A F Stone: Sheffield author's debut novel The Raven Wheel brings gritty realism back to young adult fiction – ‘It's quite incredible what some people have to go through’
"If they like it or hate it, I'm not bothered – so many years of rejection have really toughened me up," says Amy Stone, eyes resting on a copy of her debut novel. "Although I say that now - if all I get are people thinking it's terrible, then I probably will have another nervous breakdown."
Her young adult fiction book, called The Raven Wheel, is a hard-won triumph. The dark and uncompromising tale of three troubled teenagers whose lives intertwine with irreversibly profound consequences, the plot deals with themes of mental illness, suicide, drug abuse and broken families, set in Stoke-on-Trent where Amy grew up before moving to Sheffield for university 15 years ago.
Amy has worked in a psychiatric unit, is open about her own ongoing mental health problems and hopes The Raven Wheel can inject realism into a genre dominated by blockbuster fantasy sagas like The Hunger Games and the Twilight series.
"It's got a broad appeal," she says, having grabbed an hour one morning to meet for coffee while her two young sons are at nursery. "If anybody is the age of the characters in the book, they could maybe see themselves and recognise the different struggles they're going through."
Amy has written since childhood - "Terrible poetry and short stories," she winces - but didn't begin any serious attempts at a novel until she'd graduated with a degree in English Literature from Sheffield University.
"It was the classic quarter-life crisis – 'I've got to get a job and earn a living... but there has to more to life than working in an office'," she says. "I subsequently spent the next 10 years working in an office, but in my spare time I've been writing so it's just great to finally have it out there.
“The young adult market is ridiculously oversaturated and competitive, so breaking into it has been really hard. I had a few people say 'If you'd done this a couple of years ago, then we'd have taken it up, but it's just too difficult now'."
Amy – who uses the J K Rowling-esque pen name A F Stone – has completed a novel before, about a young carer in Sheffield, but it remains unpublished after too many 'close-but-no-cigar moments' with agents and publishers. "I finally shelved it for my own sanity and started something new."
Two of The Raven Wheel's main characters, Tye and Kian, are half-brothers who share an estranged, addict mother. They live with Tye's father, who ends up being sectioned after a breakdown, after which the boys have to move away to live with their grandmother to avoid being taken into care.
The third protagonist, Ria, lives in the same village and has trained a pair of wild ravens – hence the title. She comes from a privileged background but was abused by her father throughout her childhood before he left home. When he returns, she becomes obsessed with revenge.
"They've got these really chaotic lives that converge," says Amy. "It almost creates this perfect storm and the book is about whether that empowers or destroys them."
Stoke has provided 'a lot of material'. "It's one of the classic ex-industrial places," she says, describing it as the home of many 'lost generations' who have 'almost been left behind'.
“They're struggling to survive, in many ways. But Stoke has come on a lot since I lived there, now when I go back it's really nice because there's so much happening culturally. It needs to do what Sheffield did many years ago and rise out of the ashes. It's trying but it's just suffered so much from the lack of investment."
Amy also drew on her own youth 'in lots of ways'.
"For years now I've had depression, social anxiety, an eating disorder – a whole smorgasbord of different things. I really struggled in my teenage years, particularly around about sixth form age. I found that really difficult, and people around me did as well."
She was never sectioned, she stresses, but there have been times when she 'couldn't get out of bed or do anything'. "You find social interaction really difficult. Since then, really, I've been in and out of treatment."
Amy is currently seeing the eating disorder service in Sheffield. "It was quite difficult throughout pregnancy because there's a lot of judgement – 'If you're pregnant, you should really just suck it up, your baby needs the right nutrition'. There's material for a book right there, probably."
She considered becoming a mental health nurse after university and took a job for a month as a support worker at a forensic unit in Sheffield.
"While I was there someone was taken hostage with a craft knife," she says.
"I had various minor things happen to me like being hit, spat at or whatever, and that's just par for the course now for a lot of public sector workers. It made me realise I'm fine, compared to people who are seriously never going to be out of an institution.
“It's quite incredible really, what some people have to go through. And it's sad the services they have to fall back on are so lacking. Although I struggle with my mental health and probably always will, I just think 'There but for the grace of God'."
She agrees mental health is on the agenda publicly in a much bigger way, but warns the taboo has not been broken entirely.
"I've never put it on a job application. I feel like people would think twice about employing me. After I had my second baby, in spring this year, I had a full-on technicolour breakdown. My main thought was 'My kids are going to get taken away'.
“As open as people are, there's still that real fear that people will take control away from you and deny you opportunities. We're in a much better place but there's still a long way to go."
Amy was drawn to the YA genre as the lives of teenagers are 'fertile ground'.
"I like writing for that audience because I think that time is so formative and traumatic. One of the reasons I fell in love with literature in the first place was Junk by Melvin Burgess. I think I read that when I was about 11, that's a titan in young adult fiction."
Halfway through The Raven Wheel, Ria is involved in a grisly act of violence recounted in jaw-dropping detail. Amy admits she wondered how far she should go, but decided not to hold back.
"I thought, she's quite an extreme character, she's been through so much and has been fantasising about this revenge for so long – just go for it. It's shocking and quite brutal but then fiction is events writ large. It's quite a satisfying read because it's the kind of thing that maybe would never happen in real life... but it could."
Amy, 32, lives in Heeley with her husband Oliver and their boys Joe, two, and seven-month-old Dylan. She is due to return to work as a graduate school manager at Sheffield University's faculty of medicine imminently following maternity leave.
"I can't see us moving from Sheffield," she says. "You are 10 minutes away from the countryside, being out in the Peaks is so good for your mental health. It's become a cliché now, but it just lifts the weight off you."
And her neighbours are unfailingly friendly. "If you don't get out and about when you've got two young kids you will go insane, but I live at the top of this massive hill. The number of times people have said 'I'll take that pram for you'... they're just lovely."
A theatre director and a film company have shown interest in The Raven Wheel, which would certainly be worthy of a Channel 4 adaptation - it shares the same spirit as the TV dramas of Shane Meadows.
Meanwhile, Amy has begun another book that will tackle the migrant crisis by imagining a worryingly plausible dystopia.
"It's the kind of society we could end up living in, in the not-too-distant future, if far-right populism carries on its rampant advance."
The Raven Wheel is published on September 28 by The Book Guild, priced £8.99 in paperback.