I grew up with the sea at the end of my road. Writing a summer story set on a beach was kind of inevitable.
I’m from Penarth, a few miles from Cardiff: a Victorian seaside resort, where sickly people would come to ‘take the air’ on the promenade. It’s also a few miles from Barry Island, the more traditional bucket-and-spade hangout – and where the sitcom Gavin & Stacey was set. For my currently-living-in-England self, that show was like some sort of magical gift. After years of trying to explain the mere concept of ‘Wales’, I could just point at the telly and go ‘I’m from there, sort of.’ (Penarth and Barry are not remotely the sam as any local will tell you – while laughing – but I did learn how to do hill starts outside Uncle Bryn’s house. Cracking for your clutch control, Barry is.)
My book The Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones is set in Penkerry, a fictional Welsh seaside town that borrows from Penarth, Barry, Porthkerry and bits of Pembrokeshire at random. There’s a fairground, and a pier; an island (loosely based on Caldey Island off Tenby); a pebbly beach, and dangerous tides, horror stories about which were drummed into me as a kid.
It’s the first time I’ve written a YA novel with a strong sense of place. Big Woo and My Invisible Boyfriend took place in a sort of ‘everyland’, an unobtrusive Could Be Your Town. Intentionally, I should add. As a teen, if I found a YA book set in the UK, it took place in England, probably London (the geography of which the author seemed to assume I’d recognise): hugely annoying. Meanwhile, anything set in Wales was invariably fantasy, with runes and harps and mystical retellings of the Mabinogion by a goblin up a hill. (Which is fine, of course, but not really my cup of tea.)
So I wanted to write a contemporary story that was firmly set in Wales, even if Penkerry itself isn’t real: the story I would’ve loved to read back then.
My relationship with my own Welshness isn’t simple, though. On the train back to Cardiff to see my family I’m always reassured by the old familiar voices and phrases, that sense of coming home – but I also feel a bit of an imposter. I’ve got an English accent these days (unless I’m shouting at the rugby). I’m one of those Welsh traitors that left and never went back.
So I decided to use that unease. In the book, Bluebell is on the brink of ‘true’ teenagerness, the sudden blossoming of self-confidence she imagines will arrive automatically with her 13th birthday – wrongly, of course. I made her English (with a Welsh Dad), a visitor for the summer holidays. Her lurking sense of foreignness in a Welsh-accented landscape is yet another worry, one more for the list of ways she fears she’ll never fit in.
Luckily for Blue, she meets a bunch of lovely, accepting – and very Welsh – teens at Penkerry funfair, ready and waiting to help her figure herself out.