-olds and was inspired by my then 7 year-old daughter’s riding experiences. Obviously I screamed all the way home.
So after three heady years and all 3 books published, I waited on the next big thing. I mean, I was a published author now – I was in through the ‘door.’ Except I wasn’t. I was still writing, but no more contracts were appearing. Two years of disillusionment followed, buoyed up occasionally with thoughtful writer-friends offering encouragement. The rejections kept popping up in my emails and my confidence was waning big time, but my passion for encouraging reading in the classroom was as strong as ever. One day a student brought his pet corn snake into class – for no apparent reason – and being snake-phobic, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Somehow that snake made its way into a story called Knock Back, and somehow that story was picked out of the slush-pile by Paula Campbell at Poolbeg, and somehow that book became one of 3 contemporary teen novels which Poolbeg offered to publish. On the afternoon when that email arrived, I was tidying up a fifth year class at the end of the day when the school bell rang. They were the very first people to hear my amazing news. I babbled on about how long it had taken to get to this stage in my career (yes, that’s what it definitely was by then) and how delighted I was and so on and so on. ‘Miss?’ asked one of the boys. ‘Yes, Ryan?’ I waited on his question, assuming it was about where did I get the time, or what inspired me to write the book. No. It was ‘The bell’s gone – can we go home now?’
The students have actually become a little more interested in the last couple of years. Knock Back has become a class novel in quite a few schools and Who Do You Think You Are? is largely a tribute to many of the East European students I have taught over the years. Book 3 is currently being written. The questions have changed somewhat – the other day I was asked if my bed was made of ten pound notes! Bless them – they’re still under that illusion that writers make a fortune. We don’t, which is why we need the other job; in my case, teaching.
But that’s not all I need teaching for. Without immersing myself in the world of 11-18 year-olds in the classroom every week, I know that I would never be an authentic writer for this age group. I’m not saying that this is the case for other writers of teen and YA fiction – but it is for me. I hear their lingo, I see their complexities, I learn to understand their follies and foibles. And then I go home and capture all that in a story. Of course, I never write about my actual students, but little bits of this and little bits of that converge until I have Magda (Who Do You Think You Are?) – a thirteen-year old who is conflicted about her identity and even more confused about her friendships. When PJ Lynch wrote that this was a ‘brilliant and important new novel for young people that explores issues of family, belonging and identity in a moving and compelling way,’ I knew just who I needed to thank – well, apart from PJ, of course. Yes, I needed to thank my students. My very own inspiration and market research combined – my direct line to the teenage psyche. They keep my writing relevant and real, and I’m conscious of the changing patterns in what they enjoy and what they dismiss. So, yes, I am class conscious – and proud to be so.
(c) Pauline Burgess
Pauline Burgess is a writer of children’s and adult fiction and has been honing her craft for nigh on twenty years now. Born and brought up in Rostrevor, County Down, Pauline was inspired by the beauty of the Mourne area and often finds it seeping into her writing.
As a teacher in nearby Castlewellan, County Down, Pauline fell in love with children’s fiction and began writing for the teenage audience some years ago. Her daughter Emma’s riding experiences prompted Pauline’s Pony Friends Forever series, which were published by Blackstaff Press in 2014 and 2015.
Pauline subsequently secured a three-book deal with Poolbeg Press for contemporary teen fiction. The first book to be published by Poolbeg – Knock Back – was launched in September 2017 and has been a huge success in post-primary schools across Ireland, being selected by many as their ‘class novel’ for ages 12-13. Her next book with Poolbeg – Who Do You Think You Are? – was published in October 2018.
As a recipient of the Individual Artist Award in 2012 and the ACEs Award from the Arts Council NI in 2013, Pauline feels very privileged to be recognised as a writer of merit in Northern Ireland.
About Who Do You Think You Are?
Sometimes to move forwards in life, you have to take a step backwards.
Since Magda moved from Poland to Belfast, her life has been little more than soggy schooldays and one long ‘Game of Stones’ courtesy of the local bullies.
Her beloved grandfather shares in her misery. While the other family members adjust to Irish life, he spends his days in his attic room, dreaming of Poland. Yet he tells Magda that she must go out there and seize the opportunities Ireland has to offer.
Then Magda meets Sophie, a new girl who looks set to become the most popular girl in Belview College, and at last Magda feels she might manage to fit in.
But when does a friend become an enemy? And when is it OK to let go of the past and give the future a chance?
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