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My Dear I wanted to Tell You has been chosen as London Cityread for 2014, alongside Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful.

Louisa Young will be appearing this year at the Royal Society of Literature (March 1), the Hay Festival, the Edinburgh Books festival, and others to be confirmed. 

March 2011

Interview in The Times

Louisa Young tells Helen Rumbelow how her family history inspired

her remarkable novel about love, war and plastic surgery in WW1

Helen Rumbelow

March 12 2011 12:01AM

Most of the time a journalist’s job is to make people sound a little more interesting than they really are. With Louisa Young, I tell her, I have the opposite problem. I’m worried that people aren’t going to believe me if I present the facts straight.

“Yeah, and it’s getting worse,” she says, her trademark snake-length hair swinging as she arrives at her Soho club.

That Young has just written an extraordinary book, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You, about love, war and the birth of modern cosmetic surgery should be more than enough for us to talk about. We’re used to books about how the First World War changed the face of England. We’re not used to books about how it changed the faces of its most beautiful young people. Never before have I been so gripped by quite such a ghastly romance.

But when you talk to Young about her own past, you don’t get a life story so much as the abandoned plots of a great many fantastical novels. What was the inspiration for My Dear I Wanted To Tell You? Well, several decades ago Young came across a photo of a man, a certain Corporal Riley, in the archives of the pioneering First World War plastic-surgery centre at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, southeast London.

“I saw his face and just stopped. He looked just like a friend of mine. A handsome man suffering hugely has a very strong effect on any woman. That kind of image does not leave you.” Young would, much later, borrow Riley’s name for that of the hero of My Dear I Wanted To Tell You.

But what was she doing in the archives of the First World War surgery centre in the first place? Researching the life of her grandmother, Kathleen, the widow of Captain Scott, he of the doomed Antarctic expedition, of course. “She was one of these fantastic Englishwomen who do stuff,” Young says — including, during the war, sculpting in plaster the broken faces of soldiers as aids for their doctors.

After that, we move on to Young’s childhood in the grand London home formerly owned by the author of Peter Pan. This is where she grew up, with her five siblings and five cousins. Were they made aware that this was where J. M. Barrie dreamt up his stories of gangs of children like them?

“Oh, yes. It quickly moved from ‘If you don’t brush your teeth, Peter Pan will come and get you’ to ‘Brush your teeth or he won’t’. But I was never Wendy. The Peter Pan character I really liked was Tiger Lily. She was nobody’s squaw; she just did her own dance and everyone did what she said.” Young’s father was an hereditary peer but by the time she grew up Young had tired of that rarefied life and moved from Kensington Gardens into a squat. There she lived for seven years, riding Harley-Davidsons. During this time she also wrote a shopping column for Tatler: “A very annoying job.” She had a baby with a Ghanaian charity worker and became a single mother.

There’s a lot more in between, but before I forget, I must mention the publishing phenomenon that is Lionboy, the series of adventure books for children that she co-wrote with her young daughter as “Zizou Corder”. Lionboy garnered six-figure advances and has now been translated into 36 languages. You see my problem with fitting it all in?

Let me pass on one more biographical detail before we catch up to the novel again. When Young was 11, she dismayed her urbane family with an attack of religiosity and a demand to be christened. She chose her godparents herself, and why does it not surprise me that they were John Betjeman and Henry Kissinger, both family friends? Louisa Young is what happens when you have a poet laureate and an international statesman to guide your formative years.

“I chose the cuddly, clever guys, and that’s what they looked like to a young girl. John Betjeman was adorable. He was just what you would want. He gave me a locket in the shape of a Smartie.” On the other hand, Dr Kissinger was a little less cuddly. “My knowledge of politics wasn’t very high. Henry had been a very good friend of my parents. He said he was honoured to be my godfather, but feared for my moral soul. I’ve still got that letter somewhere.”

A few years ago Young was asked to curate an exhibition at the Wellcome Trust, and during this time stumbled across a postcard form that wounded First World War soldiers were allowed to send home to their families. The wording is standardised, except for a few gaps for names and the extent of the injury. It begins: “My dear I wanted to tell you.”

“I just thought, what would you send on this form to your loved ones, sitting there with your face half blown off after years in the trenches, having the most appalling time. Of course, you lie.

“That got me thinking about the whole thing, of daddy never talking about the war. If they relayed the filth and horror back home, that would pollute the very thing they were fighting to protect.” Together with the image of Riley, this postcard gave birth to the idea for the book. But if most veterans would not speak of the war, many could not show their faces on their return.

Because of the nature of trench warfare, there were an extraordinary number of head injuries. These men were helped by doctors experimenting and innovating as best they could. Never had they been faced with such quantity and severity of disfigurement, but the numbers refined their skills. They adapted a technique introduced in India 4,000 years ago, growing flaps of skin around the face. In doing so they invented modern cosmetic surgery. “The suffering and courage of these soldiers is extraordinary because what these surgeons invented was genius, but also appalling.”

Young would love to track down the family of the real Riley to discover his fate. “There are stories of a lot of them becoming cinema projectionists; they went for the invisible jobs. I expect a lot of them sat in darkened rooms and drank a lot. Whenever I see someone whose face has been badly damaged who is out and living, my heart swells with pride for their courage, because we are so unforgiving as a society. We invent flaws, buy ourselves falseeyelash inserts or whatever the latest fad is. All the while there are some phenomenal surgeons and patients who carry on just to have a face that won’t frighten children.”

One of the characters in Young’s book seeks surgery out of pure vanity. Young tells me that she sympathises with this woman, but then the subject launches her into a magnificent rant. No Botox for Young then? “I’ve got an agreement with friends and relations that if I ever suggest I will have cosmetic surgery, they will strap me down, take my money and send it to a cleft-palate charity. No way.

“The industrialisation of female vanity is shocking. Convince someone that they’ve got an enemy and they’ll pay you loads of money to get rid of it; that works for politics exactly the same way as it works for self- hatred. Now suddenly it’s pubic hair. It was fine until ten years ago, now it’s a multimillion-dollar industry telling women that they should have a weird do on their parts. Someone’s made a fortune out of that bright idea. If we all put the same amount of work into solving real problems rather than women’s appearance, the world would be transformed.”

To anyone who has read Lionboy or any of Young’s previous adult fiction, this book is quite different in its depth and range. The success of Lionboy is part of it.

“Absolutely. It gives you confidence, in your 3am moments of darkness and self-doubt, you say: ‘Calm down, you are competent; you are published in 36 languages.’ That is liberating.” The other matter is simple age. Her once-tiny Lionboy co-creator, her daughter Isabel, is now an adult. At 18, Isabel is the same age as the young heroes in the new book.

And at 51 Young feels that she has written, “In a way, my first adult novel. I think it’s to do with not giving a s*** any more. I’m a grown-up now, not scared to say what I think. I’m not worrying about pleasing anybody.” I don’t, I venture, think that she seemed to do much of that when she was driving to her squat on a Harley.

“It’s different when you’re young, it’s bravado. When you’re a grown-up you really do have better things to do.” I think Henry Kissinger really shouldn’t have worried so much about her.

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You is published next week by HarperCollins at £12.99. To order it for £11.69 inc p&p call 0845 2712134

Louisa Young Sophia Spring for The Times

September 2011:

In September 2011- between the 11th and the 21st - I will be teaching a course at the Writers' Lab on beautiful Skyros, dreaming of Homer under the jasmine, by the wine-dark lapping Aegean, on what Hugo Williams described as the holiday 'you can take home with you', because, I gather, it encourages you to 'Let your hair down, take risks, expand horizons' (q. Mariella Frostrup)

The title of my course is: 

'So where d'you get your ideas?'

Leonard Cohen's answer to this was: 'If I knew, I'd go there more often' - a thought we can all share. But the important thing about ideas is not simply where to get them (steal them, obviously, or trip over them in the street) but what to do with them? How do you know what they are an idea for? How do you tell a usable idea from one that just looks good? How long do you spend working on one, desperately sure that it will work if only you can only somehow force it to?

Ideas: where to find them, what to do with them, how to put the right ones together, how to look after them so they will come to fruition, how to keep them coming, and how to get rid of them. (And by ideas I don't just mean ideas for plots. I mean creative thinking, and its many applications in writing.)


I will be offering practical advice and exercises in getting going, keeping going, not getting lost - or at least not for longer than necessary - and how to use the process of getting lost when its unavoidable. We will discuss how to feed on reading, how to use the concrete to bring the page to life, how to cultivate alchemy, how to honour language, how to value the senses, and when and how to break the rules. Plus, most important and revolutionary, my own unique and individual contribution to cultural life in the 21st century - Compost Theory.


This is a course mainly for fiction writers, but others are welcome - memoirists, songwriters, poets...



March 2011:

MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU

is published by HarperCollins in the UK on March 17. I have one beautiful pristine copy in my possession, and am looking forward so much to seeing it all over Waterstones in their 'This Week's Must Read' section. 

The next day the audiobook is released: it's read by Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey), with music by Robert Lockhart.

Garzanti publishes the Italian edition in May.  

HarperCollins publishes the US and Canadian editions in June.

Dutch, German, Italian and more coming soon.....

The bound proofs are ready and extremely handsome - apply to Alice Moss at HarperCollins if you need one for professional purposes

HALO NOMINATED FOR THE CARNEGIE MEDAL 2011

November 2010 

Zizou Corder has fully recovered from not winning the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2010, at least partly because of today's news: HALO has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2011.

Medal! Carnegie! What adorable words....  

As a frequently nominated, familiar-with-the-longlist, knows-the-shortlist-to-say-hello-to writer, never-wins-anything writer, I'm still chuffed for myself, my co-author and our alter-ego. Lovely company on the list too, including  Meg Rosoff, Kevin Brooks and Tabitha Suzuma - and Gregory Hughes, for Unhooking the Moon which won the Booktrust Prize.....  

Congratulations to all --  

THE JUST WHEN STORIES

Summer 2010 

The Just When Stories, a splendid collection for which authors including Michael Morpurgo, William Boyd and Hanif Kureishi, as well as Louisa, have donated stories, was published earlier this year by Beautiful Books. Tamara Grey edited it. It's about, and in aid of, the loveliness of wild animals. 

There's also a CD of some of the stories, and Louisa's contribution, the story the Intrepid Dumpling tells the Troll Queen, about the third-best dugong girl in the entire dugong kingdom, is read by Hugh Bonneville. 

The character of the Intrepid Dumpling, by the way, came into being in Soho, years ago, somewhere between the Intrepid Fox (a pub) and the Dumpling Inn (a Chinese restaurant). Here is the start of the Intrepid Dumpling's Dugong Story:

One day the Intrepid Dumpling turned up at the court of the Troll Queen.  They were lying on her sofa after dinner and the Troll Queen said, 'Tell me a story'.

'What about?' asked the Intrepid Dumpling.

'A dugong,' said the Troll Queen.

'Once upon a time,' said the Intrepid Dumpling, 'a beautiful young dugong was strolling through the forest, flapping her floppy feet and bending her skinny knees, so her fluffy round body rose and fell among the ferns the way dugongs do....'

'Hold on a minute,' said the Troll Queen. 'You don't know what a dugong is, do you?'

'I didn't think they were,' confessed the Intrepid Dumpling. 'I thought you wanted me to invent one.'

'A dugong is a sea cow,' said the Troll Queen. 'It’s like a giant seal, or very beautiful sea lion. In the Olden Days sailors used to mistake them for mermaids.'

‘I thought it would be like an ostrich,' said the Intrepid Dumpling.

‘Well it's not,' said the Troll Queen. 'Go on.'

The Intrepid Dumpling started again, and this is the story she told:


Once upon a time, a beautiful young dugong and her old, old grandmother were splashing along the beach, dipping their noses in the rockpools, looking for oysters to do business with. The reason they were doing it, was this: the King of the Dugongs had a son, who was absolutely horrible. He was as slimy and grimy and horrible as our dugong was sleek and golden and sprightly. He had atrocious manners and only ever thought about himself. (Our dugong, on the other hand, was kind and courteous, and particularly good to her old Grandma.)

Well, the King of the Dugongs wanted his son to get married......

Halo shortlisted for Booktrust Teen Fiction Prize

November 1 2010

We heard on Monday November 1 that HALO has to be satisfied with only being shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2010, as Gregory Hughes's Unhooking the Moon won. But being shortlisted was a mighty honour in itself.

And the very next day we heard something else very interesting and award-related, which we're not allowed to mention yet ....

Ruby Baby

Monday February 22 and Monday March 1 2010:

Louisa Young's two-part radio drama Ruby Baby went out on Radio 7, as part of the Short Cuts series.

Sarah, George and Ruby arrive in Tuscany as volunteer workers on an organic vineyard, where Jossie and Dirk are already ensconced in a world of wine and sunshine, and charismatic Olivia rules the idyllic roost. Crickets chirp, the moon shines down on young people strumming Hallelujah on acoustic guitars and there is trouble, of course, in paradise....

Episode 1 went out on Monday February 22. Then, every day for the rest of the week, there was a short drama written by students (from the National Theatre, the Hampstead Theatre and Penguin's Spinebreakers), using Louisa's characters and set-up, to clarify, continue, extrapolate, expatiate or bamboozle...  Episode 2, on Monday March 1, revealed the truth. 

Co-writers: Indiana Seresin, Rebecca Clee, Amy Deakin, Bridget Minamore, Lucinda Higgie and Danny Shaw. 

Directed by Fiona Kelcher   BBC Radio Drama Birmingham 

There was a nice review in the Guardian.

Launch of Halo

Thursday February 4, 2010:

Halo, by Zizou Corder (Puffin Paperbacks) came out - it's in the shops now. Purchase, people, purchase.

Launch Party for Halo

Wednesday February 24, 2010:

Puffin Paperbacks celebrated the launch of Halo by Zizou Corder with a party in London which was a lot of fun. Brock played the accordion. Louisa created an ancient Greek ambience with some dried bullrushes,  a plastic horse, a wooden moon and an Ionic column out of the fishtank (it was rather like the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream). Tom from Daunt's very graciously wore the fur hat, to play the part of the Skythian horseman, and quite a lot of people tried on the plumed helmet. Gratifyingly for the theory that no party can truly be called a success where the police don't turn up, a local Community Support Officer, Carlos, hearing that we were literary, came in, bought a book and gave his short story to Isabel's dad.

Victoria from Spinebreakers arrived early and interviewed us - click here to see the interview, recorded I think on Jayde from Puffin's phone.