Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Chris Higgins is an ex English and Drama teacher turned award-winning writer. She has written the My Funny Family series for younger readers, but is probably best known for her teen novels, which have gained her two nominations or Queen of Teen. Here she talks to Graham Marks about how she became a writer, tells us some of her writing secrets and talks about her latest novel, The Day I Met Suzie.
You come from a teaching background, and you’ve also done quite a lot of travelling; did the two ever come together?
Yes, they did combine, in a way. I’ve always loved travelling – I’ve got four children, who are grown up now - and in 1996-97 we all went to Australia and my husband and I taught there. I was an English teacher who had a real interest in drama as well, so my lessons used to be quite dramatic. And I used to write plays and put them on with the kids.
You and your husband were both teachers?
Yes, and he still is a teacher. I also did a lot of travelling when I was a student, like everybody else. In those days I hitch-hiked, which I wouldn’t recommend now; I hitch-hiked everywhere, but never got to Afghanistan…it’s one of my regrets that I didn’t manage to do that, but you can’t get there now. I remember spending a summer on a Greek island, living on a beach.
Did your writing begin with your teaching, the two running in parallel?
I wrote some school plays and put them on, and even now I write and think in scenes rather than chapters, quite episodic, with the dialogue being very important.
Are you seeing the action happen in your mind’s eye, blocking out the scenes before you write them?
My books are very character-based, rather than plot-based, and I don’t even start until I’ve got a really strong sense of the character, but then I do seem to write in scenes and not following a plot, as such. Obviously I have to plot for a synopsis, but I never, ever, ever, keep to my plan. Ever. Which is a terrible thing to say because, as an English teacher, I was duty-bound to say that you should plan. But actually, it’s not until my characters start doing things that they decide to do, rather than what I had in mind for them, that I know the book’s working.
Do you think that working this way is all down to practice? Is a plan more important when you start out, until you feel you have the confidence and skill not to need one?
I think I’ve never been very good at planning! I just start with this character, who’s got a problem, usually – I don’t mean that I do it in a formulaic way, it just so happens I do it like that…my very first character was a girl whose mum had breast cancer, so that was her problem – and I just start with a character. But I do have to write a synopsis for my editor, although I’ve never kept to it.
Sometime it is nice to have a synopsis there to pull you back, because the way I write can be dangerous as you do go off on tangents, and then you can, occasionally, come to a dead end. But that rarely happens. I find that once my character is strong enough, I can follow them, rather than me dictating.
Have to ever written yourself in to a corner you can’t get out of and had to do a lot of back-tracking?
No. No, not really, not yet. The few times I have kept to a plan I felt that it wasn’t working. Twice I have written endings that I never intended to happen. For instance in my latest book for older readers, He’s After Me, which is a psychological drama with lots of twists and turns, it was supposed to end with a big revelation, but in fact when I got there I found myself writing on and something completely different happened. It was never in the plan, but now I see that it was inevitable.
Do you have a trick to help you when a storyline isn’t working?
I’m lucky enough to live in Cornwall, on the Penrith Peninsula, and I find that when I go for a walk, if I can get out and go along the cliffs, or go down on the beach and paddle in the water and walk, I can work things out; a lot of my thinking happens outside of my writing room. Although I am very, very strict about the way I write, and I try to be sitting at my computer by nine o’clock every day.
I’m not surprised you have to be strict with yourself, you do have an absolutely prodigious output! What's your working day like?
My ideal working day would be to be in my writing room by nine, writing from nine until two o’clock, and only getting up to make one cup of tea, and then straight back. I totally immerse myself in it. In the afternoon I like to go out and do other stuff. But it doesn’t always work like that, obviously; if I’m meeting a deadline I often have to write all day.
In your head, how do you separate out different stories for different age groups? Do you think it’s easier for adult authors who just have to write a ‘book’, and not think about various audiences?
Funnily enough I don’t seem to have much of a problem with that. I never have the time to write my ‘adult’ book, which I want to do some day, because I’ve been writing so much; when I did My Funny Family, which was very young, they wrote themselves…maybe because now I have a six, a four, and a three year-old grandchild, and a baby, and another that’s due any day, I’m back in that world again. I only had to think about what somebody says, or how they would react.
The older ones, well, I taught teenagers and I like going into schools and I like that relationship with my readers. I know some people feel they don’t need that at all, but I do
It’s quite dangerous to give that contact up because things move on so fast. If you haven’t been in a school for ages, what you thought a ten year old was like isn’t what they’re like at all. Which was the first age group you wrote for?
Teens…and I thought I was writing for sort of Year 9, even 10, but now it seems to be Years 6 and 7 are reading those books. I think books like He’s After Me are for older kids, because the protagonists are seventeen, but the readers are now thirteen, fourteen. It does concern me…I never censored what my kids own read because I think kids get bored if they don't get it. I went from Enid Blyton to my mother’s Catherine Cooksons because they had good plots and story, and I took from them what I understood and skipped over the bits I didn’t get.
There was nothing written for teenagers then; there were the classics, which I read, and I would say that the first adult book of worth that I really enjoyed and got me hooked was Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, and it’s sequel Up, into the Singing Mountain. I was from South Wales, a mining area, and I suddenly read something that, even though it was set at the turn of the 19th century, I could completely identify with because I knew the pits, the mines and the steel works. I grew up in a place that was beautiful, naturally, but had been scarred by industry. It was the first book that had a real effect on me.
Your website seems to me to be very open and inclusive, and designed to make your readers feel like they’re a part of your family; was that something you felt they wanted, or is that just how you are?
I’m actually quite a private person…I didn’t even get onto Facebook until about 18 months ago and I’ve only just started Tweeting. But on the other hand, my family is a big part of my life, in a very natural way, and where I live is very much a part of me as well - the beaches and the cliffs and all of that - and I think it’s very important to let the kids see that you’re actually a perfectly normal person who happens to be a writer…is very lucky to be a writer.
I never met an author in my life until I started writing, basically. I used to think authors were up on a pedestal, and maybe they were then, but we’re not, you can’t be. I don’t see how you can be a writer and be like that.
Do you ever go to a school where you’re the first writer they’ve ever met?
Very occasionally…but they do often expect you to be famous, and I say, well, no, I’m not. But you’re constantly brought down to size as an author…I still get reviews referring to me as ‘he’…
Was that your decision to be Chris?
No, I’ve always been Chris…but in fact I remember being asked if I’d be ‘Chrissie’, because it would be more female, and I said no, it’s not me. When I started off writing I never thought I was just writing for girls, but obviously I’m marketed that way.
But you do write about very emotional subjects.
Boys can be emotional…it was interesting, when I wrote the World Book Day book, Walking the Walls, I wrote from a boy’s point of view for the first time and I was quite anxious about this and I wanted to get it right. I felt very confident writing as a female, for all the obvious reasons, so I went to a local school and asked if I could have an audience of just boys. I was expecting just a few to turn up in the school library at lunch time, but there were loads, loads and loads of boys from Year 7 to 11.
I sat down and said what I really need to know is what you boys are thinking about – and of course they immediately burst out laughing. Ah, I said, so you’re thinking about sex, non-stop! But it actually turned out that all the things they raised, what they were concerned about, the things they worried about, were no different from girls. I’m not being funny, but adolescent boys obviously do think about sex all the time, but past that it was things like their parents splitting up - the number of kids who said that to me – their friendships, and they were worried about what teachers thought of them, I was amazed! I said ‘do you really care?’, and these were all boys who looked like you’d be scared of them, and they said yes, they hated it when a teacher gets a down on them.
There were all the obvious things…relationships, asking girls out, not being in a team, one of the jocks…there were people who envied the nerds because they were in a group. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but basically it wasn’t that different from the girls. Boys probably don’t show it so much, are conditioned not to show it, but the same concerns are there.
The Day I Met Suzie, to me, seems to be about the dark side of friendship, and I wondered where the idea came from and whether there a personal element to this novel?
It’s about various things, and one thing it’s about is the different faces we show to the world. All of us show different faces to the world…on a simple level, if I was talking about it to kids at a school I’d say that you’re one person at school, you’re another person at home and another person with your friends. Obviously it goes a lot deeper than that, it’s how much we choose to reveal, what we want to show as our persona and what we want to hide as well; everybody’s a construction, in other words. [My heroine] Indy’s a construction just as much as anyone else: she’s feisty, popular and she’s very pleased with herself that she’s going out with a nice boy.
She’s quite flawed as well; one of her flaws, as she says about herself, is her gullibility.
Yes, but she takes pride in being a nice, kind person who genuinely stands up for the underdog. She knows exactly where she’s going, she’s very focussed, knows what she wants and she’s organised, and she’s with Rick, who’s good looking but a bit of an idiot, a bit of a petrol head. Rick’s lucky he’s with Indy because she keeps him on the straight and narrow; he’s weak, basically, but well-intentioned. And then of course there’s Suzie. Suzie’s incredibly manipulative and is out for what she can get. She walks into their lives…another one of the themes I’m constantly interested in is how life can be going along very, very nicely and suddenly it gets blown apart – it can be in a good way, if you’re really lucky, but usually it’s in a bad way. We can all identify with that, it happens to kids as well as adults, that’s the point.
I wanted Indy to be completely on course with her life, and then somebody comes along and blows it apart – through no fault of her own, she was just trying to be kind. And I also wanted to do the debt thing, because debt is just the biggest problem, and I wanted to show how someone like Indy could still get into debt. It’s so easy to fall into this loan shark world and students are the very people who do get trapped; I’m not really issue-driven, but I did want to write about this. And I did enjoy all the twists and turns, playing with that.
I wrote down ‘lies, untruths, point of view’; do you think those three things are an undercurrent, a sub-text running through the story, joining the characters together?
We actually don’t know whether to trust Suzie, because she changes her name like that…we don’t know whether her story is true or whether it’s all a pack of lies. She makes her living like that, it’s the way she goes through the world…I think the book is about Suzie, and there are people like her who live on their wits and have no scruples.
Do you think you have more to say about Suzie?
Yes, I think I do. I’m not entirely sure when, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I pick up Suzie at a later date.
Was it hard to write about a dislikeable character?
No…no, it’s interesting. I’ve done it before, with Jem in He’s After Me, and I’ve also done it with a novel called A Perfect Ten, a book about bullying written from the point of view of the bully. The main character, Eva, was a very dislikeable character and it was quite hard to make people empathise with her. I really do not think people are either black or white, good or bad and I love doing the layers in between…I love it when you get somebody to actually empathise with a character who is unsympathetic. It’s a challenge and I don’t like to make it too easy, make them bad simply because of their background; I refused to do that with Suzie. Suzie’s playing it, playing with the victim thing. But I don’t want Indy to be seen as good, good, good and Suzie as bad, bad, bad; they’re each capable of being both.
Have you had to think about what evil is with The Day I met Suzie?
I suppose so, but not in an absolute ‘sit down, let’s examine this’ way. But I think what I’m doing in the book is looking at the nature of good and evil, or perhaps evil is too strong a word…I’ve been using ‘bad’. I’m not sure what evil is, a total lack of empathy, selfishness? Bad is attractive, though, especially to teenagers – you don’t want to go out with the good boy, you want the bad boy. And it does seem as if a lot of my characters choose the bad boy; they’re more attractive, dangerous, and you’re the one who can make them good.