'I never really thought someone like me could become an author' - An Interview with Karen Gregory

This is Karen.

Having recently read and reviewed Skylarks, I am so pleased to welcome Karen Gregory to the blog today. Karen is an Oxford university graduate and the author of YA novels Countless and Skylarks.

I’m so happy to have you on my blog, Karen. How have you found working with the blogging community in your profession as an author?

Thank you for having me! It’s been really lovely. The blogging community is amazing and it’s brilliant to feel part of a community where everyone is so passionate about books and reading. One thing I love is the level of care and insight from bloggers and reviewers; it’s a completely magical moment when you see people engaging with something you’ve written in such thoughtful ways.

Your first book, Countless, is about teenage pregnancy and eating disorders. You cover so many important topics on your fiction. How do you come up with your book ideas?

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I think it’s a mixture of things! I often seem to have a topic I’m interested in or concerned about in some way and over time a situation might form in my head in tandem with a character. I was very lucky with Countless, that the whole idea came in a big rush complete with the character and basic structure of the book, which definitely doesn’t happen to me every time!

I absolutely loved Skylarks, particularly the focus on money and the stigmas surrounding homelessness and benefits. What inspired you to write on such an awkward topic?

I’ve always been interested in social justice. When I left university, I worked in local government and the NHS for a number of years, so often saw the impact policy decisions have at a ground level. Austerity was a huge driver in my thinking: when I first started writing Skylarks back in 2015, we’d had five years of austerity so it was very much in my consciousness, and then seeing the results of cuts on various services amplified this for me. So, it was something that had been playing on my mind over a number of years and when the characters of Joni and Annabel came along, I was able to explore how social injustice played out on a personal level for the two of them.

In response to Joni’s money problems, she becomes politically active. I loved this and I think it will show YA readers that they have such a powerful role in politics. What was it like to write about this push for change?

I loved it! I’m not a ‘marchy’ sort of person – I’m more likely to write to my MP or give money to things quietly in the background, but it felt very empowering to write about Joni’s growing political awareness and activism. It was also really interesting because it threw up questions for me about how far it’s acceptable to go in the name of activism and social change, power dynamics and how much your social background impacts on your ability to effect change. There’s so much here to explore, I could never have done it justice in one book, but I enjoyed touching on and thinking about all these issues in Joni’s story. I think all the things I write are quite hopeful and Skylarks does feel to me like a realistic, but ultimately hopeful book.

Skylarks is not only about Joni’s home life, her relationship with Annabel is a huge aspect of the story. I couldn’t believe how two characters could go from disliking each other to liking each other so much, but you wrote it really naturally. What are the challenges of writing romance?

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I think the biggest challenge for me was pacing and how to get the balance right between moving the story along while showing an organic progression from mutual misunderstanding to Joni and Annabel falling in love. I worked on this in edits as there were a few scenes which ended up being repetitive, so these got cut from the final version. Overall though, I loved writing the romance! I’ve been saying to everyone this is my ‘happy’ book because I really did feel so happy writing it.

Becoming an author is a challenge in itself. What is your publishing story?

I never really thought someone like me could become an author. I’ve always read voraciously and did have that ‘maybe one day’ ambition in the back of my mind, but I lacked the confidence and self-belief to really try until after I’d had my first baby in 2008. I started with short stories and then attempted my first novel, which I really hope will get published in some form one day! I didn’t know anyone in the publishing world, so I used the internet and the Writers & Artists Yearbook to query agents. Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge and White offered me representation in 2015 and then Countless (which was the second book we put on submission to editors) came out in 2017! So from that first tentative short story to publication was almost exactly nine years. Along the way there were two shelved manuscripts, a number of agent and publisher rejections and a lot of trying to learn the craft using books on writing and online resources.

I’ve read that you’re a project manager by day. How do you fit in writing as well as your job? It’s like having two careers!

It is! But I also work part-time which helps a lot. I’ve actually moved roles very recently (too late to update my author bio!) which has given me some flexibility. I tend to write in bursts, often doing large chunks of writing or edits every other weekend when my children are at their dad’s. It can get quite busy and intense around publication time and last year in particular my social life certainly took a massive hit. I’m very lucky I’ve got an understanding and supportive family and friends who are still there even after I disappear for weeks at a time. The other thing I’ve found is that having a day job is actually really helpful in terms of providing routine, structure and other human beings to talk to! I’m really, really lucky, if occasionally slightly ragged around the edges.

If you could do any kind of book event or attend any kind of book event in the world, what would it be?

Ooh! I think it would be some sort of event with all my bookish friends and family in a bookshop with lots of comfy sofas. I’d invite all the authors whose books I’ve loved over the years, from Judith Kerr to Margaret Atwood and basically quiz them non-stop about their books and writing process. I’d have a gigantic stack of books for them to sign and piles of cake. I’d also invite all the authors my children are mad about – a long list currently headed up by J.K. Rowling, David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson. As this is an imaginary event, I’d probably transport the bookshop somewhere by the sea and once the children were in bed, I’d sit on the beach watching the sun going down with my new author friends and a hot chocolate… I think I may just have found my happy place!

I’m sure you’re an avid reader too. What books are you loving at the moment?

My TBR is completely out of control right now. I’ve been desperately trying to squeeze in more YA before I get too immersed in the next book as then I like to pull back, at least from contemporary and read something different. The last two contemporary YA books I completely adored were Holly Bourne’s It Only Happens in the Movies and Sara Barnard’s Goodbye Perfect. I think I’ll be switching to fantasy next: I can’t wait to read State of Sorrow and Children of Blood and Bone and I’ve also just started the second Bone Season book on audio. In terms of adult reads, I got Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time for my birthday and I am so excited to read it, but I’m saving it for a slightly quieter time so I can really savour it.  

Non-fiction wise I recently read The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts which was an incredibly difficult but important read, Mary Beard’s Women in Power and I’ve been reading Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls with my children. I’ve also got Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am waiting for me on the kindle.

Finally, can you tell us anything about what you’ve got planned for the rest of the year?

There’s various things planned around publication for Skylarks such as interviews, twitter chats and blog pieces. I’m also really looking forward to going to the Leeds Book Awards later in May and YALC in July. I loved YALC last year so I’m really looking forward to being back this year! I’m also hoping to squeeze in some school and library visits too, the latter as part of the YA Shot outreach programme. In terms of other writing, I’m currently in the middle of something new, which I’m very excited about, then after that I have several projects lined up in my head, all waiting to be written. Exciting times!

It really is! I recommend you check out Karen's books Countless and Skylarks. You can also follow her on Twitter and check out her blog.

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