Interview: Keren David

This new children’s writer specialises in grown-up subjects

By Simon Round, April 8, 2010

Two years ago, Keren David was a mother of two young children, just returned from a spell living in Holland and looking for something meaningful to do. A friend suggested a course on writing for children.

Now, David has had her first book, When I was Joe, published, her second is written and will come out at the end of the year and she is working on her third. Yet the whole process happened almost by accident. "A friend of mine told me about the course at City University. Somehow, writing for children seemed doable. Because my children were quite young I'd read a lot to them. I'd always quite fancied writing a book."

At the end of the course, David was given a 1,500-word writing exercise. She had seen a news item about a boy who had gone into a witness protection scheme and thought she would base her character on that. "The next week at the course we had a plot-planning exercise. We had to get into pairs and weave the characters together. I was paired up with the course tutor. I had my witness boy, she had a disabled athlete girl and we weaved it into a plot, which people on the course were very nice about it. So I decided to have a go at writing it."

The idea might have come to nothing but she heard about a second workshop course for those who had completed the City University sessions, and she enrolled. David, a former staff journalist at the JC and still a regular contributor, decided to use the three months of the course to finish writing the book, which is aimed at children of 12 and above.

After some re-working, she sent the manuscript off to agents and received three positive replies in one week, despite the fact that publishers are nervous about realism in children's fiction. "They think it's all about fantasy and vampires," says David.

The book has been published to some acclaim. The subject matter is edgy. It tells the story of Ty, a 14-year-old who witnesses a murder and is removed, along with his young mother, from their home in east London, to a new location, and given the name of Joe.

"You would be surprised what kids are reading now," says David. "This is a topical and newsy - it was written at a time when there was lots about teenage knife crime on the news. The violence is not too explicit in the book and I worked very hard so that it wouldn't be miserable and depressing. When I was a kid this category of young adult fiction didn't exist. But 13-year-olds these days are watching TV programmes like Skins, so my book is quite tame by comparison. You have to tone down the sexual content, though."

One of the toughest challenges was getting into the head of a 14-year-old boy. It was also one of the pleasures of writing the book. "It started off with me wondering whether I would be able to write a plausible boy," she says. "Obviously I had never been one and I didn't really know any teenage boys. But as I got to know him he seemed to take on his own personality. And because he was a boy and a Catholic, no one really thought he was me, although all the characters were to some extent, based on people I know. In fact, they are all me in different ways."

David maintains that the plot is perfectly plausible. "It is completely possible that you might witness a crime on one day and be whisked off the next. One of my sister's colleagues at work called up one day to say that he would not be coming in because his son had witnessed a crime and the whole family had to take on new identities. It does happen."

She finds the loss of identity a fascinating subject, particularly given the recent arrest of James Bulger's killer, Jon Venables, who was given a new identity when he was 18. "You become stronger mentally when you know who you are. Venables would have done an awful lot of work on himself while in prison, but suddenly at 18 that all gets thrown away and he is sent out into the world with a new identity. It can hardly be a surprise that all this has happened."

David has undertaken work on a new personality herself. The book she is currently writing features a female lead. "I'm finding it much harder to write a teenage girl character. Everyone will think it's me, or even worse my daughter. It's a nightmare."

When I Was Joe is published by Frances Lincoln, at £6.99

Last updated: 11:03am, April 8 2010