Interview with YA Author Clare Owen
We are thrilled to be chatting with YA author Clare Owen whose first young adult book, Zed and the Cormorants, is being released this week. Zed and the Cormorants is set close to our patch of Cornwall near Lostwithiel, so we couldn't wait to start reading and learn more about this stirring gothic debut that's been described as 'a Daphne Du Maurier for the 21st century'.
Join us as we chat with Clare about what draws her to Young Adult fiction, how she was inspired to write Zed and the Cormorants, and what comes next for her and her writing.
Zed and the Cormorants is a wonderfully gothic tale set in atmospheric Cornwall. Can you tell us more about the story and where your inspiration came from?
It’s about a young girl who moves from London to a hamlet on a Cornish estuary and becomes convinced she’s at war with a flock of cormorants living in the woods near her home. My publisher described it as ‘a heady mix of teenage angst, ghosts, mythology; with a young lesbian love story played out against a decades' old tragedy.’ I like that.
The inspiration came when I was walking my dogs walk in Milltown Woods. I saw two cormorants on the sandbanks with their wings outstretched, and it struck me how ominous they looked and a story began to take shape. At first, I thought they might be witches in disguise - I did lots of research at the Museum in Boscastle - but I couldn’t make it work. I came across so much mythology around these birds though, in so many different cultures – e.g. in Norwegian folklore, anyone who dies at sea can come back as a cormorant; in Ireland seeing a cormorant perched atop a church steeple is a warning of bad luck to come. I became a bit obsessed and their ability to inspire, adapt and survive took centre stage.
Zed and the Cormorants is your first book for young adults. What draws you to writing Young Adult fiction?
I guess I’m drawn to writing YA because protagonists of this age often have situations imposed upon them by older family members, but they have the passion, resourcefulness and drive to resist and this gives you instant conflict. Young adults also often have huge internal struggles going on which is a gift for a writer, but adults (and I know I’m generalising here!) often get stuck for years trying to ignore their mental health issues and denying their feelings. Teenagers have a much more readily available capacity for change and self-discovery.
How much Cornish history and/or geographical research did you have to do before beginning to write this book? How important is a sense of place to the story?
Although I’ve changed the names, this book is really rooted in the landscape around the Fowey river and local people will instantly recognise Tremelin as Milltown, Clewmor as Fowey and Tremarrak as Lostwithiel. When we moved to our house in Milltown and I found out that Joan Aiken had lived there and also been inspired by the landscape (Milltown and its viaduct feature in her early novel The Ribs of Death), that really fuelled my desire to write a novel which explored the relationship between the human inhabitants and natural world in this specific place.
I did a lot of reading around the history of the Fowey River and its wildlife but for obvious reasons, most of my research was specifically into cormorants: how they are represented in literature, how they are perceived in different cultures, and historically how they were treated in Cornwall. In the last century, they were definitely seen as the enemy to the fishing community. Records at County Hall in Truro show that in 1911 a shilling was offered for every cormorant and shag head and it was only after around 20,000 birds had been culled, that people began to question the policy. They finally analysed the contents of cormorant stomachs in 1929, and realised they hardly ate any fish that had a value at market and in fact grey seals were much more of a threat to a fisherman’s income. This injustice plays a crucial part in my story!
Are there any authors/writers out there who you would consider to have influenced your writing?
Well, I studied English Literature at university - so all the classics are there as a bedrock. My big problem is that I read a huge amount but remember very little, so I’ve started re-reading a lot of books that I know I admired first time round. When you read something again, you can read it as a writer and start to try and analyse how and why it works. Last year was all about short stories for me, so I re-visited Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro and Anne Enright. More recently, I’ve been re-reading Rachel Cusk, Suri Hustvedt and Maggie O’Farrell.
As for YA, I really like stories that drill down into the characters’ internal landscape, so I’m drawn to writers like Abbie Rushton, Liz Kessler and Sara Barnard.
What’s next for you and your writing? Are you working on anything else following Zed and the Cormorants?
I’ve recently written a short story cycle called Blind of the Moon’s Face - several of the stories have been published as one-offs but I’d really like to find a home for the whole collection – and now I’m working on a novel for adults, but it’s slow progress with three children who have been home schooling for much of the year!
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out, or hoping to get published in the future?
Write as much as you can and focus on the value of the process rather than the end product: how it grounds you and makes you notice things; how thrilling it is to find a way to show something – a moment, an object, an interaction - in a new light. This will prepare you for long slogs and regular rejection!
Start with short stories. It’s less overwhelming than embarking on a novel and it’s not such an imposition to ask friends and family for feedback. You also regularly finish something - which is good for morale - and there are lots of online magazines and anthologies where you can submit them for publication.
Edit. Edit. Edit.
I probably edit everything I write at least 20 times before it’s ready to go out into the world, then I still put it away for a few days so I can look at it one last time with fresh eyes.
Always read your work aloud.
After completing an English degree at Oxford University and working as an actor and arts administrator in London, Clare Owen 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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