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Helena Coggan introduces The Catalyst

Helena Coggan introduces The Catalyst

Helena Coggan wrote her first draft of The Catalyst when she was 13. Two years later and it's now the first in a three-book publishing deal. Below she rallies against what she perceives as the female stereotypes within YA fiction and how she's taking steps to make a difference.

Posted on 26th February 2015 by Helena Coggan

There weren’t many things I knew when I started writing the story, but I knew I wanted magic.

I’d always loved it, in all its forms, and since there was precious little of it to be found in the real world - past the age of about five, at least - I sought it out in books. Elemental magic, of fire and earth and air and water, to bend the wind and open the sky; magic of the heart and mind, to twist thoughts and wills and loyalties; magic inborn and discovered, magic gifted and coped with, magic hard-won and lost again; even love, though that was rather a more abstract interpretation of the word than I was generally satisfied with at ten or eleven.

So if I was to write a full-length story- as I had wanted to more or less since I was old enough to read them- there was to be magic. It seemed a waste, after all, not to use that privilege of writers, to examine the rules of what was possible in the real world and then politely discard it in favour of something better.

So: magic. But that would require the construction of a whole new world, which was far more daunting a task than I felt I could accomplish, so I needed some kind of scaffolding; I needed London. Not the London of glittering skyscrapers, or grassy suburbs - neither of those, I felt, would comfortably adjust to a magical apocalypse. Instead, I wanted the London of underground Tube stations, grimy office blocks, dark alleyways, the winding path of the river, endless crowds of pigeons. Pigeons, I thought, would survive Armageddon. If the wrath of the world’s grumpiest city couldn’t get rid of the bloody things, nothing would.

I didn’t think of the word ‘dystopia’, but of course that was what I was using: inflicting the end of the world as we know it on London would require setting the story in the near future, which meant, once you factored in the magic, that what I was doing was post-apocalyptic fantasy. If I had known that this was an existing genre, that might well have been enough to bring the hugeness of what I was attempting crashing down on me there and then, and I probably would have given up on the whole enterprise and found something more productive and less obviously implausible to try my hand at. But, fortunately, I was months away from having any idea of what I was doing, and so I ploughed on regardless.

So I had the rudiments of a premise; now for characters. I knew a little about them from the start - I didn’t know their names, I couldn’t see their faces, I had only fragments of their personalities (and I was wrong about some of those), but I knew the dynamics between them perfectly, and through the whole two years of writing and editing those never changed. The central relationship in the story - it wasn’t at the start, but it became more so with every scene - was between David and Rose. They were, or rather are, adoptive father and daughter, bound by love and experience and secrets instead of blood. I knew the way they operated together, watching each other warily for unforeseen reactions; the way they fought together, their instinctive knowledge of each other’s movements. The secret they kept would lead their friends and colleagues to destroy them without another thought if it was discovered, and fifteen years of hiding it had made them adept liars; but they both believed absolutely that they would never lie to each other, and in that, unfortunately, they were both absolutely mistaken.

But even with knowing that, I still had a problem; and that was Rose. If my protagonist was to be an adolescent - a girl my own age, or thereabouts - what was she going to be like? 

I’d read a lot of heroines before that point, especially teenage heroines, and to my near-despair they all seemed to fall into one of three general plot arcs. There was the Ugly Duckling, the frizzy-haired, shy, bookish girl who was shown her inner (and ultimately outer) beauty by the boy she fell in love with; the Naïve Duckling, the adorable innocent who for various reasons had no idea about the world she lived in, but was eventually enlightened by the boy she fell in love with; and the Antisocial Duckling, the friendless loner who was slowly given the gift of social skills in the process of falling in love.

There was no one who was allowed to stay ugly, or unpopular; no one whose story didn’t involve her eventually becoming beautiful and socially acceptable and therefore okay. For me at thirteen - with frizzy hair and bad teeth, a relative unknown amongst my year group, academic but graceless, and with no prospects of turning into Anne Hathaway or Emma Watson any time soon - things seemed hopeless. I was condemned to be as the heroines were at the start of their stories: unattractive, untransformed. 

Searching vainly for someone who was allowed to remain normal throughout their stories - a precedent, if you like, a sign that girls like me had been judged and not found wanting - produced no results. Fine. There weren’t any heroines like that? I would create one.

So Rose lost her beauty. She was relegated to a small group of friends, looked down on as a ‘psycho girl’ for her involvement in the Department, her father’s law-enforcement agency. And she couldn’t care less. Her popularity among her peer group was so far down her list of things to worry about that she only dealt with it when it became an actual threat to her wellbeing. She viewed puberty and adolescence as an ordeal, an annoyance that she would deal with for a few years, until she was old enough to become a full member of the Department and be shot of all of this.

(I should state for the record that I have the best group of friends in the world and I am very happy - I’ll repeat, in case my teachers are reading this - very happy at my school. But not everyone is that lucky.)

I never set out to write this story with an agenda. I set out to write it because I’d always wanted to, and in part - if I’m being completely honest - to see if I could. But the more I wrote, and the more it became apparent that it would, by some glorious and frankly bewildering miracle, actually have some readers, the more I realised that if I was lucky enough to have this platform I should probably attempt to do some good with it.

So I’ve tried to. I’ve tried to create a heroine that perhaps some unhappy, unattractive teenagers could see a part of themselves in, and have hope; to even out, as it were, the proportions of ugly ducks to swans in YA literature. And if there are any other writers in that genre reading this, I would just say: beautiful, popular teenage girls aren’t generally the kind to search desperately for characters like themselves in the books they read. But there are a lot of other girls out there who are looking for precedents, who need to see that the rest of the world thinks that it is okay to be like them. So when you’re writing your heroines, if you feel the urge to give them the blessings they deserve - confidence and admiration and beauty - you should know that there are a lot of people out there who would be much happier if you resisted it. Beautiful women already have screens and magazines and billboards; the written word may be the last refuge of the normal-looking teenager, and, for their sake, it should be kept that way.