Our Interview with Helena Coggan!
Jasmin and Yasmin were incredibly fortunate to be invited to e-mail interview Helena
Coggan, a 15-year-old author who has recently had her novel, ‘The Catalyst’ published. The girls were keen to learn more about the person behind such a remarkable achievement…
Writing and publishing a novel at such a young age is quite an achievement. Who has been your greatest inspiration in achieving this?
My inspirations were more stories than people. Whenever I had doubts about what I was doing- very early on, when I realised the time and effort I was putting into it was vastly disproportionate to the odds of any of this paying off- I had only to pick up a book and start reading, and I’d think, ‘no, I definitely want to try to do this’. But of course I was very lucky in having the best parents and sister in the world, not to mention the best group of friends; and, in terms of writers, if I ever get anywhere near half as good as John Finnemore or Caitlin Moran, I will be very happy.
Your protagonist Rose is 15 like you. Is any of your personality reflected in her or any of the other characters?
No. Writing about yourself is very difficult and dangerous, as you inevitably end up looking either narcissistic or depressed; I was very careful not to base any of the characters on anyone I knew, either, because whether or not I wanted to I would end up offending a lot of people. And anyway, part of the fun of writing is that you get to make up imaginary people, and why deny yourself that? The fact that Rose is the same age as me is not deliberate: when I started, I was thirteen, and I thought two years was the biggest age gap I could convincingly bridge if I was to be spending that much time inside her head. I had no idea that by the time it was published I would also be fifteen. Back then, the very idea of being published at all was a desperately implausible dream. In part of my mind it still is, which is why I occasionally have to remind myself that all of this is actually real, and I’m not just engaged in a really long and astonishingly detailed daydream.
Which character was the biggest challenge to create or develop?
It wasn’t so much a matter of being a challenge to develop some of them- more that no character, in my limited experience, is ever the same on the page as they are in your head, and occasionally the way they develop when you’re writing them comes into conflict with how you need them to behave in order for the plot to work. That was particularly difficult with Felix, the main antagonist, who despite being a very large presence in the book doesn’t actually get that much airtime, in terms of the reader actually seeing him do things instead of hearing about the things he’s done. Trying to create workable conversations with him, and make him a believable human being in the limited space I had, as well as making sure he was all the things I needed him to be- chilling, ruthless, passionate, arrogant, and most of all frightening- that took quite a bit of thought, and a few drafts.
Given your fame, what keeps you ‘down to earth’?
Oh, God. I’m not famous, am I? No. That’s a terrifying idea. And as for ‘down to earth’… Well, I spend most days at school, and there the book is merely a useful conversation starter for people who don’t really know me. Occasionally someone will go, ‘oh yes, I saw you on TV’, and I’ll smile and tell them how terrifying it was and they’ll politely say that I didn’t look like I was going to be sick at all. And then normality will reassert itself.
How do you feel about being a role model to the likes of us?
How do I…. wow. Okay. I have never envisioned myself as a role model. To be a role model, in my mind, is to put yourself in the public eye so that people think you’re an admirable person to be; and it’s very good that’s not what I’m trying to do, because that would go disastrously. I write. I make up imaginary worlds with imaginary people and have a lot of fun doing it and hope very much that other people will enjoy reading it. That is not the same as putting myself up for analysis and scrutiny and entertainment; that’s why I’m always very glad that I’m in one of the few sectors of the entertainment industry where no one can see me. I’m not onstage, being watched; I’m at a desk, being edited. And if I can use what voice and influence I have to tell as many teenagers as possible that it’s okay, that they are working human beings, that they don’t have to judge themselves in the way that it always seems the world is judging them- if I can do that, then that would be perfect. But I myself am not a role model.
What are your favourite books to read? Do you prefer modern fiction or the classics?
The combination of writing and exam revision has eaten considerably into my reading recently, but (to my dad’s despair) I always prefer modern fiction. When you know something has been written in the last few years, it’s easier to relate to it, both as a reader and as a writer; to be able to see a technique a writer has used, and admire it, and try to learn from it. When I was about eight or nine, I could confidently say I had learned almost everything I knew about how to write from the Harry Potter series. It’s safe to say I’ve read a bit more since then, but I still learn to write from reading.
How do you balance your career with studying for your GCSEs (good luck by the way!)? Do you feel any extra pressure in English?
It’s not really a matter of balancing, because writing never feels like work. (Editing is another matter.) I love writing; I’d do it even if I knew no one would ever read it. And as for English… well, it would be a tiny bit embarrassing if I failed English now, but the kind of writing I do and the kind required to pass the exams are two very different disciplines, so at least I have some kind of excuse if I completely blank on the day.