A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
When Author Allsorts suggested I write a piece on recurring themes in my work, at first all I could come up with is my persistent tendency to avoid it (thank you, Twitter). However, when I stopped procrastinating and thought a bit harder, patterns started to emerge.
So far I’ve written four books – though only one has been published to date – and if I look back, certain symbols do crop up. For instance, I clearly have a fascination with water, and near-drowning, which is strange as I’m a decent swimmer, and will have a splash almost anywhere – including Loch Lomond a few weeks ago. But I guess if you want to get all Freudian – and why not? – you can see water and its hidden depths as a rather obvious metaphor for the unconscious that rumbles away under the surface of our minds. So sea and lakes feature heavily in Now You See Me and next year’s Better Left Buried – and both heroines nearly drown just at the point they finally uncover what has been really been going on.
Disconcertingly, I’ve also realised I’m a bit obsessed with guns. This really is odd, because I’m deeply opposed to the right to bear arms and have never set eyes on a pistol in real life, let alone handled one. But somehow there’s nothing more thrilling than having a character pull out a gun. They don’t even have to fire it; the fact that it’s there changes everything and raises the stakes even higher, and that’s catnip for authors.
A third recurring theme for me is journeys. I like to get my characters on the road at a critical point in their story, I suppose embodying the idea of a shift from one world to another. So Sarah, my protagonist in Better Left Buried, travels from England to the depths of rural Sweden in a desperate attempt to resolve a situation that threatens her life and those of everyone she loves. I guess, in my head at least, the willingness to undertake a journey marks a willingness to embrace the call to action that the story has created – and signals to the reader that from now on, nothing will ever be the same.
Symbols aside, if I scratch the surface of my books I can see darker themes of trust and secrets, loss and abandonment. Who should you trust, for instance? How do you cope if those you love abandon you, either physically or emotionally? And all those secrets, reverberating around us in ways we so often overlook – what family, what friendship or relationship doesn’t have them? They run through our histories like fault lines, threatening to break apart at any moment.
So in Now You See Me, Hannah, the 16-year-old protagonist, who has lost her mother and best friend Danny, has to unravel various secrets – all of which threaten to have a profound impact on her life; and in the process, discovers that her trust has largely been misplaced. In Better Left Buried, Sarah is forced to accept the help of someone she knows she should never rely on – and her journey is a process of discovering whether or not that trust is mistaken.
And yes, if I think about it, all these things were issues in my own childhood – either literally or metaphorically – and my particular journey has been largely to try to come to terms with that. So I guess it’s not surprising that I’m drawn to re-enact this process in my novels; that’s not to say my characters are me, or face anything like the same circumstances, but the underlying feelings are similar in breadth and tone.
Maybe, though, this is true for all writers – and all novels. Lies and secrets, loss and revelation, are exactly the stuff story is made from. When we open a book or settle down to watch a film, we crave the tension and conflict these large universal themes can provide. After all, what holds more suspense than a secret? What is more poignant than loss, more bitter than a betrayal? We live vicariously through the books we read, and in so doing learn a little more about ourselves and the world around us. Happy ever after is all very well, but in story terms it’s something of a cul-de-sac; which is why as writers we always leave it right to the very end.
Emma Haughton worked as a journalist working for national newspapers and magazines before settling down to write young adult fiction. Her first book, YA thriller NOW YOU SEE ME, was published by Usborne in May 2014. Her second, BETTER LEFT BURIED, comes out next year.