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FICTION ISSUESpsychological thriller Undertow, Carmen is stepmother to three children, including the brooding and unpredictable Mel. The children’s mother seems a relatively benign presence, but Carmen can’t stop dwelling on her husband’s previous girlfriend, for whom he originally left his wife. Glamorous Zena drowned and Carmen begins to wonder if her husband was involved.The more teenager Mel gets drunk, goes missing and acts out, the more the reader wonders: what does she know, and why can’t she tell anyone else? ‘Melis in the worst phase [of her troubled adolescence], and we only see her with her family,’ explains Heathcote. ‘There is a lot of attitude. I know she would be quite different with her friends. She is self-absorbed, but I also tryto convey her vulnerability. She can dole out criticism and abuse but she is no good at taking it and I think that sensitivity is typical of a teenager.’Heathcote says that she was herself a troubled adolescent, and would struggle to create a well- adjusted one. But her secret to developing a believable character is as simple as ‘observing teenagers ... and talking to them. I am quite curious about people generally and enjoy talking to them about their lives’.It’s important for writersof teenage protagonists toavoid clichés and try to create characters that are as uniqueand rounded as the adults in their books. Most writers willuse a combination of their own memories and their observations of modern teens to flesh out such a character. With sensitivity and a little imagination, a character who feels deeply, sees clearly and speaks bluntly can add depthand clarity to a novel. Teenage characters are too good to leave only to YA fiction. ❐TROUBLESOME TEENSTeenage characters can drive a narrative, inspire empathy or justadd a new perspective in adult fiction. Katy Guest explains howWriting teenage charactersin novels for adults is not straightforward. According to Carolyn Parkhurst, the authorof Harmony, it ‘seems like they should be easy to write, since we’ve all been teenagers andwe all remember what it’s like’. But, she adds: ‘The challengelies in erasing those layers of reminiscence. You can’t write as an adult who remembers how everything seemed immediate and unchangeable and a matter of life or death; you have to write as a kid who doesn’t yet know that it will ever feel any different. That can be hard to recapture’.In Harmony, 13-year-old Tilly’s role is a little like thatof the child who sees that the emperor is wearing no clothes: the clear-eyed view of the young protagonist is used tocut through adult deceptions and obfuscations. But there is an added layer of complexityto the character: she is ‘on the spectrum’ (the actual history of her various diagnoses goes on for pages) and is both childishly naïve and shockingly developed.The novel is primarily narrated by Tilly’s mother and her 11-year-old sister, as the family moves to a cultish off- grid community in a last-ditch attempt to cope with Tilly’s behaviour. ‘Tilly bright and jagged, Tilly angry and hurting, Tilly in such clear focus that you almost have to look away,’ recalls her mother as Tilly’s ticks – licking floors, public meltdowns, sexually propositioning her father – become ever more difficult to bear.The occasional short chapter in Tilly’s own voice comes asa jolt to the reader. From an imaginary future, she looks back on the circumstances ofthe novel: a ‘strange summer camp where families went to learn how to be families’ and ‘parents seemed to be afraid of their own children’s very brains’. Tilly’s chapters act as the eyeof the novel’s emotional storm: moments of strange calm in which her blunt interpretations of others’ actions and motives are wincingly perceptive.In Mary Gaitskill’s new novel The Mare a troubled teenageralso provides a unique slant on grown-up problems. Ginger, a recovering alcoholic in her 40s, semi-adopts a young Dominican girl from the tougher side of Brooklyn. Velvet, who ages from 11 to mid-teens over the course of the novel, is hard but vulnerable; knowing and bewildered. ‘Ithink children are incredibly observant,’ Gaitskill told The Bookseller. ‘They often know very well what they see happening around them, but they don’t have the words to describe it even to themselves... [I] wasn’t sure how to render that, that really intense knowing and understanding, but not much of a vocabulary to say it with.’Gaitskill has also discussed her discomfort about writing characters that are not fromher own white middle-class background. She came up with the idea for the book in 2007, but put off writing it for fearof intruding clumsily into the experiences of others. She first pitched it as a film, but was advised to write it as a YA novel – advice she wisely ignored: one teenage protagonist does not a teen novel make. Ultimately, she says, she wrote the book that she could not get out of her head.For début novelist Elizabeth Heathcote, writing a troubled teenager is about ‘lookingat what is going on underthe surface’. In Heathcote’sKATY GUEST is New Projects Editor at Unbound, and also works as a freelance editor, journalist and reviewer. Shewas Literary Editor of The Independent on Sunday for seven years. Katy is afan of real paper books, and believes that reports of their demise have been exaggerated.Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst (Sceptre) A family with an unusual 13-year-old girl move to an off-grid community in an attempt to help her. But is there something nasty going on in the woods?The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail) Class, femininity and different takes on motherhood are explored in this story of a childless woman who takes in a young girl from the inner city.Undertow by Elizabeth Heathcote (Quercus) Carmen is happily married to a man with a mysterious past. But what will she discover when she digs into his history, and what does her stepdaughter know?‘you have to write as a kid who doesn’t yet know that it will ever feel any different’mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2016/17 67

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