We interviewed author Samuel Pollen about his debut novel ‘The Year I Didn’t Eat’ which is about a teenager named Max who is suffering from an eating disorder. Based on Sam’s own life experience, the novel explores an often unrepresented voice within conversations surrounding eating disorders. We found the novel both heart-warmingly funny and deeply touching, and so we spoke to Sam about his experience of writing and pitching to agents.
You wrote the novel from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy and the narrative is incredibly convincing. How did you manage to construct a younger voice?
The short answer is trial and error. It’s definitely something I had experimented with and felt it was a good fit for the novel. I didn’t set out to write from a particular age perspective, but rather it felt it was how the narrative naturally came out when I started writing the story. It helped that I was writing about something that I went through at that sort of age, and that gave me a vocabulary talking about it in a way that someone that age might do. I am very willing to be told by any teenagers that I didn’t get the voice exactly! But it was my best guess.
You first started writing an adult novel during your Curtis Brown writing course, is this something you’d like to return to or would you like to continue writing YA?
I enjoy writing all sorts of things. My day job is a copy writer so I am used to writing stuff in different styles and tones. A younger book felt right for this story, but I hope to not be pigeon-holed into a particular age bracket, I’d love to go back to writing something adult.
Did the novel undergo any major edits?
I got off relatively lightly based on discussions with other people who had been through the publishing process. There were lots of little changes but overall, from the manuscript that was submitted to publishers maybe 5% of it changed. The characters and plot arc stayed the same and we added bits to some chapters to explain the story more, but it was more bits and pieces rather than a wholesale rewrite. I got off lightly!
Letters and communication are a main element of the novel. Why is this?
I went through an eating disorder, and partly I wanted to convey the idea that communication is really hard when going through something like that. Teenagers tend to be quite lonely and struggle to talk about their feelings at the best of times, and the idea of giving Max and the other characters a way to talk to people without feeling exposed or on show was really important. Obviously, a very easy way to do that would be using social media, and the reason I didn’t do that is because I wanted to write something that made people think about communication and what it actually meant. Max gets into the geocaching as a hobby which is all about communicating with people you don’t know. That’s definitely comparative to social media, but perhaps in a way that provokes people to think about how communication has changed. Social media allows anonymity, and this can have both positives and negatives. With eating disorders we often talk about how social media has a negative impact, and there is certainly a lot of truth to that, but it is useful to think about the positive things that social media can bring also.
In the novel there are some really lovely comedic moments. Did you find it difficult to integrate that into the narrative of mental health?
I think it is natural to the way I write, and I enjoy reading books that have a lightness to them. I don’t take things terribly seriously, and other writing that I am working on has a similar tone. A slight wryness to them, I guess. I think that almost any book about any circumstance, however miserable, can be made amusing or quirky or provocative. For example, I remember someone telling me they thought ‘Grapes of Wrath’ wasn’t funny, but to me I always thought that John Steinbeck had humour in his books and that there were basic human observations that were funny. I think lots of authors I like have that in their books, however grim the topic at hand.
Obviously, because I was writing for a young audience who may have had some experience with eating disorders or know somebody who has gone through one, I felt having that lightness was an important to make people want to carry on reading. I don’t think we all have to write books that make light about situations, but a novel gives you room to express a full range of emotions.
How was the process of finding an agent?
I got some rejections. At first, I submitted my adult book to a few agents, probably only 3 or 4, and they gave me some really useful feedback. I then decided I wanted to do something different, so I wrote ‘The Year I Didn’t Eat’. I submitted that to 3 agents, of whom one said no, and one said yes, and one got back to me after I’d signed. So, I didn’t have to submit to loads, and I realise I was very lucky in having a relatively smooth experience
3 tips for writing a novel
I am not a big fan of writing advice when people try and say there is one way to do it. I’ve been in a lot of writers’ groups where people talk about how Stephen King writes, or whoever the person to hand is, and they feel that the key to writing is to imitate their routine. However generally:
Make time whenever you can make it. Don’t worry about perfect, you don’t have to do something in the ideal way to make progress. Everything I’ve written has been written during office lunchtimes, making notes on my phone, making scribbles on the back of notebooks when I’ve been on conference calls. No time is useless when you are writing a book.
Don’t worry about people who do things differently to you. I have several friends who are obsessed with how many words they write in a day. I can tell you I don’t write many words in a day, but there is a paralysing quality to assessing your productivity to others. Everyone’s life is different and there is no minimum to how long it’ll take you to write a book. No one cares when you’ve written it how long it took you. You can be in control of the process.
Don’t worry about publishing trends. People often worry a lot about fads in publishing. Publishers would like to say they are just looking for great stories and that they don’t care if its trendy, but that is not true. There are trends, that is why we get hundreds of YA dystopias at the same time or Gothic horrors. But, given the timeframe that publishing takes, which is about 3 years, there is no point worrying about trying to figure out what the trend would be because these things come around again and again.
You tweet a lot about getting people to read your book, give me the most convincing reason why people should.
People should read my book because I do think it is genuinely a perspective that doesn’t exist much: a male teenager going through mental health issues. I certainly felt that when I was a teenage male there weren’t many books that treated me like a thinking human, but there were a lot of books that treated me like a boy. I hope that this book speaks to young people, and particularly people with mental health and eating disorders, but I hope it speaks to young men in a way that they are not often spoken to. Max is such a character, quirky, slightly weird, funny – it is, I hope, a funny book that shows a teenager who thinks like an adult and has a complex emotional life going on.