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“It takes years and much courage to be prepared to be yourself”: A Q&A with YA Book Prize shortlisted author Jenny Downham


Jenny Downham’s ‘Unbecoming’ was one of the shortlisted books for this year’s YA Book Prize, and deservedly so. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt novel about 3 generations of women all struggling with secrets.

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We were lucky enough to snag some time with Jenny and ask her a few questions.

Tell us the plot of ‘Unbecoming’ in the length of a tweet. Who are you if you can’t remember the past, or are hiding your true self or are surrounded by secrets? And what will it cost to find out?

How long did it take you to write this novel? It took 4 and a half years.  I am very VERY slow.  But I did take a six month break when my mum became unwell.

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What was your favourite part of writing it? When I was about four months from the end and I could see the way forward.  I write in narrative order, so this would be about the last five or six chapters. It was like running down a hill towards the sea!

Out of our three protagonists, who do you identify with most? I’ve certainly known Mary’s, ‘I’m going to do just as I please,’ boldness and Caroline’s controlling, ‘If only everyone would do as I say,’ attitude and her propensity to play by the rules.  I’m probably most like Katie.  Certainly when I was young, I’d worry that if I told people what I was really thinking or feeling that they’d find me weird and not like me anymore.  It takes years and much courage to be prepared to be yourself.  I’m still not sure I’ve got a handle on it!

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What inspired you to write about 3 generations of women like this? I use free writing techniques when I start a new project. This is a bit like improvising in theatre – throwing words down and not planning anything in advance.  But about a year in, I realised I was writing about a lot of things that had happened or were currently happening in my own family.  This was an accident!  I tried to stop, but I didn’t seem to have any other ideas, so I just kept going…   I’m a daughter and a mother and a carer.  When I was a teenager, my grandmother came to stay with us for several weeks following a stroke and she told me stories.  I’ve always been interested in the tales we pass down between generations, as well as the stories we tell every day.  I’m intrigued by the things we leave out or embellish and the way we reveal or hide ourselves through them.  It all came together at once and I threw in a love story or three and – voila!

Are you writing anything new at the moment? Can you give us any sneaky hints? I am writing something new and a sneaky hint would be – she’s called Lexi and she’s BAD!  I’m having such fun…

Because we want to see where the magic happens, send us a snap of where you write!

Jenny Downham Q&A

Buy ‘Unbecoming’ here!

Read it already? You lucky duck! Tell us what you thought about it at @maximumpopbooks!

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Written by Sophie Waters

Sophie is the Head of Commercial at Maximum Pop! Having studied English Lit and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, she came to MP! to satisfy her passion for books. Sophie is a diehard Hufflepuff and feminist. She's also a huge cat lover, and can often be found rocking her socks off at a gig.