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.
A novel not in prose but in free verse.
We Come Apart was produced by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan.
Writing separately and sending each other the chapters
using social media.
It's probably the first novel created on Whatsapp.
They've both won awards for writing for young readers and this
is a story about two youngsters, Jess and Nicu, who meet
by chance when they are both in different kinds of trouble.
She's from a violent home, he's a Romanian immigrant
who is the target of abuse in the streets here,
but who is also facing the threat of an arranged marriage back home.
They find common cause when their secret lives come together.
Sarah, how did this come about?
I was writing another book at the time and I had met Brian once.
We'd met when we were both short listed for the Carnegie medal,
and he sent me a direct message on Twitter and said he was thinking
about writing a verse novel which I thought was my thing.
I thought, how dare you?
And then he asked if I wanted to collaborate on a project with him.
And it was as simple as that?
It was as simple as that, and we didn't know each other
so there was really nothing to lose.
Let me put this crudely, Brian, did you want a helping hand
when you thought of writing a verse novel and you knew
Sarah had done at?
To put it crudely, yes.
I had an idea that I wanted to write a verse novel.
And I probably didn't have the confidence
to attack it individually.
Had you written in free verse at all?
Written any poetry?
I had, as an aspiring writer I had written a lot of bad poetry.
But in the novel form I hadn't.
And when you started, as I said at the beginning,
you used Whatsapp to communicate, the first Whatsapp novel.
How long did it take you to put this together?
Because it's a reasonably substantial book.
The first draft took about five or six weeks.
That's quite quick.
It's very quick and it began with me still working on an individual
project and Brian working on an individual project
and sending a chapter a day, but then it became quite frenzied
and just the excitement of it and having someone
read your work so quickly.
As I'm quite a private writer and I don't have that normally,
so the first person to get my novel will be my agent and that will be
after I think the book is completely polished.
That's quite scary, then?
It's quite scary, you write something, it takes an hour
and within 20 minutes somebody else has read it, that was
completely new for me.
I didn't have any experience of collaborating with anyone
so I think this experience, for me personally, I think
it was a fantastic experience.
And I think the benefit was that we didn't know each other
so there was no relationship to destroy, so we could be brutal
with each other and say that's not good enough.
And to be clear Brian, it's a story about Jess and Nicu,
two teenagers who have, in different ways, troubled lives,
who come together in an atmosphere of some frenzy and difficulty,
and foreboding, really.
You wrote the boy's voice, Nicu, and Sarah, you wrote
the girl's voice, Jess, and that was the way it was
throughout, you never swapped?
For the first draft it was the best way to approach it, that
I would take on the Nicu character and Sarah would take
on the Jess character.
But the first edit we took ownership of both characters and basically did
a line edit ourselves.
They are both very interesting characters, Jess comes
from a troubled background and she's got into trouble, Nicu
is an immigrant from remaining with all that entails,
almost being shouted at in the street and all the rest
of it, and there is the threat of him going home.
So they really going through quite a crisis, both of them.
Do you think their friendship gets them through it?
I suppose so.
I think that their friendship is the only thing they have at the end.
Jess initially looks like she has a lot in her life,
she appears to have a family and friends at school but when that
all starts to unravel and we see really what's going on with Jess
and Nicu steps up to save her in some ways.
I don't like the idea of a female character being saved
by a male character, but she saves him,
and he he saves her.
In a way that really nobody else could have done.
Without going into the details of the ending, which would be
very unfair to readers, the fears are still there,
and the horrors are still there at the end, it's not
as if everything is expunged in some wonderful blaze of light.
I mean, that's just not realistic, it's not how life works.
And I think although we wanted the novel to end in a hopeful way it
still had to be realistic to what the situations were.
Somebody is not going to come out other family with domestic abuse
and start skipping along Wood Green high road.
You didn't want the story wrapped up in a nice pink ribbon at the end.
It just seemed like the natural way to end the book.
There is a lot of hope in the end and that was important to us
that we wanted to create that.
And in terms of creating a nice happy ending it
would not have fitted in with the stories and characters.
What do you think, because this is your first expedition
into writing in free verse in a novel form, what do
you think that form brought to these characters?
What did it allow you to do in terms of giving them a voice?
I think in the positive language that you've got with the form,
I think that every word has to mean something, it has to
have a significance.
I think especially with these two characters, they don't have a voice
in their environment, they are marginalised
in their environment.
And I think they use this language with each other.
And we're talking here about street language,
some of it fairly rough, and of course Nicu's English
is very characterful in the sense that it is partial?
I know what it's like to live in a place where you can't speak
the language and you feel very isolated within that.
And the language, the tools that you have that you use
are irrespective of right and wrong, it's all about communication.
He is not necessarily interested in getting the finer
details of the language.
You've found out a lot about these two characters, Sarah,
by creating them yourselves, separately but together,
if you follow me.
You must have discovered a lot about each other as writers as well?
I suppose so.
I mean, the process was so interesting because we literally
didn't have a conversation, it was all through Whatsapp.
So Brian sent me the first chapter and then I sent him another chapter
and we didn't have a discussion about where we were going to go
with the work or what we were going to do.
Was that deliberate?
That you didn't want to get into too much discussion,
you wanted to do your own thing and have it protected anyway?
I suppose to see how the characters allowed the story to develop rather
than as having too much input and that made it really exciting.
So there were moments in the story where there were things that
I hadn't expected to happen and in my control and way,
I thought, that's not how the story is supposed to go.
But I had to go with it because that was Brian's decision.
The obvious question, you are both very successful in your own rights,
you are a multi-award-winning author, Sarah, Brian,
you have just won the Costa children's book award,
are you going to do this collaboration again?
It's a dangerous question.
I think, I mean, it's a question we asked ourselves.
Have you answered it yet?
We are very busy at the moment.
I mean, we have thrown a few ideas around and spoken about it but again
it's finding the time.
Well, if you think this has worked, it would be hard not to do
it again, wouldn't it?
I think it would just be very different process.
You might even talk to each other.
Might even have a conversation, yeah.
Of course, the thing is, without giving the ending away,
you could take the story on.
Have you thought of that?
Well, there you are.
We could take the story on that for me personally,
I don't know how Sarah feels, if I was doing something
I'd like to move away from those characters.
I think those characters, for me, have told me as much as they can
tell me and I'm finished with Jess, I think.
For the moment, anyway.
For the moment.
Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, thank you very much.