From Jenna Adams comes the unmissable, conversation-starting debut on captivating coming-of-age tale of mental health, consent and the complex world of teenage sexual politics. In this interview, Jenna tells us about her journey as an author, the inspiration behind the book, her experience with mental health and lack of sex education in schools and how this has impacted the narrative in her upcoming contemporary fiction novel. Read on to find out more!
As a debut author, can you tell us a little bit about your journey into publishing? How has this experience been?
It’s been long! I started writing Can I Stray when I was fourteen – so a good decade ago. Working with the team at Neem Tree Press has been amazing. So much of the last ten years has been just me and the book, typing away alone in my room for hours and hours. To have real human beings – and not just any human beings, but really awesome, smart, dedicated human beings – working on this with me has been really special.
Have you always wanted to be an author?
After princess, pop star, and unicorn, I did find myself landing on the idea of being an author pretty young. My Year 2 teacher told my parents she was quite impressed with my writing, and as a prize for winning house points she got me some nice pens and a display folder for me to put stories in. I would have much preferred Playmobil but she seemed to be on to something.
What inspired you to write Can I Stray?
Because of a boy – not a great reason, eh? I had a crush on a guy a few years older than me who probably didn’t even know my name, so that was the first inspiration. As I mentioned, I started writing this book at fourteen, so I kind of grew up with it – with the protagonist Brooke, especially. As I got older, my perspectives on the themes of the book changed, became more informed, and ultimately developed into the adult view that Brooke shares at the end. So this book started as an attempted love story, but it aged and grew and matured into what it is now, which is certainly not a love story – or if it is, it’s a love story between Brooke and herself.
Please tell us a little bit about the story and the main protagonists Brooke and Matt?
Brooke is fourteen: idealistic, hopelessly romantic, hurting in ways she doesn’t quite understand yet. Matt is eighteen, and like Brooke he’s naïve, but in a different way. The story starts with these two characters embarking on a romantic relationship. We see their ups and downs, and explore the themes of healthy teen relationships, consent, and mental health. We then revisit these characters when they’re older. We see their perspectives change, we see them question if what happened between them was okay, and then dealing with the aftermath of that.
In what ways did your own experiences as a young adult impact these characters and the narrative?
As a teenager I started to experience mental health issues for the first time. This was pretty scary, since it felt like it came out of nowhere, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I felt like everywhere I looked – at school, on TV, sometimes even at the GP surgery – I saw my issues being constantly invalidated, written off as a teenage girl being dramatic or attention-seeking. I postponed getting much-needed treatment for a long time because I didn’t feel deserving of help. So I think my experience as a teenager informed the narrative a lot, and I hope that my book does encourage readers to reach out if they’re struggling, even if it feels like their problems are small. Everyone deserves help.
Why did you choose to write Can I Stray using a dual narrative?
Good question! It seemed to come about very naturally in the writing process, I think maybe just for the practicality of covering what’s going on when certain characters aren’t around. In Can I Stray we see both Brooke and Matt’s perspectives, but I do think the story belongs to Brooke. She’s a bit of an unreliable narrator – like my fourteen-year-old self, there’s a lot she’s yet to realise, and she comes to see things very differently by the end of the book. Matt’s not terribly reliable either – both characters have their own biases, their own ideas about what is and isn’t okay – so hopefully having both voices makes it clear that Brooke’s opinions shouldn’t be taken as gospel, and the reader should make up their own mind about the ethics of the situation.
The theme of consent features heavily in Can I Stray. Why did you decide to write a book on this issue and what can readers take away from this story?
While Brooke and Matt’s relationship is fiction, the world Brooke grows up in is the world I was surrounded by when I was her age. As a teenager I was surrounded by people at parties who were too drunk to consent but hooking up anyway; I was surrounded by abusive relationship behaviours that were seen as normal, like reading your boyfriend’s text messages. Talking to my friends at school, I realised that most of us hadn’t been taught what consent was – that wasn’t just the absence of a no, but was a verbal, sober, enthusiastic, overage, continuous “yes”. There was a massive lack of education around what consent and healthy relationships actually looked like. So I think part of the story came from the frustration about that, about how badly we need better Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). Things seem to have improved a bit since I left school, but there’s still a long way to go.
Your protagonist Brooke has a bit of a mental health rollercoaster as she deals with codependency. For readers who have not heard of this before, can you tell us a little bit about that?
If you google “codependency”, you might see a lot of information about codependents tending to fall for addicts or narcissists, but I think in reality it often can be more subtle or nuanced than that. It was first explained to me as a one-sided relationship. Codependents can tend to be a little needy and struggle to be on their own, while also constantly trying to fulfil their partner’s needs out of fear of abandonment. And we do live in a bit of a codependency culture – with song lyrics saying stuff like “I’d die if you left me,” or “I’m only happy when I’m with you,” we do seem to be conflating love and partnership with dependence and need, with inability to cope by ourselves.
Understanding codependency and dealing with it has not only meant that I’m able to have much healthier relationships, but has also removed massive barriers to my happiness. So I did go on a similar arc to my protagonist Brooke in terms of her becoming less dependent on her partner, and finding out where all her edges are.
What is the key message that you would like readers to take away from Can I Stray?
I hope it encourages people to ask for help when they need it, and I hope it continues the conversation about needing better RSE in schools. Mostly I’d just like it to give people who are going through tough times the hope that things can get better for everyone.
Finally, I wondered if you could suggest three top tips for aspiring authors?
As Zadie Smith said, uninterrupted writing time is key. And that does mean writing in the evenings, weekends, it does mean turning down invitations. I guess you have to make it a priority, if you can. Don’t let your book take ten years like mine did!
Feedback is your friend. Every time someone gives you feedback, it’s helping you to make your writing better. I mean, don’t listen to every single thing that every single person suggests, but get enough beta readers so you can gain consistent feedback. And then take that darling and strangle it.
I’d also say to give up on the dream of being “a writer” and all the stuff that comes with it. As a teenager I was holding on to all the wrong reasons for writing – my name in lights, winning prizes, yadda yadda. Now I just dream of waking up and writing. That’s the best bit, after all.
The unmissable, conversation-starting debut CAN I STRAY will be publishing October 11th 2022!
Click HERE to pre-order a copy now.
About the Author
Jenna Adams lives in London and writes from her third-floor flat which is covered in plants. She is a regular contributor at The Book Network and Can I Stray is her first novel. Jenna is passionate about exploring mental health, consent, and codependency in her writing. You can find out more about her work on Twitter (@JennaAdamsBooks), Instagram (@jennadamsbooks), TikTok (@jennadamsbooks) or her website, www.jennaadamswriter.com.