In the third of my interviews this summer I've chatted summer camp, chocolate and movies with Australian author Simmone Howell.
SH: Everything Beautiful is about Riley Rose, a sixteen-year-old plus-size drama queen who is sentenced to a Christian holiday camp for bad-behaviour. Riley is atheist with a chip on her shoulder. She is appalled by the happy campers and sets out to escape in a dune buggy across the Little Desert. It’s a comedy drama romance.
SR: What inspired you to write it?
SH: I think I always had a Christian camp story in me. I went to several holiday camps as a teenager and I don’t remember any of the parables, I only remember mean girls with whopping great cans of hairspray. I wanted to write about a teenager who doesn’t really think she’s looking for answers but ends up asking lots of questions.
SR: Riley is a colourful character. Her language is full of expletives, she openly drinks and talks about sex. Some reviewers have questioned whether this is appropriate in a Young Adult novel. What do you say to this?
SH: My favourite back-handed compliment review said “this book is perfect for girls who drink, smoke, sleep around and read.” Riley’s experiences aren’t representative of all teenagers but they feel very real to me.
SH: There is this idea that the reader wants to identify with the heroine – we read the kind of characters we wish we were. All the signs of the mainstream world tell you that there is no greater sin than being fat. But I was sick of reading about girls who kept food diaries. I imagined Riley like Beth Ditto, the singer from the Gossip, with the idea that her weight is only an issue to the people around her; to her, it’s just part of who she is.
SR: There have been a lot of strong female protagonists in Young Adult literature over the last decade. From Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to Katniss in The Hunger Games, Sabriel and Lirael in Garth Nix Old Kingdom trilogy and many more. What has inspired this arse-kicking revolution?
SH: I’m not sure but I am glad to be part of it!
SR: One of the few things that remains unchanged between Riley’s manifesto at the beginning of the book, and her updated one at the end, is a love of chocolate. What are your favourite chocolate bars?
Cadburys Dairy Milk
Old Gold rum’n’raison
Black & Greens white chocolate
I could go on.
(This was the easiest question to answer.)
SH: I wanted Riley to start imagining worlds. She goes from one imperfect world to another. She’s trying to find a place where she feels happy all the time and it’s not possible, just as the only utopias are failed utopias. Perfection only exists as an idea … Something like that. Oh, okay. I was just trying to be clever.
SR: Your books are littered with film references. What is it about movies that appeals to you?
SH: Well, I’m always imagining worlds too.
SR: And what are your favourite movies of all time?
How to Marry a Millionaire
Night of the Hunter
To Sir with Love
Harold and Maude
North by Northwest
SR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
SR: What do you like most about being a writer?
SH: Setting my own clock.
SR: Are your characters extensions of yourself or do you try to write about totally different people?
SH: A bit of both.
SR: Where and when do you do most of your writing?
SH: At home at night in bed. Or in my office which was once the panning room of the old Castlemaine Hospital. (Sometimes it smells weird.)
SR: What do you write on/with?
SH: Laptop and notebooks
SR: Are you working on anything at the moment? What is your next project?
SH: I am just finishing my third novel, another YA called Girl Defective about a record shop girl in modern day St Kilda who solves a crime … kind of.
SR: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
SH: Read, read, read and write, write, write! Good writing takes time. Grow a thick skin. Keep some things just for yourself.
SR: What books do you remember reading while growing up?
SH: My teenage reads: Sweet Dreams books, Sweet Valley High, John Steinbeck, Jackie Collins, Judy Blume, Virginia Andrews, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, S. E Hinton, RobertCormier, Paul Zindel, Stephen King
SR: Which writers do you admire?
SH: Barry Gifford, John Fante, T.C Boyle, Megan Abbot, Charles Willeford, Denis Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates, Gavin Lambert, Nathaneal West
SR: Are there any up-and-coming writers you are particularly excited about?
SH: I am a bit hopeless with new writers but I really loved the book Hollywood Ending by Australian author Kathy Charles. It’s about Hollywood Death Hags and it’s lovely.
SR: What are your five favourite books?
The Goodbye People, Gavin Lambert
Ask the Dust, John Fante
In the Night Café, Joyce Johnson
The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham
I Should have Stayed Home – Horace McCoy
SR: Simmone Howell, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We look forward to reading more from you in the future.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Writers’ Centre Norwich as part of the Summer Reads programme launching in June. For more information, please see www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk