INTERVIEW: Author David Owen On Representing Mental Illness In YA

'[My books are] weird, and go places you probably won't expect, and tackle some pretty big issues without flinching.'

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David Owen is the author of three young adult novels – Panther, The Fallen Children, and All the Lonely People, which was released in January this year. Here he discusses his books, the importance of representing mental illness and, of course, his cats.

Can you explain Panther, The Fallen Children, and All the Lonely People in one sentence each?  
Panther: Boy struggles to understand depression, hunts a possibly magical panther instead.

The Fallen Children: Four young women from a council estate are mysteriously put to sleep one night and impregnated by supernatural forces.

All the Lonely People: Young woman lives her entire life online and begins to disappear when a bully forces her to delete all her profiles.

What’s your most convincing argument to persuade our readers to buy and read your books?
 Oooh, I don’t know… I’m really bad at selling my books! I’m confident that my books aren’t quite like anything else you’ll read in YA. They’re weird, and go places you probably won’t expect, and tackle some pretty big issues without flinching. And they all feature nice cats.

Do you consider your creative works as your children, and which is your favourite?  
Not quite my children. That would be a bit weird. My cats are my children. Which is definitely not weird. But I do have a favourite – All the Lonely People. I think it’s the best book I’ve written, in terms of the writing itself, but also in terms of being the most open and truthful emotionally. I deliberately tried to be less cynical with this book. I’m really proud of it.

If you could enter your own stories and interact with your characters, what would you want to say to them?
I’d probably tell most of them to stop being such dicks, to be honest. Obviously teenagers are allowed to make bad decisions and do things that might seem silly to adult readers. But a lot of my characters, particularly the male characters, are not terribly nice people. They could all use somebody to put an arm around them and point them in a better direction.

As a writer I often wonder about how much of myself I’ve put into my characters, consciously or not. Do you have any examples of your own life and personality influencing the characters you’ve written? Which of your characters do you identify with the most?
 My first book Panther is semi-autobiographical, so there is a lot of me in its protagonist Derrick. I grew up around somebody who had depression and I struggled to understand it, and then later was diagnosed with depression myself, so I felt like I had seen it from both sides. So I channelled a lot of that into the book. I identify with Derrick’s difficulty in understanding what’s going on, and how nobody is really helping him to understand. But he’s also a better person than I was, because he’s at least trying to make sense of it and help.

Do you want to be known as a writer of a specific genre? Has the idea of being thought of as a type of writer shaped your creative process or hindered it?
I think I have become known as a certain kind of writer – contemporary with some kind of magic realist/sci-fi twist. But that leaves me a lot of scope, so I don’t feel restricted by it. Plus I’m not particularly high-profile, so it’s not like I have loads of people expecting a certain thing from me. I would like to branch out into other age groups and genres, and I can’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be able to do that alongside my YA books.

I started reading Panther knowing it was about the effect of depression on a family, but I was surprised by how much anger Derrick had towards his sister because of her illness, and how he blamed her for keeping the family ‘hostage’. I feel like this is a side to depression and mental illness that is rarely explored. Do you think it’s important for more stories to confront difficult emotions? What should writers attempting to do so be careful of? And did you start writing Panther knowing this was something you wanted to talk about?
It is a difficult aspect of mental illness to explore, and I hadn’t seen it tackled before. That was very much the focus of Panther – how it affects the people around the person struggling with the illness, how it has that toxic knock-on effect, especially when it isn’t talked about openly.

It’s definitely important for stories that confront these difficult subjects. And I think there are loads of books that do it really well, particularly in UK YA. I think what writers need to be aware of (and most are) is that you can’t represent the entirety of a mental illness in one story. Everybody experiences it differently, and the people around them will react differently, so you can ever give one view on it. Being aware of that drastically reduces the chances of you upsetting somebody.

What aspects of mental illness do you wish more people knew about, wrote about and talked about?
More than anything, I wish more people realised just how many people experience mental illness. It’s so much more common than most people realise, and if people knew that, it would go a long way to encouraging people to be more open about it and breaking down stigma.

Did you find writing your second and third novels easier than the first? Was there anything you learnt from writing the first that made the process easier?
The second novel was harder in a lot of ways. Story-wise, Panther is quite a simple book, and its semi-autobiographical nature meant I had real-life to guide me a little. The Fallen Children has a more complex plot, more perspectives, and so on, which made it a lot more challenging from a craft point of view. But getting through that meant I was much better prepared for writing my third book!

Which grammar rule needs to go?
all of them forget Grammar ~ we ShOulD b ABLE to – do whatever we [want]!!!

Your first three novels are out in the world and doing well. What’s next?
My fourth book! I can’t say anything about it right now, but it’s happening!

All The Lonely People is out now.

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