There's no question that Sarah Crossan is having a great year. The Carnegie Medal-winning author has already won two major awards in the last two weeks: She received the Irish Children's Book of the Year at the end of May, and beat out favourites including Louise O'Neill and Patrick Ness for The Bookseller's YA Book Prize in Hay-on-Wye on 2 June.
There is a small question of how. Her book, One, is not the kind of dystopian thriller or road-trip romance that's made YA a bookstore shelf staple. It's the story of a pair of conjoined twins, Grace and Tippi. And it's told in poems.
It also happens to be a stunningly beautiful and heartfelt story about what it means to be attached, physically as well as emotionally, which might explain why, despite its niche subject matter and style, One has spoken so clearly to adult and YA readers alike.
BuzzFeed caught up with Crossan following her YA Book Prize win to talk about poetry, the unique nature of her book, and her hopes for the future of British YA.
You’ve written poetry and prose contemporary novels, as well as two dystopian novels. Was it challenging to switch back and forth?
"I’ve just been really lucky because my publisher could have been like, 'No way, you’ve can’t write a verse novel and then have us turn around and publish a dystopian book set in the future that’s a genre book.' But I was just really lucky, then there was a sequel and a prose novel about a girl who likes poetry – I mean how is that a book that a publisher would say 'Oh, that’s great!'? But they did, and they just sort of embraced everything that I’ve written and really allowed me the freedom to write what I want to write. And you know, some are hits and some are misses, but I think that’s the way you’ve got to write, otherwise you’re just sort of trying to keep your brand, and it’s like, this is your brand. But I think that’s sort of an artificial set-up.
Do you think the success you've had writing across genres and styles says something about YA readers?
"I just think young people are open to all kinds of different things. When I talk to students about the book – and they are a little bit reluctant about the poetry – but when I talk to them, they’re convinced. And at school events they’ll buy the book.
"But adults are more difficult to convince. Adults are sort of like, 'I don’t know, a whole book written in poetry?' Whereas kids are like, 'I don’t know, but I’ll give it a try.' Kids are a lot braver and more willing to experiment and play with reading in different forms."
You write in free verse. Is that meant to help readers get less caught up in the "rules" of poetry?
"It's possible readers feel like poetry has to follow some particular form – then it becomes about following rules, and maybe young people don’t want to follow rules.
"I do worry about the shape of the poem on the page. It’s important that certain words are set apart. I want readers to read the poems in a particular way. So punctuation is very important. I want people to be pausing in the right bits.
"There’s a poem in the book called 'Tippi' and it’s a square poem. And it says, 'Tippitippitippitippitippi…' And at the end it says, 'Tippi?'
"It took me a long time to write that! I had to ask myself, "Does it need 10 Tippis? A hundred? How many times?' And so I said that poem again and again, and I think a lot of people would look at it and think 'That’s not really a poem.' But it is! Because it’s about the pattern, and the way the language speaks to you bodily. And that’s what I like about free verse: It speaks to you on sort of a more energetic level than on an intellectual level. I think novels in free verse say, 'Look, there are no rules, do what you like.' And that can be really freeing, at a time when you want to do what you like."
Do you look at your own writing as an area where you can break the rules and take risks?
"I just never feel like I’m taking risks! Somebody said to me last week, 'You know, you wrote this book about conjoined twins which shouldn’t work, you wrote a book in verse which shouldn’t work. You’re such a risk-taker.'
"But I just don’t see it like that. I think as a writer, all you’re trying to do is write the story the way it needs to be written, so it’s never that, like, 'I’m so brave.' You know there are people doing much braver things that what I’m doing.
"But maybe as an adult I’m more willing to experiment though. When I was younger I was maybe less willing or able to do that as a child because I lacked confidence. So I think now, maybe I’m willing to experiment, but I don’t think of it as risk or bravery, because I can always start again. You know, I can throw it away. I wrote 30,000 words and then I dumped them."
Did you originally imagine One as a verse novel?
"I wanted One to be a novel in prose, partly because I thought more people would read it, because poetry can be scary to people. And then it wasn’t working, the voice wasn’t working.
"So my agent said, 'Start again.' I’d written 30,000 words. But I started again, and it was in verse. And I thought, Blast!, you know, because it’s harder to write in verse; you’ve got to sort of wait for the words to come to you, and I did wonder about the marketplace. But then, you just have to write what the voice is telling you to write. And it’s the only way it was going to work for me, so that’s what I did in the end."
You’ve said that you’re not a research-guided writer, but you did a lot of research for this book. What prompted the change?
"I had to do a lot of research for One. It was essential to the story, in terms of how the story played out, and I needed to make sure that the medical element was truthful. I didn’t want anyone to say 'Oh, the science is wrong', because the book falls apart if that’s the case. So I was really lucky that at the end, I was able to speak to a separation surgeon who was able to make sure it was all right.
"But on my next novel, the one I’m working on now, I think I almost went overboard with the research. I was so into the topic, I read so many articles and so, so many books and watched so many documentaries that the research and the issue became more important than the story that I now need to go back and say, 'What’s the story? What’s the heart of the book?' As opposed to 'What’s the issue?' I mean, people don't read for issue. People read for the shared humanity in the story."
One is told entirely from the perspective of one twin, Grace. Did you ever consider splitting the book between their voices?
"Originally the idea was to write half the novel from Grace’s perspective and half the novel from Tippi’s. And I started to write Tippi’s perspective and then I thought, But the whole point of this book is that they’re individuals, so why does it also have to be Tippi’s story? This is just Grace’s story and she’s an individual. So that was sort of part of the point of the book. It’s part of the message, that these two people happen to be joined together, but they are completely separate and have separate lives and separate stories, and this is Grace’s story. And Tippi will have her own story somewhere else, but not in this book."
The book covers a very specific scenario – being a conjoined twin – and there are a lot of medical considerations included in the book. How did you put yourself into such a unique headspace?
"I think that the more I read on the topic, the more I understood that these were just two people who loved each other and wanted to stay together, and I can understand that feeling. I've been in love. I have a child who I adore and don’t ever want to be parted from, and I found that when she was very little, I would physically feel it when she was taken from me, I’d have a visceral reaction, so I can completely understand that.
"And I also think all young people can relate because as teenagers we all feel like when have unusual anatomies. Grace and Tippi have particularly unusual anatomies, but we all feel sort of like freaks, especially in those teen years when your body is growing and changing and you feel like, 'My boobs aren’t the right size! Why are my legs so hairy? My eyes are a bit crooked!'
"And even as adults we do that. We’re like, 'How can I change my hair?' and 'How can I change my face?' and 'What can I do to make myself look like other people, look less unusual?', and I think we’re all doing that and Grace and Tippi just happen to be a very extreme form of that.
You’ve just won the only literary prize that focuses on writers based the UK and Ireland. Can you speak a little bit about the state of British YA?
"I just think the breadth and variety of what’s being published is phenomenal. When I was a teenager I just didn’t have that choice. You know, there was Judy Bloom, and then Virginia Andrews! I don’t remember there being such a big range.
"Books were the only way I could find out about myself and the world. I had a pretty strict upbringing, so the library was the place I went to in order to work the world out, and I had a tough time because I couldn’t always see myself in books, but I think young people now have that opportunity.
"We’ve got more diverse literature, more people of colour, different sexualities and gender identities. I didn’t have that. And even just in terms of different types of fantasy, contemporary – I just didn’t have that. I feel like I just lost out.
"I’m not saying our work is done here, though. I'm not saying, 'Aren’t we great? Let’s pat ourselves on the back!' or anything. There’s a lot more to be done, but we're heading in the right direction."
What would you like to see as British YA grows up?
"I would like to see more verse novels, actually. I know that's not exactly about the reader seeing themselves in it. But it’s about not alienating young people from poetry, not making them feel like the language doesn’t belong to them. I think that happens in school, the way that we’re examining kids on poems – you know, underline words, explain what the extending metaphor means. We just explain away poetry. It stops being something that belongs to the heart and becomes something that belongs to the head. I think verse novels are a really good way of keeping teenagers particularly connected to poetry.
"I mean, you’ve got poetry for toddlers. My daughter loves poetry, and I have an 8-year-old niece who’s the same. But you go into a secondary school and the kids roll their eyes, they have no interest. You hear a lot of 'It doesn’t belong to me', 'It’s boring', 'It’s difficult.' And why is that? I think it’s because they go from reading Julia Donaldson to Shakespeare. What is there in the middle? There’s nothing for them.
"And I think the verse novel reminds kids that they can do this, it’s not so hard, and I think that’s really important, and that they’ll take it into adulthood."