Waiting for Callback is a witty new teen novel that much impressed Books for Keeps reviewer Geoff Fox. The story of 15-year-old Elektra James as she ventures into the world of acting, it’s written by a mother and daughter duo, Perdita and Honor Cargill. What was the writing process we wondered, and what’s it like to write a book with your mum? Geraldine Brennan interviewed the authors for us.
It’s only when writing a teenage novel with your mother, perhaps, that you would be offered the following happy ending: would-be actress gets dream role but turns it down to concentrate on GCSEs.
‘The North London mothers would have loved that,’ says former barrister Perdita Cargill, who has just published Waiting for Callback with her 17-year-old daughter Honor. ‘But strangely enough, Honor wouldn’t go for it. She also wouldn’t let me write the party scene, because I referred to ‘snogging’. Apparently nobody says that now.’
‘Can you imagine?’ says Honor. ‘How embarrassing.’ Waiting for Callback is steeped in embarrassment, with narrator Elektra suffering the regular angst related to boys, bitchy girls and friendship hiccups while also forging a career as an actress, which requires unheard-of levels of embarrassment on a daily basis.
Until, like Elektra and her creator, you have had a director intervene in your first kiss ever, you don’t know the meaning of the word. ‘I was 13 and in a production of Spring Awakening at the Edinburgh Festival, and the boy left the show soon after.’ Honor dipped a toe into professional acting in her primary school years, training with Young Actors Theatre (formerly Anna Scher).
Her tales from castings and (occasionally) film sets informed Waiting for Callback, so the glimpses of indie films shot in freezing warehouses, the 12-hour days fuelled by crisps, the upbeat but firm emails from Elektra’s agent and the many hurdles to jump on the way to playing a hyperactive squirrel in a commercial all ring true. Especially the waiting.
‘It was suggested that ‘Waiting’ wasn’t an exciting enough word for a title, but there is nothing passive about actors waiting,’ says Perdita. ‘You wait and wait for callbacks and second callbacks and if you get a job and you get on set there’s more waiting, and it’s all you do and it can make you feel hysterical.’ Like Elektra’s mother, Perdita has lost large chunks of her life to chaperoning Honor at auditions, and waiting. ‘I didn’t feel comfortable in that world, but Honor would see the funny side. When we were laughing about her stories at home we realised that there was potential for a book.’
Honor coped with the demands of the business because, ‘I knew I didn’t want to do it forever. I just enjoyed it and I was able to chill somehow. I was the queen of callbacks. I had seven callbacks for a big film role, got to the last two and didn’t get it. I was often down to the last two. You have to learn to get over the disappointment. It is very hard if your life is about getting the jobs or if even you are successful but don’t really want to do it. Elektra is determined and talented and works hard, but on top of that you need to be lucky.’
With plans to study archaeology and classical civilisation, Honor is now waiting for callbacks from university interviews but still enjoys performing in school plays, currently The School for Scandal with a 1950s setting. In her final school year, writing is mainly confined to the holidays but she often manages 20-minute bursts of dialogue between classes. ‘I’m dyslexic and I find scripts easier to read than straight texts, so I find it easy to let dialogue and text conversations flow.’ Meanwhile Perdita works on the story structure and the pair exchange and edit drafts by email.
‘I heard that Jodie Picoult sits side by side with her daughter to write but we can’t do that, we’d drive each other mad,’ says Perdita. ‘We spend quite enough time together as it is. The writing is done separately although the story emerges from us talking in the kitchen. Honor is my teenage filter when we revise. I couldn’t believe that Elektra would ignore three texts from her mother in a row but Honor assured me that she would.’
The playful downtime spirit in which Honor has created Elektra’s voice infuses the text. While Elektra’s ambition and emotional journey guarantees high stakes, there is a lot of sitcom-style enjoyment and a truly happy ending (until the next audition). ‘It’s a holiday book, and I’m not apologising for that,’ says Honor. ‘I wanted to write something you can pick up when you’ve had a horrible day.’
The pair are in the final stretch of writing the sequel, in which Elektra appears to be closer than ever to the big break: what can possibly go wrong?
‘We’ve got till the end of February to finish and we’re really relieved there’s an extra day this year,’ says Honor.
‘Then definitely no more till after exams,’ says her mother.
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education. She regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.
Waiting for Callback by Perdita and Honor Cargill is published by Simon and Schuster, 978-1-4711-4483-7, £6.99.