Grappling with the difficult realities of teenhood: Q&A with Robyn Dennison

DennisonRobyn_Credit Garvie T J_2022
By Saskia De Leeuw Kyle,
1 February 2024

CW: Sexual assault, eating disorders

Robyn Dennison’s debut YA novel Blind Spot is an engaging and unflinching depiction of teenage life. I chatted with Robyn about tumultuous friendships, her writing process, and the importance of depicting the difficult realities of being a teenager today.

SASKIA DE LEEUW KYLE: Your debut novel Blind Spot grapples with some hard-hitting themes like sexual assault and eating disorders. Why do you think it’s important for YA books to explore these trickier topics?

ROBYN DENNISON: Lots of people point out that fiction can be a safe place to encounter difficult or confronting ideas, experiences and behaviour, and I certainly think that’s true. This stuff happens in life, and fiction reflects that, regardless of genre or audience. I think it’s important not to shy away from ugly or difficult realities just because a book’s audience is mostly teenagers.

The novels I was most drawn to as a young person were often quite dark or confronting, and I found great value in being exposed to those kinds of things through the medium of fiction, where you can disengage at any time, and where of course it’s not necessarily real. Fiction can explore difficult subject matter with great nuance and sophistication, letting readers of any age explore things in ways that are not necessarily black and white or overly simplified. 

“I think it’s important not to shy away from ugly or difficult realities just because a book’s audience is mostly teenagers.”

Dale struggles to find somebody he can confide in. Why is it so important to have a trusted person you can talk to and what do you think makes a good listener?

Secrets fester in the dark. When we’re ashamed of something, often our instinct is to hide it, or to try and deal with it alone. In my experience, you feel better and can see the situation more clearly when you unburden yourself to a friend or loved one. 

As for listening, many people in my life would argue that I have no business giving advice about being a good listener! But it’s important to be open and non-judgemental, to offer someone a safe space to share difficult or shameful things, and to respond with compassion.

Dale and Kieran have a tumultuous friendship. Do you have any advice for young people who may be experiencing similar friendship dilemmas?

Friendships are so important, and in my experience are especially intense when you’re young. It’s easy to forget that all our friends and loved ones, all the strangers we meet, and even the people we don’t get along with, have inner lives as rich and nuanced as our own. I think remembering to hold someone’s unknown complexities in our mind is key to all healthy relationships.

An image of two teenage boys standing on either side of a tennis net.

Photography via Pavel Pjatakov on Unsplash

Your characters are so powerful and have such unique and independent voices. What’s your process in creating characters?

Thank you! That’s so tricky to answer. I think most of my characters arrive in a fairly specific form around the same time as the initial idea or situation for the narrative. In the early stages of writing, I let them do their own thing and see what unfolds, but once I’m further along in the drafting process I often work through some character psychology, making notes about their motivations or their past experiences or family history. The old adage, what does your character want? tends to make an appearance. 

I think it’s important to know your characters much deeper than they appear on the page, so I have fun writing out scenarios that I know will never be in the final draft, just to get to know them a little better. In Blind Spot, Chloe was a character I did a lot of this with, because she doesn’t appear very much but she’s central to the narrative, and it was important to me to respect that and to grant her as much complexity as I could. But I do often find that characters arrive in my brain quite well-realised — if only the same was true for plot!

“I think it’s important to know your characters much deeper than they appear on the page”

You’ve had so many wonderful achievements as a writer. Which part of your career so far has been the most enjoyable for you?

That’s very nice of you to say. Being shortlisted for the Text prize was thrilling! It’s such a fantastic award and I’ve loved so many of the past winning novels. But I would say this current period, in the lead up to Blind Spot’s publication, is both the most exciting and the most terrifying experience of my writing life to date. 

Are there any authors that inspired you in writing Blind Spot?

I initially started Blind Spot after reading a wonderful YA novel called Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King, which raised a few questions about accountability and courage that I found interesting, although I wouldn’t say it was direct inspiration. I began the novel as the creative component of a minor thesis, the critical component of which analysed Kirsty Eagar’s brilliant YA novel, Raw Blue. Again, it was more research and investigation than direct inspiration, but they are both fantastic books.

Do you have some favourite YA books that you can recommend for Rosie readers?

I’m drawn to complex and challenging novels that don’t sanitise or censor the uglier sides of life, and of ourselves, and which aren’t always necessarily uplifting. This just reflects my personal tastes.

As well as the two I already mentioned, Claire Zorn’s The Protected, Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted, Leanne Hall’s The Gaps, Holden Sheppard’s Invisible Boys and Helena Fox’s How It Feels to Float are some of my favourite YA novels. I’m also a huge Margo Lanagan fan; both Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels are exquisite and ambitious books — I can’t choose between them! And I’ve never met a Joanne Horniman novel I didn’t adore. 

You can find Robyn Dennison’s debut novel Blind Spot in bookstores across the country.

Saskia De Leeuw Kyle
About the author
Saskia De Leeuw Kyle

Saskia (she/her) is a writer and aspiring journalist based in Melbourne. She loves to write and read fiction (especially YA romcoms and fantasy). You can find her work through the Wheeler Centre’s ‘Fantasy Fiction’ evening for emerging writers or as the winner of the 13-15 2023 One Teen Story competition. Saskia loves film, literature, languages, and travel and she aspires to be a teen author. When she’s not writing, you can find her listening to Taylor Swift or Lana Del Ray or binge watching romcoms.

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