Me, Rachel Riley

Rachel 1 new smallerOne of the most-oft asked questions of writers is: “Is the book autobiographical?” Or “Is there any of you in there?”

The easy answer is that every book contains a little of its author: these are, after all, words we have sweated, cried, laughed, sometimes screamed over. But in the case of My So-Called Life (rereleased today in a fancy new jacket), what’s on the page is pretty much all of me. Well, of the thirteen-year-old me that was stuck in a small market town in Essex non-affectionately known as Suffering Boredom.

I had started out trying to write a tragedy. The kind of book I had devoured as an orphan-obsessed teenager (and adult), the kind involving star-crossed lovers, or mysterious benefactors, or just an ill-advised night in a nightclub in Camden. But the thing was, I had never experienced any of these things, been to any of these places, at least not until I was old enough to know better, and be constantly checking my watch to make sure I could get the last tube home.  As Rachel says, “Why is life never like it is in books? Nothing Jacqueline Wilson ever happens to me: I am not adopted, my mum is not tattooed, I am not likely to move to the middle of a council estate or be put into care. My parents are not alcoholics, drug addicts or closet transvestites. Even my name is pants.”

And so I went back to my own diaries I had kept at school, in the hope of unearthing something, anything wracked with even a tinge of tragedy.  I found this: 

5 October 1985

Went to Stephen Howell’s 16th at Wenden’s Ambo Village Hall. Drunk dubious champagne that Lucia won at the bingo in Spain. She and Boo went as Madonna. I went as me because mum won’t let me wear fingerless gloves. Anyway it was totally depressing as the love of my life i.e. Nick, is going out with Big Debbie B. And she does IT.

26 October 1985

Have got off with Guy.

7 November 1985

I really like Guy.

8 November 1985

Have decided to chuck Guy. Karen is going to tell him for me at work tomorrow.

joanna photoboothIt’s not Romeo and Juliet. It’s not even ITV drama. But the thing is, there is a kind of tragedy to it. Not the kind to take a vial of poison over, more the kind to mope about listening to The Smiths to. But it doesn’t make it any less devastating – the stakes still feel as high. No, my first kiss wasn’t on a balcony, to a background of violins, with a boy I was meeting in secret because our families were at war. It was at a lower school disco, to the sound of Spandau Ballet, with a boy who kept pigs. But I still couldn’t eat or sleep afterwards. Or go near the school farm without thinking I might “literally die” from sheer excitement and embarrassment.

And so that’s what I wrote about. Smalltown lives. The ones that don’t usually get immortalized in print. And we’re all in there: my friend Jude became Scarlet, Stuart became Sad Ed though in real life he has never had upper arm issues). I won’t say who the Kylies are based on, but they were very real, and very mean. My family is there too – though it’s me, not James who can sing the books of the bible off by heart – I do have to get some revenge on him for being sick on my Noggin the Nog book aged five.

So this really is my so-called life. Welcome to it…

About Joanna Nadin

A former broadcast journalist and special adviser to the prime minister, since leaving politics I’ve written more than 80 books for children and adults, as well as speeches for politicians, and articles for newspapers and magazines like The Guardian, Red and The Amorist. I also lecture in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and hold a doctorate in young adult literature. I’m a winner of the Fantastic Book Award and the Surrey Book Award, and have been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the Booktrust Best Book award and Queen of Teen among others, and twice nominated for the Carnegie Medal, for Everybody Hurts, and for Joe All Alone, which is now a BAFTA-winning and Emmy-nominated BBC TV series. I've also worked with Sir Chris Hoy on the Flying Fergus series and ghost-written Angry Birds under another name. I like London, New York, Essex, tea, cake, Marmite, mint imperials, prom dresses, pubs, that bit in the West Wing where Donna tells Josh she wouldn’t stop for a red light if he was in an accident, junk shops, crisps, Cornwall, St Custard’s, Portuguese custard tarts, political geeks, pin-up swimsuits, the Regency, high heels, horses, old songs, my Grandma’s fur coat, vinyl, liner notes, the smell of old books, the feel of a velveteen monkey, Guinness, quiffs, putting my hand in a bin of chicken feed, the 1950s, burlesque, automata, fiddles, flaneuring, gigs in fields on warm summer nights, Bath, the bath.
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