Rebellion, taking risks and living life as if it were a big adventure are attractive propositions in theory, but in reality how many people have the courage to take a leap into the unknown?
That is one of the many thought-provoking themes that run through Ilkley-based author Martyn Bedford’s latest novel for young adults Twenty Questions for Gloria, a gripping psychological thriller published in February. Set in West Yorkshire in the fictional small town of ‘Litchbury’ – which bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain spa town with a famous moor – the narrative focuses on 15-year-old Gloria who, tired of her ordinary life, disappears with charismatic new boy Uman, a rule-breaker with a mysterious and troubled past which is gradually revealed as the story unfolds.
“There was a case in the papers about three years ago about a schoolgirl who went on the run with her teacher to France and they were missing for a few days before they got caught,” says Bedford. “I wasn’t particularly interested in the idea of a teenager running off with a teacher, but I was quite intrigued by the notion of two people going on the run together. I didn’t like school as a teenager myself, I didn’t have any issues at home but I remember considering running away. I think that case brought back those memories and I was interested in revisiting that. I also wanted to explore the way people can be influenced by others, particularly young women. Gloria seems to have found someone different who can change her life and I wanted to subvert that fairly conventional set up, with Gloria moving towards realising that the only person who can change her life is herself.”
The pair’s odyssey is told through Gloria’s first-person narrative as she is questioned by police after returning home safe to her anxious parents – with Uman’s whereabouts still unknown. It is a structure that works extremely well, creating a sense of immediacy – some passages of dialogue in the police interview room are in script form – while pulling the reader in, teasing out the detail of exactly what happened during the period that Gloria was missing. “I wanted to present the back story and the now story,” says Bedford. “It seemed like a good framework, using the questions as a stylistic device, and it is a useful way to organise the narrative.”
Bedford perfectly captures the language, playfulness, sensibilities, and fluctuating moods of teenagers – without ever being patronising – as well as their contradictory sense of restlessness, confusion and certainty, all conveyed with a lightness of touch, plenty of humour and a strand of tender, tentative romance. This is Bedford’s third Young Adult novel – following the acclaimed Flip in 2011 and 2014’s equally successful Never Ending – and he has just finished the second draft of a fourth. A former journalist, Bedford had written five novels for adults before making the move into young adult fiction.
“At the moment I am more than happy writing for teenagers,” he says. “And I am still writing short stories for adults – I have a collection coming out later this year. There is an assumption that teenagers don’t read books any more but I go in to schools quite a lot and my experience with secondary school students is that they are keen readers. One of the things about writing for teenagers is that they will tell you straight if they don’t like something or if something doesn’t make sense – it can be quite bracing – but they have been really positive about my books so far.”
Young Adult fiction certainly does seem to be growing in stature and, deservedly, moving into the mainstream – in January this year Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, a novel for teenagers, was named Costa Book of the Year 2015, one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes. “After crime fiction it is the most successful area of publishing over the last 25 years,” says Bedford. “It’s a very exciting genre to be involved in at a time like this.”
Twenty Questions for Gloria by Martyn Bedford, published by Walker Books, £7.99.