Interview: Sophia Bennett talks artists, teenagers, One Direction, and Unveiling Venus

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.

UntitledSophia 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!)

33256865Ordinary 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?

34483827SB: 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?)

27396059SB: 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?

thelooknewcoverSB: 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!

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Unveiling Venus by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen ventures back to historical fiction

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some historical fiction! (Warning: this review will contain one (1) spoiler for the previous book in the series, Following Ophelia).

34483827Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 8th February 2018
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mary Adams, once a scullery maid, has swapped daily drudgery for the glamourous existence of her much-admired alter ego, Persephone Lavelle. From lavish Venetian balls to luxurious Mayfair townhouses, she’s been let into the most fashionable – and enviable – lives of the age.

But somehow she can’t seem to forget those she’s left behind below stairs. In mysterious Venice and pristine Mayfair, she has the chance to rise to the very top – but will she risk her friendships to take it? And if she rose, could she fall?

Following Ophelia, Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction – after making her name with warm, chatty contemporary teen fiction like Threads and Love Song – was a pleasant surprise in my reading last year. Charming, confident and draped in the allure of the Pre-Raphaelites, I was pleased the book was slated for a sequel.

Flame-haired maid turned artist’s model Mary has found her way into high society – but her hold there is precarious. Her dalliance in the bohemian art world and reliance on admirer Rupert to keep herself off the streets has generated scandal in fashionable social circles, though her closest friend Kitty seems blessedly oblivious. Accepting gregarious, elegant Kitty’s invitation to join her at the family palazzo in Venice, she embraces her disguise as Persephone and indeed is referred to as such for the rest of the book.

Bennett’s accessible style and vivid descriptions return here, and Venice in particular shines. She evokes a hugely realistic sense of wide-eyed awe in the face of the city’s soaring patchwork of old buildings and extraordinary pieces of art, as well as the world-famous canals. Persephone’s brief time there is so believably rendered as that of an awed outsider that readers may perhaps feel that it acts more as set dressing than an exploration of its storytelling potential, but it’s the most memorable part of Unveiling Venus.

Bennett always manages to pack an amount of excitement and plot into her books. Much of the conflict emerges when it’s revealed that Kitty is about to become engaged to charismatic young viscount Arthur Malmesbury. His indulgent lifestyle and wandering eye prove troublesome. There are also appearances from friends Persephone met as a scullery maid, and I actually found myself enjoying some of those subplots most. There are servants Harriet and Annie, and the latter’s brother, Eddie, an Irish stableboy and boxer caught in the web of a Whitechapel gang’s match fixing. Previous love interest Felix is rather swiftly done away with through a handful of scenes in this sequel, so there’s a really likeable touch of romance for Persephone and Eddie, too.

While Persephone is briefly seen sitting for people like John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and new figure James Whistler, these moments are flourishes rather than rich canvases; the Pre-Raphaelite world which was so crucial to Following Ophelia is  essentially only given lip-service here. The painting of the title, Titian’s fabulously scandalous portrait of a nude and reclining woman, known as the Venus of Urbino (probably painted for a Medici after he was reluctantly made a cardinal and continued to do things like spend the night in Venice with a famous courtesan) is never viewed on the page, only talked about. As a result, there’s a lack of depth and pay-off to the book’s artistic references.

Stripped of the mercurial underground of eighteenth century artistry, much of Unveiling Venus reads more as a conventional grand house or society story – sort of like a Regency novel that’s been left a bit behind on the times with some YA thrown in. Persephone’s somewhat spontaneous talent for sewing (so amazing it’s literally described as her ‘magic hands’ at one point) also grates, as does the disparate feel of plot events and dissatisfying pacing. Still, I’m curious to see what happens if there’s another book in the series, where it looks like Persephone will be heading to another famous city.

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Well-researched, incredibly vivid and ultimately enjoyable, Sophia Bennett’s Unveiling Venus is a book of two worlds: wealthy high society and grimy Victorian London. It needed better plotting and more artistic richness, but its character-focused conflict is effective and its Venetian scenes shine.

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Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen proves a dab hand at art-inspired historical fiction

Today on the blog, I take a look at Sophia Bennett’s latest! (what do you mean I haven’t reviewed Love Song yet I AM TOTALLY ON TOP OF MY REVIEW SCHEDULE).

33256865Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher:
 Stripes
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

London, 1857. Young scullery maid Mary Adams has swapped her old-fashioned Kent village for the grandeur – and grime – of Victorian London.

But it’s only when she sees John Everett Millais’ depiction of the tragic Ophelia that this new world opens up for her. Caught in the irresistible circles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, where passionate young painters break the rules of art, dress, and society, she finds herself drawn to a host of new friends and heart-pounding capers. To survive in London’s high society, she reinvents herself as Persephone Lavelle, but even as rumours abound about the mysterious new face of London’s exciting art scene, she will learn that keeping secrets in the glamourous city is not as easy as it seems. And if she must choose, what will she sacrifice for who she wishes to be – and be with? 

Known for her chatty, ultra-modern YA – from fabulous teen fashion début Threads to brilliant bastion of boyband lit Love Song – Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction is pleasantly accomplished. Colourful, descriptive and neat, her prose here perhaps lacks the laugh-out-loud, natural feel of her contemporary work, but displays a remarkable shift to suit the genre.

This is accessible teen historical fiction for fans of Catherine Johnson, Julia Golding and Jacqueline Wilson. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling as I read that this book was everything I would’ve liked, but never quite obtained, from a Jacqueline Wilson historical if hers were not so simplistically or formulaically aimed at younger audiences: there is a richness, a patience, a stylistic satisfaction to Following Ophelia that simultaneously makes the novel engaging and refuses to underestimate readers. Bennett takes some fairly familiar ingredients (young maid, Victorian London, a well-to-do family, a secret world where class lines blur, a possible romance) and spins a story with just enough pluck to keep you reading.

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Mary Adams has one foot in the busy drudgery of life as a scullery maid and another in the tantalising escape of Pre-Raphaelitism, where rash and gifted painters are enraptured by her red hair and pale face, seeing her not as a changeling or curse but as a potential muse for great works. Finding herself drawn to talented young artist Felix, they embark on Hades and Persephone: the painting that will win him renown and free her from servitude. Mary’s secret life as Persephone sees her in cahoots with the vivacious Kitty and her scandalous brother Roly (“the most dangerous man in London”), while her everyday existence is brought down to earth with a bump by the seemingly antagonistic Annie, mysterious acquaintance Eddie, and the plight of her cousin Harriet. As the stakes get higher Bennett brilliantly takes the opportunity to explore issues involving agency, class, sexism, and lack of education. A particularly interesting look at the relationship between artist and model makes for a book which has its themes woven superlatively between escapades.

The book’s premise caught my eye because of the art, and it held my attention because of it. The discovery of the Pre-Raphaelite movement turns Mary’s narrative to glorious technicolour, and brings out the shine in Bennett’s prose. It may occasionally feel as if everything is a little too beautiful, but with entertaining cameos from some famous artistic figures – Hunt, Rossetti, Millais – and glittering insight into London’s high society, readers will be swept away by an eventful plot which cleverly segues from grimy servants’ quarters for glamourous parties sometimes within the space of a single chapter. Solidly, though not exceptionally, researched, the book glosses over some darker issues of Victorian Britain but has moments of real skill and has sequels in the pipeline, making it both an enjoyable read and a worthy recommendation for 11-14s.

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Remarkably accomplished, eventful and enjoyable historical fiction with an interesting cast and some deliciously vivid description. I’m particularly excited to learn that this is the first in a series.

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GOOD VIBRATIONS: fans, music and boyband lit in YA fiction

YA has had its fair share of phases and trends in recent years, from ones we can’t wait to see more of (books focused on friendship, books exploring different kinds of relationships) to ones we’d like to see less of (paranormal romance, dystopia, cover models in giant dresses…). One trend I’ve seen crop up frequently of late (due to an increase in new releases under the label, including Songs About a Girl by Chris Russell, my review of which inspired this post, Eleanor Wood’s My Secret Rockstar Boyfriend, and Sophia Bennett’s brilliant Love Song, and to readers like Sally at The Dark Dictator who champion the genre) is boyband lit.

It’s a phenomenon which has both its delights and its drawbacks. For the uninitiated, boyband lit seeks to capitalise on the popularity of boybands by merging the ever-so-slightly-out-of-reach daydreams of fandom with the audiences of YA and the skill of the professional pen. It often sees a heroine – almost always ordinary, often not an ardent fan (it’s cooler for when she has to form coherent non-starstruck sentences later on) – run into the most famous band on the planet in a way which distinguishes her from the screaming masses – by tripping over nearby, by seeing them as people etc etc. – before discovering that one of them is the love of her life (alas it seems it’s too soon for polyamory to have kicked in as a solution to everyone’s problems). For added drama there may be a love triangle, or the bandmates will reveal their deepest secrets. This formula is commonplace in heteronormative fanfiction, but good boyband lit must seek to do more – to tell not only a polished story, but a surprising one, too.

27396059In fiction, story must come first. Teenagers aren’t the only members of fandom – fans come all walks of life and age groups – but they are often the target audience when it comes to marketing. It’s what every boyband for the last sixty years has depended on, whether we’re talking old-school music mania or the terrible haircuts of NSYNC. Music careers sink or sail on this stuff. This genre may be an attempt to tap into a lucrative financial opportunity, but at least in books, authors can draw from an already-established pool of themes and storylines, from friendship drama, social issues and family ties to school pressures and relationships. Twists, turns, and the skill of professional writers can create plot-focused, thought-provoking YA with the occasional pop quartet thrown in. It’s not written to start fandoms for or launch the careers of semi-believable fictional bands. If anything, it’s as much about giving readers a taste of music fandom as it is about bringing music fans to YA.

On the surface it might be easy to dismiss this trend as light-headed, inconsequential stuff. Except that while boyband lit may be new, boyband culture isn’t, and fandom being powered by teenage girls isn’t new, either. Many of the most passionate, talented, knowledgeable people in every fandom are women, and teenage girls are among the most powerful fans of all. Who do you think made most of music history’s best-known names so famous? Who bought their records and listened to songs over and over until they knew every lyric? Who makes their tangible pay-the-rent-and-make-another-album success possible? Because it’s not the limited circle of people who write for Rolling Stone.

Of course, shop-floor real-reader response to these books may be very different from that of forever-chasing-the-next-big-thing publishing and its trusty sidekick book blogging. (And there has been boyband lit which does an injustice to the very real readers who should be able to find solace, not mockery, in YA). But so as long as boy band lit respects readers, teens and young women, I’m fine with it.

21472663I can’t wait to see more YA featuring music, musicians, bands and the perils of balancing passion and fame. There’s such potential for exploring the way music is not only the soundtrack to but a real influence teenage life, as in Non Pratt’s fantastic Remix. And I’d absolutely love to see more YA where the heroine is a musician, or there’s a girlband (think Sarra Manning’s fictional  creation Duckie) at the heart of the book.

For now, this trend is on the up and up. Because, after all, it tells readers that it’s okay to enjoy things like pop music and wish fulfillment. It may even examine or improve damaging tropes which permeate fanfic, Most of all, it says that it’s okay to be a fan, to take an interest, to be enthusiastic.

What about you? What do you think of #boybandlit? Love it or loathe it? What would you like to see these books do next?

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