Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Before I Die

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Before I Die

by Jenny Downham

Before I Die by Jenny Downham
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2009, 336 pages

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First time author Jenny Downham caused quite a stir with Before I Die, a novel targeted at teens with crossover appeal for adults in general. Publisher David Fickling (part of Random House), who also publish The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, are so enthusiastic about the book that they rushed the 2007 hardcover into press in a fraction of the time normally taken, and foreign rights have been sold in at least 11 languages .

According to a June 2007 article in the London Times, written a month before Before I Die published in the UK, nobody is more surprised by the buzz surrounding the book than Downham herself, a single mother living on benefits in a down-at-heel part of Hackney, east London. The Times describes her as "a small, slim 43-year-old, dressed inconspicuously in jeans and a blue anorak, she would attract few second glances when walking her sons, aged 12 and 7, to school. Her brown hair pulled back in a scruffy, utilitarian bunch, a lick of mascara her only visible make-up, she does not play the literary star."

Downham started writing to use up some of the "playful energy" she'd been used to expending as an actor. She says, "I didn't think I was starting a novel. I just knew that it was helping me." She also didn't set out to write a book about a teenager dying of cancer. In a short interview with Entertainment Weekly she says, "I started with the voice. I didn't know Tessa was dying, she just seemed to be very sad and angry, and I wasn't sure why. After six months it became apparent. Also, when the London bombings happened [in July 2005], it struck me that so many people I knew were affected. Life becomes very concentrated and it really impacted the writing. I realized that when you put the clock ticking, in many ways you highlight the narrative drive." Full bio at BookBrowse.

This article was originally published in September 2007, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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