Christy Ku interviewed Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2014 winner author Holly Smale, who spent most of her teenage years being bullied before she was spotted by a top London modelling agency aged fifteen, when nothing changed at all.
Picture Perfect is the latest novel in the international best-selling Geek Girl series, following teenage geek Harriet Manners. She knows that New York is the most populous city in the US and its official motto is “Ever Upward” – but what she doesn’t know is how to model in the Big Apple…
Can you tell us about the idea behind Geek Girl?
I wanted to write a comedy about my experience as a teenage model, and it wasn’t until I wrote the first line, unplanned – “My name is Harriet Manners, and I am a geek” – that I realised it wasn’t really a story about modelling at all: it was really a story about geeks, and being an outsider. As it turns out, I had a lot more experience in both those things than I ever did in the fashion world, so the rest felt like the right story for me to tell.
I really loved how the transformation of Harriet Manners didn’t quite work in the conventional sense. Often, plot lines revolve around the Cinderella theme where a misfit is “improved” before being accepted and loved. How important do you feel it is to challenge this?
I think it’s essential. I always had a problem with the Ugly Duckling story, because what were we supposed to learn from it? Become beautiful and everyone will like you? Look ugly or different and you’re on your own? Even before I started Geek Girl I was toying with ideas to turn that fairytale on its head, and Harriet gave me the perfect way to do it. In fact, I loved playing with all the fairytales and twisting them. Traditional fairytales were created to pass on morals, and those morals are no longer right or relevant today: particularly as a woman who doesn’t see marriage and obedience as a destination. I think it’s really important to challenge those messages wherever possible, and to show that you don’t need to change to be accepted and loved.
If you don’t mind me asking, I’m assuming you’ve used some of your experiences of being bullied at school – do you feel writing about it gave you an ability to express those experiences and/or to reach out to those going through the same thing?
Absolutely. I was bullied from the age of six to the age of sixteen – that’s a decade of feeling scared and not good enough – and I’m quite passionate about how damaging that can be to a child. The majority of Geek Girl is made up, but the scene where everyone puts their hands up to say they hate Harriet: that was true. It happened on my first day at secondary school, and it had an enormous impact on how I felt about myself for a long time. It was incredibly cathartic to write, and I’ll admit I was bawling by the end of it. It seems silly as an adult – you’d just laugh it off, or tell everyone where to go – but as a child that disturbs some kind of fundamental path of emotional growth. I just hope that Geek Girl perhaps inspires children going through similar experiences to realise they’re not on their own, and it does get better.
Judging from the love your audience has for the series, would you say success is the best revenge? Nice shout out to “Alexa” in the acknowledgements by the way!
I used to have fantasies when I was younger about doing something brilliant and then rubbing it in “Alexa’s” face. Now I’m older, I’ve realised I don’t need to. I’m a full-time writer, I have my dream job, I’m happy: it’s the ultimate revenge, and I don’t even need her to know. I also love the irony that while I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was four, it was my bully who gave me the story that gave me a number one bestselling novel. There’s a beautiful kind of symmetry and justice in that, I think.
How much of your modelling experience did you use? Do you feel you gained much from it at all?
Other than being spotted at the Clothes Show in Birmingham – that did happen – the modelling shoots in the Geek Girl books are all completely imaginary, but I have enough knowledge after two years’ experience on photo-shoots plus years as an adult working in magazines and PR to have a pretty solid base to invent from. I wish I could say I enjoyed modelling more than I did but, to be honest, I was too young, shy and confused to appreciate the opportunity: it was only in hindsight that I saw how fascinating it really was. I spent two years waiting for somebody to realise they’d made a mistake, and I regret that now. It really was a great adventure.
There are a LOT of unusual facts in your books – did you actually know them all?
No; sadly, I’m nowhere near as smart as Harriet! I ran out of my own unusual facts pretty quickly, so I research them all, via books or the internet. I always know exactly what I’m looking for, though – I fit the facts around what I’m trying to express – so that makes it easier. And I try to remember them, so I’m gradually catching up!
How was your university experience? If you were writing during that time, how did you balance your studies with writing?
Like almost every other student in England, I spent my first year trying to make friends, partying and avoiding studying. Then, from the second year on, I started focusing. I never, ever thought I’d actually be an “author” – it was a dream, not a viable job option – so I focused on journalism: I wrote a lot for the student newspaper, worked as Features Editor and wrote a fair bit for local magazines. For three years, I juggled essays and reading with waitressing, bar work, editing the paper and writing my own pieces. Sad to say, but something usually has to give, time-wise, and in my case I missed parties, nights out and time with my boyfriend so I could work to earn money or write.
Do you suffer from writer’s doubt? How do you overcome it?
I suffer badly from doubt and anxiety, and have been totally frozen by it for months. Now I know a little bit more – fingers crossed – and I know the fear is always going to be there: you just have to shut it up, kick it to the side and tell it that words are just words: there aren’t right ones and wrong ones, just different ones to choose. Nobody is expecting you to be Henry James or Jane Austen, and they aren’t carved on your face. You can write them again. So get them down and worry if they’re perfect afterwards (they never will be).
What can we expect from Picture Perfect?
It’s quite a different book to the first two, and I did that on purpose: it’s boring for both reader and writer if you stick to the same thing. This time, Harriet and her family move to America and Harriet gets into trouble. She’s growing up and changing, and with that come some pretty messy lessons to learn: about love, about friendship, about who she is and what she wants. I so love going on that journey with her.
And finally, do you have any advice for our Geek Girls?
Just be yourself, all the time, and be proud of who that is, whoever it is. It took me far too many years to work that out. I spent a long time trying to be – and write – like someone else.
Christy Ku, Online Books Editor
Geek Girl: Picture Perfect will be out as a hardback and available in e-book format from 5 June 2014bookmark me