Many of your titles are questions, to such a point that we could think of it as your trademark. Having said that, what would you, Holly Bourne, call normal (if such a thing exists)? And what would you say that love is or, perhaps most importantly, what isn't love?
I think one thing that is normal is worrying that you are not normal! And, speaking about love, I feel a very 'normal' human desire is to be loved and seen for precisely who we are. That is what true love means to me. Whereas, unhealthy love is saying you love a person and then making them feel guilt and shame for who they are, trying to erode away bits of them.
In 2013, Soulmates, your debut novel, was published. Since then, society and teen literature have taken a great step forward. Would you rewrite anything you have written so far? Is there something you felt the need to unlearn?
I never read back any of my books once they publish as I find it too excruciating. And the main reason for this is you are (hopefully) always growing and learning and getting better with each book. No doubt, as society has continued to progress over the past ten years, this would have been reflected in my writing.
The influence of brilliant, hilarious British female writers on your writing, such as Louise Rennison or Caitlin Moran, is rather obvious. What would you say to those
jerks that keep on saying that women aren't funny?
That I have only legitimately wet myself once from laughing, and it was a woman who told the joke.
How does the gap between the publishing industries of the UK and the US affect a British author?
The US market is so huge and powerful that it can dominate the whole publishing landscape —particularly in YA. I know I'm incredibly lucky to still be writing YA right now, when it seems only the American books go big. I try not to think about anything to do with 'industry' or 'markets' when I write, and just tell the truth about my character's lives. It seems to be working so far!
It is well known that many of the events that take place in your books—especially in The Spinster Club trilogy—are deeply rooted in personal experiences. Do you take some kind of safety distance when doing that or do you always put the story first no matter what?
I've never written anything truly autobiographical, as that would be too strange. But there are fragments of me scattered in all my books—a funny joke I overheard once, a recipe for scrambled eggs, Easter Eggs I leave in the prose for my fiancé to find. And, I only write about deeper, darker parts of my life when I've had enough time to metabolise them, so I can do the issues justice, without bias.
Plenty of those experiences contain negative emotions that arise from the sexism ingrained in our society. We know that you are in favour of the power of anger and that being angry doesn't necessarily mean that you cannot also keep on laughing out loud and enjoying life. How can we find strength in our anger to continue fighting, without putting ourselves (and our mental health) in danger (as it is the case of Lottie in What's a Girl Gotta Do? or April in Pretending)?
I did a counselling course recently where my tutor told me that laughter is actually a great anger management strategy. There's something so powerful about being able to poke fun at, and laugh at, something that is causing you hugely potent emotions. That's why I try to write funny books about dark topics, as I believe it's such an effective way of getting my readers to engage with serious issues, without being too dragged down by them. As for protecting your mental health, I think it's about accepting you can't be angry and fighting the system all the time. You can just live too, let other people do the work that day. Being a girl and living your life with joy, and without compromising who you are, is activism too.
While The Places I've Cried in Public has already been published in Spain (thanks to La Galera), we are still eagerly waiting for your two previous YA standalone novels to be translated—both of which we have read in English and adored—: It Only Happens in the Movies and Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes?. Do you think that there is something that sets them apart from your previous books?
Olive in Are We All Lemmings And Snowflakes? is definitely the spikiest character I've ever written. And I'm proud of what I've achieved with that book, in how you are really in the head of someone with BiPolar disorder.
It Only Happens In The Movies is just a joy. I had such fun writing it, and readers seem to have a lot of fun reading it.
Mental health has always been key in your writing, but what we have noticed is that sex-positivity is becoming as central. Do you think that it is important that a greater number of 'honest' sex scenes are being written by young women in YA for girls (and boys) to read? Why?
It would be insane to ignore the huge influence pornography has on the sex lives of young people, and it's so important to fight the damage narratives that porn can give people. They need to see more normal, healthy, safe sex. And when I say 'safe sex', I mean sex that is emotionally safe between two people, as well as sex with a condom. In sex education, we only really cover the biological bits of sex—like the body parts, STDs and pregnancy risks, whereas it's vital for young people's sexual wellbeing that they understand the emotional bits too. Power dynamics, consent, relationship skills, boundaries etc.
People insist on thinking that sex scenes are what differentiate the YA production of a writer from her adult fiction. Having already written two adult novels, what do you have to say in that regard?
I'm not sure it is sex scenes that set them apart. The differences I notice, as someone who writes both, are that adult characters can be less likeable, you can swear more, and, you don't feel such a huge responsibility to safeguard the readers of adult fiction. When I write YA, I remind myself daily that these books are for children, and the books must be safe for them.
As we have previously mentioned, mental health has always been present in your work. How far do you think literature has come in terms of said topic? What impact would you like your production to have, especially novels like Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes? and The Places I've Cried in Public?
To me, the most important development in our understanding of mental illness is seeing it as a response to trauma. Developmental trauma, societal trauma, and the traumas that happen to us throughout our lives if we are unlucky. I'm hoping that literature will catch up with this and move away from a diagnostic view of mental illness—seeing characters as 'ill'. And rather show the reasons a character with mental illness may have come to be that way.
In 2021, with the release of your next book, The Yearbook, you will have published ten YA books in less than a decade with Usborne. What is your reflection on these eight years?
Absolute profound gratitude to my readers for loving my stories, and letting me have the best job in the world.
To wrap things up, what other projects do you have in mind?
I'm currently writing my third adult novel, and all I can say is it's about toxic female jealousy. It's quite tricky. I've figured out that people hardly ever vocalise their jealousy out loud, instead it tends to manifest in our outward behaviours. So, to be in my protagonist's head and to see their jealous stream-of-consciousness, feels way too revealing and intimate. I'm having fun with it.
Thank you very much, Holly, for answering our questions.