Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan Meet the Author


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Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan

James Naughtie talks to writers Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan, who wrote the book We Come Apart entirely via social media.


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Two writers, one book.

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A novel not in prose but in free verse.

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We Come Apart was produced by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan.

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Writing separately and sending each other the chapters

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using social media.

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It's probably the first novel created on Whatsapp.

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They've both won awards for writing for young readers and this

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is a story about two youngsters, Jess and Nicu, who meet

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by chance when they are both in different kinds of trouble.

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She's from a violent home, he's a Romanian immigrant

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who is the target of abuse in the streets here,

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but who is also facing the threat of an arranged marriage back home.

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They find common cause when their secret lives come together.

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Welcome.

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Sarah, how did this come about?

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I was writing another book at the time and I had met Brian once.

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We'd met when we were both short listed for the Carnegie medal,

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and he sent me a direct message on Twitter and said he was thinking

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about writing a verse novel which I thought was my thing.

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I thought, how dare you?

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And then he asked if I wanted to collaborate on a project with him.

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And it was as simple as that?

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It was as simple as that, and we didn't know each other

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so there was really nothing to lose.

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Let me put this crudely, Brian, did you want a helping hand

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when you thought of writing a verse novel and you knew

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Sarah had done at?

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To put it crudely, yes.

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I had an idea that I wanted to write a verse novel.

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And I probably didn't have the confidence

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to attack it individually.

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Had you written in free verse at all?

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Written any poetry?

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I had, as an aspiring writer I had written a lot of bad poetry.

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But in the novel form I hadn't.

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And when you started, as I said at the beginning,

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you used Whatsapp to communicate, the first Whatsapp novel.

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How long did it take you to put this together?

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Because it's a reasonably substantial book.

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The first draft took about five or six weeks.

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That's quite quick.

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It's very quick and it began with me still working on an individual

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project and Brian working on an individual project

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and sending a chapter a day, but then it became quite frenzied

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and just the excitement of it and having someone

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read your work so quickly.

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As I'm quite a private writer and I don't have that normally,

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so the first person to get my novel will be my agent and that will be

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after I think the book is completely polished.

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That's quite scary, then?

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It's quite scary, you write something, it takes an hour

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and within 20 minutes somebody else has read it, that was

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completely new for me.

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I didn't have any experience of collaborating with anyone

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so I think this experience, for me personally, I think

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it was a fantastic experience.

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And I think the benefit was that we didn't know each other

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so there was no relationship to destroy, so we could be brutal

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with each other and say that's not good enough.

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And to be clear Brian, it's a story about Jess and Nicu,

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two teenagers who have, in different ways, troubled lives,

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who come together in an atmosphere of some frenzy and difficulty,

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and foreboding, really.

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You wrote the boy's voice, Nicu, and Sarah, you wrote

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the girl's voice, Jess, and that was the way it was

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throughout, you never swapped?

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For the first draft it was the best way to approach it, that

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I would take on the Nicu character and Sarah would take

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on the Jess character.

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But the first edit we took ownership of both characters and basically did

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a line edit ourselves.

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They are both very interesting characters, Jess comes

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from a troubled background and she's got into trouble, Nicu

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is an immigrant from remaining with all that entails,

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almost being shouted at in the street and all the rest

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of it, and there is the threat of him going home.

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So they really going through quite a crisis, both of them.

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Do you think their friendship gets them through it?

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I suppose so.

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I think that their friendship is the only thing they have at the end.

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Jess initially looks like she has a lot in her life,

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she appears to have a family and friends at school but when that

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all starts to unravel and we see really what's going on with Jess

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and Nicu steps up to save her in some ways.

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I don't like the idea of a female character being saved

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by a male character, but she saves him,

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and he he saves her.

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In a way that really nobody else could have done.

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Without going into the details of the ending, which would be

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very unfair to readers, the fears are still there,

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and the horrors are still there at the end, it's not

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as if everything is expunged in some wonderful blaze of light.

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I mean, that's just not realistic, it's not how life works.

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And I think although we wanted the novel to end in a hopeful way it

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still had to be realistic to what the situations were.

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Somebody is not going to come out other family with domestic abuse

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and start skipping along Wood Green high road.

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You didn't want the story wrapped up in a nice pink ribbon at the end.

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It just seemed like the natural way to end the book.

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There is a lot of hope in the end and that was important to us

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that we wanted to create that.

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And in terms of creating a nice happy ending it

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would not have fitted in with the stories and characters.

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What do you think, because this is your first expedition

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into writing in free verse in a novel form, what do

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you think that form brought to these characters?

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What did it allow you to do in terms of giving them a voice?

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I think in the positive language that you've got with the form,

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I think that every word has to mean something, it has to

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have a significance.

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I think especially with these two characters, they don't have a voice

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in their environment, they are marginalised

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in their environment.

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And I think they use this language with each other.

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And we're talking here about street language,

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some of it fairly rough, and of course Nicu's English

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is very characterful in the sense that it is partial?

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I know what it's like to live in a place where you can't speak

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the language and you feel very isolated within that.

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And the language, the tools that you have that you use

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are irrespective of right and wrong, it's all about communication.

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He is not necessarily interested in getting the finer

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details of the language.

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You've found out a lot about these two characters, Sarah,

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by creating them yourselves, separately but together,

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if you follow me.

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You must have discovered a lot about each other as writers as well?

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I suppose so.

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I mean, the process was so interesting because we literally

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didn't have a conversation, it was all through Whatsapp.

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So Brian sent me the first chapter and then I sent him another chapter

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and we didn't have a discussion about where we were going to go

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with the work or what we were going to do.

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Was that deliberate?

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That you didn't want to get into too much discussion,

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you wanted to do your own thing and have it protected anyway?

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I suppose to see how the characters allowed the story to develop rather

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than as having too much input and that made it really exciting.

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So there were moments in the story where there were things that

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I hadn't expected to happen and in my control and way,

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I thought, that's not how the story is supposed to go.

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But I had to go with it because that was Brian's decision.

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The obvious question, you are both very successful in your own rights,

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you are a multi-award-winning author, Sarah, Brian,

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you have just won the Costa children's book award,

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are you going to do this collaboration again?

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It's a dangerous question.

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I think, I mean, it's a question we asked ourselves.

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Have you answered it yet?

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We are very busy at the moment.

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I mean, we have thrown a few ideas around and spoken about it but again

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it's finding the time.

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Well, if you think this has worked, it would be hard not to do

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it again, wouldn't it?

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I think it would just be very different process.

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You might even talk to each other.

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Might even have a conversation, yeah.

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Of course, the thing is, without giving the ending away,

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you could take the story on.

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Have you thought of that?

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Only now.

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Well, there you are.

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We could take the story on that for me personally,

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I don't know how Sarah feels, if I was doing something

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I'd like to move away from those characters.

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I think those characters, for me, have told me as much as they can

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tell me and I'm finished with Jess, I think.

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For the moment, anyway.

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For the moment.

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Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, thank you very much.

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Thank you.

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Thank you.

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