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M.A. Bennett

STAGS follows Greer MacDonald, struggling to fit into the sixth form at the exclusive St. Aidan the Great boarding school (or S.T.A.G.S), when she receives a mysterious invitation - 'Huntin' Fishin' Shootin''. It turns out to be an invitation to spend the weekend at the country house of one of the most popular boys at school.

Excited and flattered, she and two other chosen pupils agree to go - but soon discover that they have a far more significant role in the weekend of blood sports than they could possibly have imagined...

We asked author MA BENNETT to tell us more about STAGS:

Q: This is your first published YA novel but have you written other books?

A: Yes - I've written eight historical novels under my maiden name Marina Fiorato. They are mostly about Renaissance Italy, so quite different from STAGS!

Q: What took you into writing for YA readers?

A: I'm raising two young adults in my house! And they are both keen readers, so I really wanted to write something they could read.

Q: You've got a background in studying History - how did your love of history inform the writing of STAGS, which is so steeped in the past?

A: My historical studies at school and university definitely informed my invention of such an old school, and the back story of St Aidan, but I'd say that the popular culture I grew up with really informed the story just as much.

As a child I loved boarding school stories, especially the Antonia Forest Kingscoteseries. Now we have Downton Abbey but I grew up with Brideshead Revisited on the TV and all the Merchant Ivory films like Remains of the Day at the cinema.

Q: What inspired the idea for the setting in STAGS, a boarding school with a mystery at its heart?

A: I live quite near Harrow School, and we quite often go up to Harrow-on-the-Hill at the weekend and have a wander around. It's a fascinating, rarified world!

I find the whole concept of boarding school intriguing, and I'm not alone, as fans of JK Rowling will tell you. I guess I conceived STAGS as a kind of negative Hogwarts: instead of magical happenings there are very dark happenings indeed!

Q: How did your main character and narrator, the outsider Greer, develop?

A: I went to a rural, northern comprehensive school; and I ended up at two very ancient and 'posh' universities - Durham and Oxford. I hasten to add I had wonderful time at both places - no mysterious cults I'm happy to say! - but inevitably I did feel a little bit like a fish out of water among fellow students who had come from boarding schools and lived in massive estates. So maybe Greer is a little bit like a teenage me.

Q: Why did you decide to write the story in the first person?

A: Most of the successful YA literature I've read is in the first person. I think it's more immediate and there is no filter between the reader and the narrator. It also occurred to me recently that all posts on social media are in the first person too, and that's how most young adults communicate for much of the time!

Q: Greer is amazed when she arrives at STAGS. Which historical place has had the greatest impact on you?

A: I remember arriving at Oxford for my first term and just wandering around open-mouthed. It's so beautiful and there are so many iconic buildings there - The Bodleian Library, The Radcliffe Camera, Trinity College - that I'd seen in numerous films and TV shows. I couldn't quite believe they'd let me in!

Q: Greer is an outsider and is made to feel very uncomfortable by pupils at STAGS. Why did you want to have a lead character who is an outsider?

A: I think it's easier to communicate what a particular world is like if your narrator is new to it too, and has a kind of 'tour guide' role showing the reader around.

Top boarding schools and stately homes - and the bloodsports of hunting shooting and fishing - will be unfamiliar to most of my readers, so it was much better that all those things were new to Greer too.

Q: What kinds of places made you uncomfortable as a teenager? Have you drawn on your own experiences for Greer?

A: Like most people I was never comfortable with the sensation of being 'new'. I'm still not wholly comfortable walking into a roomful of strangers, and hate going to parties where I don't know anyone. All these phobias are a legacy of my teenage years.

Q: Hunting, shooting and fishing are integral to the story - have you ever been involved in blood sports? If not, where did you go to research them?

A: I actually grew up right next to a stately home - in one of the estate cottages - because my Gran was the housekeeper for the big house.

The hall had a grouse moor so there were lots of shooting parties which my Gran had to work at, so I picked up lots of information from her. The estate also had a very friendly gamekeeper - nothing like the one in the book! - who brought us Christmas trees and braces of pheasants, and he had a few stories to tell!

Q: How difficult was it to develop the suspense in the storyline, given that you say at the beginning what has happened? Why did you begin the book like this?

A: I liked the idea of baking the ending of the book into the beginning - it felt fresh to me. It was less of a Whodunnit than a Whydunnit, or even a Howdunnit! I hoped that the promise of discovering how the 'murder' occurred, and if the guilty parties would get away with it, would be enough to keep readers turning the pages.

Q: As well as being an exciting read, STAGS also reflects on the class system in Britain, is this something you want readers to think about more critically?

A: The English - myself included - seem to be obsessed with the concept of class. There's no doubt that, despite the fact that the upper classes make such good subjects for film, books and TV, there is a huge inequality between the rich and the poor in this country.

This book is a hymn to meritocracy - Greer got where she did through her talent and intelligence alone. She's our equivalent of the American Dream - the English Dream, if you will. She's as good as any of them - if not better - despite her more humble beginnings.

Q: Is there going to be a film made of STAGS and if so, will you be involved in any part of the process?

A: Yes! It's been optioned by FOX 2000, and Chernin Entertainment, who made the Oscar-winning Hidden Figures and Life of Pi. I'm sure in their hands it will be a quality project! They are keeping me involved all through the process, and I'm looking forward to working with them.

Q: Who would be your dream actors to play the lead roles in STAGS?

A: Wow, that's a tricky one! I have such a strong image of Greer in my head, which doesn't fit any young actress that I'm aware of. I think she would maybe have to be an unknown. The same goes for Shafeen and Nel; I think I'd know them when I saw them!

The only one I have an idea about is Henry de Warlencourt - I happen to know a very good up-and-coming young actor, who has worked on one of my husband's films. He's called Harry Jarvis and he would make great Henry.

Q: Have you read much YA fiction? Who are your favourite YA authors, if so?

A: I love John Green. His voice is so authentic, whether he's writing as a teenage boy or a teenage girl. He was one of the first writers to recognise that you can go quite dark with young adults - they can take it. He's fearless with his subject matter, nothing is off the table for him, even cancer.

Q: What are you writing now and where do you write?

A: I'm writing my second young adult novel, which is a standalone. But then I'm happy to announce I'll be writing the sequel to STAGS, which has just been commissioned!

I write in my living room, which is on the fourth floor of a victorian mansion block, and it looks out on a leafy street and another victorian mansion block. My bad writer's habit is daytime television, which was terrible for writing historical novels but is actually quite good for YA - so many popular culture references it's quite inspirational!

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