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Worthing author Jess Vallance on her new book series

PUBLISHED: 12:47 17 September 2018 | UPDATED: 12:47 17 September 2018

Jess Vallance

Jess Vallance

Archant

In the first of a new book series Worthing’s young adult author Jess Vallance is looking back to her formative years

Young adult author Jess Vallance may be in her 30s but in her latest novel she inhabits the world of her teenage protagonist with incisive insight.

To a certain extent, You Only Live Once is autobiographical and Gracie Dart, its central character, is asking herself the same questions Jess did as a teenager.

Gracie is 16 and a classically studious, career-focussed girl with a triple-checked colour-coded revision timetable for her approaching GCSEs. But after a family holiday in Spain, she believes she is dying of a terminal illness and finds herself asking: what is the point?

“I was very focused on my studies and very capable, revising for five hours every day for exams,” says Jess. “I thought good grades would give me greater choice but did the bare minimum by working out how I was going to be tested. I was playing the system but I never really learnt anything and it has all gone now. I wasn’t rebellious, although I was quite sarcastic, but nothing worse than that because I couldn’t be bothered to get into trouble. And I never stopped to think about what I actually wanted to do.”

That self-relevation happened when Jess, 33, went to university. “I decided to do a law degree as I didn’t have any particular calling and thought at least it would be a route to a nice secure job. The only problem was that the law degree was quite boring. I didn’t really enjoy it. I thought if I don’t stop this, I’m still going to be doing what I don’t want to at 50. Some of that is in this book.”

Asking big questions about exam pressures, the influence of social media and how to follow your dreams, You Only Live Once is also a seriously funny book – the scene where Gracie breaks the news to her parents that she is gay is laugh-out-loud comedy. “Gracie can be a bit of a drama queen, like many teenagers,” smiles Jess. “That’s what I wanted to write about, but it wasn’t so much that I wanted to write for teenagers, but about them. Everyone has been a teenager and all those pressures they are under suited this particular topic of how to plan for the future but live for the moment, something that is hard to do when you are at school.”

For the young adults who read You Only Live Once Gracie could become their new best friend, as her story continues in further instalments that will also tackle typical and topical teenage issues. The second book in the series, published next February, is To Be Perfectly Honest, which addresses honesty and lying, and the third, By Popular Demand, asks what makes someone popular.

You Only Live Once is Jess’s fourth novel. Her first, Birdy, which delves into teenage friendship and has been optioned for a film, was published in 2015, followed in 2016 by The Yellow Room. Last November, her third novel Trust Her came out, a thriller centering on trust.

Jess, who was born in Bournemouth, began writing during the 13 years she lived in Brighton, where she moved when she studied law at the University of Sussex. “I chose Brighton first, then the course,” says Jess. “I loved Brighton immediately, thinking that it was the place to go to get a girlfriend. The irony is that I met my girlfriend in the sixth form at school and I’m still with her, so I never got to do the Brighton gay scene.”

She wrote her first book because she “wanted to see if she could do it”, writing 500 words every day between 6am and 6.30am while working as a scriptwriter for an educational media company. “I thought even if no one ever reads it, at least I’ve done it,” recalls Jess. “I had struggled to finish any project.”

It took her another two years, including a year living in Paris, before she decided to write in earnest and produced Birdy in about two months. She found an agent and within six months had landed a publishing contract. Now living in Worthing with her girlfriend and their labradoodle, she combines being an author with writing educational material on a freelance basis.

Comfortable in Worthing with its “olde world seaside charm”, she is also more comfortable in herself as an adult. “I never really felt like a teenager,” she muses. “I think I was always a bit older inside. I always wanted to be in control and certainly didn’t want to be in lessons just because I was told to do so. It probably made my life harder, though, not doing what I was told.”

You Only Love Once, priced £7.99, is published by Hot Key Books.

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