Today I’m delighted to be playing host to one of the most consistently fabulous writers of UKYA fiction for teens – Sophia Bennett! I’ve loved so many of her contemporary books, and her second historical fiction novel, Unveiling Venus, was published last week (I reviewed it here on the blog). Below is the full unedited text of our interview, with, as ever, my questions in bold and Sophia’s plain text answers marked SB.
Sophia Bennett’s debut novel, Threads, won the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2009. She has since published six further novels for young teens, including The Look and Love Song. For her exploration of the worlds of fashion, art and music, Sophia has been called ‘the queen of teen dreams’ by journalist Amanda Craig. Her books have sold internationally to over 16 countries and there are plans to make Threads into a children’s TV series.
Hi Sophia! We’re celebrating the release of Unveiling Venus, your second historical novel and the sequel to last year’s Following Ophelia. If you had to entice a new reader to pick up either book in fifty words or less, what would you say?
SB: “What is it like to be looked at for a living? In these lavish, detailed stories, Mary Adams discovers the joys of being admired by great artists and the dark underside of being a muse. Her adventures are for anyone who loves art, fashion, history, travel and the stirrings of feminism.” (That’s 51 words, but Mary has a lot of adventures!)
Ordinary maid Mary becomes the mysterious Persephone when she enters the world of the Pre-Raphaelites. Did you always want to write about this period in art? How did you make that world come so vibrantly to life?
SB: Funnily enough, my specialist art history periods are the Italian Renaissance and the Twentieth Century. I didn’t know much about the Pre-Raphaelites until Stripes asked me to write the stories, but I love their use of colour and I really wanted to write about art. I absolutely loved the painstaking research. Every colour of every apple, brush, ribbon, eye, costume or necklace was carefully considered and matched to Rossetti, Titian (who the Pre-Raphaelites admired) or one of the other artists I talk about.
Plus, the men in the group are so fascinating to a twenty-first century feminist: they love women and celebrate them, but objectify them and often make their lives miserable – even to the point of contributing to Lizzie Siddal’s early death. Christina Rossetti was busy writing fabulous poetry – which I quote – but doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to celebrate the joie de vivre of the group, but also analyse and criticise how hard it was for the women in their circle. Mary Adams comes through OK, but it’s no thanks to them!
Your books have taken you from the high fashion of contemporary London to grand, crumbling country houses and now to the streets of nineteenth century Venice. How do you approach tackling such different settings?
SB: I’m glad you’ve noticed them! I find that the more I mentor new writers, the more I get them to focus on setting. The reader wants to be able to picture where things are happening and setting helps to create the mood and character of a book. It’s often what keeps me going while I’m writing. My protagonists won’t do what they’re told, the plot goes off in unexpected directions, but the houses, streets, hotels, canals and palazzos are always there to be luxuriated in. I want my reader to be tucked up on her sofa with a hot chocolate, imagining herself in these places, as I do while I write.
Often it’s weird to visit the real location afterwards and think for a moment that my scene really took place there, then remember, no – it was fiction. I’m going to Venice at Easter and I know I’ll get lots of fake déjà vu from Unveiling Venus, even though I set the story there 150 years ago.
Your 2015 standalone, Love Song (which I adored), contributed to contemporary YA’s current taste for books about boybands and fandom. What did you enjoy most about writing boybandlit? What did writing about music mean to you? (And is there any chance of a sequel about Declan, the multi-instrumentalist drummer and one of my favourite characters from the book?)
SB: Thank you! I’m very fond of Love Song but it was very hard to write – or at least, the first half was. Once they all settled down in the crumbling country house it got easier. It was inspired by my (spot on as it turned out) conviction that One Direction were on the verge of splitting up and wondering how they must be feeling. As Keris Stainton knows, I have a very soft spot for Harry – although possibly not quite as soft as hers. But in the end I was more inspired by reading about the heyday and split up of the Beatles, who are closer to my band The Point. Lounging around, doing my research for the book by reading rock biographies was a pretty awesome way to make a living.
Also writing about teenage boy friendships. I have a teenager at home and he’s very funny with his mates. I wanted to capture some of that. And listening to music with my younger son, discovering Led Zeppelin and sharing that moment when you fall in love with a piece of music so that it becomes a part of you – that’s very special and I’ve been thrilled to hear from readers that they’ve discovered it through the book. Making my Spotify playlist for it was lovely too.
On the Declan front, don’t worry, that book is already written in my head. To do a controversial JK Rowling, Declan was always gay, and not acknowledging it to himself, and his story would be about coming out and taking on the profoundly homophobic rock/pop industry and finding his path. I know there are exceptions, but I still think it’s really tough for gay young people in the music industry. I wanted to put some of that in Love Song and I tried to, but it was a book in its own right and I think if you’re going to do justice to the story you have to do it properly. He and Angus are my favourite people to write about – although I’m fond of them all in their way, even Connor.
One thing your (often very different) books all have in common is that they’re for pre-teens or YAs, but what has writing for teens taught you?
SB: That it is very hard to write and sell books specifically for teens to teens in the UK! Unless they’re fantasy. The teens who read a lot have all the books in the world to choose from. I’ve always wanted to write for 11-15 year olds, but it’s a competitive market.
I love very much the connections I’ve made with readers who have taken my books to their heart. I’m honoured that they did. I wanted to write about being creative and brave, and finding your inner confidence. I wanted to reassure teens that although these years are tough – and they are – you will turn out OK. I also wanted to explore the dark side of insta-fame and show that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I particularly wanted to make books that would keep kids reading during those difficult early secondary school years, when Eng Lit suddenly becomes a chore and the joy can get sucked out of books. But now I’ve done as much as I can. Writing as a teen made me re-experience all those emotions and often it was hard. Now I’m moving on to other things, though I’m still grateful for anyone who comes to the nine novels I’ve written so far and finds those messages inside them.
And finally, can you tell us anything about what you’ll be working on next/?
SB: I’m currently working on two picture books, a middle grade novel set in Switzerland and an adult detective story. I need to find a new voice and that takes time. We’ll see what works…
Have you read any of Sophia’s books? Do you have a favourite? You can check out my review of her latest, Unveiling Venus, here!