Amy Stone’s debut novel brings gritty realism into young adult fiction. Richard Blackledge talked to the Sheffield author who puts a spotlight on mental health.
“Whether they like it or hate it, I’m not bothered – so many years of rejection have really toughened me up,” says Amy Stone, eyes resting on a copy of her debut novel. “Although I say that now - if all I get are people thinking it’s terrible, then I probably will have another nervous breakdown.”
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Her young adult fiction book, called The Raven Wheel, is a hard-won triumph. The dark and uncompromising tale of three troubled teenagers whose lives intertwine with irreversibly profound consequences, the plot deals with themes of mental illness, suicide, drug abuse and broken families, set in Stoke-on-Trent where Amy grew up before moving to Yorkshire for university 15 years ago.
Amy has worked in a psychiatric unit, is open about her own ongoing mental health problems and hopes The Raven Wheel can inject realism into a genre dominated by blockbuster fantasy sagas like The Hunger Games and the Twilight series.
“It’s got a broad appeal,” she says, having grabbed an hour one morning to meet for coffee while her two young sons are at nursery. “If anybody is the age of the characters in the book, they could maybe see themselves and recognise the different struggles they’re going through.”
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Amy has written since childhood but didn’t begin any serious attempts at a novel until she’d graduated with a degree in English Literature from Sheffield University.
“The young adult market is ridiculously over-saturated and competitive, so breaking into it has been really hard. I had a few people say ‘If you’d done this a couple of years ago, then we’d have taken it up, but it’s just too difficult now’.”
Amy – who uses pen name A F Stone – has completed a novel before, about a young carer in Sheffield, but it remains unpublished after too many ‘close-but-no-cigar moments’ with agents and publishers. “I finally shelved it for my own sanity and started something new.”
With The Raven Wheel she drew on her own youth. “For years now I’ve had depression, social anxiety, an eating disorder – a whole smorgasbord of different things. I really struggled in my teenage years, particularly around about sixth-form age. I found that really difficult, and people around me did as well.”
Amy considered becoming a mental health nurse after university and took a job for a month as a support worker at a forensic unit in Sheffield.
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“I had various minor things happen to me like being hit, spat at or whatever, and that’s just par for the course now for a lot of public sector workers. It made me realise I’m fine, compared to people who are seriously never going to be out of an institution.”
She agrees mental health is on the agenda publicly in a much bigger way, but warns the taboo has not been broken entirely. “I’ve never put it on a job application. I feel like people would think twice about employing me. After I had my second baby, in spring this year, I had a full-on technicolour breakdown. My main thought was ‘My kids are going to get taken away’.
“As open as people are, there’s still that real fear that people will take control away from you and deny you opportunities. We’re in a much better place but there’s still a long way to go.”
Amy, 32, lives in the Sheffield suburb of Heeley with her husband Oliver and their boys Joe, two, and seven-month-old Dylan. She is due to return to work as a graduate school manager at Sheffield University’s faculty of medicine imminently following maternity leave.
“I can’t see us moving from Sheffield,” she says. “You are 10 minutes away from the countryside, being out in the Peaks is so good for your mental health. It’s become a cliché now, but it just lifts the weight off you.”
The Raven Wheel is published by The Book Guild, priced £8.99.