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Fire Colour One

Jenny Valentine

JENNY VALENTINE tells us more about her latest book, FIRE COLOUR ONE, in which Hannah loses, then finds, her father. This is a powerful story about love, loss and redemption.

Hannah lives with her shopping-addicted mother and stepdad in the US until, stony broke, her mother decides to move them back to the UK and to get in touch with Hannah's long lost but rich father; a father who, Hannah believes, has long since ceased to be interested in her.

Hannah, meanwhile, is far more worried about how she can get back to the US to sort things out with her boy friend, Thurston. But first, she has a father to meet...

We asked Jenny Valentine the following questions about her new book:

Q: This novel begins with the ending; Hanna burning something in a massive bonfire, but did you write the ending first or last?

A: I like stories that start with the ending, I just like feeling that circular shape of things. I wrote the chapter but I couldn't work out if it was the beginning or the ending, and I wasn't sure what Hannah was burning in the fire. I had to see where the story would take it.

I had no idea, at the time, of the meaning of this scene. I just had this scene of a funeral and a teenager separate from everyone else and watching a reaction that she was responsible for, but I felt my way through in the dark for a bit. Once I'd written it, I thought the scene would be part of the ending, rather than the epilogue.

Q: We've not seen a new book from you for five years, was that because you found this a difficult book to write?

A: A few years ago I was running our family's shop full time and writing three books a year which was too, too much. Then I went through a period of illness and recovery and I couldn't write during that period. Now, I write full time.

This book was three years overdue and I think when I came back to writing, I had forgotten how to do it, I didn't know how it happens and I felt like a beginner again. I was trying to sound like a writer and that is fatal error. Then I found the character, Iris, who arrived fully formed and once that happened, I knew where I was with the story.

So yes, writing this book was a different writing experience in every way, emotionally, psychologically and everything.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on the father and daughter relationship between Iris and her father, Ernest, which is not something we see often in YA literature?

A: For a year, my father and I were both very ill. I survived, and he did not. I had grown up in a strong and stable family and my father was a big part of our childhood. He was a wonderful man and I thought I knew him well but after he died, I saw him differently because you get more of a 360 degree view of things. I couldn't have that while he was alive because he was my father.

I was preoccupied with this idea of how can you continue to know someone even if they are not here, how can you revisit things and look at them in a new way? In Fire Colour One, Ernest is absent from much of Iris's life; she had to lose him, and find him again.

In a very simple sense, I realised that I was finally answering my dad's question, why aren't there any decent dads in my books? I'm just not sure I'm interested in writing a book about a high functioning parent.

Q: The story is told in the first person by Iris - how significant is her name?

A: I called her Iris after a friend's daughter and once I had chosen the name, she became real. I chose Iris partly because I love the name but also because she's watching; she is on the edge of everything in her life, even in her friendship with Thurston. I'm also a bit like that, I'm a writer so you feel slightly on the edge of things.

When you see the eye emerging from the pictures at the end of the story, it's Iris's way of no longer watching but being involved.

Q: Iris has a real affinity with fire, too, is that also something she shares with you?

A: I do love fire, I think it's an incredible leveller; you stare into the flame and get a sense of your own position in the universe, it's such an ancient part of who we are.

Fire was also a big part of my life for two years when we ran everything in our house from wood and there was a lot of fire in our lives. It was an experiment in sustainable living but we hadn't realised, when we began, how much hard work it would be. In the end it was just too hard; we tried but it meant we were constantly feeding fires.

For Iris, I had this sense of her being forged in fire. In a way she's trying to change herself and fire has that element of washing everything clean; it is both destruction and creation. She's also angry, she's bloody furious, and fire is a great expression of that.

Q: Is that link with fire the reason you chose the painting Fire Colour One by Yves Klein which plays a significant part in the story, and gives the story its title?

A: Actually that was a bit of a lucky accident. I was almost at the end of the book, I sort of knew what was happening and where it was going. I knew the denouement was coming up, and I was looking online for a painting that has fire in a title and which Ernest could invest in. I was researching online and saw this film with a painting and fire; Fire Colour 1. It was about fire, and it was worth a fortune, so it was the painting I'd been looking for. I had to go back through the book and write it in.

The artist, Yves Klein, was an extraordinary person. My husband liked his work and I remember going to see a retrospective about his work. Among other things, he burned a lot of money and I remember that and in the same way Tracy Emin - this shock tactic art that is never quite original.

Thurston and Yves Klein were part of the same strand in the story, along with the fires and the ending. They are about making memorable moments that, however brief, are very important in some way or have an impact. Without getting too bogged down, they are to do with mortality - we are here so briefly but we still have to do something that matters. The book is so weighed down with mortality that I wanted this energy, a gold thread, running alongside it.

When I was in the middle of writing this book my husband took a photograph of some graffiti that was very Thurston, which is actually a quote from the Iliad, saying 'the gods envy us because whatever is beautiful, is doomed', which makes things more beautiful to us. I've included it at the front of the book and will be using the photograph a lot when I talk about the book, about doing something unusual and giving it to people; art that's not for selling.

Q: There is a lot about money and appearances in the book, which you explore through Iris's outrageously bad mother, Hannah, and her step dad Lowell. Did you have fun with those two?

A: The villains of the piece, Lowell and Hannah, are really selfish people. I don't often do villains and these two were lots of fun. I had to reign myself in a bit and try to not make them too much of a caricature, but there's so much out there that feeds into this, like the Kardashians and our tabloids. We are obsessed with that look; everything being perfect and amazing and you can walk around in six inch heels only because you're not walking in the real world.

I wanted to take that and put it into the real world and show how it doesn't work. What's the conclusion of wanting to be like that? It's Hannah, and I wasn't interested in giving her many excuses.

Q: What do you enjoy about writing for teenagers?

A: I didn't set out to write for teenagers but then I never think who I am writing for; I think that's the wrong way to go about writing. When you're reading a book and you remember you're doing that, then that writer is self-conscious.

I'm not conscious of writing for teenagers and I think it's dangerous to think you are because it limits everything, so I write the same way I read; I don't know what's happening, I just get lost in the story.

But on the other hand I'm really happy to be someone who writes for teenagers because the books I read at that age helped shape me. It's an interesting age to be a reader, you're so thirsty for information and to make your own decisions but you still have adults telling you what to do. I loved books like Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. He's still a big writer for me, he has this devastating throw-away cruelty, it's brilliant writing. For more contemporary writers, David Almond and Sarah Crossland are on my top ten of authors.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: Now I'm trying to write something funny, although blackly funny. Fire Colour One was quite serious so I want to do something a bit lighter.

Q: Describe your perfect day.

A: Film is a big part of my life and if I was able to spend a day as I wanted to, from start to finish it would be stories of one kind or another. I like to not be in reality too often. Then I'd go for a walk and then sit down for a big feast!

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Your reviews Jenny Valentine

JENNY VALENTINE talks to us about her latest book, FIRE COLOUR ONE, in which Hannah loses, then...

Your reviews

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, I recommend this book because its very funny and will suck you in.