Five years on from Sophie McKenzie’s award-winning bestseller, Girl, Missing, heroine Lauren is back – older, wiser and still ready for action. Damian Kelleher talks to Sophie McKenzie about Sister, Missing.
DK: It’s been five years since Girl, Missing which was the book that kicked it all off for you, Sophie.
SM: Yes, it was the first book I finished, and it was the first book that got published, and I was incredibly fortunate that it continues to sell well and is as successful as it is. It has enabled me to do so much more off the back of it. I didn’t ever expect there to be a sequel but then I had an idea about a year ago while watching the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo. I took one little element and thought about it for a while and then after a couple of days I had a short synopsis. And I thought this would really work as a sequel for Girl, Missing.
DK: When you wrote Girl, Missing did you have any inkling of how popular it would become?
SM: I had no idea I would even get a publisher! There’s a great freedom in writing without knowing if you’re getting published because you really are writing for yourself. Whilst I’d say that’s at the heart of what I do, I’m very aware now of the expectations of having an agent, of having a publisher, of having readers, of having fans.
DK: It’s changed completely for you?
SM: I wouldn’t say it’s changed completely because I’m still writing books to please myself. I’m not sure how anyone could do it any other way. If you try and write something you think other people want, it’s surely going to lack conviction; it’s like putting on a coat that doesn’t fit. The story has to come from the inside out, if you do it a different way I don’t think it would work so well. I had three jobs back when I wrote Girl, Missing – as an editor for a newsletter, as a creative writing teacher, and I also worked as a receptionist at a Pilates studio. I still go there – but no longer as the receptionist!
DK: The success you’ve enjoyed means you can now focus on what you love doing most – the writing?
SM: I’m incredibly lucky that what I have written has meant that has happened. That’s to do with the kind of stuff I write being what people want to read, and also being really well supported by my publisher. Authors have to do more than just write the book. I’ve met some authors who think their job ends when they hand in the manuscript. It’s a business, and you’re wise to see yourself as part of a business and not just as an artist who’s living the dream.
DK: Being an author now is a much more multi-faceted role, isn’t it?
SM: Yes, and you fail to embrace that at your peril, I think. However it’s not just you doing that – your publisher really has to be supportive as well. But the biggest factor that gets books read is word of mouth recommendation – there’s no substitute for that snowball effect.
DK: You do work incredibly hard though, don’t you?
SM: I’d like to say it’s hard work but the truth is, I enjoy it. I absolutely love writing. It is no great hardship for me to get up in the morning and write. I also enjoy the other aspects – the school visits for instance. I’m not a natural performer, but I’m not shy. I was nervous the first few times I did author talks but if you’re still nervous and shy after you’ve done 20 or 30 visits then maybe it isn’t for you. The trick is to do it your own way – not everyone can be Andy Stanton who is so phenomenally brilliant! I couldn’t do that in a million years but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have something to offer too.
DK: Going into schools is also a good way to meet your readers isn’t it?
SM: The great opportunity when you’re going into schools is to hear what they have to say – I love the questions they’ll ask. Your readers’ questions are generally so much more interesting that the ones adults ask. They’re unconstrained by an adult perception of what writing a book is about. So sometimes you get delightfully naïve questions, but other times, very direct, pertinent questions that really need thinking about. I’ve probably averaged one school visit a week during term times and I’m still getting questions that nobody else has asked. I love that freshness and enthusiasm.
DK: Sister, Missing is set two years on from Girl, Missing, but it’s five years since you wrote the book. How have things changed?
SM: Coming back after a five year gap, I knew that I was going to approach it very differently from the way I wrote it originally. That gap between 14 and 16 is one where kids can change quite a lot, so that was quite a safety net for me. Lauren has the same fundamental personality but when I came to write it, that stuff all fell into place very easily it seemed.
DK: And this time it’s Lauren’s younger sister Madison who goes missing. Are you worried people might draw comparisons to Madeleine McCann?
SM: When I wrote Girl, Missing, Madeleine McCann hadn’t gone missing. I picked the name Madison for Lauren’s little sister because it was a very American name that I quite liked at the time. All of that is coincident. Obviously I couldn’t change Madison’s name, but she was abbreviated to Maddie in Girl, Missing and I did change that for this book because I didn’t want there to be any echo of that real life event. It would have been totally inappropriate – it was such an awful thing to happen. So Madison’s nickname in Sister, Missing is now Mo rather than Maddie. I was just trying to be sensitive to what is after all, every parent’s worst nightmare.
DK: Your books are always great page-turners. Does that mean you put a lot of time and effort into the plotting?
SM: Apart from parenting, it’s the hardest thing in the world! I need to know before I start what the story is; it needs to be more than just an interesting situation. I have to have some idea of how things are going to change and develop. I usually write down five big points – let’s call them markers. I think of it that instead of being this overwhelming plot mountain, there’s a series of hills; that makes it more manageable. I have an overall structure before I begin and then I plan the sections a little more before I write them. I always try and leave some room for manoeuvre because if I know everything that’s going to happen before I write, it’s a little bit dull for me. I have this huge banner in my head that I always think: is it unexpected, and is it convincing? That’s always my aim. If your story is predictable, it’s boring, but also to be convincing you have to stay true to the parameters of the story.
DK: There must have been great pressure on you as a writer to make sure your sequel was up to the original, too?
SM: I have huge respect for the people who are reading my books. I think you make a contract with them. I’m asking them to pick up my book and if I don’t give them the pay-off they want by the end of the book, I’ve let them down. I’ve written sequels before and Girl, Missing is probably my most successful book, so it is a particular responsibility to make sure I’m giving them a similar experience while making sure it’s a fresh story. I don’t like sequels that go off on a tangent, or sequels that repeat exactly what’s been done before. I’ve done sequels so I knew what I wanted; I hope it works.
DK: You’re won almost every award out there, it seems. Is there one you’d still like to win?
SM: I’ve won it! Red House is the award to win – it’s huge, it’s national, it’s voted for by kids, and Blood Ties won it two years ago. I think awards are great for opening up discussions about reading.
DK: Did you win lots of prizes at school?
SM: I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve ever won prizes for anything. I did win a second best hyacinth award when I was about seven. I was chuffed about that! No, I’d never won prizes and awards for anything before I started writing. The validation of being published is phenomenal, and winning awards, well it’s just the cherry on top of the cake!
DK: Is Sister, Missing the last we’ll hear of Lauren?
SM: No! It can be revealed – my plan is to write another book but next time from Madison’s point of view. I’ve always been interested in her – she’s a little dreamier and quieter and more creative than Lauren, and she’s had this horrific childhood. It’s all very embryonic at the moment so I don’t even have a title, but it will be set about five, six years on from Sister, Missing. Madison will be about 14, and Lauren will appear as a young adult? Will she still be going out with Jam? We’ll see…
Sister, Missing (978 0 8570 7288 7) is published by Simon & Schuster at £9.99 hbk and Girl, Missing (978 1 4169 1732 8) is published by Simon & Schuster at £6.99 pbk.
Damian Kelleher’s latest book, Life, Interrupted (978 1 8481 2003 7) is published by Piccadilly at £6.99.