The Interview: Bookbag Talks To B R Collins

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To B R Collins


Summary: Both Jill and Robert were impressed by Love in Revolution by B R Collins but it was Robert who won the battle to ask the questions when the author popped in to see us.
Date: 2 January 2014
Interviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James

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Both Jill and Robert were impressed by Love in Revolution by B R Collins but it was Robert who won the battle to ask the questions when the author popped in to see us.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

B R Collins: That’s a really interesting question, and one I don’t have a clear answer to. While I’m writing I don’t really imagine my readers at all – there’s just one, perfect reader, who’s sort of there looking over my shoulder, telling me to delete that sentence and keep that other one... I guess that’s the same as saying that at that stage I’m writing for myself. But if I close my eyes at this moment and think about my readers, I see a whole mix of people. That’s one of the great things about YA – you’re writing for teenagers, but it’s not just teenagers who read your books. So I see teen readers, and then behind them I imagine a more assorted crowd, people my age or even older. I love having mental pictures of real readers who’ve got in touch with me, but at the same time it’s lovely to think there are mysterious, faceless people out there who’ve read my books!

  • BB: I was intrigued by the setting of Love in Revolution - I've seen at least one review confidently state that it takes place during the Russian Revolution and another equally confidently describe the setting as an unnamed Basque country. I don't think you actually specify it, do you? Similarly, the game of pello appears to be made up. (And you don't want to know how much Googling I did for videos before I realised that was a possibility!) Why did you do this instead of going for a more specific setting?

BRC: Ah yes. I saw that review and wondered where they’d got the Russian reference – but then if you don’t specify a setting explicitly I guess that’s an occupational hazard! Actually, while the country is imaginary, I had quite a definite place in mind, a particular area of Navarre where I spent some time before I wrote the book. So yes, Basque country is right. But at the same time, I didn’t want to distract the reader too much with real place names because obviously the story and the revolution are made up... I originally thought of using the Spanish civil war as a background, but in the end I decided that I wanted the freedom of something entirely fictional, which gives you more room to manoeuvre and leaves the reader with the sense that this might or might not have happened, somewhere...

Pello is based on pelota, the Basque game of handball – but again, I didn’t want to use exactly the same word. Hope you didn’t spend too much time googling!

  • BB: It's alright, it kept me away from TV Tropes, at least!

I had a really good question written about your lack of a Twitter account, then stumbled on your Twitter account. Oops. However, you don't seem to be on there much compared to many YA authors. Do you think it's possible to succeed writing for teens today without a particularly active social media presence?

BRC: Argh. My Twitter account is one of the things I feel guilty about on a regular basis, along with my blog and the build-up of grot under the drying rack. :) There’s a lot of pressure on writers to create a buzz around their personalities and lives, to reach out to their readers, but while I love actual conversations (online or otherwise) with real people it can be hard to come up with an endless stream of casual little off-the-cuff observations that will charm and delight the great anonymous masses of the Internet... I’m working on it! I think it’s great for political stuff, though, and I love the democracy of it, the way everyone joins in.

I think marketing is more and more important, and obviously the younger your readers the more you need to engage with new developments in communication. The Internet is a brilliant tool and books – and writers – have been made by knowing how to exploit it. On the other hand, I cling to a hope that marketing isn’t the only thing that matters. One of the reasons I don’t blog or tweet as much as I should is because I can’t help seeing ‘real’ writing as a higher priority – doing it, trying to make it better... (Actually, it would be brilliant to see a graph where you could see the relative times spent a) writing books and b) marketing them, and how successful they were.) I care about selling my books, of course, but I care more about writing them...

  • BB: I would be really interested in seeing that graph! I definitely think marketing isn't the only thing that matters, but as you say, it can make a difference. Hopefully great writing always shines through, though!

One of the themes of Love In Revolution is the prejudice shown against the Zikindi by the rest of the country. This is perhaps particularly resonant given the recent events in Ireland in which two Roma children were taken into care after unfounded allegations they weren't related to their parents. Do you think prejudice against travelling cultures is still a big issue in the world today?

BRC: It’s a scary fact that no matter what sorts of prejudice you use to create conflict in a book, chances are it’s still relevant somewhere – and often very close to home. So yes, I think there’s a lot of hostility towards travelling cultures, but there’s also a lot of fear and hatred based on race or gender or sexuality. I remember when I wrote The Traitor Game, which is about homophobia, I worried that today’s kids were too enlightened and the book would seem quaint and out-of-date – but now, seeing the Tom Daley stuff on Twitter or speaking to my teenage step-daughter, I’m depressed at how not out-of-date it is!

  • BB: In a blog post last month, you expressed your delight at being shortlisted for Stonewall Writer of the Year (congratulations, by the way!) Were you concerned about portraying a realistic lesbian relationship when you're not gay yourself?

BRC: Well, all the relationships I write are fictional, so this one didn’t feel very different, really – and I guess it’s a lot closer to my experience than the central relationships in some of my other books where the protagonists are both male. In any case, I think we would limit ourselves terribly if we only wrote about experiences we’d actually had. Writing, for me, is like acting, and as with acting, I think myself into a place where I do desire a woman, or a man, or whoever! Equally, I’m not sure that the dynamic of relationships changes that much or that clearly according to gender – I’m tempted to say that desire is desire and love is love, and the complexities of it come from the details and the context of the relationship.

And thank you! As you say, I was delighted. :)

  • BB: You mention in that same blog post that your editor did broach the subject of changing the love affair to a passionate friendship due to the 'gatekeepers' of YA potentially being put off by that aspect. (I'm very glad you didn't!) There does seem to be an increase in the number of books with LGBT main characters being published over the last few years - do you think it's a sign that parents/teachers/school librarians/etc are becoming more accepting of non-heterosexual relationships?

BRC: Thanks – I’m very glad I didn’t, too!

I hope so. It’s very difficult to know whether the gatekeepers really were put off by LGBT themes, as I think it’s a bit of a vicious circle when publishers decide that ‘gay books’ don’t sell, because obviously then ‘gay books’ won’t sell! So it’s a tribute to publishers as well as to book-buyers that there are more varied relationships being depicted and sold as mainstream literature. Either way, I do think that there’s a positive movement in British society, although the fight is far from won...

  • BB: You've written in a really wide variety of genres, with Love in Revolution being historical, Gamerunner and Mazecheat being set in a dystopian London, and several others being contemporary. Do you have a favourite genre to write in?

BRC: Generally, once I’ve finished a book I’ve immersed myself in it so totally that I want my next book to be completely different. I love the world-building aspect of writing, so in that sense it’s always fun to write a genre where it’s not a bog-standard, contemporary, ordinary kind of setting – but then, there are ways to make real life seem unfamiliar and glamorous! I really enjoy researching things, whether that’s computer hacking or medieval goldsmith techniques or 1930s slang, so I suppose if I had to choose a genre I’d go for historical or historical-fantastical. If that’s a genre at all... :) But I really value being able to jump around a bit. It’s a bit like travelling, I guess – it’s fun for a while but you wouldn’t necessarily want to live there forever!

  • BB: You mention in your FAQ that your American publishers originally suggested using BR Collins instead of Bridget to make you less obviously female when your first book, The Traitor Game - which I'm just about to read! - was published. Given the relationship at the centre of Love In Revolution is between two girls, did you ever consider switching back to Bridget for this book, or are you too established after six other books to think about changing now?

BRC: Actually, I did discuss it with my publisher, as they were thinking along the same lines – but it was important to me that my books were all under the same name, both because now I can’t imagine being anything but B. R. and because it’s practically problematic with people googling you and trying to work out whether you’re the same person... When you write, like it or not, you’re creating a brand, and I didn’t think Love in Revolution was different enough from my other books to merit stepping outside of that and trying to build up a whole new readership from scratch. I hope that if people like one of my books they’ll look at the others...

Although, funnily enough, I did suggest publishing Gamerunner and Mazecheat under another name, because I think they are quite different from my other stuff – and my publisher was dead against it!

  • BB: Also on your blog, you link to TV Tropes, saying that you'd spent fifteen hours on it in two weeks. What kind of incredible willpower do you have to limit it to that level? (This is a genuine question - I have, on occasions, lost around that amount of time in a weekend. It's the only site that's worse for my production than Twitter is!)

BRC: Thank you. Not many people who know me compliment me on my willpower... :) But seriously, I am chronically distracted by everything, most of the time! I think the only thing that saves me from terminal immersion in TVTropes is the fact that a lot of their examples are out of my sphere of reference, because I didn’t have a TV when I grew up and so missed out on a lot of popular culture. I love looking at the tropes but it’s obviously more addictive when the examples are familiar – then you get that chain effect.

Also, I like having a bit of sound in the background while I work, so I’m more of a BBC iPlayer kind of writer... Ideally something quite quiet like snooker, interesting enough to stop me getting bored but boring enough to make my writing seem interesting in comparison. It’s surprising how well you can work with the iPlayer open in another window!

I feel like, for the sake of my reputation, I should reiterate that I take my writing VERY SERIOUSLY. :)

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment?

BRC: I’ve just finished Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia, and just started re-reading The Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser.

  • BB: What's next for B R Collins?

BRC: I’ve got a few books at different stages at the moment: one first draft that needs some serious editing, 80,000 words of something else that will need at least another 40,000, and an old novel (my first ever) that I really want to rewrite – when I get round to it! Right now I’m really excited about the one I’m halfway through, so I’m indulging myself and spending all my time writing that. I feel like my heart wouldn’t be in anything else, so I have to get it out of my system. But as for which will see the light of day first... watch this space!

On a more basic level, I think the next thing for me right now might be another cup of tea. :)

  • BB: Sounds like a plan! Looking forward to the other books you mention.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

You can read more about B R Collins here.

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