One of the questions writers get asked most often is ‘Where do you think of your ideas?’ I can be very precise about this in the case of Love and Other Man-Made Disasters. I thought of the idea when I was on the 46 bus near King’s Cross, on my way from work in Holborn to yoga in Hampstead. (Side note: I love this bus route. It takes you from Maida Vale to Hampstead Village and then to Bloomsbury – it feels like the kind of bus Virginia Woolf would have taken. It’s also always stuck in traffic which is good for thinking.)
But I know people don’t mean where, they mean how. Here’s how: I had been reading about someone who was traumatised by watching too much 24-hour news, and thinking about how pervasive anxiety was these days. And I decided to write about a girl who’s scared of everything. Somehow I knew it would work best if she was a teen (who doesn’t still have nightmares about A-Levels, or in my case the Leaving Certificate?) I’d been approached ages before – maybe two years – by a publisher who wanted to know if I would write teen fiction for them. I hadn’t had the right idea for them yet, but I knew this was it.
Initially Juno, my main character, was going to have actual anxiety. But I nixed that, since there are so many other writers who’ve already written about it brilliantly. As it happened, no sooner had I pitched it to the publisher than I read a press release saying that Sophie Kinsella was writing her first YA book about a girl with anxiety – multiple discovery or what? I also wanted to write about worries that weren’t irrational but actually highly rational. I was very traumatised by the news when I was about fourteen, and I still find it all pretty upsetting. I think Juno is right to be scared of the future and climate change and the tanking economy and Donald Trump. (The book was written pre-Trump but she would definitely be scared of him and his hair-piece becoming President). I am scared of these things also, which is why I wanted to write about them.
So Juno is a worrier. She’s also highly organised and has a list of things she’s worried about, in descending order, from climate change to urban foxes and A-Levels. Other pressing worries include cancer, zombies and being burned at the stake. She’s obviously not a fan of dangerous sports which makes it even worse when she’s dragged away on a skiing holiday with her new stepdad and his eight-year-old twins, who are of course better skiers than her.
Enter the love interest: Boy. I was stuck for ages on his name but then decided to just call him Boy – it’s the kind of nickname his posh uncaring family would give him. He’s a ski instructor, who lives in an unheated room above a garage that reminds people of the Blair Witch Project. He’s saving up to climb Everest and he’s liable to dive into a road full of traffic to retrieve 20 cents. He’s not scared of anything – or is he? Of course (spoiler alert) he is. I wanted to write about the kind of tough-yet-vulnerable boy I would have adored at Juno’s age … And to show that her fantasy of rescuing him isn’t going to turn out exactly as she’d dreamed it does.
As for Juno’s fears, there isn’t an easy answer to them. But she learns that she can handle them, and face them. She also makes a really great decision to do something about her worries instead of just fretting pointlessly. I’m still working on that, to be honest.
So that’s how I came to write Love and Other Man-Made Disasters. Hopefully, it’s like a hot chocolate; warm and comforting and satisfying but not totally empty calories either. I originally pitched it to my agent as ‘Dirty Dancing in the snow’ which I thought might be pushing it, but luckily this brilliant review has called it exactly that – or rather ‘the Dirty Dancing of YA’ which might just be going on my tombstone.
You can order Love and Man-Made Disasters from your local bookshop (if they don’t have a copy, they should be able to get it for you the next day), or read an extract and buy it in paperback it here. I hope you like it.