The Real Anna Carey and The Real Rebecca | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews

By Claire Hennessy

Freelance journalist Anna Carey’s novel The Real Rebecca recently won the Children’s Book of the Year (senior category) at the 2011 Irish Book Awards – no mean feat for a category that included veteran children’s fiction writers like Darren Shan and Derek Landy. The Real Rebecca is Anna’s first book, depicting the trials and tribulations of fourteen-year-old Rebecca. Rebecca’s mother is an author known for her warm and cosy women’s fiction – think Maeve Binchy or Cathy Kelly with an extra layer of ‘immensely embarrassing parent’ thrown in – but when she turns her hand to writing teenage fiction, everyone assumes that the book’s about Rebecca and that she’s as pathetic and uncool as its central character.

In an attempt to distract herself from this, other dilemmas at school, and an unrequited passion for a young gentleman known only as Paperboy, Rebecca forms a band with her two best friends and they prepare for an upcoming competition. Told in diary format, it’s a funny and appealing read for young teens and for experienced readers in the 11+ bracket.

Anna’s motivation for writing The Real Rebecca stemmed from wanting to write “a funny book” – she’s a big fan of Louise Rennison (author of the Georgia Nicolson series) and wishes there’d been more of that sort of book around in her own youth. “There weren’t that many really, really funny books about teenage life in my day – it was mostly a bit angsty,” she observes. She also wanted to write about being in a band – “partly because I was in one myself for a huge chunk of my youth and partly because I actually feel really strongly about the importance of encouraging young girls to start bands and do creative things that aren’t particularly traditionally girly,” she says. Her own musical experience fed into writing about Rebecca’s band, ‘Hey Dollface’ (the title comes from Deborah Hautzig’s classic YA novel): “I understand how a band practice works, how writing and playing a song together works, and what it’s like to play a gig. I don’t think I would have felt comfortable writing about all that if I didn’t know it all instinctively.”

The characters are partly inspired by Anna and her teenage friends, though she notes, “Rebecca and her friends are slightly more normal than we were.” She cites Cass, one of Rebecca’s best friends, as her favourite character in the book – “I think in real life I’m a cross between Rebecca and Cass.” Rebecca and her friends will return to the page in the future. Anna is currently working on the sequel and reveals: “It’s going to involve a school musical and the appeal of the Tormented Boy who seems all deep and profound and walks around reading poetry. This all seems terribly romantic when you’re 15 but in real life these boys are usually pretentious idiots. As Rebecca will hopefully discover.”

The Real Rebecca took four years to write, overall – Anna describes the process as “haphazard”. While taking a month off from freelance work increased her productivity towards the end – she wrote 25,000 words in a few weeks – she acknowledges how useful it is to have that background when writing fiction. “You know how to sit down and churn stuff out,” she says. “You know how to structure stuff because you’ve had to do it consciously when putting together pieces. And I think having worked with editors as a journalist makes you less precious about your fiction work.”

Her journalism background has also shaped her approach to dealing with reviews of her own work: “I’ve written enough bad reviews to accept that if you put anything out there, not everyone will like it.” The response from readers – as well as the voters in the Irish Book Awards – has been very positive, but as with any book there are always reviews which an author might disagree with. “The only one that really annoyed me was one which implied the girls’ band was more about impressing boys than music. If I had given that impression I’d be appalled, but I thought it was quite clear in the book that they loved playing music and writing songs. Though of course they did hope boys and indeed everyone else would be impressed. And they wanted to look cool on stage. That’s how pretty much everyone feels, male or female, who has ever played live.”

On the flip side, one comment about her book – from a friend’s father – she particularly appreciated was a comparison to Sue Townsend’s Adrian Moleseries, which Anna describes as a subconscious influence on The Real Rebecca. “Pretty much everyone who grew up in the 80s and read books read Adrian Mole – it’s burned into my generation’s subconscious. I don’t think a better funny book about being a teenager has been written since then. He’s a wonderful unreliable narrator and I think it’s important for even younger readers who identify with the teen character to realise that sometimes they’re being silly or unreasonable.”

Like most writers, Anna read voraciously growing up: “As a kid I adored Richmal Crompton, of Just William fame, Helen Cresswell, Diana Wynne Jones, E. Nesbit, Noel Streatfeild and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. And I loved PG Wodehouse. Crompton, Wodehouse, Cresswell and Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth basically defined my sense of humour to this day.  I loved Judy Blume, of course, and when I was 12 or 13 I really loved Paula Danziger. I wrote a terrible Danziger-inspired novel when I was 13 called December. About a girl called December. It was set in America even though I’d never been there because back in 1988 there were no teen novels set in Ireland. Around that time I started reading grown-up books like EM Forster and Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. When I was 16 I found a battered copy of I Capture The Castle [by Dodie Smith] in the school library (it wasn’t well-known at all at the time) and fell absolutely in love with it. I had never identified with a character as much as I identified with Cassandra. It and Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop were my favourite books in my mid to late teens.” She cites Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life as the book she wishes she’d written: “It’s a perfect fantasy novel”.

She continues to read contemporary children’s and young adult fiction, and describes the British author Hilary McKay as “the best children’s writer around at the moment – I absolutely love her books. The Casson books are probably her best known, but my favourite are the Exiles trilogy, maybe because they’re about a family of four sisters and I’m one of four sisters. They are very, very funny and complex and absolutely beautifully written.” She’s also a big fan of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books. On the Irish side of things, she’d love to see more funny books – “There are quite a lot of issue-based books, which are very important but not really my thing.” Most recently she loved Prim Improper by Deirdre Sullivan : “It was hilarious and also quite touching, which is very hard to pull off.”

Next on Anna’s writing to-do list, apart from the Rebecca sequel, is fantasy – “realistic fantasy in the E. Nesbit/Diana Wynne Jones tradition is one of my very favourite genres.” She would also love to publish a graphic novel. Writing for teenagers seems to be where she’s most at home; she’s not particularly interested in writing for younger readers or adults at this stage. She advises anyone who wants to write for young people to “remember how you felt when you were that age, not how you imagine the youth of today feel. People don’t really change that much.” It’s wise advice from an author who’s managed to tap into the adolescent pysche. Here’s looking forward to all of Anna’s future books!

About the author

(c) Claire Hennessy, Founder Director of the Big Smoke Writing Factory and best selling YA novellist. December 2011.

For more about Anna Carey and The Real Rebecca, check out her contributions to Girls Heart Books as well as her O’Brien profile.


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