Why Jo Riccioni moved from writing literary fiction to young adult fantasy

Author Jo Riccioni

Jo Riccioni’s novel The Branded is generating the kind of buzz that most authors envy. With raving fans on social media, this young adult fantasy is a story about twin sisters, Nara and Osha. The novel is a departure from Jo’s background as a literary novelist, writing for adults. But it was a story that she felt so compelled to tell, that she not only switched genres, she is writing for a completely new audience.

So what is this fresh story that has the book world buzzing? Jo explains: “The Branded is about twin sisters, Nara and Osha, who are living in a remote, almost cult-like citadel called Isfalk a century after a virus has ravaged the Continent. The virus, known as the Brume, decimated the population, leaving the majority of survivors with skin brands and a lack of immunity to other diseases.”

However, a small minority of women – like Osha and Nara – have pure skin and are able to give birth to bigger, stronger, immune children. This creates a population of warriors. It also makes these women in high demand and in danger of being kidnapped and traded as breeding stock.

While they live in a fortress, they also want a life beyond its walls. And when they meet The Wrangler, he offers Nara and Osha a way out. The question is: what is it going to cost them?

Jo says: “The most rewarding thing about writing in the fantasy genre, regardless of whether that's for young adults or adults, is that the fans are full-on enthusiasts. They have no qualms contacting you to tell you how much they loved the book and to please, please, please hurry up and write the sequel. There isn't that self-conscious reservation and circumspection you get in the literary world. I've appeared at high-brow literary festivals as well as spec fic and fantasy conventions now, and I can tell you I know which ones are more fun.”

Her foray into literary fiction was not without its rewards. Her novel The Italians at Cleat’s Corner Store, won the fiction category of the International Rubery Award and was also long-listed for the New Angle Prize in the UK.

Why Jo decided to switch

“After The Italians, I won several residencies to work on another literary novel, but I found the process excruciating,” says Jo. “I think I was trying too hard to write what I thought others expected, what I thought would be ‘highly regarded', instead of what I enjoyed reading and was interested in. It was making me quite unhappy and the novel felt dry and turgid.

“Eventually, it was my writers' group who gave me permission to just go away and write something I would enjoy reading. My daughter was a teenager at the time and I often spent my evenings extending my long-time love of spec fic by escaping into her new release YA fantasy novels. I wanted to combine the medieval worlds I'd immersed myself in when I did my MA in Medieval Literature years ago, with a long-held desire to see women placed at the centre of these fantasy worlds. I wanted to read the female King Arthur and Robin Hood, the girl version of Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas!”

The popularity of young adult fiction

However, it’s not just teens who are reading The Branded. Adults are also embracing this sweeping tale. “I think it might be because they're attracted to that common theme of potential and finding one's place in the world,” says Jo. “I think many adults are still trying to find their own place in an ever-changing world, to find their own unique gift or to understand who they truly are, and YA tropes speak to this.

“I also think that the spec fic and fantasy genres are popular right now in books, films and series because those genres offer a certain amount of escape from the pressures of the world, while still addressing many real-life issues that plague us – segregation, prejudice, overthrowing tyrannies, discovering and learning to wield inherent powers, which can be translated as the individual's own contribution to the world.”

A passion for connecting with teenagers

It should come as no surprise that Jo has moved into writing for young adults. As a former school teacher, she’s always been passionate about nurturing young minds. “To be honest, I don't think ‘YA' when I write. I'm just drawn to YA characters because I was a high school teacher and I love teenagers and young adults on the cusp of finding out who they are and their place in the world. I like stories about potential and growing power, rather than regrets and retrospection.”

Jo Riccioni (left) at the launch of her novel The Branded, with Australian Writers' Centre presenter Michelle Barraclough.

About Jo
Jo Riccioni studied English at Leeds University in the UK and graduated with a Masters in Medieval Literature. During this time she fell in love with Icelandic saga, and wrote papers on the Arthurian and Robin Hood legends, all of which have influenced her fantasy writing. Her latest novel is The Branded. Jo's previous novel was The Italians at Cleat's Corner Store, which won the fiction category of the International Rubery Award and was long-listed for the New Angle Prize in the UK. Jo lives in Sydney's Northern Beaches with her partner, and three children (one of whom is unaware they are a Border Collie).

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