Like many not-so-young adults, I enjoy reading the occasional ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novel. Culture Trip‘s Parish Turner describes the category as one which not only reflects the world around us, but which offers a sense of hopeful escapism – something many of us crave this year!
Despite its reputation as a ‘less serious’ category of fiction, YA frequently deals with difficult issues, ranging from general coming-of-age stories, to social problem novels. And it is precisely because YA often blends relatable settings with engaging fantasy that it is so powerful. Meeting so many of its readers at a critical juncture in their lives, YA has the potential to introduce young people to formative ideas about identity, self-value, relationships, and justice, or to reinforce old stereotypes about feminine beauty and meekness, and masculine wealth and power being the only important values.
That’s why I was fascinated to speak to YA author Ally Aldridge. It’s not every day we get to speak directly to an author and find out what went on behind the book! But today, I’m thrilled to be part of the book tour for Ally’s brand-new Ocean Heart. I hope you’ll enjoy this deep-dive as much as I did!
1. When I first saw the cover of Ocean Heart, I immediately thought that the main character looks a lot like you!
You mention in the acknowledgements that Mariah is not you, even though there’s a lot of you in her. Are you, or have you ever been a swimmer? What inspired you to write about mermaids?
Ally: I learnt to swim from a young age and was called a water baby. I never swam professionally, but being a confident swimmer is important when you live by the sea.
Growing up, I had a lot of swimming birthday parties. One swim party included a trip to the cinema to watch The Little Mermaid. My red hair had always made me feel like an oddball, but seeing Ariel looking beautiful, made me proud of my hair.
I don’t think I was alone feeling like a misfit. I think a lot of teens feel awkward. Some of that is due to all the changes that happen during adolescence and trying to fit in. I felt teens could relate to being a shifter. Imagine discovering you’re not even in the right skin, and you’re meant to have scales, a tail, fins and gills.
2. Mariah undergoes several transformative experiences over the course of the novel – some supernatural, some much more natural.
One of my favourite aspects of Ocean Heart was how Mariah undergoes physical changes associated with not only her merallo heritage but with puberty, and how she discovers family secrets that are both magical and more mundane. YA as a genre seems ideal to explore these kinds of transformations. What made you fall in love with this genre? What are some of your favourite YA books?
Ally: I love reading YA as it’s more fast paced. Many of the experiences are the characters’ firsts which makes them feel more intense.
Sorceress of Truth by J D Groom
If – like me – you love fantasy set in the real world, this is a great read. It’s an older YA than Ocean Heart, and the series will become NA. For starters this series has magic, faeries and vampires.
(Note from Sarah: You can read my review of Sorceress of Truth on Goodreads!)
And The Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando
This YA book tackles some hard topics. It follows a brother & a school friend, of someone who has committed suicide. It was heartbreaking and at one point I was so angry I was physically shaking.
Stray by Rachel Vincent
I love this werecat shifter series so much. It partly inspired Ocean Heart, but is for an older audience as it has darker themes and no magic. It’s a contemporary fantasy set at an American ranch.
I could list so many more. This year I’ve loved fantasy books; Deepest Blue, Sea Witch and A Court of Thorns & Roses. I definitely like my books with magic, romance or YA.
3. Ocean Heart is a romance, but it’s also a tale of friendship.
When her best friend Jace moves away, Mariah observes that they soon run out of things to say. What role do you think geographic proximity and shared experiences have in our friendships? (And how can we keep friendships alive during a global pandemic, when many of us must be physically distant?)
Ally: I think Mariah was very fortunate to have her best friend live next door – it’s something I remember wishing for when I was younger.
Whenever I meet up with friends, no matter how long it’s been, I always feel energised afterwards. There’s a special kind of real world magic found between friends. Funnily enough the only spell Mariah ever gets to work is the one cast with her new bestie Ana.
Thanks to today’s technology it’s possible to chat face-to-face with someone on the other side of the world. But, social media is just a substitute for real interactions. Online it can be challenging to know when a loved one needs support. People often say “I’m fine” as they don’t want to trouble others. It’s important to check in on friends, family, even colleagues. Hearing a friendly voice might be the pick me up they need to get through a hard day, even if they don’t disclose that they’re feeling blue.
I think shared experiences give us something to bond over. My childhood friends hold a special place in my heart as they were my first friends. My “mummy friends” were a crucial lifeline as a new parent. And my writer friends enable me to feel normal about my crazy imagination.
4. Mariah and Jace struggle to maintain their friendship when they develop romantic feelings – for each other, and for others.
In part, this difficulty is made worse by the ‘pretty girls’ who hang out at football, who call Mariah a ‘backstabbing bitch’ and a ‘slut’ for ‘pretending’ ‘to be Jace’s friend when really you’re worming your way into his pants’. Are friendship and romance mutually exclusive?
Ally: I think it is possible for girls & boys to have platonic friendships. It’s just more challenging in your teens when you’re still trying to figure out what you want. It’s more common though for one friend to crush and the other not to be interested. This can be very difficult for both parties. In addition, I think exs can become friends. And, friends can become lovers – I married mine.
Relationships are as unique as individuals. Something that works for some, won’t work for others.
5. Bullying is a theme in Ocean Heart – both in the physical world, and online.
Although Mariah is confronted by the girls who shame her for her relationships, she also thinks of another girl as ‘cheap’ for flirting. Were you inspired by any real-life examples of bullying, and how can we change our focus to see other females as fellow people rather than rivals? (That is, in short, how can we be more like Ana?)
Ally: Ana is a fabulous character. I loved writing her. She’s sadly hiding a darker side, saying “I’m fine” but really isn’t. I’m hoping to explore that later in a novella.
Bullying sadly is a problem that has been around forever and is still around today. A lot of it is rooted in a lack of understanding or acceptance of others. Book 2, follows Kiely so you will get to see Mariah through her and her friends eyes… less favourably.
I was bullied when I was little, just name calling, and when I got home it stopped. Cyber bullying can be 247 torment using social media. Bullying can be recorded, shared and the victim relive their humiliation over and over. Victims cannot escape their bullies. Bullies can be anonymous tormentors.
In addition, people get addicted and obsessed with likes. This can drive them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, desperate to entertain and gain follows. This is something Kiely will struggle with in book 2, trying to stay popular.
6. Over the course of the novel, Mariah meets some students who are considerably more wealthy (or rather, their parents are!) than her and the rest of her classmates.
One is seemingly dismissive of her parents’ wealth, the other, is ‘smug’. What are your thoughts on the theme of wealth in romance? And how does it relate to (supernatural) powers?
Ally: Wealth can enable kids to have better opportunities. It can be as simple as whether they are well rested and sufficiently fed to concentrate at school. Their parents can invest in their passions, they can have nice things which can boost their confidence.
But, sometimes that privilege comes at a cost. For example, Ana rarely sees her dad. He uses material things to show his love and cover up his absence. Her step-mum is more present in her life.
I think tropes like Billionaire Romance novels are a fantasy. Everyone dreams of more and a life where you don’t worry about money or want for anything. Money can create power, and an imbalance of power in relationships can be abused.
I don’t think money and supernatural powers have any relation. Anyone could be attacked by a shifter. It’s fun to see a character come from very little and rise like a phoenix to become so much more.
7. Like many teens, Mariah is concerned about her looks, and experiments with makeup throughout the course of the novel.
Ally: I wasted a lot of time wishing I looked different. I wanted to fit in. My greatest beauty tip would be to learn to love your own uniqueness.
I got into modelling by accident but it turned out to be a great experience for my personal growth. I was fortunate to work with amazing photographers that built me up, and taught me to believe in myself.
As for makeup, I freaked out upon discovering my baby boy eating my lipstick. I worried it’d poison him. As I looked deeper into the products I learnt how many big names were still testing on animals, and how nasty some of the ingredients were. Now, I try to buy cruelty free organic makeup whenever possible. I also love when brands consider the environment and support charities.
8. You mention in the acknowledgements that Ocean Heart was many years in the making.
What have been the highlights of your writing journey?
Ally: It’s taken me over a decade to get my book where it is. The highlights have definitely been since deciding to go indie. Seeing my cover for the first time, seeing the interior formatting, my first review, and getting to hold my real physical book – It’s a lot of work but I’m loving every minute.
Other highlights have been connecting with readers on Wattpad at the start, whenever I got a request from a Literary Agent and thought, “This is it”, and connecting with writers.
9. When Ocean Heart ended, I really wanted to read more!
What can fans look forward to next?
Ally: Oh wow, where should I start. There’s a whole world in my head that needs to be organised into books for your consumption.
One thing to note is this series doesn’t stick to one character. Book 2 is following Keily, and she is 100% human until… well, this book explores the werewolves and reapers more. Book 3, will be following a werecat. Book 4 will tie them all together but is the least developed.
I also have plans for some novellas. They’ll be set in the same world. I’m currently plotting a prequel, which will be a Historical Fantasy set in the early 90s, following teen Denny (Jace’s mum).
Thank you so much Ally!