A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Mo O’Hara: To celebrate the publication of Holly Smale’s latest book, Geek Girl – Model Misfit, I’m asking Holly a few questions about what it was like writing her second book, what influences her writing and what’s up next for her and Geek Girl…
Book Birthday Interview- Holly Smale , author of “Geek Girl- Model Misfit”
“My name is Harriet Manners, and I am still a geek.”
Harriet Manners knows a lot of facts.
She knows that humans have 70,000 thoughts per day.
She knows that Geek + Model = a whole new set of graffiti on your belongings.
And that the average person eats a ton of food a year, though her pregnant stepmother is doing her best to beat this.
But Harriet doesn’t know where she’s going to fit in once the new baby arrives. And with her summer plans ruined, modelling in Japan seems the perfect chance to get away.
Can Harriet cope with the craziness of Tokyo, her competitive model flatmates and her errant grandmother’s ‘chaperoning’. Or seeing gorgeous Nick everywhere she goes?
Will geek girl find her place on the other side of the world?
Hi Holly. Happy Book Birthday !
Thanks! I’m about to have cake for breakfast. Let’s pretend it’s because it’s a special day, and not because I have cake for breakfast frequently.
Congrats on the publication of ‘Geek Girl- Model Misfit.’ It’s a fantastic premise. Can you tell me a bit about how you got the idea of turning Harriet into a model?
I was spotted by a modelling agency when I was geeky fifteen year old, on a school trip, so sadly I can’t take any genius-like credit for plucking the idea out of thin air. In fact, it’s a little bit embarrassing – considering I’ve always written – that it took me ten whole years to realise there could be a book in it (that is why I never became a journalist: my news coverage would have been the slowest in the history of the written word).
I think what threw me is that I’ve never wanted to write a glam, girly, “fashion-y” book, so it was only when I realised it was really about Harriet’s geekiness – her anti-fashiony, if you like – that I got excited. There was room for comedy and warmth, and that was exactly what I wanted to write. It just felt ‘right’: the story I was supposed to tell.
Harriet’s a great character with a distinctive voice. How did her voice come about when you were first creating the character in Geek Girl?
She kind of just arrived. I sat down to write a book in third person about “models”, and out popped this girl: this sweet, strange, awkward little girl with red-hair and freckles and a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour. I guess there’s truth in the fact that she’s similar to me as a teenager, but I see her very much as a separate entity: she sounds different, looks different, moves in her own way, has her own little jokes and quirks of speech. She’s more like a little sister than a mini-me.
Honestly, I’ve had to work hard at lots of elements of story-telling, but I hear Harriet so clearly it can be hard to turn her off, at times. I take her with me everywhere. She’s like my little geeky ghost.
Geek Girl was so well received when it came out. Did you suffer from the dreaded ‘Second Book Syndrome’ when you were writing this book? The feeling of ‘Oh no, what if I can’t do it again?!’
Very much so: I was a total and utter mess. I think for comedy perhaps more than for any other genre you need that ability to switch off the inner-critic. You need to be able to relax and trust your instincts: that a weird little joke is funny, that a quirky scene will make people laugh. When I wrote the first book, I was winging it. I wasn’t basing it on any other book I’d read: I was just writing the book I wanted to read. If I laughed, a line went in: no matter how random it was. That was literally the only criteria.
With the second book, suddenly I had a real, living, breathing audience, and I got stage fright. Every line, every joke, ever scene, I’d question, second-guess, doubt. I tied myself up into anxious little knots, worrying whether I was doing it “right” or whether it was “good enough” or “funny enough”, and before I knew it I couldn’t write a line. Not even an email.
Luckily I have a wonderful team behind me and they were incredibly patient: they gave me the time I needed to get my confidence back and relax. Once I was having fun again, my voice came back and I could write again.
First lines of books are notoriously tricky, yet you have aced another one. So what do you find tricky about writing and what comes more easily?
For me, narrative voice comes pretty naturally, and – probably as part of that – dialogue. I guess I have quite a strong “ear” and can “hear” characters easily (my head is always crammed full of voices and conversations, but let’s pretend there’s a less nutty reason why).
What am I bad at? I struggle with plots. I have to work insanely hard at them, and always need two quite different drafts before I get there. I’ve also really had to work at pacing, so that’s been a steep learning curve: I have a natural Harriet-like tendency to get distracted by details, which can work – in small doses – but needs to be consciously reigned in on a regular basis.
I’m shamefully also very, VERY bad at keeping to deadlines. Although I always JUST make it. By the skin of my writing fingers.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received about writing?
“Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.” Oscar Wilde was right, and it applies to writing just as it applies to everything else. Too many people try to write like other people, copy the styles of others, and what’s the use in that? We already have one of them. We don’t need another.
What would you tell yourself as a pre-published writer if you could go back in time?
They’re all wrong, and feel free to keep ignoring the statistics.
Oh, and teaching yourself to touch-type as a bored 17 year old temp was probably the most productive thing you ever did.
Where do you write your books?
I’ve written random chapters everywhere: on beaches, in rice-fields, on trains, in bars and cafes and restaurants. But the sad and unglamorous truth is: I write best in my bedroom, wrapped in a fluffy blanket, sitting at my computer in a tracksuit. I need the fewest possible interesting distractions and as many home-comforts as I can get, so a dark room, music, coffee, long hours and a nearby toilet result in my best productivity. I don’t even have a proper view to look at, but after fifteen hours of staring at a screen I probably wouldn’t notice if I did.
What writers do you admire most?
Roald Dahl, Margaret Atwood, AA Milne, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, LM Montgomery, Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Oliver Jeffers, John Milton… I could go on. I am constantly stunned by what can be achieved with a huge imagination and just 26 letters.
What book is on your nightstand right now?
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it as a young teenager and remember being a little underwhelmed, considering its reputation as a “modern classic”. I decided to try again as an adult, and it’s like reading a different book: this time I’m blown away by it. It’s the strangest experience, knowing that the words haven’t changed but I have: that I’ve grown around it. I can’t think of a more powerful or moving and fluid piece of writing, to be frank, and Margaret Atwood has just jumped to the top of my list of favourite all time authors. I was clearly even more of a fool at thirteen than I thought I was.
What are you working on now?
I’m actually in New York, researching GG3. As soon as I get home I need to start the actual writing, which is always the scariest bit: that first leap between the brain and the page. That’ll take me up to Spring, probably, and then… Well. I have a few ideas bubbling away. I’ll have to see if anything comes of them.
And lastly, what would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?
I swear a lot. And I have surprisingly and kind of creepily tiny feet and hands for my height.
Thank you Holly for sharing your thoughts. Happy Book Birthday!
Holly is the author of the bestselling GEEK GIRL series, which was never her intention: she was supposed to write something very serious and profound for adults, and something went a bit wrong.
She has spent the majority of her life “gadding about with no shoes on while everybody else gets on with a real job” and very much hopes to keep it that way for as long as possible. She has visited 22 countries, had 15 different jobs, and still thinks she might be related to Claire Danes in some vaguely spiritual yet extremely genetic way.
Holly also has an MA in Shakespeare, just to balance out the fact that she thought Belize was in Europe.
Mo’s book for 7+, “My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish” is published with Macmillan in Feb 2013 in the UK and in July 2013 in the US. Her second book in that series( My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish The Sea-Quel) will come out in July 2013 in the UK and in winter 2013 in the US. She also wrote six books in the Ladybird series “Puddle the Naughtiest Puppy.” Mo worked as an actress and as a storyteller, touring theatres and schools all across the UK and Ireland. As well as her stories for children Mo has also writen for radio and theatre and has performed her own comedy material in London and Edinburgh.