Andrew Norriss’s brilliant new Middle Grade (9-12+) book, Jessica’s Ghost, is out now and I highly recommend it. We are fortunate enough to have Andrew visiting the hearthfire today to answer a few questions about this book and his interesting writing career (did you know his other writing includes sitcom The Brittas Empire and kids’ TV series Bernard’s Watch?).
Jessica’s Ghost tackles a weighty subject (depression and suicide) for young readers; where did the idea for the book come from?
It’s not an idea I consciously chose. I would not have dared. I was trying, as an experiment, to write a story without all my usual pre-planning, so I began with the idea of a ghost (with no idea why she was a ghost) and just started tapping away. I was halfway through the first draft before I realised she had killed herself (it’s curious how this was never really up for debate) and was thoroughly alarmed. This is not my usual territory, and I was not at all sure I had the ability to make my story remotely convincing.
That does sound alarming! Francis is a great character. How do you create a character like that? Did he arrive, fully-formed, or did you have to work out what would make him different?
Arriving fully formed just about sums it up. Again, to my surprise. I know nothing about clothes, design or fashion and there was a lot of hasty searching in books and on the web for good phrases and words that might make it look as if I did. What I did know, however, is that passions like these can appear at a remarkably early age, so I imagined Francis finding back numbers of Vogue when he was four, and demanding a sewing machine for his eighth birthday. And just a few weeks back I found an article in the paper about a famous designer who had done exactly that.
What would you say to someone who says children’s books shouldn’t raise difficult issues directly?
I have some sympathy with this but, like so many things in life, you can’t make a hard and fast rule about what can and cannot be put in books. Even in Narnia, war kills friends and mothers have cancer. Maybe it’s not so much the subject that matters so much as how it’s treated. And most important of all, of course, whether it’s a good story.
Yes, didactic ‘issues-driven’ books don’t really work for any age group, adults included – story is definitely the most important thing. Jessica’s Ghost is, first and foremost, a good read and I think that’s how you can ‘get away with’ raising these issues with this age group.
You have written in a range of media and genres in your career; how much is that a conscious choice?
After deciding that I was going to take the writing thing seriously, the first piece I wrote was a situation comedy for television and, to my astonishment, managed to sell it. I wrote sitcoms for 10 years, with my friend Richard Fegen and then, as mysteriously as the urge had arisen, it simply disappeared, and I found myself writing other things instead. Like books for young people.
I don’t know why this happened, but I have come to realise that there is an inner compass in all of us, telling us which star we have to follow – like Francis wanting to design clothes – and it is a foolish person who, for the sake of money or fame or to please their parents, tries to go in a different direction. We really have about as much choice about where this inner compass will take us as we do in choosing which direction is north. To a quite remarkable extent we go where we have to go…
Do you have a fixed writing routine? (e.g. number of words per day, set hours for writing etc)
I never went for the idea of a set number of words, but I always found a time limit very useful. I usually made sure it was not too long as well. Four hours was a good day…
What advice would you give to young writers?
The best advice I ever found on writing was given by Robert Heinlein (science fiction writer). He said there were only three rules to follow for a successful career in writing. Number one was to write something (he reckoned that was where 99% of would be writers fell down). Number two was to send it off to a publisher. And number three was to keep on doing numbers one and two… Made sense to me!
Thank you, Andrew – such interesting answers. If this has whetted your appetite for a quirky MG read that offers depth without ever feeling heavy, I can definitely recommend Jessica’s Ghost.