Sophia Bennett is the author of the fantastic books Threads and Beads Boys and Bangles, and I am very pleased to welcome here here on the blog for an author interview, welcome Sophia!
Congrats on the upcoming release of your second book, Beads, Boys and Bangles. How did the idea for the Threads books started?
It started with a different story! Threads was going to be a book called Crow. It was about a not-very-good male fashion student who suddenly started producing brilliant designs. The twist was that they were really created by a 12 year-old girl (called Crow) who lived in the same apartment block as the boy, and in the end she was allowed to make one outfit for the college graduation show. I loved the sense of mystery – the secret girl – combined with the creativity of making beautiful things. In fact, all the books I've written, including the unpublished ones, have been about mystery and creativity in one way or another.
But if you’ve read the book, it just shows you how things change in the writing process. I thought about this story for four years, and my ideas developed and shifted. I came up with all sorts of fashion anecdotes and images that I wanted to include. Also, and most importantly, I found out about the Night Walkers in Uganda. Every day, children were walking twenty or thirty miles from their villages to the nearest town to avoid being kidnapped by rebel soldiers and forced to commit the most terrible acts imaginable. I was so angry and frustrated that so many children were in so much danger and we weren't doing enough about it. But how on earth could I combine that story with the London-based fashion story in my head?
It took at least a year to work out the answer to that question – probably longer. In the end, my designer character became a young refugee from Uganda, and my original characters became the girls (and boy) who helped her. When I finally sat down to write the book, it took 17 drafts of the opening chapters (and by that I honestly mean 17 different ways of trying to tell the story) until I came up with a voice and a situation that worked. Then it took 17 more drafts until the whole story came together. But mixing the Uganda story with the fashion story was what made it come alive. I thought I was completely crazy to attempt it at the time, and I was convinced no-one would get what I was trying to do. But I underestimated my publisher, some great reviewers and a LOT of great readers, who understood perfectly. Writing that book changed my life.
When did you know you wanted to write professionally?
When I was about twelve. Somebody asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I hadn't really thought about it - beyond wanting to be an Olympic gymnast (yeah, right) or an air hostess (great uniform). I realised I wanted to do a job that I could easily combine with having children, something creative, and something I was good at. Writing! Actually, it's very difficult to combine writing with looking after kids – like any job. But the great thing is, they can completely understand what you're doing, and share it, and I love that.
I'd been writing since I was six or seven. Short stories and poems. At boarding
school, aged eleven, I used to tell my friends ghost stories. They were great because when I started the story I had no idea how it was going to end. So I had to stay one step ahead of what I was saying and think of a chilling ending while I was talking. I really enjoyed that. I also wrote a school play version of Cinderella when I was ten. And I read ALL THE TIME. There were no Play Stations or iPods or laptops in the 1970s, of course, so my options were reading or riding my bike. My bike got stolen and that left reading.
However, despite all that longing and preparation, and despite working hard at English throughout my school career, I didn't start to try and write professionally until I was in my early thirties. I wanted to make some money to live off first (which turned out to be essential!), and also to get some life experience so I'd have something to write about. So I was a lobbyist, a tour guide, an earrings packager, a librarian's assistant and a management consultant. And I didn't write successfully until I was in my early forties. Three things made the difference were marrying a very supportive husband, having my children, who I could use as an audience for my writing ideas, and being very disciplined about criticising my writing. When I started throwing lots of it away and only keeping the best bits – that's when I got my first book deal.
I absolutely loved Crow, who is a young refugee who is bullied and dyslectic but has a great talent for fashion design, Where did you get your inspiration for the charachters in the Threads series?
Those characters came from all over the place. Crow came to me as a mysterious, quiet child, living in her imagination, sensitive but sullen, and hard to get to know. Making her a refugee seemed to enhance some of these characteristics, and explained her personality a bit. My narrator, Nonie, is bright, quirky and irrepressible. Her character came through her voice. Writing as Nonie just naturally puts me in a good mood. She's upbeat and optimistic most of the time. She gets that from the teenagers I know, including my stepdaughters. So often adults talk about 'difficult teenagers' and 'those awful teen years', but I don't know any teenagers like that. All the ones I know are fascinating, confident, considerate and a joy to be around. I love writing for them.
Edie, my 'clever girl' character, is very like me. She studies hard, can be judgmental and says the wrong thing without meaning to, but her heart is in the right place. And Jenny, my actress character, was a gift. I decided while I was writing that I needed a fourth girl, because it was more interesting to write about four girls than three. So to start with, Jenny was just a plot requirement. But she didn't stay that way for long. She was bubbly but vulnerable. She had a sad romantic past and a list of adventures ahead of her. Writing about Jenny often drove the plot along.
I've just finished writing book 3 in the series – the last of the trilogy – and once
I've finished editing it I'll be saying goodbye to my girls. I'll miss them! They've become real friends over the last few years. I love them and admire their loyalty and bravery, and wish good things for them as they grow up and find their place in this busy world.
What do you like most about writing for young readers?
Oh, there's so much I like about writing for tweens and teens. First, there's the fun of creating characters who will grow and gain in confidence as the story progresses. I love reading other writers for this age group – Louise Rennison, Meg Cabot, Cathy Cassidy, Lindsey Leavitt (Princess For Hire), Meg Rosoff, Cressida Cowell and many, many more. But most of all, I love meeting my readers and hearing from them. They are so enthusiastic – often doing things inspired by the book, such as raising money for charity, or making something interesting. They ask great questions and they get really involved with the story. Reading was so important to me when I was their age. I feel thrilled and honoured to be a part of their world as a writer. It's a dream come true.
If you could be a character from your books for one day, who would it be and why?
What a lovely question! Ooh, who to choose? I've created so many characters that I enjoy. Possibly Nonie's Granny, who is glamorous, funny and rude. Yes, I think it would be great fun to dress up in beautiful clothes and jewellery and say exactly what I think to people. Or maybe Nonie's brother, Harry, who is cool and gorgeous and surrounds himself with other cool, gorgeous people. He becomes a fashion show DJ and that has to be a great job. Oh, and he dates supermodels.
What did you read when you were young, which authors inspired you the most?
The books I most vividly remember reading are The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and most of Noel Streatfield's books, but particularly Ballet Shoes. I also read a series about a girl who wanted to be a rider and another one called Veronica At the Wells about a girl who wanted to be a ballet dancer. Hmmmm. Lots of stories about girls who wanted to work in creative industries. I wonder where my influences come from? Plus I read all the Nancy Drew mysteries and progressed to Dorothy L Sayers and other detective story writers as I grew up. Most of my life I've wanted to be Noel Streatfield, basically. She still inspires me..
Since you are a writer of teen books can you tell us what you were like as a teen? Does that influence your books? (and if so: how?)
I was passionate about the world I lived in – from saving the rainforests (the biggest problem at the time), to politics. I was a geeky reader and quite shy. My parents were often living abroad (my father was in the army), and I spent a lot of time in my own world at school. I did a LOT of homework. I was very happy, on the whole, but if I were to go back and live those days again, I'd go out, make more friends and have a bit more fun. I'd still do the homework, but faster.
My children love hearing stories from my schooldays and yes, they influence my books all the time. My friendships, uncertainties and passions all make it into my books in different ways. It's fun to relive those days, but from the point of view of a woman who's more confident and who knows that it all turned out happily in the end.
I read that Threads is also released in other countries , could you tell us a bit about this?
Well, when I finished writing the manuscript of Threads, I entered it into a competition for unpublished writers of children's fiction – The Times/Chicken House competition – and it won. That's how I got published, and how I managed to get Chicken House as my UK publishers, led by the amazing Barry Cunningham, who discovered JK Rowling.
Strange to think, for someone who relies on her imagination for a living like me, that it never occurred to me while I was writing Threads that it would be published outside the UK. However, thanks to Barry and his team, Threads was quickly picked up to be sold around Europe, in Australia and New Zealand, where it's out already, and in the US, Canada, Brazil and Japan, where it will come out next year. It seems amazing, for a book so strongly set in London, but I hope that the vibrancy and creativity of London will seem like a magical place that any reader will be able to visit in her imagination
It's fabulous to see Threads coming out with different covers and in different translations – some of which I can read (like French) and others that I can't understand at all (like Dutch). All the covers are truly beautiful. I try and put pictures of them all on my blog so I can share them with readers. It's very exciting to see so many publishers working hard to make the series a success.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you’d love to accomplish?
Well, that's hard. I had a very powerful, consuming dream for years and years and years, which was to be a writer, and ideally a writer for children. That's
happened now. I think any other dreams would be asking a bit much. So my dream is just to be able to keep doing what I do: write more books, meet and inspire more readers, keep seeing my book in bookshops. Oh, and I'd love to travel to some of the countries that are publishing Threads and meet the readers there. That would be amazing.