Questions & Answers
You were a model yourself, but how far are the books based on your actual experience?
They are inspired by things that have happened to me, not just as a model but throughout my entire life. So, for example, I worked in Japan as a teacher so my experiences of the language barrier and that kind of thing were also used in the books.
I liked how in one of the books Harriet went all the way to the train station, spent ages waiting for the train and then realised she was only five minutes’ walk away. That’s exactly the kind of thing I’d do! How far do you identify with her?
That actually really happened to me when I went to visit my cousin in Paris. Sometimes I do things that make me think ‘that’s a Harriet thing, I’m going to have to write that one’. Also the scene where she goes out wearing two different shoes, I’ve done that as well! I was like, ‘OK, I look completely weird but at least I can use that for my book.’
Working in Japan sounds cool and scary at the same time.
It was horrifying for me even as a 28-year-old, the culture difference between the two countries is insane. Everything’s different, you don’t understand what the signs mean, all the food’s different, when you go to a shop you’re not sure what to buy. For example, I kept unwittingly buying conditioner instead of face wash and then my boyfriend who was Japanese said ‘you know you’re washing your face with shampoo, right?’
So there are a few scenes in the first book that are true. I was spotted at the Clothes Show, I did have everyone put their hands up at school and say they hate me when I was 11. I did have someone send me a facebook message when the book came out and say, ‘I was one of the people who put their hands up and I’m really sorry. I cried and I felt so bad about it.’ So there are some scenes all the way through and also little things like me walking into things, falling off stages, that kind of thing. A lot of scenes throughout the series are based on things that have happened to me, but I also use my imagination. I think the main thing is I try and keep it emotionally true so I try to represent all the feelings that I had and then just invent the scenarios that she would be in. I’m not Harriet but she is loosely based on me as a teenager and I try to not make her too perfect. In fact she’s not perfect at all, she’s a complete mess, but it’s trying to be honest about that and also capturing the bits of being a teenager AND being an adult.
Why did you give up modelling? Did you always plan to be a writer?
Yes. I wanted to be a writer since I was five. I was obsessed with books, my mum was a teacher so she used to read to me when I was tiny tiny, things like Byron and Keats and Shelley, so massively inappropriate for a two year old. Then I fell in love with Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree when I was four and carried it everywhere with me. When I was five I realised that it had actually been written by a real person and from that point on I wanted to be a writer. I couldn’t even write at that point, I was just writing scribbles and then putting them together and trying to make them into books. So for me, my whole life has been spent trying to be a writer and the modelling was a just a blip that happened for a couple of years.
Did you enjoy the modelling?
I enjoyed it for a little bit but mostly it was scary and overwhelming, that was the main feeling I had about it, but looking back, I’m glad I did it because it was an adventure and I think it did change me a little bit, it made me see more of the world so I was less sheltered, less just in my tiny little bubble at school, and it made me realise that the world was much bigger and maybe I wasn’t trapped after all.
So you gave up mainly because you wanted to be a writer?
No. I gave up mainly because they weren’t letting me spend enough time on my exams. I decided that I wanted to focus on my schoolwork and also I wasn’t a very good model. I’d reached the point where I’d pretty much done everything that I was going to do and I just decided that it wasn’t for me any more. But it was never my ambition and never something that I wanted to be as an adult so it was never something I felt the need to hang on to or try and pursue. It only happened because I got spotted at the Clothes Show in Birmingham when I was just 15.
Were you really happy about it at the time?
No, I was terrified. I didn’t like fashion, I didn’t like clothes, I didn’t think I was pretty at all, I was scared of having my photo taken, the kids at school bullied me even harder when they finally found out I was a model, because I kept it secret for about 9 months, but then I was in a magazine that their mums and dads read so they all found out.
So you weren’t popular at school?
I was incredibly unpopular, I had no friends at all. I mean Nat doesn’t exist, Nat is a complete fictional character because I had no friends at school. So I just hung around on my own and hid at lunchtime, because the only thing worse than being on your own is having everyone see you being on your own. That’s the hard bit, you can handle being on your own but it’s everybody knowing you’re on your own and staring at you being alone. So I literally used to hide in the changing rooms and sometimes I’d crawl under a pile of coats. So it was horrible, my time at school was really, really miserable and unhappy and that’s what made me want to write the Geek Girl books. I had the same bully from when I was 7 until I was 16. When she left at 16 my life started. She didn’t beat me up but she was vaguely physically threatening, which made me think that she might. She is actually Alexa in the books, though that’s not her real name! But Alexa’s actually not as bad as my bully, she’s smarter than my one. Nat cuts her hair off as an act of vengeance but that wasn’t real. I created Nat as the perfect best friend because I didn’t have that so it was a gift to Harriet as a way for her to get through school. And I love that they’re so different, so completely poles apart.
In all the previous Geek Girl books there have been very neat descriptions of silences but there wasn’t one in Head Over Heels, not even the kind of silence you could freeze if you were the kind of person who liked freezing silences. Why?
I’m thrilled you noticed that, you’re the first person to mention it! That’s Harriet’s little catchphrase. Actually there is one in the last book, but it’s Nick who gets to say it: ‘then there’s a silence, the kind of awkward silence that suggests that this kind of silence happens often’. It’s like a little in-joke that he’s noticing the silences that Harriet talks about in every single book. There are loads of little in-jokes that some people don’t see until they’ve gone back and read the books again. There are other hidden things: for example, the fact that there are red shoes in all of the books.
The supplement at the back of Head Over Heels, containing Nick’s impression of Harriet was very interesting. Until then we hadn’t seen her through anyone else’s eyes. What made you add this section?
That’s a really interesting point because that’s exactly why I wrote it. My editor was going to put something else in the back of the book but I said I had this idea for another story that I’d really like to write because sometimes I get asked why Nick even likes Harriet or why is he interested and I wanted to show what it is that attracts Nick to Harriet but I also really wanted to show Harriet from an outside perspective because again you never see it.
Throughout the books you only see Harriet through her eyes and I really wanted to show the reader what Harriet is like to other people and that she isn’t what she thinks that she is. From Nick’s perspective she’s actually quite graceful in a way, I mean she’s clumsy and everything but she’s got something about her that’s really quite delicate.
Narrative is always really fascinating to me and obviously here it’s first person narrative all the way through, it’s Harriet and you get to play with that by showing gaps between what the reader knows and what Harriet knows. So there’s something that you as a reader will see that Harriet has missed completely, or jokes you get as a reader while Harriet will be saying, ‘I don’t even know why they’re laughing, that’s not funny’. As a reader you know why they’re laughing but she doesn’t so that’s a really good way of bringing in humour but it’s also really fun. Not so much with the first book, because that’s quite a straight fairytale, but in the other books I’m really playing with the narrative so in Model Misfit for instance, she thinks that something’s happened that hasn’t happened and we don’t know that until the end. So she thinks she and Nick have broken up, they haven’t but we don’t know that because we’re listening to Harriet.
And in All That Glitters she’s lying to you about things, she’s holding information back, she doesn’t tell you about the letters, for example, so by doing first person narrative and it’s all her you’re going on a different story to the one you'd take if it was all straight in front of you. So it’s playing with that first person narrative but on the flip side showing that we don’t always know how other people see us, and with Nick’s story that’s what you realise.
Is Harriet more Geek than Chic? Does she know she’s beautiful?
Harriet’s definitely more geek than chic. I don’t think she’s got any chic in her at all. In fact, my publishers put ‘Geek to Chic’ on the cover of the first book, Geek Girl, and when I said but she isn’t chic they said it’s like a rhetorical question mark. For me it’s like some people just aren’t chic, like my mum said to me once, ‘It’s lovely about you Holly because you can put on the most expensive dress, you can do your hair and make-up and you still look a bit scrubby.’ Some people just have an innate not-chicness, whereas my cousin on the other hand is chic no matter what she wears and what she does. So Harriet’s definitely geek not chic.
She definitely doesn’t know she’s beautiful. And I don’t know if she’s beautiful in a traditional sense. She’s supposed to be striking, unusual and some people won’t like that and some people will. It’s not a universal beauty, unlike Poppy, who is a traditional beauty.
Yes, but I really didn’t like Poppy
Good! You weren’t supposed to like her. There are characters I created specifically for you to hate. But they’re such fun to write! You come across girls like her though, staring lovingly at their reflection in a spoon, and having worked in the modelling industry I’ve seen girls like that. We’re all a bit that way, my boyfriend criticizes me for taking too many selfies, there’s always a bit of vanity but essentially if you’re a good person, and Harriet’s a good person, people like her.
About her geekiness, are the weird facts she recites actually all true?
Every fact is true. We have a fact checker so I find the facts and put them in and then someone at the publisher’s goes through every fact.
I wondered if I should use one of them in class but wasn’t sure...
I actually had someone write to me the other day and say they’d passed their GCSE Physics because they’d remembered one of the equations in Geek Girl. So there’s an unintentional benefit of reading my books!
Who decides on the covers and the expression the model has to adopt? Do you show her what face to make each time?
That’s a really good question, I’ve never been asked that! I have quite a lot of say over the covers. I don’t design them but I am quite controlling. It’s my name all over it so I want to be happy with what goes out. So more than once I’ve taken a selection of different facial expressions and sent them to my publishers. The tongue out was my idea on Model Misfit. It’s actually computer-generated. A designer designs them using photographs so they amalgamate lots of photographs to make one picture. The kissy face on Picture Perfect was my idea as well. I like that they’re not pretty-pretty faces. A lot of girls’ books sometimes try and make them look too pretty. You don’t want to always have them look so pretty because it’s all about character really and that’s what’s nice about these. She’s not really wearing any make up, she doesn’t look very girly.
Why didn’t Nick and Harriet stay in touch?
Lots of reasons. First of all, it’s a long series and from a dramatic perspective no one wants to read about a couple going to the cinema for six books, it’s just not very interesting. But more importantly, Harriet doesn’t really know who she is and what she’s doing in the first book and the series is really about her coming of age, it’s about her developing as a person, learning who she is, what she’s capable of, what she can do, how strong she is, blossoming as a person and she would not be able to do that in a relationship. She needs to learn that she can do that on her own, that she is strong on her own, that it’s not about what boy she’s with, a boy’s not going to save you, you have to actually love yourself separate from a boy.
On the flip side, I don’t want to show that girls can’t have boyfriends and love because it makes them weak, which is not true. So for me Nick and Harriet’s relationship is about saying, ‘You can meet someone who is really great for you', and that’s also really important – it’s not an unhealthy relationship, it’s about two people adoring each other for who they are, not because of status. It’s about getting each other and not being dependent on each other, but it’s also about saying that you have to put each other first so if you really love someone you let them go and do what they need to do, you let them have freedom, you let them grow on their own and that if it’s right it will be right further down the line. So for me it was about showing a lot of things about love that I really think are true and important for teenage girls.
How come you published some stories out of sequence, for example, the action in All Wrapped Up takes place between book 1 and book 2 and Sunny Side Up comes in between 4 and 5.
I decided I was going to write this Christmas special because I wanted to tell the first date story so I needed to go back in time. And I also wanted to do Paris Fashion week but there are only 2 days between the action of book 4 and book 5 so there is no way I could get a short story between those 2 days so I decided to go back and do it as a flashback in Sunny Side Up rather than in sequence. But also throughout the books Harriet leaps backward and tells you a memory randomly so there’s a lot of playing with time and chronology anyway, so it didn’t feel that unnatural to go back and tell what is essentially an extended flashback.
Do you get much feedback from boys?
Yes. I mean obviously there are still cultural issues with the fact that the books have ‘girl’ in the title, which is going to push some boys away just through society pressures but I do have a surprising amount of young male readers. Actually, a lot of them read the books secretly. One of the school librarians I know tweeted me the other day to say that a group of 17 year old boys had come in and asked ‘when’s the next Smale book out?’ (they call me Smale!) and ‘have you got anything like it because everything else is really depressing’, so it was really great. But I think they tend to do it a bit more quietly.
In fact, although the main protagonist is female, there are actually almost as many boys in the books as there are girls. And it’s really important to me to show that gender is completely irrelevant, the characters aren’t masculine or feminine depending on whether they’re a boy or a girl. Richard is incredibly metropolitan, Wilbur is gay. His outfits are such fun to make up: pink top hats and silver jumpsuits!
The fashion element is actually really fun as well. Because when I was 15 I went into the fashion world feeling quite sneery about it because I liked books and I thought fashion was just frivolous and silly and then I realised how much art is involved. I got given a Prada cashmere coat to model and I remember thinking it was genuinely beautiful, incredibly well made and amazing and I started to have a lot more respect for it and the people involved, the photographs and directors and make up artist and how much art is involved in modelling.
Over the course of the books Harriet also starts to gain respect because it’s very easy to say fashion means nothing and it’s not important because it’s seen as feminine and therefore lesser. Society suggests that anything that’s girly is not as important as anything masculine. And actually it’s one of the most powerful industries. The fashion industry is worth millions, it is a huge business and it’s full of very creative, very powerful people. People are sniffy about models too, but I’ve got an MA in Shakespeare, so you can’t assume that everyone who does modelling is stupid. Also, there’s nothing wrong with fashion and art and creativity and people following their dreams and having adventures and travelling. People get very limited in what they think is important or worthwhile and I think it’s really important to say: 'you know what, the world is amazing and it’s full of science and maths' and if I don’t celebrate those in the books I don’t know what else I’m doing, but also the creative side’s also incredibly important.
Now that the series is finished are you going to miss Harriet, and what are you going to do next?
I’m going to miss her so much. I started writing the first book in 2008 so I’ve been writing her for nearly 9 years and she has become part of my life, she is completely a real person to me. And when I sit down to write the books I don’t say, well I’m going to make something up now, I sit down and say OK Harriet, what’s been going on and let her tell me what the story is essentially. So it’s going to be devastating but I have to keep writing because I love writing. I'm leaving the Geek girl world for a bit because I need to have a break from it and I also think that’s it important to show myself that I can actually write other things but I think that I will come back to it at some point, perhaps when she’s post sixth-form but Forever Geek is basically the end of the series. I’ve got a few ideas, I’m still deciding what story I’m going to write next but it will be a female-led comedy for teens.