You could say I was excited about being given the opportunity to review Rachel McIntyre about her amazing debut, Me and Mr J…But it would be a complete understatement! I thoroughly enjoyed this YA novel which tackles so many tricky subjects, but does so with compassion and sensitivity. My review will be posted later on today, but for now it’s over to Rachel as we talk controversial debuts, getting inside the head of a sixteen year old and the terrifying Mrs Muirhouse…
Hello Rachel, a huge, warm welcome to Bookaholic Confessions! Thank you so much for participating in this interview. Would you like to start by introducing yourself…?
Hi Holly, thank you for having me! I’m Rachel, I’m from West Yorkshire originally and I now live in South Manchester after spending 10 years living overseas. I previously taught English Lit in a sixth form college, but I’ve now stopped teaching to concentrate on writing for a while.
Can you tell us a bit about your debut novel, Me and Mr J (released 29th January 2015 by Electric Monkey)?
“Me and Mr J” is about Lara, a 16 year old girl who is suffering a terrible time at home and at school. She feels utterly alone; her best friend has outgrown her and her other close friend, cousin Emma, has moved to the far end of the country. Then she meets someone who makes her feel like life might be worth living after all; someone who tries to help her regain her self-esteem; someone she falls in love with. The only problem is, he’s her teacher.
I have just finished reading Me and Mr J & I couldn’t put it down, it was such an enjoyable, compelling read. What inspired you to come up with the storyline?
Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Some students of mine were discussing a girl one of them had heard of who, rumour had it, was in a relationship with a former teacher; the general consensus being how romantic! I was completely shocked they viewed it this way when to me, it was very clearly an abuse of trust. But then it got me thinking about how differently situations like this might appear to teenage eyes. I decided I wanted to write about this very topical issue in an ultra- realistic way, so I chose to make Lara my besotted protagonist and focus on how easily this could happen. I deliberately made Mr J young and handsome to add to the realism: not many girls fancy much older, unattractive teachers!
The key message in the book is summed up in a quote from Lara: “just because something feels right, doesn’t mean it is”. And that’s the underpinning moral of the story. You can see how something might happen and how it might seem right, but it’s always, always wrong. Lara herself realises this at the end when the affair has devastating consequences for everyone.
Me and Mr J tackles a lot of taboo subjects, including teacher/pupil relationships and bullying. How did it feel to be releasing a debut novel which is based around these issues? Were you apprehensive at all about how it would be received?
I was apprehensive as it’s a very divisive topic and I know people have very strong views. But just because it’s uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and I feel very strongly that YA literature has a responsibility to tackle difficult subjects head on. So although it’s a bit nerve wracking writing something that’s bound to make waves, especially for a debut, it was a subject that merited discussion. It was risky writing only from Lara’s super-crushing perspective, but that’s the point, really, to present how the situation develops from her point of view.
I think YA should acknowledge how the character might be feeling and validate those emotions in a non-patronising or preachy way. If the character recognises the truth of the situation themselves, rather than have a really obvious adult-voice moral overlaying the whole story, then I think it makes for a more realistic, and successful, book.
I loved Lara and you really bought her to life for me. I felt as if I was experiencing some of the things she went through along with her. How did you get inside the mind of a sixteen year old to write from Lara’s point-of-view?
Thanks! I watched a lot of TV and read a lot of magazines targeted at that age group. I was also teaching in a sixth form college at the time, so I was surrounded by people of a similar age to Lara, so the voice wasn’t too difficult. Very pleased that my lifetime addiction to Heat magazine came in useful.
Are there any similarities between Lara T and yourself when you were sixteen?
A few, but not many. I was quite sarcastic at that age and I think that comes out in Lara’s voice. I also always kept a diary which is why I was so comfortable with the diary form and read a lot, so there are little literary references in there too. I did go to an all girls’ school in West Yorkshire, but my experiences were largely positive and I never had a crush on a teacher!
Are any of your other characters based on anyone in real life or are they entirely fictional? (I really hope there’s not a real life Molly…)
The characters are exaggerated mixed up aspects of different people, but no-one is directly copied from real life. Sam says a couple of unpleasant things that a boy I knew said to the 13 year old me and Mrs Muirhouse is based on someone who could out-nasty Simon Cowell that I knew a long time ago. Lara’s red hair comes from a friend of mine who has had various comments and jibes directed at her. Bullying someone because of the colour of their hair genuinely does happen. It’s absurd that it’s seen as a joke! Molly and the Mean Girls are patchworks of different unpleasant people I’ve heard/met/read about etc.
I think part of the reason I wrote the book is to explore aspirations. Lara’s a clever girl, but she knows her parents will struggle to send her to university and she feels she’s not quite as good as some of the other girls she meets in Cambridge. I think it’s a shame that bright teenagers may be put off going to university because they’re from less affluent backgrounds.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?
I have been incredibly lucky. This is the first book I’ve written and I got an amazing agent quite soon after finishing it, swiftly followed by a three book deal with the fabulous Egmont UK. Yes, I do still have to pinch myself when I read that!
Who are your favourite authors and what kind of books do you enjoy reading?
I read less now than I ever have done, weirdly. I think it’s because I’m writing so much. I love contemporary literary fiction and among my favourite ever books are Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and anything by Kate Atkinson/ Susan Hill/ Margaret Atwood/ Donna Tartt/ Sarah Waters. I also love classic literature, particularly the Brontes, Jane Austen, the big Russian novelists and all the others you’d expect from a former English teacher!
And finally – can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished book 2 which is another diary form with a teen girl protagonist.