Sarra Manning: We have nothing to declare but our dorkiness
Published on: 25 Mai 2012 Author: Katherine Woodfine
Teen queen Sarra Manning started out as a journalist for Just 17 magazine and has gone on to write numerous books for teenagers, including Diary of a Crush and Nobody's Girl.
Katherine Woodfine met her on a rainy Monday morning in a cosy Muswell Hill cafe to hear about her newest book, Adorkable, and why she's still passionate about writing for teenagers after all this time...
Sarra Manning's latest book, Adorkable, opens with a manifesto: 'We have nothing to declare but our dorkiness... Better to make cookies than be a cookie-cutter... Don't follow leaders, be one... Quiet girls rarely make history.' Taken all together, it might be a manifesto not simply for being 'adorkable' but for Sarra's approach to writing for young people itself
Sarra started her career as a journalist for teenage magazines like Elle Girl and J17. It was here that she made her first foray into writing fiction for teenagers with the hugely popular serial story Diary of a Crush which ran for several years in J17. The story followed 16-year-old Edie's tumultuous on-again off-again relationship with moody 'art boy' Dylan, who captivated teenage girl readers. Sarra explains:
'Diary of a Crush was how everything started. I'd written so many features about crushes for the magazine that we decided to do it from a fictional angle... Dylan was really just wish-fulfilment, this cool boy who is really elusive. But the column lasted for years, and it was how I got my first publishing deal. I was approached by Hodder Children's who said: "We really love Diary of a Crush - have you ever thought of writing YA?" so I sent them Guitar Girl.'
After Guitar Girl - the story of three teenage girls who start a band - and Diary of a Crush, which was subsequently published as three short novels, Sarra went on to write a number of other books for teenagers, including Pretty Things, Let's Get Lost and Nobody's Girl, which was shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize. However, writing teen fiction has remained for Sarra very much an extension of what she had loved about being a magazine journalist:
'At J17, I had such freedom to write what I wanted. It was the most feminist magazine around, and I was able to write things like "be yourself, don't take any nonsense from boys, if your friends are horrible to you, then dump them". I felt very privileged but I also felt a huge responsibility to the reader. Today, I think it's sad that magazines like those aren't around anymore, and that's one of the reasons I still want to write YA.
'I think it's a hard time to be a teenager... It's great that there are so many blogs and so much happening online, but it can be hard to filter. Where do teenage girls get their information from? Not just advice about sex, but real emotional stuff, which teen magazines always did so well, about friends, relationships and parents. I dread to think where teenagers are getting their information from now, which is one of the reasons why YA is so important.'
Sarra's latest book Adorkable, which is also her first for publisher Atom Books, is set in a distinctly contemporary context - its heroine Jeane is an award-winning blogger, trend-spotter and self-declared 'iconoclast in training' who rejects the identical American Apparel outfits of her fellow pupils in favour of eccentric jumble sale garb - a British equivalent of the superstar teen blogger Tavi Gevinson, perhaps. In Jeane, who is not only self-identifies as a card-carrying feminst, but 'like, seriously... [has] the word feminist on her business cards', Sarra has created a powerful heroine, who shares her own feminist ideals, and motivates her peers to think differently and be more politically engaged:
'My feminism is so deeply ingrained. I grew up as part of a generation who were told we could be whatever we wanted, and that we should be independent. There's a lot in popular culture that I have to stand against, like the whole WAG phenomenon - girls just wanting to have rich boyfriends. In teenage fiction, characters like Bella Swan (in Twilight) sadden me, because the message they send out is that you should give up everything for a boy. These books are all about a rescue fantasy. I understand that it's seductive - you want people to look after you and protect you - but why can't you rescue yourself?'
'What's more, he (Edward Cullen) is emotionally abusive! If Bella was your friend you'd just be like "Dude, your boyfriend is really creepy..."' Sarra continues. 'There's a deeply worrying message about sexual abstinence too. Stephanie Meyer comes from a Mormon background and she's been frank about that, but it's I really don't agree with instilling the moral viewpoint that sex is bad and sex will be the end of you.'
Her own novels are notable for their frank, open portrayal of teenage sexuality - from the awkward, funny and touching sex scenes with Jeane and Michael in Adorkable to the uneasy relationships between the four protagonists of Pretty Things, as they struggle to make sense of their own sexuality and discover that this may not always be as straightforward as they have been led to believe. Sarra explains:
'We live in weird times - 15 years ago, teenage girls looked like teenage girls but now they look like glamour models. Your teenage years are a time when everybody is kind of figuring things out and experimenting, but there are all these messages that you have to be really sexy but without being sexualised. There's a terrible shaming of sexuality, but I want to get the message across that just because you have sex, and enjoy sex, it doesn't make you a "slag" or a "slut".'
But whilst there's no doubt that a sense of responsibility to her young readers always informs Sarra's writing, it's the characters themselves that drive her work. 'The characters dictate the story. I never write with a definite agenda, though I suppose that every book I write has a common theme, which is about figuring out the person you want to be.'
Not all of her characters are initially as strong-minded and feisty as the outspoken Jeane, who specialises in brilliantly witty put-downs. Characters like Brie in Pretty Things or Hadley in Fashonistas put a different spin on contemporary teen experience, angsting about whether they look right, have the right clothes, or will ever really fit in. 'I really like writing those kinds of girls, like Brie or Scarlet in Adorkable. I think characters like Brie, inside they're just a quivering mass of hormones and neurosis. I always go back to that thing Joss Whedon said, which is something like "Everyone is miserable in high school and if I'd had a single happy day in high school I wouldn't have written Buffy."'
Unlike many young adult authors, Sarra has actively resisted the trend for paranormal romance or dystopia. 'I can see the appeal of those layered worlds, like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but I'm not interested in writing those kinds of books,' she explains candidly. 'Teen romance is sometimes looked down upon, but it has a real appeal for readers. Teen readers can often be reluctant, and it's a really big deal to me that I'll get an email - which happens quite a lot - that says "I used to hate reading but I love your books" or "my mum made me read one of your books and I loved it". Some people like the romance element, but for others they'll read a book like Let's Get Lost and relate to the other issues, like how it feels to lose a parent. There is a perception that these kinds of books aren't as heavyweight or important as others, but you can take what you want from them.
'I get letters from girls saying "I had no confidence but Edie gave me confidence". You're helping people discover who they are going to be, and those books stay with them in a way that other books don't.'
It's perhaps for this reason that, although Sarra has gone on to write for adults, she still feels passionate about writing for young people. 'I like the freedom of YA. Teenagers are a lot more accepting of a difficult heroine like Jeane. Besides, your teenage girl self never goes away... People sometimes ask me, 'do you have to do a lot of research for your books?' and I always say 'well, no, not really' because it's really easy for me to channel those feelings. I do feel the same way that I felt then. You get better at tempering it and smoothing down the rough edges but it's all still bubbling away inside you.'
Check out Sarra's book
Find your teen's next great read!