At the moment I’m currently watching Inventing Anna on Netflix. This drama series is inspired by the New York investigative article by Jessica Pressler, (read here), which explores the story of Anna Delvey (Sorokin), a young woman who fooled Manhatten’s elite into believing she was a German heiress socialite, and managed to scam hotels, banks and various people along the way. I remember when the story broke a couple of years ago I was desperate to read the book My Friend Anna, (written by one of Anna’s ‘friends’ who found herself caught up in one particular hotel scam), to find out more about this brazen con-woman.
Reading about, and now watching, Anna’s exploits reminds me how compelling real-life stories can be. And how it can be difficult to determine what is fact and fiction when others try to re-tell, or present, a story. At the start of every episode of Inventing Anna is a quote along the lines of, “This whole story is completely true, except for all the parts that are totally made up.” If this series had been presented as a documentary I can’t help thinking that quote could still apply, as we would always be viewing Anna’s story through the lens of someone else’s perceptions and edits. And if Anna releases her own story how will anyone be able to trust what is actual truth, considering the fake persona she presented to the world, and the multiple lies she spun?
The three Young Adult books I have written are all inspired by real-life stories in the news. Headlines often catch my eye, but then my imagination takes over and I then create a story of pure fiction. The above image contains real headlines that I remembered reading. The numerous reports of the unexplained Bridgend suicides stayed with me for years .There were twenty-six known suicides in the town between 2007-2008, and most of those who lost their life were young adults. I remembered opening newspapers at the time, wondering what on earth was going on in that town.
In my book Follow Me my 17-year-old protagonist, Kat, begins a desperate search for answers and explanations, after her twin, Abby, is the sixth in their small Scottish town to die by apparent suicide.
A big theme of my new YA book, Promise Me, is the way in which press coverage and social media has the power to portray a certain narrative during high profile, emotional murder cases. One of the inspirations of the story was my memory of the sensationalist press coverage of convicted Scottish teen Luke Mitchell from many years ago. From 2003-2005 there was lots of press coverage around his case. Demonising language and character assassination was often used in reporters’ narratives (see above headline: ‘Devils Spawn’).
The headline ‘Boyfriend, 15, charged (with murder of schoolgirl Jodi Jones)’, was published in the Edinburgh Evening News, (2004) before said boyfriend (Luke) even went to trial. Everyone in their small-knit town knew he was ‘the boyfriend’.
The paper took things a stop further and named him. The Press and Journal, Aberdeen, also ran a similar story. They faced contempt charges but were cleared of breaching the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act, that states “no newspaper report of any proceeding in court should identify anyone under the age of 16.” (In Scotland this is now 18). They were cleared of charges because judges ruled that the story was not a report of court proceedings. This is just one troubling example of how a fifteen-year-old boy, (and throughout his trial when he was sixteen), dominated headlines. Numerous false ‘facts’ were published about the case, and tabloids delighted in running sensationalist reports about Mitchell’s apparent obsession with knives, drug-taking, lack of discipline in a single parent household, even linking his music tastes to the murder.
I have read a lot about the case and it made me realise how easy it could be for a small community to spread rumours relying heavily on hearsay and perceptions of a local outcast boy’s ‘reputation’, and how this could influence local prosecution investigations, and a jury. Conversations I’ve had with legal people where I questioned how anyone could truly be impartial in such a high profile case said a judge would have ensured jurors had no local connections to the case. The trial took place in Edinburgh, less than half an hour away from where the murder took place. I was reading newspaper stories an hour away from where it all unfolded and still felt emotional reactions to the reports, even if I didn’t personally know anyone.
When I first started to write Promise Me, a friend told me to watch documentaries about The West Memphis Three, teenage boys convicted of murdering young local boys in Texas. They were later freed after the initial documentary Paradise Lost caught the attention of high profile musicians and celebrities who joined the fight to prove their innocence. (Interestingly the documentary makers through trying to disprove what they perceived as a false narrative about the accused, then nearly created their own false ‘villain’, due to the way they presented another local in interviews throughout Paradise Lost!)
In court proceedings much had been made of the West Memphis ‘ringleader’, Echols’ interest in heavy metal music, preference for black clothing and interest in Wicca and the occult, and his unstable home life. Like the Mitchell case, no concrete evidence linked the boys to the murders.
My book Promise Me is a work of fiction, set in an affluent fictionalised Scottish village, and not about the Mitchell or Memphis case, but I hope it makes people think about how damaging media and indeed, court narratives can be, and the damaging perceptions that communities can sometimes have of young people who don’t quite ‘fit’.
I’ll leave you with a short overview and extract from Promise Me: (available to buy here)
Sixteen-year-old Christian Henderson is convicted of murdering pretty local girl, Louisa, at a Halloween party, with online forums spinning stories of what happened that night. When teenager Darcy moves to their wealthy local village she befriends the inner social circle at school and strikes up a friendship with Christian through letters, determined to uncover unanswered questions around the conviction.
But when threats begin, Darcy realises someone might be prepared to do anything to hide the truth.