Author Miriam Halahmy published her first YA novel, Hidden, in 2011. This was followed by Illegal in 2012 and Stuffed in 2014. Hidden was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, reflecting its powerful storyline and strong voice. Both Illegal and Stuffed are similar to Hidden: realistic, interesting, action packed and thought-provoking books. Despite the success of Hidden, the series almost failed to be published in its entirety when Miriam lost her publisher after the publication of Illegal. She is now with a new publisher, Albury Books, and has been busy promoting Stuffed. These books, known as The Hayling Island Cycle, will interest YA readers who enjoy real stories, with believable characters and plenty of emotion and action.
In this interview, Miriam discusses the Hayling Island Cycle and what inspired her to write. We are delighted that she has taken the time to talk to us and it is interesting to have a better understanding of the work that went into and created these excellent books.
The Hayling Island Cycle
In the Hayling Island Cycle books, you have captured the voices and lives of teenagers very well. How easy is it to do this and how do you do it?
I seem to be able to capture voices quite naturally and see it as one of my strengths as an author. In fact across the three books I have characters aged 2-94 but yes, most of them are teens. I have my antennae up and glean what I can from the voices around me. I also pick up ideas from newspaper article, TV and social networks. Just a snippet can give me a sense of a teenage voice and life and then I am quite good at imagining the possibilities around that tiny clue.
The books are all fairly action packed but the stories are more than just adventures, they are also full of information about sensitive but relevant topics – asylum seekers, drugs and teenage pregnancies. How important is it to you that your books should carry a message as well as being a good read?
From childhood I have had a strong sense of justice and social and political issues have always inspired my writing. But I don’t believe in just writing to inform or educate. The success of a good book lies in strong convincing characters which engage the reader and stimulate their curiosity. However, when I visit schools I am constantly amazed at how interested all age groups are in the issues I deal with and we always have very lively discussions.
The three books all have strong female leads – not perfect girls but girls who are willing to make difficult decisions and who want to make their lives better. It is refreshing to read about realistic female characters and to see that people can change if they want to – was this a clear intention on your part?
I am quite an instinctive writer and so these books developed organically. Certainly with Alix in HIDDEN I began wanting to write about an ordinary girl facing an extraordinary situation. But then I became interested in the ‘bad girl’ Lindy and decided to write a book for her, ILLEGAL. I wanted to see how she could develop the more positive sides of her character which are hinted at in HIDDEN. In the second book, Jess begins to emerge and then it seemed right to put her at the heart of the third book. With both Jess and Lindy I have girls who start out as not very appealing and both go on such a huge journey in their stories that I think the reader ends up very fond of them.
Often the family life of your teen characters is chaotic and some of the father figures leave a lot to be desired. Yet despite the imperfections, there is invariably a sense that families will pull together and that there is love, even if it is expressed in a strange way. How important was it to you to show the reality of different family units?
There are such huge variations in families that I wanted to try to show as many different kinds of families as possible across the three books. I have worked with young people from a wide range of backgrounds and my husband works in child protection. So I have a lot of experience to draw on. Ultimately I have learnt that children and young people find it very hard to turn their backs on parents however problematic the relationship and I wanted to show something of this in my books.
I was interested to read about the climbing weekend in Stuffed and I notice you used to rock climb too. How much research do you put into the books in order to ensure that they are true to life?
I do a huge amount of research partly because I love it and partly because it is so important to me that every detail is correct, as far as possible. I have had to research the very tricky tides around Hayling Island as well as returning to my rock climbing haunts of my student days; I have done a lot of historical research and walked miles over the Island to make sure my setting is as authentic as possible; I have studied words in Arabic and I have haunted motorbike shops. Research lies at the heart of my work.
There is a strong sense of place in the books and, from what I have read, Hayling Island is a special place for you. How much of what you wrote is from your memories or has the area changed since your childhood?
I never lived on the Island. My parents lived there for 25 years and I have been visiting the Island for 40 years. I really love it and go down regularly for days, weekends and also week-long holidays in the summer. The biggest change since in the past 20 years is the covering of the beaches with pebbles to stop erosion. Before that Hayling was famous for its golden sandy beaches and it really is a shame about the stones.
Where did you get your inspiration from – some of the topics you have covered have been in the press, but what makes you run with an idea?
I know that my idea has legs once my characters start talking to me. Then the whole plot comes alive, new characters appear and things happen!
You write poetry as well as books for primary aged children and teenagers. How important do you find poetry as a means of expressing your ideas?
I have written poetry and read poetry since childhood and words just naturally form into poems in my head. They are often a response to a new place or a change in my life and help to express my very strong feelings and passions about my life.
What books inspired you when you were growing up?
Mostly I loved realistic books about children like myself and how they coped with life. I loved The Secret Garden, anything by Louisa M. Alcott, anything by E. Nesbitt ( including the elements of fantasy), The Lion, The witch etc., because I really identified with Lucy and was desperate to have tea with Mr Tumnus, anything by Enid Blyton but especially The Famous Five. I also read all the Sherlock Holmes books, all the Agatha Christie books and lots of Charles Dickens. I love biographies of great musicians and well, pretty well anything else I could get my hands on.
From your website, I can see that you visit schools and libraries and attend conferences and festivals. Given your exposure to teachers, librarians, authors and readers, do you think that those voices in the press that express concern about reading levels and the death of the book are correct?
I think that the concerns about reading and books are very real but I have to say that I am always impressed in schools and colleges at how much the young people read and their delight in being introduced to new books. There are a lot of people out there working very hard to keep reading and books alive and I think their hard work is succeeding.
Finally, I know that Stuffed is only just out but have you any plans for another book or series?
I have recently completed a new novel about two teenage girls who for separate reasons are no longer safe at home and facing homelessness. I have a great idea for the next book after that but will keep it under wraps until I’ve written it. But they are two very separate books and at the moment I am not working on a new cycle or series of books.
Many thanks for your great questions and I really enjoyed the interview.