Award-winning author Tabitha Suzuma grew up in west London and wrote her first book when she was 17. She has been a teacher and a translator and has now taken on the challenge to help choose a winner for StoryStar . Here web editor Lucy Proctor finds out what inspires the Fulham-based writer to write her unique brand of teen fiction and why she is against age branding of books.
See the website on Monday for Tabitha's Top Ten Tips for writing a short story
How long does it take you to write a book?
It really depends on the book I'm writing. Sometimes I might get writer's block which can last weeks or even months.
If I'm 'in the zone' I can write for hours and hours without stopping - through the night without eating or sleeping.
You are so wrapped up in your writing that you see the story happening in front of you as if watching a film and you write as fast as you can to try and keep up with what is going on.
When I was writing my first book, A Note of Madness, I used to find myself in the zone quite frequently: I was a lonely, overworked teacher living away from my friends and the only reason I wrote was to escape my life and to describe what if felt like living with depression. So I wrote that book quite quickly - in six months.
What is your writing routine? (what is a typical writing day like?)
I really don't have a writing routine. I wish I did.
I find that I write best at night. Something about it being completely silent and there being no distractions such as email and the phone (I am very easily distracted, especially when I'm supposed to be writing).
Going to bed always seems like a boring option (I am a night owl - I am most energetic at night) and so come midnight I begin to feel quite inspired. I usually write between midnight and 4am.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
From my life and from my interests. A Note of Madness was easy. The single thing that had dominated my life since as far back as I could remember was depression. I had studied it in an attempt to find a cure for it. And it was something I'd lived with all my life. So deciding to write a book about bipolar disorder - or manic depression - was easy.
Then I looked at my interests. My teenage brother, fourteen years my junior, was currently training to be a concert pianist which had been my dream for him ever since I'd sat him on my lap, aged two, and taught him to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
I'd been the first to recognise his talent and taught him myself until he was four. Then, I'd asked around until I found the best piano teacher in the area. He ended up going to Chetham's School of Music and getting a place at the Royal College of Music.
Do you think you can write about things you have not experienced?
Absolutely. I have never been a concert pianist like Flynn. But I've known what it's like to have to perform under that kind of pressure.
I've never come face-to-face with my picture on a Missing Persons poster, like Louis in Without Looking Back, but I can imagine the sickening blow of having to face up to what someone you love has done to you.
To write about things that haven't happened to you, you need two things: imagination (a lot of it), and huge amount of empathy for others.
Who are your favourite authors and what are your favourite kinds of books?
When I was a child and a teenager I liked: Journey Into War byMargaret Donaldson, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket all by Joan Aiken. I also liked Susan Cooper, Joan Lingard and Lois Duncan.
Now I like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and books about the mind like Prozac Nation, More Now Again by Elizabeth Wurtzel.
I think there's a bit of a pattern there. As a child and teen, I was always drawn to 'real-life' and gritty books. I still am, and these are the books I now write. My current favourites, both in teen and adult, centre very much around the themes of mental illness, which again come out in my writing.
Why are you against age-banding for children's books?
I think age-banding for children's books is wrong for many reasons. The idea is that every book for young people, from board books to teen crossover books (like mine), should have a printed age on its cover: 3+ or 6+ etc. The idea is that this is only 'guidance', suggesting that this book will be most suited for children of 6 years and above. In reality of course, most people and probably all children will see this as 'a book for 6-year-olds', and so on.
If my books were to be age-banded, the likes of A Note of Madness, From Where I Stand and A Voice in the Distance (listed by several adult readers as one of their all-time favourite books and mainly 'picked up' by 15 - 20-year-olds), will all be reprinted with 12+ on the cover.
As an author of teen fiction, my career would be in jeopardy because my readers are all old enough to pick out their own books, and most of my books are bought by recommendation. I know few 18-year-olds who are either going to buy for themselves or recommend to their peers a book with 12+ on the cover!
I have now been told that my next book, Without Looking Back, will not be age-banded, which is a tremendous relief. But I'm still not completely satisfied because it isn't just about me and my books: as a special needs teacher I work hard to instill a love for reading in every child I teach. How can I be part of an establishment that, if it has its way, will force me to present one of my most dyslexic pupils, a ferociously bright 14-year-old with terribly low self-esteem, with a book that says 6+ on the cover?
How has the Internet helped your writing?
I have no idea how writers wrote before the Internet. In fact, I've no idea how they wrote before computers. The idea of writing by hand or on a typewriter without a delete button is horrifying! I am constantly moving chunks of text around so the idea of working without cut and paste sounds like a nightmare.
The Internet itself has been brilliant because it's just a mine of information. I used to hate looking a word up in a dictionary. It always seemed to take ages. Now we've got online dictionaries, thesauruses, and the wonder of all wonders: Wikipedia! It's my bible. I rely on it so heavily, and the wonder of it is that it's created by people like you and me.
To find about more about Tabitha and her books visit her website