Em Bailey is an award-winning Australian author. Her previous book, Shift was the winner of the 2012 Gold Inky Award for best Australian YA novel and was selected as a notable book by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. Em’s new YA novel, The Special Ones is an incredibly exciting, twisty, nail-biting read. You can read my review of The Special Ones here on the blog.
The Special Ones is one of those books that I can’t get out of my head. I had a few questions that I was dying to ask Em and she has very kindly answered them for me. Read on to find out her inspiration for the book, what it was like to go inside the head of a psychopath and what draws her to writing for teens.
- What inspired you to write The Special Ones?
I’ve always been interested in the psychology of cults: what sort of person becomes a cult leader, the people who are drawn to them, what happens when someone attempts to leave. I knew I wanted to write something about this theme and I started thinking about how modern technology might affect the way a traditional commune-style cult operated. I began imagining a situation where someone was able to control and manipulate a group, in the way that cult leaders traditionally always have, but without needing to be physically present.
- Which of The Special Ones are you most like?
‘Him’? No, not really! I don’t think I’m very much like any of the girls, although I guess certain aspects of Esther’s personality are like mine but she is much tougher and far more determined than I am. I like to write about characters who make mistakes and do dumb things – sometimes even really bad things – because I think it’s still completely possible to have empathy for them. A number of people have told me that they really dislike Lucille in The Special Ones, but I must admit to having a soft spot for her. She’s put through a very traumatic series of events after all, and a lot of her complaints about Esther seem justified to me.
- Is the cottage in the book based on an actual place?
The farmhouse isn’t based on a particular building, it’s more a composite of many. I started planning The Special Ones while driving through South Australia with my family. I spent a lot of time looking out the window at the dry landscape and noticing the abandoned, ramshackle old stone farmhouses here and there. It’s that kind of environment that I picture for The Special Ones and I imagined the girls being imprisoned in one of those solid old buildings.
- You take readers inside the head of a psychopath in The Special Ones. Did you have to prepare yourself to get into character when writing these parts?
It was difficult, and exhausting, to be in ‘his’ head. I would be working on a passage and realise that I was writing it from a normal person’s perspective, with typical, human reactions to things. I would then have to stop myself and think ‘but how would a psychopath view this situation?’ I read Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test book as part of my research and I had a list of psychopathic characteristics stuck up beside my desk which I used to refer to as a way of keeping myself on track. It wasn’t very pleasant. I would often find myself frowning or clenching my teeth as I was writing from his viewpoint. It was always such a relief to flip back into ‘Esther-mode’.
- Apart from ‘him’ in your story who is the most evil, twisted character from a book or movie that you’ve come across?
I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to scary books and movies (yes, it’s ironic I know) so I’m probably not the best person to answer this. I did however read a lot of non-fiction accounts of cults while preparing for this book and it was amazing to notice the similarity between the various cult leaders. They share such an unswerving belief in their own greatness and a complete disregard for the rights of anyone else. Because they lack the ability to feel empathy the suffering they inflict on others has no effect on them whatsoever. It’s chilling to read about people like this because it’s clear they genuinely don’t realise they’re doing anything wrong.
- How did the story come together? Did you know how it was going to end?
Nutting out the plot was a very long process. I knew basically how I wanted to resolve things, but it took a lot of work to get the details right. I think I re-wrote the entire second half at least four times. It was painful at the time, but ultimately it was necessary for getting the storyline to follow a course that felt right to me.
- What do you love most about writing for teens?
Writing for teens is great because there’s so much scope. The YA genre is so broad now that you can really go in any direction you want and explore a wide variety of themes. I’m drawn to writing plot-dense stories and this works well with teen literature. I think of my books as being escapist but hopefully also reasonably substantial, theme-wise. Teens read a lot more widely and with a greater level of sophistication than they did in my day, so there is also the challenge of writing something which will meet with their approval.