This Can Never Not Be Real – Author Interview with Sera Milano

Due for publication tomorrow (29th April 2021) is Sera Milano’s debut YA title This Can Never Not Be Real, which is a gripping story centring around five characters looking to survive in the most uncertain and scariest of circumstances they could ultimately find themselves in. I recently had the opportunity to interview Sera on behalf of the FCBG, and asked those gritty questions that get all the ‘behind the scenes’ details we lovers of books desire to know, and would like to extend thanks on behalf of the FCBG to Sera and Harpercollins for the opportunity to create this interview and feature this incredible YA title on the FCBG blog.

  • Can you give a summary of This Can Never Not Be Real in three sentences or less.

This Can Never Not Be Real is a minute-by-minute account of a terrorist attack at a music festival, following the journeys of five teenagers with nothing in common as they come together to help each other make it through the night. It’s an honest, sometimes heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful story of survival. 

  • Which of the five characters that readers are introduced to in the book, through their viewpoints of the events that unfold, is your particular favourite, and why?

This is the Sophie’s Choice of questions and I absolutely can’t answer it. However, I will say that – far from making it harder – writing from five perspectives really helped carry this story along. It was impossible to have writer’s block, as if I couldn’t find the right words for one character I could jump across and see what someone else was doing. Telling each separate story and finding the places where they met and overlapped each other was always exciting, and if the storytelling got hard I could lighten it with some of Peaches’ dry humour, or soften it with Violet’s kind soul. March’s quiet intelligence got me out of many plot traps and Joe’s occasional obtuseness, but solidly good heart became a moral guide. Ellie was the first character I wrote and, like the runner she is, she became the pacemaker for the story. There is a little piece of my heart in all five.

  • The book tells of an unfolding terrorist attack in the town of Amberside, how difficult was this to portray in a YA title?

I think the key to this book is that it isn’t about terrorism – it’s about survival. Young adults today are incredibly aware of the constant shadow of terrorism over our lives. They’ve seen rolling news about attacks at concerts, in nightclubs, on trains, at churches, mosques and markets – even at a garlic festival. That constant, bleak news exposure feels overwhelming to me at times, and it’s a lot to ask young people to process.

So, to greatly paraphrase GK Chesterton: fairy tales don’t teach us dragons exist. They teach us that dragons can be overcome.

Young people know the realities of terrorism. What we see far more rarely on the news are the stories of the people who live through these attacks – their lives changed but not ended, each one full of hope and potential for the future. Given how inspirational the story of one survivor – Malala Yousafzai has been to millions of people, think how many stories we must be missing.

We remember terror attacks for who carried them out and the tally of the dead. This Can Never Not Be Real asks the question: what if we remembered them for the survivors, instead? Particularly at a time when our whole world is finding its way through a shared crisis, survivor stories seem more important than ever. I think it’s vital to tell honest stories for young adults, but never to leave them without hope.

  • Who are the recommended readers for this book, what can they anticipate?

I’d recommend this book to engaged readers who like to be challenged by a book, while at the same time enjoying a pacy, sometimes heart-rending read. It’s not a typical thriller but may appeal to thriller readers who want a little more to think about. ‘I can’t stop thinking about it’ has cropped up in a few reviews, and is my very favourite comment to get.

  • When undertaking relevant research for This Can Never Not Be Real what stood out for you personally, and how is that reflected in the story?

I was very careful not to read any specific accounts of terror attacks while I was actually writing the book, or as direct research for it, as I didn’t to accidentally co-opt people’s lived experiences for my story. However, my research has come in the form of long years spent intently following news coverage of terror attacks and specifically seeking out the stories of the survivors. In its earliest, most nebulous form the idea for the book may have come to me after the 2011 terror attack on Utøya – still the deadliest mass shooting by a single perpetrator, whose victims were mostly children. I was so shaken by this attack that I followed a number of journalists as they live-tweeted the trial of Anders Behring Brevik and recall being stunned by the strength, hope and occasional startling humour in the witness accounts given by the children who survived. I didn’t even know I wanted to be a writer at that time, but the idea – and most of all the feeling – of listening to those stories must have stayed with me all this time.

  • How long did it take you to write this book?

This book had a particularly unusual writing process for me, in that I woke up one night at around 2am with the whole book in my head. I sketched out a two or three page outline and fell asleep again, fully expecting to wake up the next morning to find it was all rambling nonsense (as my middle-of-the-night ideas often are).

But it wasn’t. It was a book. I started writing it the next morning and was finished in roughly a month. It was something of an exhausting process – I’ve never had an idea that wanted to be written quite so much before. It often almost felt like it was typing itself. With a few small edits and additions, that first draft is almost entirely present in the finished book.

  • Can you tell us a little about each of the characters that feature? (No spoilers!)

Of course! There’s

Ellie: The school sports star and occasional model. She’s the girl everyone either wants to know or be, but she’s leading a life she didn’t choose for herself.

Joe: The slacker. Joe’s as popular as Ellie for his laid-back attitude and crowd of friends, but the price for being cool means not following his ambitions.

Peaches: The outsider, a theatre kid who feels like the world looks down on her. Peaches is smart, funny and cripplingly insecure, all too often attacking when she means to defend.

Violet: The invisible girl. Violet is kind, thoughtful, incredibly clever and often overlooked. A part-time carer for her father, she’s shy when away from her family, but far stronger than she knows.

March: A man of mystery. He’s in all the top sets at school but no one knows much about him – perhaps they’ve never bothered to ask.

  • What can readers anticipate from you next?

I’ve just finished my next book and can’t say too much about it yet, but described it to my editor as ‘Toxic by Britney Spears if it was being covered by Joni Mitchell’. It deals with love, good bad and poisonous, though the story of another group of friends.

  • Tell us about yourself, including previous publications please.

Of course. I’m Sera and I’m the author of two Kirkus-starred queer tween romcoms, Boy Meets Hamster and Boy Meets Ghoul (as Birdie Milano), and This Can Never Not Be Real, a YA book from multiple perspectives, set during a terror attack at a festival. I’ve also worked as a bookseller, dabbled in theatre, and dispensed advice to online daters. I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and promote inclusivity and acceptance in all I do.

I live just a whisker outside London in the UK with my rescue dog and wonky cat. I love theatre, comics, and telling my many houseplants that they need to let me love them while I watch them slowly die.

  • The cover of the book is fabulous, who designed it, and did they draw inspiration from anywhere notable?

I’m going to let my cover artist, Lisa Horton, answer this one for me below – for my part, we wanted something inspired by the fire and fireworks in the book, and the idea of light in the darkness.

Lisa Horton – The inspiration for this cover was really for me, the link between the festival, the tragic events that followed and then a sense of hopefulness that comes from that survival. So you have the dark followed by the light, portrayed on this cover with a rich dark black background, then through that comes the bright glowing light of a sparkler. The premiss of this book is based on something that most people could only ever imagine, so the cover needed to have a sense of being relatable as well as being beautiful. There is nothing more normal then drawing shapes with a sparkler, we have all done it, and under the cover of darkness at a fun, local event we can see ourselves doing just that. Teamed with the title though, seeing those words together, it gives a great sense of intrigue and even threat, as well as something hopeful with the use of light, so I think it was all about getting the balance right with this design.   

This Can Never Not Be Real is published on 29th April 2021 by Harpercollins

Any opinions expressed may not truly represent those of the FCBG

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