I should have written ‘The Hunger Games’! No, seriously, it should have been me! Suzanne Collins – Schmollins. I should be topping those best seller lists and tripping down the red carpet to film premieres (although I haven’t a thing to wear!) Cos it was my idea, you know! Well, sort of… I mean, I totally… practically… well almost thought of exactly the similar-ish plot.
OK, here’s how it was: I’d been reading ‘Lord of the Flies’ whilst watching ‘The X Factor’ (yes, at the same time – I know, weird) and I thought, ‘Oooh! I should write a novel about a reality TV show where the contestants have to kill each other.’ I got a little way into plotting it too (I have the notes in an old ideas book which I unearthed recently in order to prove myself that I had basically written a best seller – sort of) but then I remembered that I don’t much like blood. Or gory bits in books. Or killing off my characters really. And I’m rubbish at writing dystopian fiction. And that’s as far as it got.
Only it didn’t – not really. Cos The Reality TV bit stayed with me, nagged at me – in that way certain plot lines tend to do. I think it was Frank Cottrell Boyce who said that some plots hunt you down, relentlessly – like a predator, on your tail night and day until you get them onto paper. And that’s what this one did for me. And as it went along it got muddled up with a load of other stuff: oil refinery strikes and kids with Olympic dreams and ‘Shameless’ and ‘Billy Elliot’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ via Richard Armitage (him from ‘Spooks’ – swoon!) and ‘Glee’ and my sister making me pierce her ear with a fish-finger and my friends and I starting a girl band when we were seven (we made dresses out of bin-liners) … and somehow my ‘Hunger Games’ turned into a totally different novel which eventually became ‘Pop!’ It’s still about Reality TV – after all it was the perfect cover for my BGT/ X Factor obsession – and it’s even got a love triangle but more it’s more ‘Millions’ than ‘Mockinjay’. Less murder and more mayhem and madness , basically!
Cos I might be a bit too much of an optimist to write dystopia but I do love a bit of Talent TV. OK I admit it – I’m a Talent TV addict. In fact some of the key moments of my life I associate with Talent TV. Novels got me through childbirth (yes, seriously: ‘Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix’ for child no 1 – it was a long labour – and ‘Wives and Daughters’ for child no. 2 – I still haven’t finished it!) but ‘Pop Idol 2003’ (and ‘Pop Idol Extra’) got me through the new baby sleepless nights phase and ‘BGT’ was there for me the day my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Stavros Flatley – better than valium. God bless those little chubby river-dancers!
And I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare that the editors of shows like ‘The X Factor’ and ‘BGT’ are some of the best story-tellers around today. Yes, storytellers. Think of those perfect narrative arcs they script for the characters (sorry contestants); the heart-rending back stories; the will- they won’t they moments; the rollercoaster rides; the butterfly from the cocoon makeovers; the nail-biting cliffhangers; the tearjerking goodbyes and the edge-of-you-seat grand finales. It’s fictional gold dust!
Yes, there’s an element to which the editors have to relinquish control of their scripts to the voting public, but if you ask me that’s just a bit like one of those ‘fighting fantasy’ adventures – you know the ones you read when you were a kid (if you were a kid in the eighties, like me!) where you get a choice what to do at the end of each chapter. But the thing was that no matter what you chose they’d scripted a possible outcome for you – just like they’ve got every possible ending lined up in the Talent TV the edit suite, ready to roll out when the phone lines close. Honestly, those Talent TV bods know how to write a good story – and that’s what gets me hooked every time!
But I wanted to invent a kid who could see the narrative clichés of Talent TV and set out to exploit them. So my main character, Elfie Baguley, reckons she knows the ‘Rules of Talent TV’ inside out. Her useless –good-for-nothing mum is celeb obsessed – and she watches so much Fame TV Elfie’s sussed out the ‘winning formula’. So when she and her mates decide the only way to sort out their rubbish lives is to enter ‘Pop to the Top!’ (my fictionalised – and barely disguised – version of The X Factor’!) Elfie knows exactly how to ensure they get all the way to final – and if that means making up the odd whopping great lie and landing her best mates in a whole load of trouble along the way then what can you do?
But I guess ‘Pop!’ is a bit like my previous book ‘We Can be Heroes’ in that it’s silly and madcap and bonkers but underneath all that it’s actually dealing with some pretty serious issues. The whole reason my main characters enter ‘Pop to the Top’ is because it’s the only solution they can think of to the rubbish stuff that’s going on in their lives – or maybe a way to help them forget all that. A strike is dividing the community; Elfie’s mum has run out on the family (again); her dad is on the verge of bankruptcy; and if that happens he’ll lose custody of Elfie and her baby brother too. Winning the prize money is Elfie’s last chance to save her family.
But she needs Agnes if she’s going to do it. If Elfie is the brains behind the operation, Agnes is the talent. The only problem is that the girls’ families are on opposite sides of the strikers/scab divide. Agnes’s family are under attack and ostracized by the whole community so going along with Elfie’s crazy plan is the only way any one will actually talk to her (not in public mind you – like Elfie said, this is strictly business and totally top secret!)
Then there’s Jimmy. Sweet, long-suffering Jimmy who’s been in love with Agnes since they were eight years old. Jimmy’s got his own problems: his dad wants him to be an Olympic swimmer. He reckons everyone should have a dream and this is Jimmy’s apparently. Only sometimes it feels like he’s only doing it to keep his dad happy – and now his dad talking about crossing the picket line to pay for Jimmy’s training and Jimmy has to stop him.
Jimmy gets dragged into Elfie’s ‘Pop to the Top!’ plan because – well, basically because he does whatever Elfie tells him to do – it’s just easier that way. Even if it does mean posing as the teen father of her lovechild and pretending to be in love triangle with Agnes and Elfie – which he sort of is anyway ( not that he is EVER going to admit that to anyone – especially not Elfie!)
Of course I had to watch my step writing about Talent TV. My original judging panel line up for ‘Pop to the Top!’ would have got me sued by Mr Cowell and Co! And the minute I changed my lead judge to a North West Pop Legend who’d headed up a Uber-famous boy band in the 90s what goes and happens? Gary Barlow only gets the top spot at the X Factor. So, can I do that disclaimer bit you always see on films: ‘Any similarity to real event and people is purely coincidence etc etc!’ Cos I love Gary, me! Despite how it might seem when you read the book!
It was a character from George Orwell’s novel who spawned ‘Big Brother’ – the first ever Reality TV show. And now Reality TV is feeding right back into fiction and shaping the way contemporary authors are writing. From ‘The Hunger Games’ and the ‘The Running Man’ to novels like ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece’ ,‘The Money, Stan, Big Lauren and Me’, ‘L. A. Candy’ ‘Strictly Shimmer’ – and loads more – see my list below – Reality TV is such an integral part of our culture that it’s hardly surprising that it should be a topic of interest to contemporary novelists.
And I might be a Talent TV addict, but that doesn’t mean I don’ t think it needs to be mocked a little – OK, more than a little! Or maybe the’ ‘Rules of Talent TV’ that head up every chapter of ‘Pop!’ really are a fool-proof recipe for Talent TV success – perhaps someone should follow them all and see! Only it won’t be me cos I really, really, really can’t sing! And I don’t have any talent really – oh, except writing, obviously (I think I’m meant to say that aren’t I or no one will read my books!)
Anyway, I guess I’m OK with not writing ‘The Hunger Games’. I mean, thank goodness Suzanne Collins did cos they totally rock (I read all three in four days and barely ate, slept or spoke to my children whilst doing so). But I’m so indecisive I’d never have decided between Pet and Gale and I’m so squeamish no one would actually have ever died in the arena. And most importantly, what would I have worn to all those film premieres? I just don’t have the shoes! So perhaps I’m glad I wrote ‘Pop!’ instead. Which is not to say I would mind if any lovely film buff came knocking on my door … in fact, I think it’d make a cracking film you know … call me anytime, Mr Spielburg!
Reality TV Novels
‘Pop!’ by Catherine Bruton
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
‘The Money, Stan, Big Lauren and Me’ by Joanna Nadin
The Bex Factor by Simon
Polly Price’s Totally Secret Diary: Reality TV Nightmare by Dee
The Actual Real Reality of Jennifer James by Gillian
The Fame Game by Lauren
Pup Idol by Anna Wilson
The Selection by Kiera Cass
Watch Me by Lauren Barnholdt
Strictly Shimmer by Amanda Roberts http://www.amazon.co.uk/Strictly-Shimmer-Come-Dancing-Novels/dp/0007425015/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335534518&sr=1-1
L. A Candy by Lauren Conrad
Fifteen Minute Bob by Cathy Forde
Dead Famous by Ben Elton