Sophia Bennett has made a name for herself writing teen fiction that presents the dilemmas, trials and preoccupations of teenage girls in a way that is both immersive and enjoyable. ‘Real holiday reads’ she says deprecatingly. But this is to underestimate her books. She presents characters with whom her readers can identify and sets them in the glamourous worlds they would love to inhabit. Her first novel Threads and its sequel Beads looked at the world of fashion; The Look took modelling for its inspiration while her latest novel, Love Song takes us into the world of music and boy bands.
Why writing? This was the first question that came to mind when I met Sophia. She thinks it came out of her childhood. As part of an army family she grew up in countries distant from England – Malaysia and Hong Kong – and as a result experienced a great deal of change, and often isolation and loneliness too. In Hong Kong in particular it was the tiny mobile library, ‘the size of an ice-cream van’, that was a life saver. The stock was old fashioned but she was allowed to read anything – all of Nancy Drew she remembers – and did. ‘I just piled through books – they were my refuge’. It was then she realised that she wanted to create worlds in which readers could lose themselves. ‘I had this image of seeing someone just lost in a book, and it would be a book I’d written.’
And indeed it is easy to get lost in Sophia’s books. They have strong storylines and a sense of structure that reminds one of favourite childhood authors. Sophia agrees. Her particular favourite was The Family from One End Street. She loved that Eve Garnett’s family was a happy one. Like Garnett, Sophia writes about girls facing the challenges of everyday life, rather than exploring the extremes. ‘I don’t tend to go to the edges; I am fascinated by them but I don’t go there myself and I think it comes back to that childhood reading – those happy families’. Indeed in keeping with the authors she loved – she cites Lorna Hill and Noel Streatfeild too – Sophia is interested in portraying girls who have a goal but who have to work to reach it. Nina the heroine of Love Song may have fallen for Jamie but she recognises the dangerous nature of the glamourous world he inhabits. She is a talented artist and whatever transpires is determined to fulfil her own ambitions.
Sophia then places her very contemporary protagonists within the strict framework of the romantic novel without allowing it to dominate. Was this a conscious choice? ‘It happened; it kind of forced itself upon me.’ Though she had always wanted to be a writer, she deliberately avoided going on a writing course, ‘I didn’t want to have too many formal structures in my head, I wanted to make my own way’. As a teen she had read many romances, so was aware of the tropes – that boy and girl meet in the first chapter, that there must be a twist and so on. The first book she offered to Chicken House was to have been, in her words, ‘The Bodyguard with Caitlin Moran as Kevin Costner and Harry Styles as Whitney Houston!’ When she wrote the novel that became Threads however, it turned into something completely different – ‘fighting her all the way’ – a love story.
How does she choose the settings for her novels? Does she have to do a great deal of research? Not really except for the locations in her first novels with their fashion settings. She herself would have loved to have been a costume designer if she had known it could be a career and has a wide knowledge of fashion trivia – how Yves St Laurent got his first job with Dior for example – so those books were quite easy. A young fan asked her about the modelling world. Wondering whether this was healthy or unhealthy led to The Look and she had to do a great deal of work into that background. The music world, the setting for Love Song, was not difficult. She says she spends far too much time on YouTube and has a fund of pop trivia. The Beatles and their world provided much of the inspiration – especially the levels of fan devotion which was something she wanted to celebrate. However, the contemporary background was inspired by One Direction and the relentless pressure of performing. ‘It came from watching One Direction and loving the interplay between them … but you just can’t be so happy all the time. What’s it really like being you? I was fascinated by that.’ She imagines what it must be like to be four very different, very gorgeous, young men forced together day in day out, on public show whether performing or resting. Into the mix comes practical Nina who despite herself is attracted to one of the group. But he is already spoken for by the beautiful but appalling Sigrid. The hothouse setting allows the creation of extreme characters but even here Sophia introduces an element of vulnerability which makes the monstrous believable. The happy ending required by the romantic novel is also tempered by realism, an awareness that the relationship is not set in stone. This introduces an interesting element of grit. Sophia agrees ‘I really wanted the grit to be there’. She had been horrified reading fan fiction, much very well written, to find that the story would end with the girl in the traditional role of wife. She was keen to provide a different role model within the genre; the idea that life held different possibilities.
Song writing is an integral part of the Love Song story. Was this important to Sophia? Certainly when younger she had written poetry but ‘I didn’t think I would be any good at song writing, but I had to do it: when I wanted to quote a song I discovered you have to pay for the right!’ But she enjoyed it. Within the novel the collaboration required in writing songs enabled her to portray the strong friendships that are so important in this world of the boy band.
The book is full of references to the songs that have inspired her – by Blondie, Led Zeppelin and Muddy Waters among others. These are all listed in the back of the novel. In fact, Sophia is delighted to report that the novel will have its own QR code that will allow young readers to access this playlist. Sophia’s enthusiasm is infectious. Now I want to listen too!
Ferelith Hordon is active member of CILIP YLG and has served as Chair of both YLG London and of the National Committee. She is editor of Books for Keeps and of IBBYLink, the online journal of IBBY UK.
Love Song, Sophia Bennett, Chicken House Books, 978-1910002728, £6.99
Threads, Sophia Bennett, Chicken House Books, 978-1910002940, £6.99
Beads, Sophia Bennett, Chicken House Books, 978-1910002957, £6.99
The Look, Sophia Bennett, Chicken House Books, 978-1906427917, £6.99
The Family from One End Street, Eve Garnett, Chicken House Books, 978-0141355504, £6.99