‘And theres that little word again. Echoin round my head. Why? I keep askin myself. Why? Why dint the Mayker stop this? Why ent Walsh struck down for being an evil barstard? Why? And I dare think it. I do. I dare think the unthinkaball, the unsayaball. What if.’
Down in Bearmouth mine, young Newt learns to read and write in between long hours shifting coal for little pay. The days are the same: work, eat, pray to the Mayker, sleep. No questions asked. Then one day, Devlin arrives, and asks that most dangerous of questions: why?
Liz Hyder’s Bearmouth is an ambitious new young adult novel straight from the depths of the dark mines. Touching on themes of religion, politics, friendship and control, Bearmouthis a challenging and deeply thought-provoking read, as well as a truly gripping adventure story. To tell us more about the creation of her first novel, Liz Hyder is here to answer some questions…
Hi Liz! First off, how do you feel now your book is out?
It’s not like anything I’ve experienced before to be honest! Its very exciting that Bearmouthis out there in the world but it’s also a strange feeling to see a book that sprung entirely from your own imagination actually on shelves in bookshelves for the first time. Readers really seem to be taking Newt’s journey to heart too and I’ve been really moved by their reactions. I may have cried quite a bit of late! It really is a dream come true and I keep having to pinch myself…
‘Young Adult’ is the term we use to describe books for teenagers and young people: did you feel any constraints when writing the book to make it fit into this category?
None at all! I think teens today are some of the smartest, most engaged, empathetic and thoughtful people around. They don’t shy away from difficult topics and I don’t think books for them should either– look at the likes of Greta Thunberg plainly and simply telling older generations, ‘this is not good enough’! Look at what she’s achieved in terms of garnering support with the likes of school strikes and so on. One person really can make a difference…
Rebellion is often a driving force in young adult novels, why do you think this is?
I think your teenage years are where you really start to understand rebellion, it’s when you tend to push at the boundaries of what you’re told is acceptable, whether that’s through school or home. It’s when, for a lot of people – and certainly was for me – you start to figure out both who you really are and, perhaps, who and what you want to be too. Rebelling against the ‘norm’, whether that’s dyeing your hair, staying out late or dating someone deemed ‘not suitable’, they’re all acts of rebellion. I think rebellion can be extraordinarily empowering too and I think that’s why it’s often a driving force in fiction.
Why did you choose to write from Newt’s point of view, and not the original troublemaker, Devlin’s?
Newt was always the voice that whispered to me at night. From the start, Newt’s way of speaking was really strong and distinctive. I never thought about telling the story from anyone else’s point of view, Newt was always the heart and soul of the story from the earliest sparks of the idea really.
You cover some difficult topics in Bearmouth, such as abuse and religion. Why did you decide to tackle these topics in the book? How did you go about it?
I first had the idea for the book when I visited a slate mine on a rainy day whilst on holiday in North Wales. It’s an extraordinary place, atmospheric and fascinating and yet there were things about it that really disturbed me. Firstly, the idea that boys from the age of 12 had their nostril slit to prove they were ‘man enough’ to work down there and, secondly, that the workers used to doff their cap to a figure in the rocks as they entered and left the mine for the day. There’s something about both those elements that feel a little reminiscent of a cult, the superstition towards a rock figure, bodily mutilation to prove that you ‘belong.’ That’s where the initial idea first came from. I then realised I knew very little about mines so started to look into the history of child workers in British mines. It’s utterly horrifying and it’s a part of our history that I think we have conveniently forgotten. Up until 1842 when the law was changed, children as young as four worked down the mines 12 hour days, six days a week. They often worked mainly in the dark as they had to pay for their own candles. Children of all ages doing responsible, mind-numbingly-repetitive work in a deeply dangerous environment. What I found out made me both furious and deeply upset and so I channelled all of that into the book.
Finally: we often see reading portrayed as an act of rebellion in young adult or dystopian novels – something we see in Newt learning to read and write. What power do you think reading has in creating social change, especially in young people?
Reading is an act of empowerment. If you can read, you can access knowledge, you can question things, and that’s why it’s seen as an act of rebellion. If you can read, you can teach yourself other languages, learn about pretty much anything and everything. Reading encourages you to use your imagination, to relish stories, to learn new things. You can disappear into other worlds, you can fall in love with fictional characters, you have the gift – through reading – to enrich your own life, to educate and inspire yourself and others, to make a difference. That’s an incredibly powerful thing.