I wrote an incredibly vague review of Sophia Bennett's You Don't Know Me - which finished 2nd in my recent YA Yeah Yeah Mid-Year Awards for Best YA Contemporary - as I really didn't want to spoil it for anyone. I jumped at the chance to talk to her about the book, though!
This interview originally ran at The Bookbag - a huge thanks to them for arranging it.
1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?
I see a hazy version of teenage me, alongside the faces of the girls and boys I've been speaking to at various school events thoughout the year. I'm really inspired by them. Also, I picture the fans who write to me.
I wrote The Look for a girl called Elizabeth who asked me if I thought she should be an English teacher or a model when she left school. I think she wanted a brief email paragraph, but she ended up with a novel. But really, it's the novel I'd have wanted to read if I'd been considering a career in modelling at her age (not that I ever did).
It varies through the writing process, though. At the beginning I'm thinking of those school visit boys and girls. Then I start to panic mildly about people in the US, and Germany, France, Italy and Japan, and other places where my books have sold. Will they get the references? Will they care? Will they like it too? You have to forget them, you really do, and just write from your heart. If you try to please everyone you'll write the blandest thing ever invented. So it's back to two or three faces, two or three emails that really spoke to me, and myself.
I try to be honest and entertaining. It's more than just stories for me - they're my philosophy of life. You Don't Know Me is for all the people who are embarrassed about singing into hairbrushes in their bedrooms, and shouldn't be (embarrassed, I mean, not singing - they should be singing). And for the ones who are supporting their favourite act on The Voice, or planning to go to a festival this summer. And for the ones who are saying hideous things for a joke about Rosie O'Sullivan from Britain's Got Talent on Twitter right now. So they can understand where they went wrong, and put it right. And the ones who are finishing their exams and just need a fun read on the beach. I hope they get that, and some interesting characters and plot twists, and some food for thought too.
2. BB: You Don't Know Me features the famous Andy Warhol quote In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, and the opening line of the book itself is It's funny how fifteen minute can change your life. What would be your perfect way to spend fifteen minutes?
Great question! At the dinner table with my family, riffing on a joke about something, with each of us making the others laugh and the smell of roast chicken filling the air. (And in a truly perfect world, the dinner table would be by the pool in the South of France, or Madagascar, or possibly Necker Island. But at home in South London is fine.)
3. I know you're really active on the internet, with a fab site and blog and frequent tweets, but as You Don't Know Me shows, there are definitely negatives to the internet as well. What do you think are the best and worst things about the net?
SB: Best thing? I need two. I love making and keeping friends through Facebook, Twitter and Ning, sharing problems and passions. The internet is a lifeline for me when I'm alone, writing. Also, I love how it's used to expose the black deeds of powerful people, and force the truth out into the light. (I'm writing a bit about that in my new work in progress.) It can be such a powerful force for good.
However, worst thing? Casual cruelty towards people you can't see. I think a lot of cyber-bullying is unintentional - just people trying to be witty at someone else's expense - but that doesn't make it any less harmful or wrong.
Agreed - as a teacher, it's amazing the amount of issues caused or escalated by cyber-bullying!
4. Music is at the centre of You Don't Know Me, of course. Who was your favourite artist or band when you were a teen?
OK, so this was the late 1980s. Pre-teens, my favourite band was, quite seriously, Abba. I had Arrival sitting permanently on my turntable (yep, it was before CDs) and I danced around the living room to every song, all of the time. I actually came fourth in a school talent show, dancing to Dancing Queen. Quite possibly in a seminal leotard. Then I moved on to Blondie, The Police, Scritti Politti, the Bangles, Duran Duran and Japan, with elements of Paul Simon (thanks to an uncle with musical taste), Steely Dan, and David Bowie. Bowie's the only one I remember seeing live. I wasn't cool, musically, but I listened to music all the time. I loved jazz and anything funky. I was a huge fan of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter and Ian Dury and the Blockheads singing 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick'. Of them all, though, I guess Steely Dan were my band. I knew and loved them better than anyone. Nobody else understood them the way I did, even though they're pure California and in my teens I'd never been there. But that's the sign of true fandom, isn't it?
Bowie live? HUGELY jealous there! Agree with you about him, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan in particular. (My Old School might be my favourite song ever... certainly top 10.) Oh, and Ella singing Cole!
5. And while You Don't Know Me focuses on music, your previous four books have all been set in the world of fashion. When growing up, would you rather have been a fashion designer, a model, or a musician?
Oh, fashion designer, no question. But I couldn't draw. My bedroom walls were literally covered edge to edge in pages of Vogue, which I'd re-Blu-tack every term. I should perhaps have thought of stylist as a profession, but I never did. I never considered being a model or a musician either. But if I were to go back, it would be musician. There's nothing, nothing like playing live music with friends. I'm about to take up the bass guitar in fact, as a result of writing the book, and I hope both my boys will learn to play an instrument they can improvise on. At my wedding, my husband played guitar, with my brother on bass, my father on drums and my new brother-in-law on vocals. They started their set with an Arctic Monkeys cover and it was brilliant.
Sounds fab! Good luck with the bass, as well.
6. I thought the huge list of writing tips over at your website was fantastic! Which one would you say was the very most important?
Thank you! The most important tip is the one I was given when I wrote to a great journalist called Susan Marling when I was fourteen, asking for advice. It's this: write. Just write. Practise. Do it over and over. (And, as Neil Gaiman says, finish things.) There's a theory put forward by Malcolm Gladwell that you have to practise something for 10,000 hours before you can be seriously good at it. That applies as much to Bill Gates programming as to Mozart composing. So get going! What are you waiting for?
I love Gladwell, think he's one of the most accessible authors in his field. Great advice!
7. I know from reading your blog that you've recently been doing a schools tour - what's the best thing about going into schools and talking to children?
They're my readers. It's such an honour and a pleasure to get to meet them. I do so in all sorts of different circumstances, in different schools in different areas, some rich, some poor, and fundamentally all the kids are the same: curious, engaging, fun to be around, and secretly less confident than they'd like to be, but being brave about it. I love to know what inspires them, what makes them laugh, what they worry about. I also steal their names for books, which is useful. And, as I say, I imagine them when I'm writing the new book and I test out ideas on them. They think I've come to entertain them, but they have no idea - secretly, I'm using them as focus groups. They're magic.
8. You've clearly been busy, because I know you were also at the Hay Festival - what was the highlight for you?
I adore visiting Hay. The bustle and glamour of it is wonderful. The Green Room, where the artists go (I love being an 'Artist') is filled with literary celebrities, who we try not to stare at too much. And friends. This year I got to perform with Sarah Webb and Luisa Plaja, chaired by the lovely Tom Donegan from Ireland. We had a blast onstage, just chatting about how we write, and then we got to meet lots of fans in the signing queue. It was two hours of sheer fun. But the highlight was probably Sarah Webb dressing up as Cinderella's fire brush and talking about a ballet dancer she loved to hate when she was a teen. You kind of had to be there, but it was very funny.
9. What are you reading at the moment?
I've just started Drummer Girl by Bridget Tyler, which came out at the same time as You Don't Know Me and is about … guess what … a group of girls who do well in a talent show and then have to cope when it all goes wrong. But as Drummer Girl starts with the dead body of one of the girls in a swimming pool in California, I'm guessing it's a bit different! Can't wait to read more. I know you loved it too. (By the way, I know some writers worry when they hear that someone is writing about a similar idea to theirs, but I really wouldn't - it's all about how you write it, and everyone is different. It needn't be a problem at all.)
Agreed! Another of my favourites of the year so far. (In fact, You Don't Know Me just edged Drummer Girl into 3rd place in the Best YA Contemporary category of the Mid-Years.) I wasn't sure whether to read them both so close together as they sounded quite similar, but as you say, they're incredibly different despite the premises!
10. What's next for Sophia Bennett?
Adventure. Because for years, I've wanted to tell the story of a girl whose dad is an action hero, but who ends up having to rescue him from difficulty. Except that in this case, her dad was killed by a bomb two years ago, and she's the only person who won't believe it. There's a castle in the Mediterranean, and an evil billionaire, and a network of tunnels that only children can fit inside and … I'm having a blast. Then a series about a nanny. I hope. But no ordinary nanny. Imagine Mary Poppins meets … no, better not say. Watch this space.
Wow, sound fabulous! Can't wait to read them all. Thanks so much for talking to me, Sophia.
Sophia Bennett is the author of the Threads series, the Look, and You Don't Know Me. You can find her online at her website, her blog, on Twitter, and once a month on GirlsHeartBooks.