Catch our interview with Young Adult author Natasha Devon as featured in the latest issue of PaperBound, as she tells us all about her new book Toxic and offers her own tips for aspiring writers.
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Can you tell us about your book, Toxic, and what inspired you to write it?
I visit an average of three schools or colleges every week, delivering talks and conducting research on mental health and related issues. The research involves doing focus groups with 13-18 year olds and a theme that emerged just before I wrote Toxic was how to navigate difficult friendships. I thought fiction was an ideal format to explore this because it’s such a very nuanced and complex phenomenon.
As kids, we’re taught that life is divided into heroes and villains and that good always triumphs over evil. But as you grow up you realize that actually, the world is just full of flawed people doing their best to get by. Sometimes two people create a dysfunctional dynamic and it’s okay to acknowledge that, to extract yourself from the harmful situation without having to hold a grudge, or encourage everyone you know to ‘pick a side’. That’s the central theme of Toxic, it’s about a young woman learning how to have boundaries.
Your main character, Llewella, struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, which the writing captures so well. Did you have to do any research when writing about these topics?
I actually have a diagnosis of panic disorder and, with the knowledge I now have about the condition, have realized that I’ve been having panic attacks since I was ten. Back then, mental health wasn’t acknowledged or spoken about in the same way it is now, though, so I was misdiagnosed with asthma and allergies as a child – I didn’t receive the correct diagnosis until much later. So, writing about panic and anxiety came very easily to me.
Having said that, panic attacks vary massively from person to person. When I’m talking to young people who experience them, I encourage them to plot how their panic manifests from stages 1-10, so they can identify them early – this is actually a technique I learned from my therapist and that Llewella uses in the book.
Friendship can often be tricky to navigate when you’re a teen. What advice do you have for any young people struggling with toxic relationships?
This applies to many struggles we face, not just friendships: Think about the advice you would give someone you really cared about if they told you they were in the situation you are in. This is a technique I learned from one of my best friends, Shahroo, who wrote a book called The Kindness Method. She noticed that we are often kinder, more forgiving and understanding to the people we love than we are to ourselves.
The chances are, you would tell someone whose interests you had at heart that they tried their best, that being in a difficult friendship dynamic is not a reflection of their value and that you wouldn’t judge them at all for taking a step back for their own emotional safety. The same applies to you!
Toxic also explores racial identity and the personal challenges some people might face. Did this change how the story developed?
The racial dynamics within the story definitely add another layer of complexity.
I was inspired to create Llewella when I watched a Channel 4 documentary called ‘The School That Tried to End Racism’. One of the contributors was called Farrah and she was of mixed heritage with one white parent and one from Sri-Lanka. Like Llewella, Farrah was light-skinned and you wouldn’t necessarily assume she was mixed. When her class were split into racial affinity groups, she didn’t know whether to join the white or the racialized group. There was this moment of pure panic on her face and, as a viewer, I found myself wondering if this was a reflection of not knowing where she fitted in generally, not just in the context of the exercise.
There was also an activity the children had to do later in the documentary, where they brought in objects which reflected their culture. The children from racialized backgrounds were bringing in items such as beaded prayer mats and African jewellery and were able to explain exactly what they represented and how they were used. The white children seemed really embarrassed and had brought in things like the England flag, not really understanding why. It made me reflect on whether having a strong sense of cultural identity is a form of privilege. Hence Llewella, who was raised by a single white mother and doesn’t know her Asian father or his family, started to form in my mind.
Aretha (who is the other half of the toxic friendship in the book) is also mixed. Her mother is white and her very present, supportive and loving father is Black. Aretha both experiences and demonstrates racism towards darker Black people in Toxic. She also uses elements of critical race theory to bully Llewella into doing what she wants. The point I’m trying to make is that you can’t just cherry pick aspects of CRT when it suits your agenda, or throw around terms like ‘privilege’ without properly understanding them (both of which I see a LOT of on social media).
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
I read an incredible book when I was in the early stages of writing Toxic called ‘Story Genius’. It posits that all engaging stories are about a protagonist who is trying to avoid something which the audience knows is inevitable. It also talks about how we, as the reader, actually join the story part way through. The characters have already had experiences and challenges and triumphs which have shaped them before the reader ever meets them. It’s important not to think of your characters as blank canvasses at the beginning that just have stuff happen to them (which if often how we are taught to approach story writing in primary school).
Can you tell us about anything else you’re working on at the moment?
I have a non-fiction book called Yes You Can: Ace School without Losing Your Mind coming out in August. It’s about how you don’t have to choose between your academic performance and your mental health – looking after your brain makes you cleverer (because mental health and cleverness both happen in your brain).
Natasha Devon is a writer, broadcaster & activist. She tours schools and events throughout the UK and beyond, delivering talks and conducting research on mental health, body image, gender & equality. She presents on LBC Radio every Saturday and writes regularly for Grazia Magazine.
Toxic was published 7th July 2022 by UCLan. It is available in the UK and will be released on audiobook soon.
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