Evie's shattered ribs prompt her to finally tell her adoptive parents the secrets that she carries from her early life, but as the physical scars heal and all she is left with is bone fragment in a jar, she realises that her journey is far from over. Her bone fragment is carefully whittled into the image of a dragon, a physical representation of her inner strength, and a talisman representing battles won. This talisman, however, is not quite as it seems and Evie finds that she gains more than positivity from having the little dragon around as she starts to uncover some hard truths about her past, and her future.
Following on from her successful debut appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, we caught up with author Alexia Casale on the makings of The Bone Dragon and her plans for the future.
As a debut novelist, have you found the transition to full time writer a difficult one?
I wish I could afford to be a full-time writer already! Actually, to be fair I would never writer full-time: I'm one of those dreadful people who're never happy if they're not rushing around doing a million things. Life's too short for just one job at a time. Plus, if I were a full-time writer, sooner or later I'd have nothing left to write about. There has definitely been a transition, though, in terms of writing officially being a 'paying' part of my career. The key thing is that I'm not 'writing into the ether' any more: there are people who want me to write and who want to read what I produce. And if something goes wrong with a manuscript, I have an amazing agent who will help me fix it. The whole thing has been wonderful: even better than I'd dreamed being a proper, official, published writer would be. Case in point, I spoke at Hay and Edinburgh this year! Lifelong dream fulfilled twice over!
Were you aware that you wanted to write for a young adult audience?
Deciding to submit to a YA agent and to publish the book as YA were marketing decisions, not creative ones: they came after I wrote the book. For me, the key thing is that YA is a fantastic category to publish in because it allows writers to blur genre boundaries to an extent that adult genres don't usually encourage. For The Bone Dragon, it makes double sense because of the age of the protagonist. However, recent statistics show that over 60% of YA is bought by adults over 25 for themselves: this seems to be the case with who is buying and reading The Bone Dragon, which begs the question 'Is a YA audience comprised of young adults or people who want what YA books deliver?' I think there's an argument to be made that YA is becoming a genre, not an age category. Certainly, I wrote the book for 'anyone over a certain level of maturity' rather than for a specific age-group.
What was your main inspiration behind The Bone Dragon?
I'd had elements of the idea floating around in my head for years, but I just couldn't find the right characters or the right hook for the story. Then I went into hospital, where I was handed my very own rib-in-a-pot, and, in a drugged-up haze, I slurred to the surgeon, 'Well, if all of womankind came from Adam's rib, I'd better get something amazing out of mine.' The surgeon, playing along, asked me what I would get if I could choose. So of course I said, 'A book.' And just like that everything fell into place. On that note, I should hasten to add that the book is not autobiographical: a rib-in-a-pot is just one of those amazing things that you literally could not make up. But when they happen, and you happen to be a writer, it would be a crime not to use them. So I did. Evie gets her Dragon, and I got my book.
The Bone Dragon is an unusual take on a not too unusual topic, did you read any other abuse-themed novels as research and did the market prompt you to take a different approach in your writing?
I've worked in the mental health and human rights fields for a long time so I didn't do very much research specifically for the book. There was some basic fact checking, especially about fostering/adoption, but I didn't want the book to become about the mechanics of Evie's situation. Instead, I was very much writing in response to what I see as the 'popular lies' many stories (fictional and nonfictional) tell about these issues.
For instance, one of the key themes in the book concerns the stereotype that 'speaking out' is always a healing process for victims. Reporting serious violent and sexual crimes to the police is vital in terms of stopping perpetrators, but it is often a horrendously traumatic experience for the victim. If we want people to speak out, we should do them the courtesy of being honest about how hard it is likely to be: the bit that most people actually find empowering is the knowledge that they did it anyway. A related issue is that victims are routinely told that 'talking about it will help'. Now, while there is always a value in reporting a serious crime to the police, there isn't always one in talking about all the details outside that context. It's perfectly possible to take part in very effective 'talking therapy' while remaining silent about specific aspects of trauma. It all depends on the individual: some people need to describe their experiences out loud, again and again, to therapists and friends and family and even strangers. But some people don't. For some people it's damaging on its own account. So while people should be encouraged to talk if they feel it will help, I want to call into question the blanket assumption that all types of 'speaking out' are positive for all people.
Unlike many protagonists in novels centering around abuse, Evie as a character is raw and true yet accessible, where did she come from?
Even before the rib-in-the-pot gave me the story for The Bone Dragon, I knew I wanted to write a book that challenges the way violence is usually talked about. Coming back to the issue of 'speaking out', I wanted to show how silence can be valuable for some victims - and how 'speaking out' and 'being silent' are not 'either/or' propositions. Looking at this through Evie's eyes also allowed me to show how stories focused on the facts of abuse and violence - the 'who did want to whom' bits - miss the point. The Bone Dragon leaves a lot implicit but in doing so I hope it begs the question 'How much detail about an act of violence do we really need in order to understand the impact it has on someone's life?' There are no 'gory details' in The Bone Dragon: the book doesn't gratify the normal human instinct for morbid curiosity. It denies the reader the opportunity to focus on the facts and so stay emotionally distant. Instead, the book says 'this is what violence really is and what it does to people': the importance of 'the facts' of individual acts of violence pales in comparison. And yet once you give the facts, they're all anyone focuses on because, when you come right down to it, they're the easy bit. The important bit is the pain that, facts aside, we can all empathise with... and, quite naturally, shy away from precisely because we don't truly want to feel those awful things. Fair enough, but that's what the heart of the issue is and we shouldn't pretend otherwise if we want to understand how to deal with violence instead of just goggling at the horrid 'horror story' details as so many news stories and books do.
The Bone Dragon will definitely be enjoyed on different levels by different ages of reader, from mythological adventure to psychological thriller. when writing, were you writing as a teenager or an adult?
I started working on a version of the book in my late teens, but I wrote most of it as an adult. It's just as well, really, as I couldn't have written this version of the story until I knew much more about the human rights and mental health fields than I did as a teenager (though, to be fair, I was elected as a trustee on the Executive Board of a national charity when I was 17 - and had to turn the post down for a year until I could legally accept it when I became 18!). In terms of how it reads for different ages, I'm really proud of the fact that because the most harrowing things in the book are written entirely as subtext, people of different levels of maturity will probably only see what they're ready to see.
The climax of the book has caused much debate since its release, did you always aim for an "open to interpretation" end?
When I'm reading, I don't like being told how to interpret the story: when writers do that, they prevent me from discovering the meaning for myself (to paraphrase Piaget talking about children's learning). Reading can be a creative activity if writers allow readers to bring their own ideas, imagination and life experiences to bear and, in so doing, create their own unique reading of the story. I want to be that type of writer. The ending had to be open for that reason alone, but it has to be open for a plot reason too. I want the reader to face the same dilemma that Evie does at the end in order to understand her decision: does she confront reality and the stark painful truth, or does she make the truth what she needs it to be so that she can be happy? In real life we often have to choose between a hard truth and a lie we can never fully bring ourselves to believe, but the book offers an opportunity to have the one thing we rarely get - a chance to have it both ways.
What is next on the horizon for you?
Book two is currently in submission so I'm really excited about that. It's another YA psychological thriller, though the protagonist is a little older: sixteen instead of fourteen. The simplest way I can think of to describe it is this: book two is to a ghost/horror story what The Bone Dragon is to a traditional fantasy novel about dragons. It's set in a big country house on the edge of a wood. I'm so proud of this book. It was incredibly hard to write, but I think it says things that are worth saying and I love the people in it.
As for book three, it's a complete change of pace: sometimes I love challenging books, but sometimes I just want to enjoy a good story without having to think too much. Meanwhile, book four is going to be an adult WWII historical novel based on a fantastic true story.
Alexia was interviewed by roving reporter, PolkaDot Steph at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival. Thank you to Alexia for being such a willing interviewee and for Hannah at Faber and Faber facilitating the whole thing. MOI certainly can't wait to read Alexia's next book (ghosts!!!) In the mean time, we urge you to get your hands on The Bone Dragon, available in paperback and ebook versions now.