MA Bennett's S.T.A.G.S. series is currently in production and there are now four books in the series, including the latest, T.I.G.E.R.S.
MA Bennett is half Venetian and was born in Manchester, England, and raised in the Yorkshire Dales. She studied history at the Oxford University and the University of Venice, where she specialised in the study of Shakespeare's plays as a historical source, before going on to study art. She has since worked as an illustrator, an actress, and a film reviewer. She also designed tour visuals for rock bands, including U2 and the Rolling Stones. She lives in north London with her husband, son and daughter.
Follow her at @MABennettAuthor on Twitter and at m.a.bennettauthor on Instagram.
STAGS 4: T.I.G.E.R.S (Hot Key Books)
MA BENNETT's bestselling STAGS series (STAGS, DOGS, FOXES and now TIGERS) - which is being developed for film - follows scholarship girl Greer to an exclusive boarding school where she discovers the Medievals, the dangerous and seductive clique who really run STAGS.
Against a backdrop of weekend retreats, bloodsports and Renaissance theatre, the STAGS books ooze atmosphere and menace. While DOGS draws on the discovery of a forbidden Elizabethan play, FOXES has sinister echoes of a Jacobean plot woven into its modern-day setting. In TIGERS, we move to colonial India and the terrible tiger hunts of the past.
MA Bennett answers questions about the series, the upcoming film and her new book, TIGERS, from teenage reader Azra in this video and Q&A:
Q&A with MA Bennett
1. What inspired you to start writing the STAGS series?
STAGS is a series set in and around ST Aidan the Great School, an ancient and exclusive boarding school. A good-looking and wealthy clique called The Medievals rule the school, and despise anything modern or technological, dubbing it 'Savage'. But it soon transpires that their favourite weekend blood sports - Huntin' Shootin' and Fishin' - have a macabre twist.
STAGS was inspired by my grandmother, who was a housemaid and then housekeeper at a stately home in North Yorkshire. She used to work on shooting weekends, and would tell me all about the upper classes and their blood sports. I then began to wonder what those weekends would be like if a group of wealthy teenagers were there on their own, without adults, and how quickly things would get out of hand.
2. The books explore - and expose - the gulf that exists between Britain's classes and offers a critique of the class system. Why did you want to explore this area?
The British class system is very much alive and kicking. Only seven percent of pupils go to fee-paying schools but a vast percentage of those in top jobs have been privately educated. We're in a situation where a number of cabinet members went to not just the same school but the same Oxford college.
I wanted to look at the inequalities of that situation and whether it's possible for outsiders to infiltrate the system. My major characters are all outsiders - Greer is working class, Shafeen is Indian, and Nel has the 'wrong' kind of money.
3. You also show how alluring the lives of the very rich and landed gentry can be. Where did you go to research it and what would be the main attraction for you in a life at Longcross?
Yes, that's the problem. The lifestyle is very attractive and so are many of the upper classes themselves. Charm is their great weapon.
I grew up in my grandmother's cottage in the grounds of the stately home where she worked, so I saw the landed gentry at close quarters. My childhood was my research - I used to be in and out of the house all the time, and as I grew up became friends with the heirs to the estate.
I think the main attraction of their life was the property itself - as a fan of history I'd be seduced by the idea of being the mistress of an English stately home. Think Elizabeth Bennett at Pemberley!
4. If there is one place in the UK we could visit to get a feel of life at Longcross, where should we go?
Probably stay at a country house hotel - somewhere like Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, which is owned by Baron Sir Edward Humphrey Wakefield. It's bristling with stags' heads!
5. Do you have your own experiences of Britain's class system that have helped inform the novels?
Apart from growing up in the grounds of a stately home, my other formative experience was going to Oxford. I was a scholarship girl from Manchester and I was suddenly surrounded by people who had red jeans, country houses and skiing holidays. They all seemed to know each other - I knew no one.
6. How does your main protagonist, Greer, develop through the series, and her romantic interests in the novel, Shafeen and Henry?
I think Greer gets more and more confused. At the beginning of STAGS, even though she is an outsider, she has quite a strong sense of self. She thinks she's got it all figured out. But as time goes on she feels simultaneously attracted and repelled by the lifestyle of the STAGS, just as she is simultaneously attracted and repelled by Henry. As her feelings strengthen towards Shafeen, far from weakening towards Henry, they strengthen towards him, too.
7. Are you Team Henry or Team Shafeen?
Oo that's a tough one! I love them both. Shafeen is such a fine upstanding young man, who always does the right thing, and Henry is a villain looking for redemption. I think Henry's my Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones - at the beginning of the series Jamie's a murderous incestuous baddie, and by the end you're rooting for him to sit on the Iron Throne. Henry has a bit more of a journey to go on than Shafeen, but if I was Greer, I don't know which one I'd choose!
8. Can you tell us a little about TIGERS, the newest STAGS book?
TIGERS! Raaaarrrggghhh! This book is set in India, at Shafeen's ancestral home. But there's a twist - there is also a bit of time travel in that there is a flashback to Longcross...
9. Have you been to India to research the setting?
I've been on flying visit before, but I was supposed to go on a big research trip in 2020 just for TIGERS. I had it all lined up - Jaipur, Ranthambore and a safari to see tigers in the wild. Then COVID hit! I moved the trip four times, but unfortunately the situation in India was so bad I was unable to travel. The release date for the book was set as September 2021 and couldn't be moved, so I had to do my research remotely. I'm still hoping to go sometime soon!
10. Did you need to do a lot of research before writing TIGERS?
Yes I did a lot of research, especially as I was prevented by COVID from going to some of the specific places I wanted to. The Indian sections bookend the novel, but the middle section is on the more familiar ground of Longcross Hall. In that section, it was really the time period - the 1960s - that I had to research, rather than the location.
11. How difficult was it to write about the racism you explore in TIGERS especially but also across the series?
Very difficult, as I've never experienced it myself. The only discrimination I've ever faced was class based (as a comprehensive kid at some very posh universities) so of course I can't know what it is like to face discrimination in terms of race.
There was a lot of research involved, in an attempt to make Aadhish's experiences as real as possible. But even if I get it wrong, I think it is an important issue to discuss, for white writers as well as writers of colour.
12. Which parts of the books do you most enjoy writing - the creepy / horror elements, or exploring the characters?
Always the characters for me. The thriller/horror elements are fun to write, but I like to see where the characters take me, particularly in their relationships with each other.
13. Greer is very interested in film - do you love film, too?
I'm a total film nerd so I thought it would be kind of cool if Greer saw life in terms of movies. Some readers have tried to make a definitive list of all the movies referenced in STAGS, and there are more than even I realised!
My favourite YA films are cult movies Heathers and Clueless and modern-day classic Booksmart.
14. Can you give us a glimpse into what to expect for Book 5?
Book 5, entitled HAWKS, is set in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Most of the action takes place in a castle on the Isle of Skye.
15. ...And can you tell us where you are with the production for the film / TV series of STAGS?
I'm sworn to secrecy but exciting things are happening! Expect a big announcement in the next few weeks…
16. What do you most enjoy doing when you're not writing?
This one's easy - going to the movies. I'm very much like Greer in that respect, a total film nut!