Author Interview: Jenny McLachlan

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Stargazing for Beginners is a gorgeous novel by author Jenny McLachlan who spent thirteen years of her life teaching English: a job that combined her passion for the written word with her passion for showing off! It also provided her with the inspiration for her books. I’m delighted to be interviewing Jenny for our spring feature today.

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You’ve created a lovely heroine in Stargazing for Beginners! Meg’s fascination with space is utterly endearing and it’s so great to read about someone with such a big dream. Tell us about your inspiration for the book. My inspiration came from quite a throw away comment: I was describing the plot of one of my books to my dad (I imagine it involved a lot of dancing) and he asked if I’d ever thought of writing a book about a girl who wants to be an astrophysicist. To me, this didn’t seem like instant romcom material, but I think that’s why the idea grew in my mind. I love a challenge!

The space and scientific elements of the story were very educational; how did you go about researching this? I spent about two months reading books, watching documentaries and visiting universities and museums, and a very pleasant two months it was too! Although a lot of what I learnt – a huge amount of facts – don’t appear in the book, my research was aimed at discovering how a girl like Meg, who understands the complexities of the universe but hasn’t got a clue about music, fashion and pop culture, would cope with being a teenager.

Meg’s Mum and Grandad are so well-described – you can almost smell the incense and strange meals! Were they inspired by anyone you know? Both Meg’s mum and Grandad have come in for a bit of criticism in reviews because of their unconventional (bad?) approach to raising children, but I’ve got a soft spot for them, possibly because they were inspired by my mum and Grandad. My mum was amazing: she took us on ‘magical mystery tours’, let us build dens that took over entire rooms and would let us bake, make and mess things up as much as we liked. She also had, and still does have ‘big causes’ that she supports. She’s a Samaritan and regularly goes to India to help run a charity that funds an orphanage. She would never have done what Meg’s mum did (although she did forget to pick me up from a few parties!) but she did have a life beyond her children, and I was proud of her for this. My Grandad was a toned down version of Meg’s Grandad. He was an electrician who helped develop lightening conductors and he owned 30 boiler suits. He was always covered with plasters and scars because of the various burns he got from making bonfires. Both Mum and Grandad LOVED bonfires. Sometimes they got out of hand…

The scenes where Meg is looking after her baby sister who is being particularly difficult brought back memories of my own children’s childhood tantrums! Are you speaking from experience or did you have to research this?! You’re quite right – the scenes were all inspired by my own experience of having babies! I don’t think it matters whether you are 15 or 50, having to look after a baby is a testing experience. I thought I’d be great at being a mum – organised and super-efficient – but what I didn’t take into account was that my children might not like me organising them in the way I wanted to. Babies are so strong minded! Like Elsa, my daughters have trashed rooms, slept in dog baskets and rubbed huge amounts of baked beans into their hair, I also took them for many, long walks along Eastbourne seafront to try and get them to sleep.

Annie is such a great character; feisty and funny. Where did the idea for her come from? Annie, to a certain extent, was inspired by several students I taught who delighted in fighting against conformity. As a teacher, this was sometimes frustrating – how many times a day did I say ‘Girls, roll your skirts down’? – but I also admired their determination. When I went to school, I was terrified of doing something wrong, so I’m fascinated by students who don’t care if they get told off. Teaching also gave me an insight into what life is like at secondary school for disabled teenagers. Schools are becoming more inclusive places, but there’s still a long way to go, and many assumptions that need to be challenged, before disabled students have access to the same experience as able-bodied children at school.

There are quite a few awkward and sometimes funny moments for Meg – the science show, the dog chase on the sea front and the scenes with Ed in the classroom spring to mind! Did you ever have moments like this as a young girl? My entire life was awkward between the ages of 11 – 15. Hair, makeup, music, relationships, fashion…I didn’t have a clue. I remember watching Top of the Pops, and trying to work out who it was acceptable to like and hate. I felt awkward just walking down the road! One of the most embarrassing things that happened to me at secondary school was a seagull pooing on my head in my first week. Seagulls produce a ridiculous amount of poo in one go and I basically had to wash my hair in a sink. I’ve never put that into a book…It’s too traumatic. I did actually witness the dog chase scene on Eastbourne seafront. It was very funny.

Meg’s big dream is to be an astronaut – when you were growing up what was your big dream? I wanted to write and illustrate books. I’ve achieved 50% of my dream which is pretty good!

Stargazing for Beginners gently reflects on some of the challenges young people might face today – but this doesn’t detract from the narrative. For me, this demonstrates real skill in terms of writing i.e. not getting side-tracked or bogged down with an ‘issue’ but still making it meaningful. How did you approach this? I think you’ve just described the main challenge I have when I write. I want my books to feel ‘realistic’ and address genuine challenges, but I also want to them to entertain and provide a certain amount of escapism for the reader. I think that Jacqueline Wilson is a writer who managers to do this particularly well. It’s a balancing act: I try not to lose sight of what my readers enjoy about my stories – the humour and the strong narrative – but I also try to avoid focusing so much on the humour that the stories become flippant and lose their meaning.

I heard recently on the news that space flight for ‘ordinary’ folk is soon to become a reality as early as next year! Would you like to go to space?! I’d love to go to space, but as I’ve got children, I don’t think I could. I’ve watched too many documentaries and read too many books about disasters in space!

And finally can you share with us your top three pieces of advice for aspiring authors?

  • Keep writing until you find your voice. I never thought I’d be writing romcoms for teens. I’m glad I never gave up writing when I was trying, and failing, to write my first novel: a historical romance set just before the First World War.
  • Thinking time is just as important as writing time. I probably think about my books for as long as I spend sitting down and writing them.
  • No writing is wasted. My First World War novel is still sitting in the attic. It will probably always sit in the attic, but I’d never have written Flirty Dancing or Stargazing for Beginners without it.

Brilliant advice. Thanks so much for joining us today and we wish you every success with Stargazing for Beginners!

You can read my review of Stargazing for Beginners here. Find out more at  www.jennymclachlan.com Twitter: @JennyMcLachlan1 Facebook: Jenny McLachlan or visit www.bloomsbury.com

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