The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Karen McCombie

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Karen McCombie

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Summary: Here at Bookbag we've always been big fans of Karen McCombie and we particularly enjoyed Life According to... Alice B. Lovely so it was a real pleasure to ask her a few questions.
Date: 18 May 2012
Interviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James

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Here at Bookbag we've always been big fans of Karen McCombie and we particularly enjoyed Life According to... Alice B. Lovely so it was a real pleasure to ask her a few questions.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Karen McCombie: I see wide eyes and smiles. It's those certain girls in the audience at my school, library or festival talks who absolutely get my books - I can spot them a mile off, and they gladden my heart! Even after years of doing talks, I still feel a shy-girl knot of awkwardness when I'm standing on my own in front of people. But as soon as I gaze out and see a tell-tale reader, I relax and feel at home.

  • BB: You've written about lots of wonderful main characters - with Edie in Life According to... Alice B. Lovely being one of my favourites, along with Ally from Ally's World, Stella from Stella Etc, and Lemmie from Marshmallow Magic And The Wild Rose Rouge. Out of all of your characters, who's most like you as a young girl?

KM: Before I launched into writing the 'Ally's World' series, I rediscovered, re-read and cringed my way though my childhood and teenage diaries, so I guess a lot of Ally Love's personality is based on me, aged thirteen - worrying, goofing up and trying to hide my shyness with jokes. And I guess her lifestyle was one I'd have adored myself at that age; her family might be slightly chaotic, but I love the ditziness of her rambling, crumbling house, the bustle of brothers, sisters and wonky pets. I was an only child growing up in a calm household with zero pets. It was a happy time, but I ached for some eccentricity, which is why I decorated my room like a hippy-fied Victoriana parlour, despite living on the 15th floor of a tower block. Oh, and we can't forget Ally's space cadet sister Rowan... I may have dressed a little like her, I guess! I always accessorised my school uniform with vintage shoes, antique fingerless gloves and lots of black eyeliner. (School was not impressed...)

  • BB: In addition to those fabulous main characters, you also have a real talent for creating memorable siblings - Stan and Edie are wonderful together, while I was hooked on Ally's World by the wonderful relationship between Ally, Rowan, Linn and Tor. Who are your favourite pair, or group, of siblings from another author's book?

KM: Somewhere in my head is a flower-covered alter, with the book 'Catcher In The Rye' by JD Salinger propped right in the middle. I <heart> the useless and wonderful central character Holden Caulfield so much. And you've got to love a teenage boy who adores his diddy kid sister (Phoebe)...

  • BB: You started off as an author writing books for older teens, but over the last few years you've become hugely successful writing for younger teens and tweens. What made you decide to focus on books for this age range?

KM: I guess I didn't so much decide as got asked if I'd like to. And when I thought about it, yep, I knew I really would like to! I suppose I began with older teens because I worked for years on teenage magazines, and had that mind-set seared into my head. But having my own daughter made me glide really easily into writing slightly younger books, especially 'Indie Kidd' and 'You, Me and Thing'. That said, I know a lot of my older readers love to zip through those shorter books. After all, it's the same humour and the same sensibility, only with pretty brilliant illustrations added!

  • BB: I absolutely love your website with your blog, wallpapers, links to advice sites, and much much more. How important do you think it is for an author these days to have an active web presence?

KM: Up until only a few years ago, authors were almost invisible people. Readers might passionately love a book, but know absolutely nothing about the person who wrote it, unless there happened to be a paragraph about them tucked on a fly-leaf or back page. It seems weird to imagine that now, but it makes sense to let readers know who you are. You wouldn't expect a band to put out a record anonymously. And being more interactive isn't just positive for readers... authors spend most of their time alone in a room in front of a computer. Having a way to connect with your audience - to get feedback - is fantastic. I'll often read an enthusiastic e-mail and think "Yes! I AM doing it right!!".

  • BB: Do you listen to music when you write? If so, could you share with us the soundtrack to Life According To... Alice B. Lovely, or any of your other books?

KM: I'd love to listen to music while I write, but I just can't do it - I start listening to the lyrics or dancing. Though I often have a crush on a certain album or band around the time a book is being written, which tends to help me give it a background vibe, even if it's not one that's readers are remotely aware of! During 'Alice B. Lovely', I was obsessed with 'Infinite Arms' by Band of Horses, which is full of guitars and songs that are uplifting and sad and funny and beautiful. I could imagine spiky Edie blasting them on her headphones as she buries her head in a book and tries to ignore her warring parents and the strange presence of Alice B. Lovely...

  • BB: I know that you're appearing at Hay next month to talk about You, Me and Thing. What's the best thing about being at a festival?

KM: Being allowed out! Like I say, it's a solitary life being a writer; in fact I'm typing this in my local garden centre cafe, just because it's nice to have people drifting around me when I work! Visiting schools and libraries makes for a welcome change of venue, and festivals are the best, because you get to the chance meet other authors. We're like some rare breed who sometimes bump into each other and go "Ooh, there are others like me! How exciting!". Then it's back on the train and home to our little back bedrooms, dreaming up new worlds, characters and books.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment?

KM: There's never enough time in the day, the week, the month, etc to do all the things I want to do more of. And of course one of those things is read more. Isn't it ironic that I loved books so much I wanted to tell my own stories, and now that I work full-time as a writer, I don't have the luxury of time to read as much as I'd like. Having said that, I've just finished 'My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece' by Annabel Pitcher, and it was v. v. v. good.

  • BB: If you could have three wishes, what would they be for?

KM: 1. Crisps infused with vitamins.

2. Another day in the week (Thurnesday?).

3. A fringe that would behave itself and sit nicely at all times.

  • BB: What's next for Karen McCombie?

KM: I'm currently writing a new novel for Scholastic, to be followed by some more 'You, Me and Thing's for Faber, a book for the lovely Barrington Stoke (who specialise in books for readers with dyslexia), plus a new project too. That's the big stuff. But what's next right now is another mug of latte from the lovely staff at the garden centre cafe, and a packet of crisps, even though I know I shouldn't...

  • BB: Thanks for chatting to us, Karen - and we'll see if we can do something about that fringe.

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