Book Birthday Interview with Holly Smale
Happy Monday, everyone! I’m thrilled today to be interviewing the awesome Holly Smale, whose Geek Girl series is incredibly popular. I’m a huge fan and I honestly mean it when I say: read these books if you haven’t already! The third book in the series, PICTURE PERFECT, is out now and it’s so. Much. Fun.
But enough from me. Let’s hear from Holly!
SANGU: Hi, Holly! Can you tell new readers what the GEEK GIRL series, and PICTURE PERFECT in particular, is about?
HOLLY: Geek Girl is basically about Harriet Manners, who is a 15/16 year old schoolgirl with few social skills and a habit of annoying people with facts they’re not interested in. It follows her journey after she gets accidentally spotted by a modelling agency, and attempts to fit into both the world of fashion and the ‘real world’. Picture Perfect is the third book in the series, and it follows Harriet as she attempts to run away from a difficult situation in England by moving with her parents to New York to “start again”. Each book has its own themes, and Picture Perfect is really about love – in every sense of the word – and what it means to be a good girlfriend, a good daughter, a good friend. That’s something we all struggle with: both as teenagers and adults.
S: One of your bios mentions that, like Harriet, you stumbled into modelling as a teen. How much of that was inspiration for the Geek Girl series? Do you have any Harriet-esque stories you’d like to share? And have you ever been trapped in a box with a cockroach?!
H: The seed of the Geek Girl series was certainly inspired by being spotted as a teenager by a modelling scout, but the vast majority of the events in the books are fictional: I use my knowledge as a basis and then make them up, which is a lot of fun. I had so many ridiculous situations as a model, however, that I never feel like I’m over-egging the pudding, however it might seem to a reader sometimes. At one point I was cast as “a raspberry” in a fruit-themed shoot, because I was – and I quote – “the PERSONIFICATION of a raspberry, the most raspberry person who had ever been”. I also fell down the stairs of a catwalk show, because the lights had made me temporarily blind and I didn’t see them. As for the cockroach, I’m glad to say no: I have never been trapped in a box with one. I lived in Japan for two years, and in the countryside they are enormous: I spent many unhappy evenings chasing them round the house with an enormous pesticide gun, having had one crawl over my face when I was sleeping. At one point I put a china bowl over one, and it was so big and strong IT MOVED THE BOWL. I still shudder thinking about it.
S: Ugh ugh ugh now I’m traumatised. *imagines cockroach crawling over my face* OKAY MOVING ON… Harriet is “geeky” and openly acknowledges it, which is awesome for geeks everywhere! How important was it to you to revolve these stories around a geek girl?
H: Enormously: I wanted to give the misfit and outsider a voice. Saying that, I don’t think there IS one kind of “geek”: the point in geekiness is that you follow your own unique obsessions, your own unique way of thinking, and I was excited about writing with that in mind. I wanted to show that it’s OK to be different, but more importantly that actually everyone is: because, as ‘cool’ as some of the other characters are, none of them really fit in that well either. I also wanted to write about how hard it can be, not knowing who you are or where you belong, or what you’re supposed to be. That’s universal – it’s as relevant for the popular kids as for the outsiders, for adults as well as teenagers – and while I wanted to show that it’s fine to be whoever you are, I also wanted to show that how you aren’t defined by what other people think about you. So while Harriet IS a “Geek”, that’s not ALL she is. So it’s a bit of a misnomer that Geek Girl is all about Geeks: it’s actually just another label, and no more important than “ginger” or “smart” or “clumsy”. We’re all just the same, really, deep down. We feel the same things; we care about the same things. That’s what’s important. There’s a geek in all of us.
S: I can certainly vouch for the geek in me! Possibly my most favourite character in the entire series is Annabel, Harriet’s stepmother. Who do you find most fun to write? Most difficult?
H: I love writing Annabel, and what’s fascinating to me is that I thought I had made her up out of thin-air, but somebody close to me recently pointed out that – as an adult woman – I’m actually far more like Annabel than I am like Harriet, so perhaps I actually wrote the kind of woman I am struggling to turn into. I adore writing every single character, so I honestly don’t have a favourite: I have a different but equal affection for each of them. Some come with more humour, obviously: Richard, Wilbur and Toby are particularly fun (and I’ve recently realised that a lot of my most ridiculous characters are male, which probably says something about the way I see the world). The only characters I struggle with are the “flat” characters, which have to exist because a) not every character in the world is eccentric and funny, and you have to show that, and b) for the narrative balance to work, you need some slightly less absorbing people or it gets exhausting as a reader. So Poppy, Cal, Nancy… they’re a little trickier to write while still keeping them real.
S: Top three books you’ve read in the past three months: go!
H: I haven’t even finished it yet, but ANIMALS by Emma Jane Unsworth is astonishing: so well written, so brutally honest, so funny. I also really enjoyed THIS ONE IS MINE by Maria Semple – I’m a big fan of her – which isn’t out in the UK yet but is also very smart and witty. I read SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts on holiday and loved it, although sadly he lost me in the last ten or so chapters. That was a fascinating and totally different read, which I think is always healthy as a reader and writer.
S: What was the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you? And what advice would you give young and aspiring writers?
H: My “breakthrough” moment, if you like, came when I was eleven and in my first English class our new teacher spent the first twenty minutes staring at us in total silence. Then he asked us to spend the remaining fifty minutes writing a creative piece about the first twenty minutes. I was totally inspired, took a deep breath and really went for it: I wrote exactly how I’d felt and what I’d thought. I criticised the teacher’s trousers and the way his hair was standing on end, and how everyone was giggling and thought he was an idiot, and how I had – frankly – expected a bit more from a secondary education and should probably look at moving schools. The next day, the teacher called me into the classroom and I thought I was in big trouble: that he was going to give me a detention for telling him his trousers were too short. Instead, he said “I have, here, thirty essays about the sound of the lawnmower and the scent of the breeze through the window. It is so utterly refreshing to read something honest. Never, ever stop writing like that.” So that’s what I’ve tried to do ever since, and it’s the best piece of advice I can pass on: be honest, be you. Be brave. Don’t do what you think is expected of you: write what feels real. It’s absolutely essential, and it’s what I look for in any book I’m reading or writing. If it isn’t shining a brutally honest light on a new and unknown situation, you’re not bringing anything to the table at all.
S: That sounds like such a fantastic teacher – and it’s great advice! Okay, last question: can you give us any teasers or clues about where Harriet’s story may be heading in the future? (and by “us” I really mean “ME. Give ME teasers and clues!”)
H: Harriet’s still finding her way: she’s growing up, developing, changing. I can’t stand a series where the main character hasn’t learnt anything at all in the process: it’s fine to repeat mistakes – we all do it – but there has to be SOME kind of trajectory, or why are any of us bothering? So Harriet’s adventures will hopefully keep pushing her towards a better and more understanding version of herself, and that’s a really fun challenge as a writer. In terms of plot, I can’t spoil Picture Perfect by saying too much, but GG4, GG5 and GG6 will be a pretty big shift in terms of character and location: it’s kind of two trilogies, in a way, and the readers are going to end up a little divided (and possibly cross with me). There are going to be new love interests for a few of our main characters, relationships shifting, and there’ll be new locations: GG4 will be based partly in Morocco. Oh, and there’s a chance a main character may or may not die, but I am not telling anyone who or when. Mwahahahaha.
“My name is Harriet Manners, and I’ll always be a geek.”
It’s the hilarious third book in the GEEK GIRL series! Harriet Manners knows more facts than most. She knows that New York is the most populous city in the United States. She knows that its official motto is ‘Ever Upward’. She knows that one in thirty-eight people living in the US lives there. But she knows nothing whatsoever about modelling in the Big Apple and how her family will cope with life stateside. Or ‘becoming a brand’ as the models in New York say. And even more importantly, what to do when the big romantic gestures coming your way aren’t from your boyfriend… Does geek girl go too far this time? The laugh out loud follow-up to GEEK GIRL and MODEL MISFIT will have you in stitches!
Holly Smale fell in love with writing at the age of five, when she realised that books didn’t grow on trees like apples. After abandoning a very long, very serious manuscript about suicide, she wrote the much shorter, much less serious or suicidal comedy GEEK GIRL and sold it in a five-way auction to HarperCollins. It was the No.1 biggest selling YA/Children’s debut of 2013, hit the Top Ten charts, has sold over 100,000 copies in the UK alone and was chosen by World Book Day 2014 as one of the 50 Books That Will Change Your Life.
GEEK GIRL has since been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize and the Waterstones Children’s Prize, has been nominated for a Carnegie and long-listed for the Branford Boase. Holly has since signed a second three-book deal, and the rights to the GEEK GIRL series have so far been sold internationally in ten territories. It hits the shelves in America with HarperCollins US in January 2015.
When she’s not writing, thinking about writing, worrying about writing or procrastinating from not writing, Holly’s main passion is wandering the world with no shoes on. She has visited 25 countries, and is now getting to the age where young backpackers think she is the manager of the hostel.
She lives in London and doesn’t intend to “grow up and get a proper job” any time soon so please don’t ask her.