OK, I’m going to start by saying that I have read ‘War and Peace’ – all the way through, might I add! Oh, and ‘Crime and Punishment’ (my dad was a professor on Dostoevsky; I had no choice) And when they do those newspaper lists of ‘Classic books you must read before you die’ I can usually tick a fair few (even if I can’t remember what happened in many of them – old age, you see). So, you see, I can do high culture, me!
I recently read an article in ‘The Guardian’ which claimed that the influence of classic literature on writers is declining. Apparently most modern authors are stylistically influenced by their contemporaries rather than writers from the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Aha!’ I crid triumphantly! ‘Not me!’ After all, my latest novel ‘Pop!’ owes a huge debt to Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ and my last ‘We Can be Heroes’ was modelled on ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (OK, it’s 20th Century but it’s definitely a classic).
Unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly tell the whole story about my – ahem! – influences! Harold Bloom, the literary critic, came up with the term ‘anxiety of influence’ which is when authors worry about getting caught nicking ideas from the classics (I remember this because my tutor at Oxford was Bloom’s spurned mistress and used to make jokes about ‘anxiety of impotence’ in tutorials which made my eighteen year old self blush!) Anyway, I’m not particularly worried about borrowing from the greats of the literary canon; my ‘anxiety of influence’ has a different source altogether.
Because when it comes to embarrassing sources of inspiration, my list goes on and on and on. And somehow my guiltiest pleasures seem always to worm their way into my novels. So when I’m trying to be taken seriously and going on about stuff like ‘recession in kids literature’ or ‘terrorism and the teen novel’ I keep expecting somebody to say. ‘But you love ‘Hannah Montana’ – how are we supposed to take you seriously?’
So I reckon it’s time to come clean and ‘fess up to my guilty pleasures – the things that inspire me (even if I am a teensy weensy bit embarrassed to admit it!). Please don’t judge me…. here goes!
Guilty Pleasure No. 1: US teen drama
‘Dawson’s Creek’, ‘The OC’, ‘Gossip Girl’, ‘Veronica Mars’, ‘Heathers’, ‘Ten things I hate about you’, ‘Nick and Nora’s infinite playlist’…. my love of US teen drama comes second only to my love of my children, and chocolate (possibly above chocolate!) – oh, and my husband (better get that in quick!) Basically, a box set of a teen high school mini-series is like crack cocaine for me; I watched four seasons of ‘Gossip Girl’ in just over a week; I barely slept or spoke to anyone and floated round thinking I was Blair Waldorf for about a month afterwards (it was an expensive month!).
I can’t explain the obsession but I can’t pretend it doesn’t influence what I write either. I’m just going to close my eyes very tightly here and admit that the love triangle in ‘Pop!’ is inspired by Dawson- Joey-Pacey from ‘Dawson’s Creek’. Which means, of course, that I can’t tell you who gets the boy in the end (oh, how I wept in the last ever episode!). Oh, and the teen spies in ‘We Can be Heroes’ come from watching too much ‘Veronica Mars’ and sweet, gangly, shy Jimmy from ‘Pop!’ is based on the lovely character played by Michael Cera in ‘Juno’. I could go on but I fear I’ve said enough…
…. only can you ever get enough of Michael Cera, I ask myself?
Guilty Pleasure No. 2: Glee
‘Glee’ could go in the previous list but I think it deserves a category all of its own! Because I can’t be certain but I suspect that my new book‘Pop!’ is in fact the secret love child of Mr Schu and Sue Sylvester. It’s not just the fact that the kids in ‘Pop!’ enter a TV talent contest (named ‘Pop to the Top’ in honour of another of my guilty pleasures ‘High School Musical’ – I blame this one on my seven year old daughter!) or that the scene at the Live Final is almost entirely stolen from the ‘Glee’ Season 1 finale (only inside out – watch, then read, you’ll see what I mean).
It’s more the tone of ‘Glee’ that I love so much: a little bit camp, a little bit glitzy but also irreverent and taking the mickey out of itself – and out of the whole teen movie genre. And that’s sort of what I set out to do to in ‘Pop!’. My main character Elfie tries to play the Talent TV bods at their own game. She reckons she’s sussed out ‘The Rules of Talent TV’ – the magic formula to manipulate the judges and the voting public, all the way to the grand final!
Basically, I’m really, really hoping that Simon Cowell never reads ‘Pop!’ – or Jessie J, or Cheryl Cole, or Sharon Osborne or Jedward or Dermot O’Leary or Gary Barlow, for that matter! Because I LOVE talent TV (see Guilty Pleasure No. 3!) but I do set out to gently satirise its conventions and clichés – and that is definitely thanks to Rachel, Finn, Puck, Kurt and co!
Guilty Pleasure No. 3: Talent TV
Perhaps I should have put this one first because Talent TV is perhaps my ultimate guilty pleasure. It has got me through some of the darkest days of my life (seriously, Pop Idol 2007 is the only reason I survived a new baby with colic, and the day my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumour I took refuge in ‘BGT’; Stavros Flatley are better than valium – lord love those chubby little Riverdancers!) Basically, I’m a total sucker for a fairytale ending and I blub like a baby when really unlikely contestants emerge like butterflies from the cocoon and shine like stars under the spotlight!
But I always feel like I’m being played! The producers of shows like ‘BGT’ and ‘The X Factor’ are consummate story-tellers with the heart-rending back stories; the will- they won’t they moments; the rollercoaster rides; the ugly duckling makeovers; the nail-biting cliffhangers; and the edge-of-your-seat grand finales – it all feels like a scripted attempt to manipulate the audience and it drives me nuts. Oh, and I hate the mockery of the weaker contestants (which is why I love ‘The Voice’ and Jessie ‘we don’t boo on this show’ J!!!); not to mention all the clichés (‘emotional rollercoasters’, ‘110%’ ‘it’s been a journey’ – grrrr!) they drive me mad!
So ‘Pop!’ is, I suppose, a satire, intended to mock the genre I love and loathe in equal measure! Based on years of gruelling TV watching research !), the story of Elfie, Jimmy and Agnes and their bid to reach the final is inspired by countless contestants past and present, And the judging panel, presenter and rival contestants have all been altered just slightly from their real life prototypes to prevent me being assassinated by Simon Cowell and co. But I think you might have fun playing ‘spot the celeb’ anyway!
Guilty Pleasure No. 4: Desperate Scousewives/ TOWIE/ Made in Chelsea
Oh dear! It’s just getting worse, isn’t it! I can feel your respect for me as a serious writer ebbing away by the second. ‘Desperate Scousewives’ I could just about justify because ‘Pop!’ is set on Merseyside, near to Warrington/Widnes where I grew up, so watching the Desperadoes could be put down to research – making sure my cultural reference points were bang up to date, right?
‘Made in Chelsea’ (oh, I love MIC!) could be explained away by saying one of my former pupils is in it – and lots more of my old students float on the un-filmed outskirts of that group and give me lots of MIC gossip on Twitter.
But ‘The Only Way is Essex’ nothing can excuse or exonerate – although I’m going to give it a damn good try! I think it’s probably the meta-fictionality of the ‘docu-soap’ that fascinates me (there – that sounds clever, doesn’t it!) What I mean is that I like the sense of wondering who’s controlling the narrative – is it the editors or the… what do we call them? actors? characters? There’s something rather fascinating about wondering who’s playing who. And in that sense, it’s a bit like writing a novel – you think you’re in control of the plotline and then your characters go off and do their own thing!
And that tension definitely informs my writing. My main character Elfie is a reality TV contestant trying to play the TV producers at their own game. She manipulates the tabloids, plays to the cameras, stages car crash moments and even attempts to script things for the judges themselves. ‘Oh Lord!’ says the head judge. ‘A child of the TV generation telling us how to run the show!’ She is the ultimate mistress of meta-fiction – either that or she’s been watching too much TOWIE!
Guilty Pleasure No. 5: Celebrity Gossip Mags
For the sake of my marriage, I need to open by saying that I NEVER buy celebrity gossip mags like ‘Heat’ and ‘More’ and ‘Closer’ etc. Which is not to say that I don’t read them; I just borrow them from my lovely sister in law (hubbie will be mad if he thinks I’ve been frittering away the kids’ inheritance on tales of Kerry Katona’s boob jobs and Peter Andre’s latest diet fad!) So I remember the joy I felt when my editor suggested my main character’s mum could have a gossip mag obsession! ‘But of course!’ I squealed. ‘I shall go off and research this hitherto unknown genre at once!’
Elfie’s mum is obsessed with celeb gossip and so is Elfie which means that much of the web of lies she weaves to save her family from bankruptcy is based on her intimate knowledge of the lives of the rich and famous. Of course names had to be changed to protect the innocent celebs but let’s just say I did draw heavily on my research in this area!
The cult of celebrity and pursuit of fame is such a ubiquitous feature of the society our children are growing up in. Growing up under the shadow of double dip recession, public sector strikes and the ongoing terror threat, no wonder they are drawn to the pages of the gossip mags and see the pursuit of fame as the ultimate escape route from poverty.
Elfie bases her strategy for success on Lady Gaga, Kerry Katona, the Beckhams and many more – but now the novel’s finished, how will I justify my ‘Heat’ fetish now!
I could go on with my guilty pleasures… but I feel the need to go off and watch a few arthouse films with sub-titles, or read a bit of Sophocles in the original Greek (no, wait, I can’t read Greek!) or take a trip to the Tate Gallery to prove I am writer of substance after al!
Only, wait. F Scott Fitzgerald famously incorporated elements of modern media into his writing – advertising slogans, popular music lyrics, cinematic techniques (all very new cultural phenomenon) – alongside references to Keats and the Classics, as well as to other contemporary writers like T S Eliot. And I’m not claiming to be Fitzgerald here, but might I make a plea for the ‘pick and mix’ approach to literary influence. Borrowing elements from contemporary culture (however silly and fluffy the source) need not be such a bad thing, need it? Could it even be a way of writers commenting on ubiquitous elements of contemporary society?
Or am I just trying too hard to justify my TOWIE/Glee/Heat addiction here? Perhaps you’d better read the book and give me your verdict! Only please, please don’t make me give up ‘Gossip Girl’ or ‘Strictly’ because I just don’t think I could go on without them!