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YA Shot Blog Tour 2016 – A Discussion with Lydia Syson


Hi everyone! Today I am delighted to be hosting a stop on the YA Shot 2016 blog tour. YA Shot is a one day festival celebrating UKYA and it is held in Uxbridge in North West London. I popped in last year briefly and it looked amazing, and I am very excited to say I am going to be properly attending this year. If you want more information head over to the YA Shot website and check the #YAShot hashtag on twitter for more updates.

For my stop on the blog tour I am going to be having a discussion with historical fiction author Lydia Syson! I read Liberty’s Fire back in May and have done a full review on it which you can check out here. We discuss a variety of things including her inspiration, her book, feminism and LGBTQIA+ themes. Enjoy!

I guess we could start with the talking about what draws you to the time periods you write about? So Liberty’s Fire is set during the Paris Commune of 1871 which was a period unfamiliar to me before I read the book. I also know that your debut was set during the Spanish Civil War which is also a time period not so widely written about in YA. So I was wondering what it was that draws you to writing about these time periods and specifically a YA audience? 

Liberty’s Fire’ grew out of ‘A World Between Us’…a book I wrote with a particular song echoing constantly in my head.  It was the Internationale – ‘’Arise, ye starvelings from your slumbers…” – written at the fall of the 1871 Paris Commune, France’s ‘forgotten revolution’.  During the Spanish Civil War, it was the anthem of the International Brigaders who volunteered to save the recently elected Spanish Republic from the forces of fascism. Ever since I was a teenager myself I’d always found this story intensely romantic and inspiring – thousands of people from all over the world, some still in their teens, defying their governments to defend an ideal.  When my own daughter started reading YA fiction, she told me most of her friends knew nothing about the war, and by then there were only few left of the generation who had fought. The time seemed ripe to tell a tremendously important and fascinating story to a new generation.

It’s not exactly a hidden history.  There have been thousands of books written about the Spanish Civil War. But not many for young people.  And it was important to me to have a Jewish hero, as there are so few in UKYA fiction, except for novels set during WW2, in which Jewish people are nearly always victims.  Yiddish was actually one of the most commonly spoken languages of the International Brigades in Spain.

I’m interested in radical history for young people because it tend to get left off the school curriculum, and I think it’s incredibly important to discover what people from all kinds of different backgrounds have done in the past in the hope of making the world a better place.  It’s inspiring, and makes you realise you can change things! All the times I’ve written about have resonance today – the way divisions can be exploited at times of economic crisis, the scapegoating of ‘others’, the desperation of the dispossessed. And now with the awfulness of ‘Brexit’, it seems more vital than ever to spread the word about the history of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe – Spain, Poland and France.  Fiction offers a way of bringing this to life.

And it’s part of my own family history.  My grandparents – whom I adored and admired – were very involved in the Aid Spain movement and anti-fascist activism in London.  My interest in the Paris Commune was triggered by discovering a connection through my great-great grandmother, who worked in an anarchist school in London with one of the heroines of the 1871 revolution, an extraordinary woman called Louise Michel.  The huge popularity of Les Mis when it came out as a film reassured me that there were plenty of young people who loved the combination of political and romantic passion, barricades, and the fight for justice as much as I did. But it also made me realise how confusing all the revolutions in France are, and how very little most of us know about the last 19th century uprising and its terrible and tragic ending.  Yet it was an event that went on to shape twentieth century history – Lenin went to his tomb wrapped in a Commune banner.The Commune is also a hugely important story for young feminists, in a ‘best of times, worst of times’ kind of way. Ordinary working women seized the chance to get involved – speaking out in public, claiming equal pay and education if not the right to vote, changing the laws on prostitution to end street harassment, going out to the battlefields and defending barricades.  Yet they were shot in the street as arsonists, denounced and victimised in the aftermath of the commune, and their stories have been suppressed for far too long.  The suffragettes knew about the women of the Commune.  So should we!

I love all of the personal links with the history of your books, I think that does come through in your writing. And your point about Brexit particularly – now is the time more than ever to reflect on Britain’s past with Europe. I really enjoyed the feminist aspects of Liberty’s Fire, particularly the meetings that Rose and Zephryine attend. I think that both of them and Marie are all so complex and yet different characters which is always wonderful to see in a YA novel. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about developing those characters and where they came from? 

I’m so glad you liked that aspect of the novel, Lily. While I was writing, I was feeling both buoyed by the numbers of young women newly embracing feminism, and the success of campaigns like Everyday Sexism, but also really depressed that fighting for women’s rights is now more necessary than ever.  The world seems to have gone backwards!  My daughter was experiencing as much, if not more, street harassment as I had myself thirty years earlier, and we spent – still spend – a lot of time discussing feminism. I was very involved in the feminist campaigns of the mid-80s, and did a fair bit of academic work on feminist theory then too – but I knew nothing at all about the politics of women organising themselves in 19th-century France. I found this research absolutely fascinating and eye-opening.

Having discovered as much as I could about what it was like to grow up as a young woman in Second Empire Paris and to live through the Siege and the Commune, developing convincing characters to give readers a nuanced sense of this was a real challenge. Well, actually, I think it’s always the hardest thing to get right with political fiction – the last thing you want is people who represent particular positions, or stock types. Characters have to be themselves, not stand for something, or tick boxes.

Although the blurbs of all my YA novels make them look as if they’re all about romance – and I’m a terrible old romantic and do love exploring ‘first love’ and passion – the complexities and pleasures of female friendship are just as important to me, and feature strongly too. Many of my own now go back for forty years or more, and one of my oldest school friends, who now lives in Paris, was also a first reader for Liberty’s Fire, and we discussed the female characters in it a lot!

Zéphyrine and Rose are very much part of that ‘dispossessed’ I mentioned before – the equivalent of today’s ‘precariat’ perhaps – born into really terrible poverty, illegitimate and rejected by her mother’s husband in Zéphyrine’s case, sexualised by society against their wills. Paris was growing very quickly – lots of people coming to the capital from the provinces, while the working families who’d always lived in the medieval centre were being pushed to the outskirts by the huge building schemes of Baron Haussmann, that sought to make Paris ‘unbarricadable’ after all the previous revolutions of the nineteenth century.  But there were very few choices for women – even if you were bourgeois enough to marry well, your husband probably also kept a mistress. And if you were a ‘working girl’ of some kind – whether a seamstress or ragpicker or artificial flower maker, slaving impossible hours for an absolute pittance, or a singer or dancer or actress – a tiny turn of the wheel of fortune could easily have you slipping into the life of a street prostitute or a high-class courtesan or something in between.  At first Zéphyrine thinks this is her only choice when her grandmother dies, but for Rose – who has the support of her family of course, but also has been disabled by childhood polio – politics offers a way out.  Rose helps Zéphyrine see her future differently, through discussions not just of working conditions and pay, but the institution of marriage. (Was that effectively prostitution too?  Is everything in life about exchange?)  Well, you can see why so many poor women would embrace the ideals of the Commune – they had nothing to lose, and everything to gain.  But Marie is from a more genteel background, and, though not exactly ‘respectable’, she’s done much better for herself, and she’s torn in other ways – her brother is in the National Army fighting first the Prussians, and then the Communards.  She’s an opportunist because she has to be – how else will she survive, alone?  Without family wealth, every woman was only a step away from the gutter. And nobody’s perfect! I’ll stop here, as I don’t want to give anything away…

The names of your characters are so interesting and unique. I was wondering where you found those names and why you chose them?

My choice of names for both Zéphyrine and Anatole were prompted by favourite childhood picturebooks. Zephir is Babar the Elephant’s monkey friend – but Zepyr is also the name of the West wind, traditionally the best and most welcome of the winds, and I wanted to evoke the wind of change in her name too. Anatole is a resourceful French mouse, a cheese connoisseur who daring enough to bell the cat who threatens his work.  Marie is more conventional in some ways, and easire to pronounce!  There’s a kind of purity in Rose.  Jules has a pleasing ambiguity – French and English at once, and these days, even a little androgynous.

Speaking of Jules – his character pleasantly surprised me and I was really happy to see some LGBTQIA+ representation in the book. Would you mind perhaps elaborating on his character a little and how he came about? 

So many different ideas fed into the evolution of Jules and his sexual identity – and Anatole’s too…it’s hard to know where to begin. It definitely relates to my interest in hidden histories.  I wanted an outsider figure, observing, but slightly removed from the main events. Yet in the end, impossibly implicated. Photography was hugely important in the Commune in all kinds of ways, and from the beginning of the Liberty’s Fire, I use it to suggest the idea of the unreliability of representation.  So it made sense to make Jules a photographer.  That made me think about Paris as the ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ and emerging ideas about the ‘city of lights’ and the meaning of modern life.  Which leads straight to the figure of the flâneur, the gentleman who strolls the boulevards, parks, arcades and city streets, idling incognito, sauntering, exploring, above all looking and understanding.  You see him in impressionist paintings, and meet him in the poetry of Baudelaire, Jules’ favourite poet.  I started thinking about the parallels between ‘flânerie’ and ‘cruising’, and also how little LGBTQUIA+ issues are represented in historical YA fiction, andat around the same time I visited the cemetery of Père Lachaise, and saw how close the grave of Oscar Wilde is to the mur des fédérés, the wall where some of the last fighters of the Commune were executed and buried in a mass grave. Wilde, who coined the phrase ’the love that dare not speak its name’ when he was on trial for sodomy, died destitute in Paris. He was specifically referring to the love of an older for a younger man, but it’s come to represent the unspeakability of homosexuality in past times.  When I was born, male homosexuality was illegal in Britain and the age of consent (ie 16) was only became equal for all in 2000. I wanted to imagine what it would be like to be gay or bisexual at a time there was no positive word for such identities. Which of course is still the case in most parts of the world, to my fury, as with feminism, things seem to be going backwards in many countries.

We’ve talked a lot about hidden histories and periods of uprising and revolution, so I was just wondering what were some of your other favourite periods of history and what time periods you would possibly like to write about in the future? 

I’m keen to return to the late 18th century – I love the Enlightenment.  So much ’stranger than fiction’ material to work with there, and a relatively good time to be a woman, I think! And apart from the 1789 French Revolution, it’s very underrepresented in YA and children’s fiction.  But right now I’m in the late 19th century, for the first time, as it were, on a South Sea island.

Thank you so much for joining me on the blog today Lydia! It’s been fantastic having you and thank you for such wonderful in depth answers.




Lydia Syson is a fifth-generation North Londoner who now lives south of the river with her partner and four children. She has published three YA novels all by Hot Key Books – A World Between Us (2012), That Burning Summer (2013) and Liberty’s Fire (2015). Lydia Syson is an RLF Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and a Visiting Lecturer at City University, London.  She is also is a History Girl, and a member of SAS, the SoA, the Historical Writers Association and CWISL, Children’s Writers and Illustrators in South London. You an follow her on twitter @lydiasyson.

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