Breathing Stories: The Imagination of Sarah Crossan

Post-apocalyptic settings have been enjoying an extended period of popularity in young adult fiction. In many ways, the dystopian genre and young adult fiction make for a perfect marriage. Worlds in which authority is corrupt or crumbling, and disparities in wealth or power are inbuilt or dramatised can reflect the way that young adults feel about their own lives. Though teenagers can be legally treated as adults for crimes, they don’t yet have the same rights as adults over eighteen. Similarly, one might argue that teenagers yearn for authenticity as a step towards adulthood. Teenage characters in dystopia are trapped within a world that seems beyond their powers to change, in much the same way that puberty feels. As in dystopian classics like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, creative and sexual pleasures are prohibited or regulated. More than this, in current depictions of dystopian worlds the young inherit a hopeless and totalitarian future not of their making, echoing modern fears of ecological disaster and the insidious threat of terrorism that seems beyond society’s control.

What remains a strong element in the dystopian story is the idea of what we see as our ‘fundamental rights’ being confiscated. In the case of George Orwell it is the corrupt bureaucratic government suppressing its citizens, but for Sarah Crossan it is society’s own abuses of nature that in turn create a dystopic environment in which malignant powers can intimidate and suppress. Crossan is an Irish-born writer who grew up in the UK and went on to teach English and creative writing in the US. With an undergraduate degree in English and philosophy and a Master’s in creative writing – a time in which she began to write prolifically – Sarah’s trademark emotional realism is evident both in her debut, The Weight of Water, and in her second novel, Breathe. While The Weight of Water is a free-verse recounting of the tribulations of a young immigrant moving to England in search of the father who left her and her mother, Breathe tells the story of three adolescents searching for truth within a hostile, deforested and dystopian world. Though the two novels evidently differ in terms of style and subject, Crossan’s distinctive voice remains steady and identifiable in both.

In The Weight of Water Crossan writes with empathy for her heroine, empowering her in her struggle and triumph, and emphasising on the importance of standing up for oneself. Rather than trying to sweeten her character or waterdown her emotions which are often suppressed, the novel deals honestly with feelings of revenge and desire, a common characteristic of the much-lauded post-apocalyptic young adult novel. In the same spirit, the young protagonists have an ambivalent relationship with authority and a subtly anti-hierarchical thread runs throughout the novel, particularly in the depictions of bullying and fair-weather parenting.

What is interesting when comparing Breathe and The Weight of Water are their similarities rather than their differences. Though one is a contemporary story about a young immigrant written in free verse, and the other a full-blown futuristic dystopian adventure, both works have the same honest approach to relationships and empowerment. I caught up with Sarah to explore her creative process and inspirations.

The Weight of Water and Breathe share an important theme: disenchantment with authority figures, be they parents, the government, or freedom fighters. Do you think that this is important in young adult literature in particular?

Young people have it tough because adults make so many of their decisions for them, and unfortunately not all adults are good at making decisions. I’m sure, for example, that if young people were to legislate, they’d have protecting the environment at the top of their to-do list. Young adult literature says to kids, ‘I hear you, and you know what, you’re probably right’, whether it’s a book about the environment, parents divorcing or how cruel other kids can be to one another. Children’s books transport young people to other worlds so that they escape from this one, which is wonderful, but they also provide validation at a time in their lives when they can feel most misunderstood and alone.

Breathe clearly falls into the genre of dystopian young adult fiction that has become immensely popular. Do you think there’s a reason for the genre’s popularity at this particular time?

I think the popularity of dystopian young adult fiction has to do with a trend in publishing more than anything else. Vampires were all the rage a few years ago, and before that wizards were the thing. Perhaps the economic downturn inspired a recent dystopia or two, but personally, I am writing a dystopian series because I’m terrified of how acutely the Earth is being abused and I truly fear for our future. Dystopian novels are bred from fears, and every writer fears something different.

What kind of things did you write when you were younger? What inspired you the most?

I have three brothers, so the house I grew up in was a noisy place! I think there were times when I didn’t feel heard, and I used writing as a way to express feelings I’d otherwise have had to swallow. I kept a diary, as many young girls do, but I was also addicted to letter-writing. I must have written thousands of letters to my cousins, grandmother and various pen pals I picked up over the years. I even wrote to school friends, though they lived around the corner and I saw them most days. I spent a small fortune on stamps and envelopes, but I think I learned to tell a tale by writing all those letters. It’s sad that the days of letter-writing are behind us. Email just isn’t the same.

As a writer for younger readers do you feel you are instilling any particular moral viewpoint? Do you think this is something writers should do or avoid, or is it unavoidable?

As a teacher as well as a writer, I can attest to the fact that young people know immediately when you’re trying to force opinions down their throats, so a writer preaches at her peril. My goal is to entertain, because this is why young people read. If my work manages to have an impact in the real world, that’s fantastic, but that shouldn’t be the agenda.

Was there a reason why you chose to tell Kasienka’s story in free verse in Breathe? When you were building the story, did you imagine the plot first or its expression in words?

When I began The Weight of Water, I had no idea I was writing a novel, let alone a children’s novel in verse. I was minding my own business, jotting down some ideas in a notebook, when Kasienka’s voice materialised. As I continued to write, a phrase would come to me, or an image, and I constructed chapters around these fragments. The plot was the last thing on my mind, and it wasn’t until I had completed a large portion of the novel that I rearranged the chapters until I saw the thread of a plot emerging. I then wrote new poems to fill in any gaps in the narrative.

Was it difficult going from writing poetry to writing prose? Do you think in different ways when writing in one form or another? What are their relative merits?

I couldn’t have written another verse novel straight after The Weight of Water. Writing Breathe in prose was the perfect way to cleanse the palate, so the transition wasn’t just easy but absolutely necessary. Writing verse is an intense process because every part of the poem, from images to commas, must have a reason for being on the page. To ensure I didn’t rush this process, I drafted and edited on paper before committing anything to the computer. While The Weight of Water grew outwards in an organic yet somewhat haphazard way, a little like a flower blooming, I plotted the storyline for Breathe carefully before starting and wrote it linearly as it would be read. I also allowed myself to focus on the story and voice first and come back to the detail of the language in my second draft.

How far are you into the sequel to Breathe, and what else have you got planned?

I planned a lot of the plot for Breathe in advance, which was new for me. The only part I wasn’t sure about was the ending, because I wanted to be writing my way towards a mystery, even for myself. If I knew how it all ended, I was afraid I’d be bored. I actually intended Breathe to be a standalone novel. It was only when my editor told me she felt there was more to the story that I decided to write a sequel called Resist, which comes out this October. In 2014 there will be two standalone novels, one for teens and one for middle-grade, and after that, who knows?

Zoë Jellicoe was born in London and lived in the US, Italy, Switzerland, and Ireland before moving to Belgium. She completed an M.Phil. in Popular Literature with a thesis on anxieties in fin-de-siècle Gothic horror invasion narratives, and now works for an arts and culture magazine in Brussels