Since You've Been Gone with Mary Jennifer Payne

Since You've Been Gone with Mary Jennifer Payne

Posted on February 11 by Kyle in Interview, Teens
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Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.

There are many interweaving themes within Since You’ve Been Gone; however, the major theme is that of resilience. Both Edie and Jermaine, as well as many other characters in the novel, demonstrate an incredible amount of resilience in the face of racism, poverty, domestic violence, and other forms of prejudice. It is a reminder of just how damaging and marginalizing assumptions can be. They often limit youth from reaching their full potential which is a tragedy for our entire society.

This book exemplifies the strength and spirit of many amazing people I’ve known, and that is one of the main reasons I wrote it and wanted to explore the issues within it. It’s an amalgamation of their stories, and a commentary on the negative impact that marginalization from dominant society and institutionalized prejudices can have on people. Many of the characters in Since You’ve Been Gone are survivors despite constantly navigating very challenging circumstances. Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending, and that is reflected here as well.


How did you research your book?

For the past seventeen years, I’ve taught adolescents in inner-city schools. My teaching career began in London, UK, and since moving to Toronto, I’ve spent most of my time teaching in Regent Park. It’s always a balancing act trying to fit in my writing when working long days at school, but teaching inspires me to write YA fiction and provides me with the majority of my research. 


 In your own work, which character are you most attached to and why?

Without a doubt, the character I am most attached to in this novel is Jermaine. I love his quiet strength and determination despite the many challenges he faces (especially the pervasive prejudice and assumptions made about him as a young, black man from South London). He’s clearly an intelligent young man with a great deal of potential, yet we’re left unsure as to what the future holds for him at the end of the novel. As he leaves the police car and Edie to return to the flat he shares with his mum on a large South London estate, there’s a feeling that perhaps things may not change all that much for him. Indeed, in 2012, The Guardian newspaper reported that more than half of young black men in the UK were unemployed. This was a year after the London riots in which many of the rioters (who were mostly young and male) said the main reasons for their participation were due to the way policing was taking place in their communities, and a deep sense of injustice as to how they were treated compared to others in English society. 

The other reason Jermaine is a very special character to me is because he was inspired by two of my former students who, despite working hard trying to get an education and to achieve their dreams, are no longer with us. Dominant society perpetuates negative stereotypes of these young men, in order to maintain the status quo. There is such an unequal playing field in cities like Toronto and London where child poverty rates and the discrepancy between rich and poor continues to grow. So much needs to change. 


Describe the most memorable response you've received from a reader. 

A reader once wrote a review on Goodreads in which she stated that she didn’t even realize Jermaine was black until she was quite far into the novel. She then wrote, “So when I realised that Jermaine was black, I was just like, Aw, well that’s cute, I still want him to go with Edie”.

At first I was really taken aback by the comment, but then I realized that perhaps, in some small way, her perceptions and assumptions might’ve been challenged by the novel. If it gets people thinking, that’s a positive thing.


Who did you read as a young adult?

This is may seem funny, but I was a voracious reader of Stephen King. Say what you might about him, King is a consummate storyteller. It, The Stand, and many of his short stories, such as The Body and The Running Man, are stellar. The plots and characters in his writing reverberate with me long after I finish reading. The Stand was definitely an influence in my next novel, Stolen Sister. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing King read and speak twice, and it was really exciting. I suppose he’s a bit like a literary rockstar.  His book, On Writing, is something every writer should read.