I managed to eat most of Cathy’s sandwiches when we first met at Offsprings’ secondary school about five years ago. I hope she doesn’t remember, or even better, that she never noticed. For someone who writes books featuring 14 to 16-year-olds, she does it in such a way as to have oldies like me hanging on to her latest book, as though I was very much younger. There’s something about Cathy’s characters… Fun and friendly girls, and some sensible boys, plus one or two quite fanciable ones. I have been known to plague her with questions about the love affairs when I can’t wait to find out, and she’s always happy to help.
Cathy is also a lady who did a lot before becoming a teen author, which she then uses in her writing.
‘I’m struck by how much of your pre-author life you put into your books.’
‘Yes, yes I do.’
‘You are like a blend of all these people. There’s even your rock star past…’
Cathy laughs. ‘A little bit, yes. This is because I’m so old and have done so many different things.’
‘There’s the aromatherapy and the relationship stuff. You actually do relationship advice in all your series, don’t you?’
‘I think they like that. I did Mates, Dates & Flirting, and it’s not in a lot of the bookshops, but a couple of the girls today said “have you written any books with tips about boys?” So I said yes, but I do try to put it into the stories as well. So it’s not like ten top tips.’
‘What I like so much is that you do the agony aunt bit, but incorporated into the stories.’
‘Yes, I hope it is quite hidden. Someone else asked me today if I intend to write morals in the books, and I hope there is a positive message, but not too blatant, so they’ll think they’re being lectured.’
‘I don’t think so. It’s more of the “you can say no” or “you don’t have to starve yourself if you go on a diet”, etc.’
‘It’s all the stuff I’ve learnt at my old age. One of the lovely librarians said “I think your books should be in the self-help section, as much as the fiction section.’”
‘This is it. A lot of people who haven’t read you, think that you’re just girly and pink and fluffy, but that’s not true.’
‘I notice in the new book you’re back to your astrology again.’
The photographer says ‘that’s always fun.’
‘It probably is. I’m just a bit cynical…’
‘What sign are you?’
‘Well you would be, wouldn’t you?’ We laugh loudly.
‘So do you actually live according to astrology?’
‘I read a lot about it, and got quite into it in my early twenties, and I still occasionally have my horoscope done. It’s nice when something happens that they say, but not read too much into it. My brother who is the most cynical, says any sign can read anything into what’s written. When you want characters, you’ve got twelve ready-made, very different characters. Picking Jess for Million Dollar Mates I just knew she’s a Sagittarian.’
‘Do you know that by heart; you don’t have to read it up?’
‘I know all the signs, and also because I wrote the series Zodiac Girls.’
‘I haven’t read all of those.’
‘I have only done eight.’
‘Are there going to be more?’
‘Not at the moment, because that was Macmillan and then I moved to Simon & Schuster. People keep asking “when are you going to do the cancer one” or… I’ve done the Scorpio one. Can’t remember what it’s called.’ She laughs. ‘It’s appalling. Someone asked me today what the Aries one was called and I didn’t know. Somebody had to look it up for me. But it’s been a long week.’ We giggle at this.
‘I’m not surprised. So you weren’t contracted to do all twelve?’
‘I wasn’t, no. Double Trouble! That’s what it’s called, about the twins. I’m not going completely barking mad. If you do astrology properly it’s such a complicated science, and you’ve not just got to know where the sun is, the rising time, where the moon was, where Venus was, Mars, where you were born… There’s a site that does birthcharts for you, free. They do it in five seconds, and it used to cost up to ninety quid to have that done, and they’d be looking it up in all different books.’
‘You put in a lot about clothes and make up, do you think that’s important?’
‘To a degree, yes. I know it is for teenage girls. Really important. It’s something I do in all the books because seeing them all sitting there, particularly Y7, tiny ones, and tall ones, and all the different shapes and sizes, and very few of them are that sort of Kate Moss look that they’re all aspiring to. In Million Dollar Mates, in particular the third one, I really get into that. To feel comfortable in your own skin and feel confident is the message I want to get out. It doesn’t matter what size you are if you’ve got friends, and that’s what people will see.’
‘I wouldn’t mind a few more fat girls. The most you do is sort of curvy, and they still look good in the clothes they wear. When is the next one coming out?
‘Paparazzi Princess will be out in December. I’ve just finished that one and handed it in. It’s like handing your homework in. Still.’
‘Is it going to be two a year?’
‘How many books are planned?’
‘Four, so far. I think we’ll see how it goes. If I start another series after that, or whether we call it a day at four.’
‘Are you going to change the main character?’
‘No, it’ll be Jess all through. She’ll meet the various people from the upstairs world, and that’s why I picked that location. Having done so many teenage books before, I thought it allows for more interesting storylines, because I’ve covered just about every aspect of teenage life that there is, from diet to image, from bullying to friends, relationships. There’s not many places in the world where you get that “upstairs downstairs” scenario any more.’
‘It’s based on a couple of real ones in London, where the apartments do start at £14 million. There was an article about it in the paper, and what I thought was interesting was that reading up on them, both sets of teens want what the other’s got. The daughters of these oligarchs, they are longing for the freedom that Jess has, whereas normal teenagers think that happiness lies in having the Prada and Chanel. Happiness isn’t where you think it will be. The search for feeling good; getting a new dress or losing two stone. I think that will come through strongly in all the books.
I’m going to put Jess through a modelling competition in the third book. I thought that would be the ideal place to address that stuff. I was watching Britain’s Next Top Model last night, and my father said “how can you watch this rubbish?”, but it’s such good material. These most beautiful girls are getting criticised. They all look stunning, but they are told “your teeth aren’t right, your hair’s not right”, all that stuff that causes so much angst. If you feel happy in your own skin, it should be all that you need. But it’s not, because there’s the magazines and the pressure to look a particular way.’
‘What sort of research did you do for Million Dollar Mates?’
‘I was very lucky in that my husband knows the managing director of a similar apartment block – not no. 1 Hyde Park that I based it on – but one up the road. When I explained I wasn’t actually looking as a journalist for any gossip, but just wanted to get the details right, this guy showed me round, and he couldn’t have been nicer. He couldn’t show me any of the apartments, but he explained to me the sort of people who live there, and the other thing with this sort of location is that it’s international, you get everybody there. Because they’re serviced, finding out the different services they provide, from the helicopter at three o’clock in the morning. That was very very useful.
Some of the shops; that was quite interesting. Going up Sloane Street, and some of the shops I’ve never dared go into, because you feel funny. These big bodyguards, you know, with mike and stuff. A little bit of reading. I’ve got a really good book called 740 Park, and it’s about a similar apartment block in Manhattan, and the different types of money, new money, old money, oil money, and all the different stories of what went on there.
I sort of wanted to up the glam stakes a bit, because looking at the American teen stuff, it’s so aspirational. I mean ridiculously so, everybody’s beautiful and rich. You look at Glee, all super talented and super gorgeous, and Gossip Girls, their clothes are just ridiculous, and then you look at our teenage stuff here, and you’ve got Skins, where they’re all out of their heads, or conked out. They’re all seriously messed up, downing the vodka and cutting themselves. So I wanted to do something kind of aspirational, but like you said, down-to-earth, with a message behind it, like is this really what you want? Because when I go round the schools it’s interesting how fascinated by celebrities so many teenagers are. But I thought that if I can tap into that fascination, it’d be good.’
‘I was worried it was going to be too glossy, too much fascination with the rich and famous. Can you see where you’re heading with it?’
‘Well, I’ve made the character of Maddie. The thing is for teenagers these days, the news is very conflicting. You see the news and you see the disasters round the world, but at the same time you’re a teenager, and you want a nice dress. So Jess has got this really rich apartment block where she lives, but her aunt Maddie works with the homeless and that comes through a lot in the second book. She’s aspiring to all this stuff, and then her aunt is really pushing her conscience. At first she crosses the street when she sees a homeless person.’
‘I’ve been quite excited about seeing you, because you strike me as so glamorous,’ we giggle a little, ‘with the way you write and the way I believe the girls worship you.’
‘Some do. For Y9 are going to hit back and are going to be cool, and they do check you out. I found I had to work really hard with them, because they are still those things, like “what the hell do you know about teenagers?” because you’re not their age group. It was OK in the end.’
‘So what do you know about teenagers?’
‘You know,’ she laughs, ‘absolutely nothing. When I started writing I was a bit worried about being out of touch with the clothes and the music and all of that. I try to update and put references in the books, but actually what we had to do in the early Mates Dates is take out all of those references, because they’d have dated the books. And I honestly think that I don’t write for 14-year-olds. I just write the way it comes out, and I think that 14 or 40, it’s the same stuff; like “where do I fit in life? Have I got good friends? Is there a God? Does my bum look big in this?” From the sublime to the ridiculous. Teenagers just seem to like reading it.’
‘Is staying in places like this new?’
‘I’ve never stayed in a place like this one before, I have to say. The other hotels we had on the tour are just nice hotels, but this is something else, it’s like somebody’s private home. This is footballers’ wives’ territory, isn’t it? This road.’
‘Goes with the glamour, doesn’t it? The Queen of Teen; you mentioned it quite a lot on facebook earlier. How important is it?’
‘It’s lovely to be on that shortlist again. The PR department really want me to up the internet presence and it seems to be part of the job of being an author, writing these things. I have to put time aside, to do facebook and twitter, and I keep forgetting to tweet. I try to find something that’s not totally banal. I think one day I’ll say I’ve just had a baked potato. I honestly think that with Jacqueline Wilson and Louise Rennison on the list… I think Louise will probably win again. Queen of Teen is lovely because whether you win or not, you’re one of ten, so every time somebody goes to vote they see the names. It was quite good fun, last time. A bit daft with pink limos and the pink cakes. They should do one for the boys as well, the Prince of Darkness or something.’
‘They said they would, but I haven’t seen anything.’
‘Would be a great way to bring attention to boys’ writers.’
‘You got a lot of close contact with your fans that time. Do people recognise you? Do they come up to you in the street?’
‘No. And I quite like that because, I know you say I’m glamorous, but I normally go around dressed like an old bag lady. I do.’ We laugh helplessly. ‘I could sit in my pyjamas all day and nobody would see me. I don’t see the point really, of getting dressed up. It’s really solitary, writing, and then you go out on a week like this and it’s group after group of 250 people looking at you. Quite a shock.’
‘I suppose they want to touch you and talk to you…’
‘I got a hug today.’
‘You’ve got the kind of age fans who are more likely to want to have a face-to-face with their favourite writer.’
‘Y7 and Y8 are fabulous, with a million questions. By Y9 they’ve got questions, but sometimes they’ve gone back to unspoken things, like we’re not going to ask questions or show that we’re interested. But it only takes one or two of them to put their hands up and then they all join in.’
‘Are most of your fans eleven, twelve?’
‘I’ve got some nine-year-olds, who just love reading books, and some 16, 17-year-olds.’
‘Do you find when they get to Y9 that they give up on you and move on to somebody else, or do early fans stick with you?’
‘I think they do stay. Maybe they move on to other sorts of books, but they still check in to see what I’m up to.’
‘How long do you spend on facebook and things?’
‘It’s very time consuming, actually.’
‘If your typical 13-year-old girl fan wants to be friends with you on facebook you’ll say yes?’
‘Is it mainly facebook now, rather than people contacting you through your website?’
‘They’ve revamped the website, and done a link to Million Dollar Mates. On the last website there was a message board, but it used to get taken up with pages and pages and pages of people discussing who they fancied on the X Factor, and I would have to trawl through the pages to find a genuine question. This time we’ve left it so they can’t leave messages on the website, but they can join me on facebook and they can message me that way.’
‘You were saying you’ve just been sold to Russia. What sort of other countries?’
‘So far with this one it’s mainly Europe, Denmark, Slovakia, Finland, Poland. They’ve just started sending it out.’
‘Have you ever done events abroad?’
‘So they don’t ask?’
‘Denmark asked me. Actually in Denmark I seem to have my most success of all the European countries. They’ve bought every book I’ve written, and they’ve bought this new series too. But they wanted me to go in February and we’d just moved house, so it wasn’t really a good time to go flying off.’
‘I can see that Russia would work well, with the million dollar thing. It’s how we look at the Russians these days.’
‘And there will be a Russian character; Alexei. He’ll be coming in in the next book.’
‘If someone were to ask you – when they’ve read all your books – what else they might read, what would you say?’
‘Probably what I’m reading at the current time. At the moment, I’m reading, I’m loving… Have you read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith?’
‘Yes, I read it last year.’
‘I’m loving it! Absolutely loving it. It’s such a personal thing. Everyone at the moment raving about that trilogy with the Dragon Tattoo, so I read the first one and I just skipped to the end to find out where Harriet had gone. Sorry, did you love it?’
‘My husband loved it, and everybody says the second was even better and the third one better still… But then you see, I don’t like whodunnits and crime thrillers.’
‘OK, that’s all right then.’
‘I’m always very wary of recommending books to people. I could say this is what I’ve enjoyed.’
‘Sometimes you come across people in bookshops who say “well my child has now read everything of this, and what should they read now?” What do you think of your colleagues/competitors, and who would you recommend?’
‘If you want a laugh, read Louise Rennison. If you want to cry read Morris Gleitzman. I try to find out what somebody’s into. I think you can’t beat asking the staff in the bookshops. Do they know their books! And they know much more about what’s out there than I do.’
‘Do you go round looking at teenagers when you’re out? To see what they are like?’
‘I’ve got quite a lot of friends with teenagers, and I do try to keep in touch. Particularly in London the drug scene is quite prevalent, and there is the pressure to take drugs. Also, when I was a teenager, you could walk home from wherever you’d been, not giving it a second thought. These days kids are ferried. There are gangs out there, there are knives and all of that going on, so that’s new. And thinking about bullying. I keep in touch mainly with my friends who have got teenagers. They’re all very different but I do get an idea of the pressure at school. The pressure was always there, but there were jobs at the end. So it’s not the same for them to study. But otherwise it’s the same stuff; where do I fit, what does it take to be happy, friendship. For that age, your peer group is so important.’
‘You always have them end up in a group, so if it’s about an outsider, they end up as part of the group. You don’t really have any losers. Is that to give them hope?’
‘Yes, because in Cinnamon Girl India Jane came to the school as an outsider, and did go through agony in that first term, thinking she’d never fit in. So I wanted to write something positive about that. If you want to have a friend, be a friend. You’re not to sit at home and blame everybody, you have to make an effort.’
I say I can’t keep up with all Cathy’s books, having only read the first Cinnamon Girl. There are now four in total. And something else we’ve found in Cathy’s books is the way ‘you decorate the girls’ rooms.’
‘Does it look like that in your own house?’
‘I think I’m a frustrated interior designer. It’s our first house, and we’re really enjoying decorating. I must say I do really love sourcing stuff. I’m the queen of eBay, and I love picking colours…’
‘Do you have a Moroccan style room?’
‘We have got one with a lot of Indian stuff in it. I do like that Eastern influence, definitely.’
‘Where do you buy your clothes? Do you go to the cool places, that your girls go to, or do you go to posh shops?’
‘I get a lot on the internet. I sit in front of the computer all day. Bath’s got some great shops. I do like a bargain, and we’ve got the most fantastic second hand designer shop in Widcombe. There’s still part of me that doesn’t want to pay too much, but they’ve got fantastic stuff, all the rich Bath ladies take stuff down that I think they’ve barely worn.’
‘With so many brothers; do you feel that has helped with the boy characters?’
‘I do actually. Yes, that kind of swagger that a lot of boys have got, but the vulnerability behind it. It’s taken me many years to realise that about men as well. Like little boys underneath, don’t know it all, and they’re quite simple souls, and you’ve got to talk to them, spell it out.’ She laughs a little.
‘What was it like in Kenya?’
‘Why did you go?’
‘I was five when we first went, and we went because my father got a job there as a headmaster. I loved it, the climate. You’d come home from school and kick your shoes off and go straight outside. Holidays in Mombasa. Lovely. We came back when I was eleven, because there was trouble there and it wasn’t very safe. I vaguely remember things thrown at the car, and dad sort of making a game of it. We probably got out at the right time.’
‘It must have been roundabout independence.’
‘Has life changed since you became famous?’ We laugh at this.
‘It’s not just being an author, but being in Bath has just been fantastic. We’ve had such a positive move, and I’m much happier there than I thought I would be. I thought I’d be happy, but I just love it. It’s got the best of both worlds, the country and the city. Being able to write, I’m still aware how privileged I am, even though I work hard. I think getting into the publishing world now is harder than ever, because publishers are suffering and they are looking for the next best thing and looking for commercial, but different, and it’s hard. So I do feel incredibly privileged to be able to do it. Touch wood, long may it last.’
‘You don’t seem to have a problem getting new ideas.’
‘I panic if I think beyond the one I’m doing. There is the magic that happens when you start thinking about a book. One line becomes a page, becomes eight pages, becomes a book. I try not to think too far ahead. I just sit down and keep working at it, till you come through. If it doesn’t, then I’ll get a job as an interior designer,’ she giggles.
‘Absolutely. You mentioned there might be another series, afterwards. Do you think about that or do you just feel there’s always another series coming?’
‘I’ve got a series I always wanted to write for a much younger age group, about cats. A sort of super-hero cat. I’m wondering if anyone would let me do it. And I’ve got an idea for a one-off book that I’ve wanted to write for about ten years. And it keeps coming back, wanting to be written. The outline is already written up at home, so I can present it at any time.’
‘Mates, Dates were just one book per girl to start with.’
‘Three, and that became four, and that became thirteen.’
‘We could have gone on for a long time with those, I believe.’
‘Yeah, they were kind of cosy, those girls together. But then you get to an age where you start getting into different issues. Sixteen.’
‘With the new one, you’ve got a 14-year-old again. You can go slowly enough so they don’t grow too old.’
‘I’ve been doing that, because Mates, Dates were allowed to expand over a whole year in the first books, and when they wanted more and more and I had to keep them young. I wrote one that takes place in a month.’ Cathy laughs. ‘I slowed them right down there.’
‘You don’t get to travel so much, writing about London. No trips to Morocco or Prague.’
‘There might be one that has to do with a sort of swap, because these rich characters have got fantastic holiday homes, and I felt there could be some kind of charity event where they do a house swap and somebody wins a week in one of these great places. South of France or somewhere. I think they do like to read about different locations.’
‘I could see Alisha going home and inviting the girls back.’
‘Because if they live there for a limited period of time, they can’t be lifelong neighbours.’
‘Trouble is, how am I going to get seats first class going to America? I’d have to get the details right.’ She laughs again. ‘They’d probably have their own plane, wouldn’t they?
‘I’m still trying to get hold of Holy Moley, I’m a Dead Dude.’
‘It’s out of print now. Give me your address, because they were going to remainder that one, so I said don’t remainder, I’ll buy 500 copies. So I’ve got them at home. I thought I’d keep them to take out to schools or give them away. It didn’t do so well because it’s a ghost story, and people don’t expect me to write a ghost story.’
‘It sounds like such a fun book.’
‘I really enjoyed writing that one, and I’ve actually written book two, and it never even saw the light of day. It’s a real lesson. Never believe in your own success. I’ve got boxes and boxes of them.’
As I say that we’re getting to the end of all my questions, Cathy says ‘do you want to come and see the bedroom? You wanted to take a picture in the bath, didn’t you?’
We decide the bed is the more impressive, and Cathy looks like she poses draped across fancy beds every day. Which, of course, maybe she does.
Pingback: The Cathy Hopkins interview « Bookwitch
Loved this interview, Bookwitch. I met Cathy and her husband at Cheltenham some years ago and thought they were super. And she knows Mombasa, of which I have happy memories as well. Lovely photos too and that necklace is SOMETHING ELSE! Gosh, you go to some places to get us these interviews….must be tough, eh?
Maybe we could arrange to drape you across something gorgeous as well, Adèle.
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I wanted to know for a school report, why Cathy Hopkins decided she wanted to become an author? I was also wondering how she gets ideas to write her books? Are they personal stories of her life when she was younger, or is she just making them up?