A few weeks ago, we were very lucky to interview award winning writer, Elle McNicoll! Author of A Kind of Spark and Show Us Who You Are, we had great fun talking about everything from neurodiversity to Star Wars and holograms!
Books.Ink: What did you think you were going to be when you were younger and what did you study at university?
Elle McNicoll: I didn't know what I was going to be for a long time, I thought about doing archaeology, but then, a teacher told me it was a terrible idea because everything's already been dug up. Now, every time I open a newspaper and I see that someone has dug up a new dinosaur, I think that it should have been me!
In the end, I’ve always wanted to be an author; it's a wonderful hobby and a fun job. At university I studied English with a bit of creative writing, after my master's degree, I started talking about autism and kids books, which is when I began to work on A Kind of Spark.
B.I: Since when have you been writing stories and what do you do in your free time when you’re not writing?
Elle: I started when I was 12, maybe even a bit younger. I wrote mostly short stories and wasn't able to write a full book until I was about 15. I always enjoyed writing although I did start to enjoy it a bit less when I had to do exams. I also don’t really have much free time! But, when I do, I like to read. As a writer, reading is like putting gas in a car. I also love to go to the theatre, the cinema, going for long walks with my boyfriend, and I like cheesy millennial things like bowling and arcades!
B.I: When you were our age (12), what were your favourite books or series?
Elle: Well, I was the generation that read Harry Potter, so we all queued up to read it. I also read a lot of Jaqueline Wilson, Robin McKinley - an author I loved and still do - Anne Fine, Dick King-Smith. I did move to reading adult books quite quickly; I was probably your age when I started because Young Adult books didn’t really exist the way they do now. I also read a lot of classics like Charles Dickens.
20 years ago, it was a very different time for children's books; everything was very nostalgic and very boy focused. 20 years on, now that I'm working in the industry, there's so much more choice.
B.I: Where do you get inspiration for your titles and stories?
Elle: I get inspiration from people I know, from reality, and the kind of books I would have loved when I was your age. I don't want to write books that feel too educational or too much like homework and, even though I do talk a lot about neurodiversity, I want it to be fun. I want my readers to turn the page, and get really invested in the characters.
When I wrote my first book I didn't have any readers, because I was new. Now I get to meet a lot of my readers at events and get inspiration from them. For example, when A Kind of Spark came out, people really liked it but a lot of young girls told me they were hoping that Addie would get magical powers, and so it became the inspiration for my third book.
B.I: Are your characters inspired by people you know and do their lives relate to your own childhood?
Elle: I think in both books, obviously both girls are autistic like me, so the lens that they see the world through is definitely mine and the sensory issues they sometimes have is very much the same as mine. Their personalities are very different though and although I don't deliberately put people in the books, when I finish a draft, I inevitably read it back and can realise that one of my characters is a lot like someone I know. For example, Adrian is based on my best friend, so now they're living forever in a book, which I'm sure they’ll love! And Mr Allison in A Kind Of Spark is based on a teacher in primary school. He loved reading and he taught me to love reading.
The villain is also usually inspired by real people, because every character in a writer's book sort of represents something about them, and usually the villain represents whatever the writer finds horrible. In Ms Murphy’s case it's a bully and in Show Us Who You Are, the villain is somebody who’s very cold and unfeeling and thinks that there's a hierarchy of human beings, which I find abhorrent.
B.I: What do you find most challenging: thinking of the idea for the story or actually writing it?
Elle: Writing the book is definitely much harder! Although thinking of ideas can be hard, and it's a gift when they do come. Sometimes, it's luck and you have to quickly write them down. Every time I told myself I would write a book, I would get 2 pages in and have no idea what to do next. It's not natural all the time, but you feel so satisfied when you're finished!
With Addie it was the witch memorial that I couldn't stop thinking about. It ended up becoming the story!
B.I: How do you plan and write your book?
Elle: So, I plan before I write them - just the very bare bones of the story, no embellishments, no fun stuff, just A to B, which helps when I get stuck. Then it takes me a couple of months to do a fast first draft telling myself the story. I actually call it draft zero because I don't want anyone to see it! A Kind of Spark took 4 months in total and Show Us Who You Are took about 9 - it was a lockdown book! Book 3 took about 9 months as well.
B.I: When do you decide on your titles (at the start or at the end)?
Elle: First of all, I never get to keep my own titles. I always have a title in mind when I start a new project, and do get attached to it and my boyfriend gets attached to it, but then the publishers tell me that they love the story, they love the book, but they hate the title and they are going to change it. A Kind Of Spark was originally called 'Finding Electricity', which is a line in the book, but it was changed, so that kids won't think it's about Benjamin Franklin and science. Show Us Who You Are was originally called Pomegranate. I think the publishers like titles that are not belonging to anybody else, so that if you google it, it will be the first thing to come up (which is why they didn't like Pomegranate, because then the fruit would come up!)
Once we’ve agreed on a title that the publishers do like, I always make sure that it's in the text somewhere.
B.I: Why did you choose to write books for children? Have you ever written or thought of writing for adults?
Elle: If you read adult books, they're so many brilliant ones, but what you notice is that adults tend to write books that are trying to impress other adults. I don't feel like an adult most of the time and I don't have a lot of interest in impressing them.
I wouldn't know how to write for 3-5 year olds because I don't know how to keep that age group entertained! I think that 9 years and up is a really nice age to write for because you're super smart and super curious about the world and you're reading really well. I'm happy in that age group, and I still get a lot of adults who read my books anyway.
I still have a little molecule in me that knows exactly what it feels like to be 11. That's why I always go to that place, although I will end up writing for adults at some point. There is something in the works but I think I'll always prefer writing for younger readers.
B.I: Was The Pomegranate Institute inspired by a place you have visited?
Elle: Well, there's not a place that makes artificially intelligent holograms yet, but aesthetically, I think it's very much based on Apple and Google and their futuristic, slick headquarters. It's not very cosy, nor welcoming, so visually it's very inspired by that. In the book, one of the characters even references Apple.
The attitudes of Pomegranate Institute and what they do is very much what it sometimes feels like to be a Neurodivergent person in a non Neurodivergent world. People are always trying to change you, they're always saying be more like this, you should perfect this, you should never do this, and it comes from everywhere; it comes from the media, it comes from authorities, it comes from your family sometimes, your employers. It's very heavy so I guess Pomegranate represents society!
B.I: Do you think holograms will be a real possibility in the future?
Elle: I do, even though it probably sounds a little creepy. I think a month before Show Us Who you Are was going to be announced for publication, there was a news story about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West having commissioned a hologram of her father who has passed away. It was a walking, talking hologram of Robert Kardashian. I was surprised; The book wasn't even out yet and it had already happened. Also, in the third star wars film, Carrie Fisher had passed away, who played Princess Leia, and they had to do her with CGI. I know why they did it and they probably had the best intentions - but I found it very creepy that a big corporation like Disney could still be making you work after your gone. I hope that if it does happen, it will be a sort of hologram Madame Tussauds and not actual people that didn't want to live forever as holograms. This is all explored in the book and I do hope that readers have their own opinions. I find it all a little unnerving.
B.I: Why do you choose to write about Neurodivergent people?
Elle: When I was your age, I don’t remember a single book about Neurodivergent girls. I remember a few about boys but they were all very similar; all autistic boys who liked trains, and liked maths, and liked science, and were very socially awkward. A lot of people still like to write every autistic boy like he is Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory or Rain Man. It's a very limited point of view and I just thought that I would have loved a story about a girl like me who wasn't obsessed with maths and science and had her own interests. I wrote a book for 11 year old me, from the point of view of someone who isn't neurotypical.
These books also talk about how hard it is to know people like us and how challenging we are. While its valid to feel that way, it's quite depressing to read that over and over again. I thought that there's a lot of Neurodivergent girls out there who deserve to have books that are fun, and positive, and more true to life, and that's really what I wanted to do. It was a little bit sad to think that in 20 years not much has changed. A Kind of Spark has changed the industry a little bit because now we’re seeing a lot more similar books coming out, which is exciting!
B.I: Do you think things have really changed and what more needs to be done?
Elle: I think things have changed, in some very small ways. I know that doctors use my book to help people with diagnosis; lots of people have got in touch to say they've been diagnosed because of A Kind Of Spark - it alerted them to the fact that they might be autistic. I think a lot of publishers are scared of me and they don't want to publish books that aren't very nice about autistic people anymore because they know I’ll be very loud about it!
So, things have changed but things do need to change in society in general, not just for autistic people, but I think we need a general better system for handling mental health. Especially your generation, who are shouldering a lot of burdens at the moment with the difficult couple of years we've had, and it's not enough to just pat people on the head and say "reach out if you need help". I think we need a whole new system for mental health, and that includes neurodiversity as well. And a better understanding of what each condition is, we need more education on it.
B.I: In ‘A Kind of Spark’, Miss Murphy is harsh and unfair towards Keedie and then Addie, is this inspired by true events?
Elle: Yes. So, the opening scene, Addie's work getting ripped up because of her handwriting, did indeed happen to me. I'm dyslexic as well as autistic which means my handwriting is very poor and it's never gonna improve. The teacher didn't understand and she thought I was just being lazy. She ripped up my work and I never forgot that. Unfortunately, I do get a lot of letters from people saying they have a Ms Murphy at their school. She’s also based on a lot of attitudes that people have about children that may be different. She has that old fashioned mindset that there's no such thing as autism and there's only bad behaviour. It's a damaging stigma so that's why I put it into this character who would not be allowed to teach if she got caught doing that.
B.I: We heard that your book: ‘A Kind of Spark’ is going to be adapted for TV! What are you most excited about and how would you imagine the actor playing Addie?
Elle: Yes, hopefully it will happen! I’m excited for casting; I’m excited to find Addie and Keedie; I’m excited for location, finding Juniper; but mostly I’m very nervous because I've got to write most of the script. I've got to write ten episodes and I'm starting in December! That's quite nerve-racking!
For Addie, I’m looking for somebody who’s obviously neurodivergent, but also somebody who's very open and not too precautious, quite youthful and innocent, has a big heart that they wear on their sleeve. I’ll hopefully know her when she walks into the auditioning room.
B.I: Are you working on a new book at the moment? If so, will it be a sequel to one of your previous books?
Elle: I’m working on the second part to my new book - a duology - which will hopefully come out in 2023. I’ve also been working on something for adults, and I’m hoping to start a YA. People chuck my books into YA shelves anyway, I always get librarians tagging me on Twitter saying that they love 'this YA'! I’m also writing the TV show - I’m always working on something at all times.
Thanks so much for the interview Elle McNicoll! Good luck with the script writing! To find out more about Elle McNicoll and her books head to her website here: