We chatted with author Clare Owen recently all about her new YA novel, Zed and the Cormorants.
Can you tell us a little about your novel, Zed and the Cormorants? What made you want to write it?
It’s a story of a young girl who moves from London to Cornwall. Zed’s dad is convinced that a fresh start and a simpler lifestyle will improve the family’s life – he even gives up his job to start an artisanal bakery – but Zed is riddled with anxiety about starting a new school and becomes increasingly convinced that she’s under attack from a flock of cormorants who live in the woods near her home.
It’s got ghosts, mythology, romance, Cornish history, baking, environmental issues and bucket loads of teenage angst!
The inspiration came when I was walking my dogs and I saw two cormorants on the sand banks, and it struck me how poised but also how sinister they looked! I went home, began to research them and learned how adaptable they are – they’ve been around since the dinosaurs and live in all parts of the world – but also how often they feature in mythology and literature. I’d been playing around with the idea of writing a story about a young girl struggling with anxiety, but the cormorants wouldn’t go away. In my mind they stretched out their wings, and said, ‘If we’re good enough for The Bible, The Odyssey, Shakespeare and Milton, don’t you think you should give us a look in?’
Zed and the Cormorants is steeped in mystery, family and centres around a haunting love story that spurs on the entire book. Did you know what you wanted to include from the start, and did anything change through the course of writing it?
I knew I wanted to explore anxiety, loneliness and the oblique ways that we find to face difficult emotions and overcome them. Love needed to be a part of this: the fear of never finding it and the fear of finding it and having it taken away. I also wanted Zed to have a loving family – for that never to be an issue – but for them all to be real, flawed and struggling themselves, so they aren’t always able to give her the support that she needs. The question was how to combine this very ‘real’ story with the more fanciful elements; how to introduce all the mythology, ways of communicating with the birds and the possibilities for making a truce. And that was where Denzil (a young man who sometimes sleeps rough in the woods) came in. Once I’d got to grips with who he was – his particular challenges and coping strategies – then he became a kind of bridge between the two worlds.
This book has themes of mental health, parental illness, loss, and new beginnings. Can you tell us a little about why you felt these themes were important to include? Were any difficult to write about?
All these things are part of our lives and as such they should be written about in literature for any age. The joy of writing YA is that you can tackle them head on, with characters who are hungry to learn about the world, open to self-discovery and their feelings are usually pretty close to the surface. I didn’t find those bits hard to write, in some ways they were the easiest because they needed the least imaginative input.
Your writinghas been described as ‘Daphne Du Maurier for the 21st century’. Do you find your writing has been influenced by gothic style?
It’s funny, I never set out to write a gothic book and didn’t think I was drawn to the gothic style! I’ve never ever read Frankenstein or Dracula, and it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve read Poe’s The Raven and du Maurier’s The Birds. But, of course, Zed is gothic – it has mystery, suspense, foreshadowing, the supernatural and overwrought emotions. And I’ve always loved the Brontës, particularly Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and they are all about wild landscapes, hidden secrets, haunted buildings and passionate, intense love affairs.
The setting and landscape plays such a key role in this book. Did you ever think about setting it anywhere else?
No, right from the start it was always set in a particular wood near my home. Partly because it’s where I first saw the birds that inspired the story, but also because although it’s specifically a story about a girl at war with a flock of cormorants – why they are seeking revenge and how she can make amends – it’s also about someone being forced to engage with the natural for the very first time and what they gain from that. I needed a setting that would be alien and isolating to a city girl but also offers her headspace and access to wildlife, so that she can learn to live in harmony with it and at the same time find some peace within herself.
What’s next for you and your writing? Are there any more books on the horizon?
Last year I wrote a lot of short stories and now I’m working on a novel for adults. I’ve had to do a lot of research trips on Google Earth which has slowed me down a bit and isn’t half as much fun as spending the day away from your desk: drinking lots of coffee and lots eating lots of cake to fuel hours and hours of hours of walking round locations that may or may not be used.
What are your top 3 tips for aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. As much as possible and as widely as possible and when you like something – whether it’s a description, a punchy bit of dialogue or even just the rhythm of a sentence, copy it down somewhere. I put it in Notes on my phone. Then when you lack inspiration, you can just dip into it and you’ll get all fired up again.
Be nosey. I don’t just mean listening to other people’s conversations (although I do this a lot, I’m afraid!) but also follow your nose. Be curious. Most of us have the internet at our fingertips, so use it. If you have a phone, don’t just use it to scroll through social media, but use it to investigate things. Any number of questions can be answered in a ten-minute bus ride, and those questions can lead to any number of ‘what ifs’ which can lead to any number of stories.
‘Write with the handbrake off’! I don’t know who said this, but I put it in block capitals somewhere prominent when I start any new writing project. It’s really just a mantra to push you to the end of the first draft – because that for me is always the hardest bit. Once you have a first draft then everything slows down, and you can spend as long as you like fiddling with one paragraph!
What are your top YA book recommendations for young people today?
I think every teenager (and probably every adult) should read All the Places I’ve Cried in Public (Holly Bourne) as it explores how easy it is to get into a toxic relationship and how painful it is to get out.
The Space Between (Meg Grehan) – a tender, lyrical novel in verse about mental anguish and coming out.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson. It isn’t marketed as YA, but it explores the dark relationship between two teenage sisters. It’s beautifully written but very disturbing and not for the faint-hearted!
How would you sum up your novel in three words?
‘The-Birds meets Bake-off’ (ha.. that’s really cheating isn’t it?)
After working as an actor in London – performing in venues that ranged from The National Theatre to the boot of a Ford Fiesta – Clare married a boat builder and moved to Cornwall. Her short stories have been published by Mslexia, Storgy, Litro & Fairlight and in the anthology An Outbreak of Peace. Zed and the Cormorants (Arachne Press) is her first YA novel.
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