‘Teen books will always be the most important books’ – Geek Girl’s Holly Smale

Holly Smale is the author of Geek Girl, a teen book series that follows the comic adventures of a high-school girl turned high-fashion model. Smale – herself a former model – returns to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year for the release of Forever Geek, the final book in the series. Broadway Baby’s Carly Brown sat down with her to discuss travel, writing from a teenage perspective and why teen books are so important.

I want to encourage girls to get out there and be adventurous

The Geek Girl series has sold over a million copies and connected with readers around the world. When asked about how she writes from a compelling teenage point of view, Smale explains, ‘There is a part of me that is still very young at heart. So I don’t find it that hard to remember what it was like to be fifteen. Some days it’s too easy and I’m concerned for my thirty five year-old self! But it’s about remembering those emotions, how fresh and heightened everything is, how raw. It’s terrifying and exciting in equal measure. Everything is momentous. Everything matters when you’re that age.’

One place Smale won’t be turning to as a source of inspiration are her own teenage diaries. They ‘are excruciating. I think some people are under the impression that I’ve just gone and published diaries from when I was fifteen. I really wish that was true. I’d be a lot less work. They basically were so utterly dramatic. Every day was the end of the world.’

One of the main features of the Geek Girl series is travel. Throughout the books, the protagonist, Harriet Manners, leaves her home in England and travels to various foreign destinations – New York, Japan, Morocco – through her modeling. Smale herself has travelled extensively and, for her, travel is central to the series. ‘At the start of the books, [Harriet’s] life is quite limited. Travel, as well as modeling, opened her eyes. It forced her to meet other characters that she wouldn’t meet otherwise. It also forced her to experience new things and understand how small her position in the world really was. For me, that’s what happened with travelling. As cliché as it sounds, travel really does put things in perspective. It’s exciting, interesting, and adventurous. It’s also really fun to write about. And I want to encourage girls to get out there and be adventurous. So travel was pivotal and it will remain pivotal in my writing.’

Another element of the books is Harriet’s frequent recitation of facts (‘Humans have 70,000 thoughts per day.’ ‘Caterpillars have four thousand muscles.’) Smale talked about how she went about researching and utilizing these facts in her books. ‘When I started writing Harriet, one of the key points of her narrative voice from the start was this use of facts. Facts are how Harriet sees the world and how she makes sense of it. Sometimes they are metaphors. There are always reasons for them. They’re never just thrown in – that would be pointless and boring. Sometimes, before I started to write, I would go through fact books, dictionaries, documentaries and encyclopedias. Anything that I could get my hands on. I’d read a fact and think, That’s going to be used to express Harriet’s embarrassment or her anger. Then I saved them up.’

‘I think some people thought that I just wrote the book and then dropped the facts in, but it wouldn’t have worked like that. It just wouldn’t have been a narrative voice. It wouldn’t have been smooth and it wouldn’t have been funny.’

Geek Girl’s fact-reciting heroine is brainy, academic and a self-professed ‘geek’. Smale wanted the books to be a ‘defense of smart girls’. ‘I was super smart and academic at school. I was ashamed of it, because I was made to feel ashamed of it.’ With Geek Girl, she wanted to celebrate ‘girls who have opinions and who aren’t prepared to just be quiet about them.’

This is Smale’s first series and her next book will also be for teenagers. ‘For me, teen books will always be the most important books and I will defend them to my last breath.’ She believes books are a powerful force in shaping the lives of teenagers. ‘It’s easy to get lost as a teenager because you don’t have the guidance of experience. There’s so many confusions and identity issues. You’re working out so many things from scratch. So it’s an incredibly important time. There’s never a time where you can have so much influence on the reader and provide so much inspiration. Teenagers are desperate to find anything that can comfort them, that can tell them they’re doing something right, or that there are people like them and they’re not alone. And if [books] can help them in any way – even small ways, like laughing when they’re sad – or help them find confidence, strength, purpose and inspiration, that’s a massive privilege for me. If you can write books that mean something to a teenager, they are going to love them for the rest of their lives.’

Photo: HarperCollins Children’s Books