Andrew interviewed Louise in 2005. ‘This is one of the most fun interviews I’ve conducted,‘ says Andrew, ‘As we talked to each other we began to realise that we had met before. I was 17 and Louise was feeling Stevie Wonders face in Wigan and that was just the start of our laughter. You may not get that reference but it doesn’t matter, it makes me laugh’.
Louise Rennison Felt My Face. Interview by Andrew Oldham
Louise Rennison lives in Brighton, a place that she likes to think of as the San Francisco of the South Coast. Which is sad as it is nothing like San Francisco, being mainly pebbles and large people in tiny swimming knickers who have gone bright red in the sun. Although she lives in Brighton in reality, in her mind she lives somewhere exotic with a manservant called Juan. This is because she lost her mind after Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging catapulted her into the spotlight of fame.
Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging is the first book in the Georgia Nicolson series, written in a diary style. Georgia is fourteen and lives with her annoying parents, a three-year-old sister, who says things like, “Georgia did a big poo this morning” to prospective boyfriends, her half Scottish wildcat, Angus and has to wear a beret to school. She would, however, rather be blond, have a smaller nose, slimmer eyebrows and a have a Sex-God for a boyfriend.
The second book following Georgia’s exploits is It’s OK I’m Wearing Really Big Knickers, the third Knocked Out by My Nunga Nungas and the fourth Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants. Sales in the UK for the series have already topped 400,000. Sales in the US have passed the million mark and have reached Number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Louise based several episodes in the books on her own childhood in Leeds, where she was bought up in a three-bedroomed council house with her mum, dad, grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin. When Louise was 15, her parents decided to emigrate to Wairakei in New Zealand. Its main claim to fame is that it had some of the most violent geothermal activity in the world. In her twenties, Louise lived in Notting Hill Gate. Louise rekindled a childhood dream and enrolled on a Performing Arts course in Brighton Her first one-woman autobiographical show, Stevie Wonder Felt My Face, won great acclaim and awards at the Edinburgh Festival in the 80s and millions watched the subsequent BBC2 special. Since then, Louise has continued to perform her own shows (Bob Marley’s Gardener Sold My Friend and Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head.) She works frequently for Radio 4.
In Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging you deal with the angst of being a teenager through your character Georgia Nicolson. How much is Georgia based on you or people you know?
“I’ve had a warning from my mother this morning. She knows I’m doing this interview and told me to say that the book has nothing to do with me or my family. Actually, it’s highly based on me and also what’s even worse is when I wrote Angus, Thongs I didn’t actually know how to write a book, you know. I just got asked to do it, so I actually put real people’s names in and I thought, ‘oh I’ll change it before it gets published’ but I forgot. So, in addition to my family being featured. Also, all my teachers are too”.
What were you like as a teenager?
“Like Georgia actually, rather prone to accidents. I used to think I was very amusing; I’m not that sure that everyone else would agree with me. I went to an all girls’ school and it creates a very different atmosphere, somehow. And I think there’s a lot of the things in the book that come from this, there’s a bit in it, based on me going to a party dressed as a stuffed olive. I just thought that was a hilarious idea, it was only when I got to the party and I mixed with some boys that I realised that it was an utterly crap idea. The lads laughed along for a bit and then they completely ignored me for the rest of the night”.
Would you say that you were a bit naïve at that age?
“Yes, I think I probably was. I was quite excitable. I know when I see girls at signings; they do this thing that I remember doing, vividly. You know, that sort of mad laughing, when they get a joke between them and they start laughing and they can’t stop and they know they should stop because people are going to kill them, if they don’t stop laughing, but they still can’t. You just can’t stop. I think I was like that, excitable”.
Georgia could be seen as a bit naïve compared to other characters targeted at teenagers in literature.
“I think teenagers are a bit naïve. I think teenagers are if injured in someway, if something happens that forces them to face stuff. Generally speaking though, whoever thinks it’s a good idea to give them the vote at sixteen is just an arse. It’s stupid”.
Do you feel modern teenagers are bit more jaded and world-weary?
“I saw a very funny Dylan Moran thing about disenchanted people, oh god another party, no one looks at you, they’re just looking at your clothes and all that. Well, it’s difficult because I know a lot of teenagers. I think they’ve got more choice, definitely more choice and that’s a bit confusing, actually. As a grown up if I’m offered fifty different kinds of credit card it makes me go insane with choice and I think this is what they do. It’s a source of deep unhappiness I think in a way, and we didn’t have that. You know there was no bloody question of getting stuff off my parents. I used to try, god love me, but it was kind of ‘err, err, no’. Mum and Dad used to tease me, drove them insane, ‘so how much money do you think you’ll be getting to take away, pocket money wise on holiday?’ And, I’d go, ‘oh I don’t know, about fifty quid’ and they’d go, ‘You see, you see the world we live in?’ So I think on that level that parents found it easier to say, ‘err no’. They weren’t too transfixed with wanted to get on with you, I see parents now trying much more desperately to be nice to teenagers than mine were to me”.
That’s a big mistake.
“It is actually, you can’t be their mates”.
In On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God our heroine is now dating the sex god, Robbie. But who did you have a crush on when you were a teenager and who would you love to date now?
“It was him. He actually was a sex god, and in fact I saw him last weekend, he was my very first boyfriend and we went out. And I went back to Yorkshire, and I saw him”.
What was that like?
“It was weird actually. You realise that there’s a bit of you that is forever fifteen. He was very nice, I would have probably have killed him if I’d have married him, you know because he is a real Yorkshire bloke”.
Of course you had a crush on this guy, but if you could date anyone now. Who would that be?
“Oh no, that’s an impossible question. Let me think, I went to the Brian Wilson gig last night and I was thinking about the pop stars. I used to like a couple of the Motown singers because they used to wear really fantastic clothes. I used to really like that. I tell you who was there last night at that gig, who I did use to fancy, Roger Daltrey from The Who. He looked brilliant last night, dancing around to Brian. Oh, and Brian Ferry I used to fancy. The readers won’t be satisfied with that, they’ll want me to say someone from bloody Busted”
Or Justin Timberlake or Orlando Bloom?
“Oh no not Justin! And Orlando? I can’t get over the big ears (Lord of the Rings), I know they’re not his that they were moulded but I suspect that they might grow back. I quite like that Ben Affleck bloke”.
How hard is it to write for teenagers?
“It’s really easy. Actually when I start writing, which I am now, all my friends go, ‘oh god, here we go’. Because you can’t help but get into the mood of it and I was doing that the other day. I was sort of re-reading one of my books and my Mum said to me, she said, ‘Are you laughing at your own books?’ I write in this quite eccentric place in Brighton, it’s called ‘The Natural Health Centre’ and it has all kinds of alternative practices, and I’ve worked there for years because I know the owner. He used to let me rehearse there when I was at college, when I did comedy and everything. So, there’s all sorts of different things going on, like belly dancing and five rhythms, where middle aged blokes fling themselves around like loons. And I work right at the top of the building and I come down if I get a bit bored or restless, and snigger through the windows at what people are doing, childish. No, I just really look forward to it”.
What books did you read when you were a teenager?
“You know this another real big difference, there weren’t teenage books around really. There were a couple; I remember a series called Anna the Air Hostess, really the career choices! Like an Air Hostess and that’s it! I used to read a lot of magazines, it’s peculiar, I know her now, but do you know Jacqueline Wilson? She started a magazine called Jackie and we all used to read that and there was another one, the girls will really snigger about this one, called Bunty”
With the cut out clothes?
“Yes! These were all very weird images for a working class schoolgirl from Yorkshire. To have the four Mary’s for Mallory Towers, that was one of them. So, I had a very dislocated view of the world. I think, on one hand it was full of posh people and then there was me and my mates on the council estate. I used to do a lot of reading from school stuff”.
And what do you read now?
“I was just thinking if someone comes in, I’m lying in bed at the minute, if someone came in to my bedroom they’d have a very odd idea of me. Let me just tell you what I’ve got, I’ve got How To Be A Goddess, it’s one of those self help book things, Three Men in a Boat, Zen Questions. Janet Evanovich, do you know her? I like her a lot. I read Agatha Christie and just whatever’s near. I do like thrillers. Actually, I have got a childhood book here which is called, Naughty Princess, which I think is the funniest book ever written, it’s by…hangon, there used to be a magazine in the nineteen forties called Strand Magazine, do you remember it? I must find out more about this author, he’s called Anthony Armstrong, and he wrote the Naughty Princess. It’s got those fantastic ink etchings. I love all that stuff. It’s a bizarre thing, just by the by, I was talking to, I can’t remember his name, but he’s the bloke who wrote a book called The Books That Build A Child, or something like that and he’s a very erudite bloke and I had to be in a sort of debate with him. They usually wheel me in for the superficial viewpoint, but he was very bright, we had to say what books had influenced us as children and I’d brought along this Anthony Armstrong, Naughty Princess book and he said, ‘Why did you like it?’ and I said, ‘There’s a drawing, an ink drawing of this fairy at this christening party but she’s had too much nectar and she’s slumped at the bar’, and apparently in the same story the fairies get so pissed on nectar and everything that they think the baby’s twins. But it’s marvelous, and this bloke said, ‘Oh I see you like,’ what did he call it? ‘Ecstatic chaos’”.
How long do you take to write a novel?
“I’m hoping it’s going to be about four months because my deadline is looming but normally I sit down by myself, for about twelve weeks and generally I turn the first draft over to the editors and they come back with questions and stuff like that. I’ll do a couple of rewrites after that. So maybe all in all, five months. When I settle down to it, but I take a lot of settling down. I have what I call my research period, which everyone sniggers at, which mainly means I watch comedy and you know read anything, joke books and I count that as research. So that probably goes on for a month”.
Georgia Nicholson is pretty much a love/hate character (typical teenager) but who/what do you love and hate at the moment?
“Tricky isn’t it? I’ve sort of got a love/hate relationship with those reality shows, I suppose. That Celebrity Love Island, I really really vowed I wouldn’t watch that, I was so bored with the people and everything, and yet, inevitably I ended up watching it. You get a fascination with people, just to see what they’re going to do. I’m less of a love/hate person and more of a love/love or hate/hate person. I just like people or I don’t and I tend not to bother with them if I don’t like them”.
Do you feel that Georgia Nicholson is a Bridget Jones in waiting? What can we learn from Georgia?
“I don’t think she’s middle-class enough really. You can learn a lot from her sense of humour. I honestly think if you’re a teenager, in particular, I think humour keeps you safe. It keeps you from being too stupid as well”.
In Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas we see a more mature Georgia dealing with being ignored by her boyfriend and starting to have feelings about her ex. What annoys you about men?
“Everything used to annoy me about men, honestly. But now I’ve got a bit more philosophical, I’m quite fascinated; I just think, ‘My goodness!’. My brain just doesn’t work like mens. I’ve got much more tolerant, I think and also much better at guessing, you know. I’ve got this boyfriend at the minute who said something, like, ‘How are you?’ in a text and I sent back, ‘Oh well, you know, today I mostly did my eyebrows…’ and just rambling on which took me about fifty years to write, I’m so crap at texting. And then I just didn’t hear from him! And I thought, ‘What’s happened?’ and then a bit later on I thought, ‘He was just asking a question, I answered it, end of story!’ He’s probably thinking, ‘Fine’, would have been good because he’s just checking in with me. I asked my very first boyfriend, I asked him because he went to an all boys’ school, can you imagine the planning of this? I went to an all girls school and there were two all boys schools directly up the road and down the road…why? I put this in the book actually, why did the boys run into our legs with their bikes? And I said to this boyfriend, ‘Why would they do that?’ and he said, ‘Oh cos they fancy you’ and I said, ‘Why do they cripple us? Why don’t they just say?’. But I did ask him what did they all talk about at break time? And he went, ‘Err we don’t talk at break time’. He said, ‘We play football or occasionally have a fight’”. That’s why I live in Brighton because down here the boys actually really talk to you, sometimes you think, ‘Shut up and talk about football’”.
The use of slang is important in your books, what are your favourite sayings? And what slang words do you miss?
“The thing is they are around because I have personally made it my mission to reintroduce them into the language. It’s terribly catching, everyone I know uses the word ‘fab’, I am singly responsible for that one. Even in America, I’m influencing them, I get letters, ‘Dear Ms Rennison, please could you send us some more British words?’ They’re practising being British! They have their little clubs, their little café clubs, and they go and speak British together, so they sign their letters, ‘pip, pip’. I’ve even managed to introduce First World War slang to their vocabulary now, ‘toodle pip’”.
They’re going to be using ‘whizzer’ next.
“I haven’t used ‘whizzer’, just for you I’m going to put that in. ‘Chocks away,’ I say quite a lot, I remember saying that to Douglas Barder, when I live in Notting Hill, he’d lost his legs and everything. He was driving his car, at the traffic lights and it was summer so he had the windows down and when the lights changed, I shouted, ‘Chocks away!’. I tell you who uses a lot of those expressions, Terry Wogan, and he an absolute font of those old expressions, he’s cracking, he’s got them all in his brain”.
Can you take us through the early days of your career, what did you do before writing novels and how long did it take to get published?
“I actually have a lucky story really, I went to Art College and did performing arts, and I started writing my own show and that’s what I did for a long time. At first, I was in a cabaret group called ‘Women With Beards’ which was a bit of a legend in its own lunchtime actually. Essentially, there was four of us wearing false beards and I think we literally went on stage and said, ‘All men are crap, thank you,’ and then left the stage to massive lesbian applause”.
Was this the eighties?
“Yes! You know, honestly, it was a very big thing, why?”
“Yes, we used to do performances against Margaret Thatcher. I used to dress up in a ball gown, with a union jack on my head and go down to Brighton Conservative Headquarters and there’d be all these terribly old Tories. Poor sods really, and they’d becoming in for just a drink, probably with their mates and I’d hurl myself in front of them and say, ‘Be what you were born to be, be a nobody,’ sort of thing and they’d step over me. I’d like to think it brought the Thatcher government down. Then I did a one person show called Stevie Wonder Felt My Face which was again, based on my life”.
I’ve seen you! I’ve got the poster still, beehive, mascara, little checked dressed, you were one of my first reviews!
“Really, you should have come and said hello, reviews meant so much”.
I saw you in Wigan!
“I remember Wigan so vividly. I’ll tell you why, I don’t know if you remember…”
It was Wigan’s only Art Festival. Thank God. You and the Graeae Theatre Company where the only highlights, it was a real mess of a festival.
“…Yes, I think this was the venue and I tell people when I do shows now. I arrived there and the technician, you know I’ve been on the road a long time, and you get to know the signs of imminent disaster. And the technician went through my lighting spec and sound cues, and then he went, ‘yeah okay, lights up bish bosh and all done’. See you on the night sort of thing and I’m thinking, ‘hmmmmmmm’. So he went off, and I didn’t see him, I came on to the sound of the music from my second half and I looked up into the lighting box, and he was there, pissed, waved at me cheerily and then fell off his stool and I didn’t see him again. I didn’t know if it was the night but I had to get the audience to sing Pink Floyd songs, I had no music. People think I make this up but thankfully you’re here to prove it. I actually did make a living from it. It was hard work; I used to have to do four or five gigs a week. Someone said to me, ‘do you miss doing performance?’ and when I finished, I didn’t because I was so tired going around by myself, it’s quite tough but just lately there’s been some talk of me doing a one person show of Georgia. I can’t believe you were there”.
You had a beehive and a little checked dress with thigh boots.
“That dress was pornographic, I can’t believe you were there. It’s a small world”.
What compels you to write?
“Actually that’s interesting, I think probably would do it even if I wasn’t paid. I’m just very fascinated with people. I just love people’s conversation, I’m a bit like Alan Bennett. When I go to Yorkshire I go and stay in this hotel called The Majestic Hotel in Harrogate and I just sit in foyer there and I piss myself. The amount of funny stories people inadvertently tell, and I always want to record them. The Georgia books are like that, they’re recordings of incidents and pictures of life and things, and that’s why I like to do it. I’ve done it all my life really. I used to work with the late John Peel on Home Truths, he was very instrumental really, he used to let me have free range. I’d tell him a story and he’d say, ‘Please tell that story on the air’. So I learnt how to tell stories in sort of three minutes and I think I learnt a lot about dialogue doing that. If I was proud of anything, it would be the way I write conversations because I think it’s true, that’s how people speak. Especially in the North, in this foyer, only last week, I’d been out an brought a beret, it was quite a fancy sort of thing and I came in and this woman said, ‘Ohh, I admire your confidence’. A complete stranger! Nothing to do with me and it had nothing to do with her what I was wearing on my head. If there’s someone pretending to be an ambulance siren, they’ll be the one to sit next to me”.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
“So many. Actually some cheeky pig said to me the other day, ‘Oh, you’ve never had a job’. I have! I worked for a bank in New Zealand because that’s all the jobs there was. I was so unsuited to it and the banks in New Zealand open late on Friday nights or they used to, to nine o’clock and the pubs closed at ten. So it meant you only had an hour of fun, really. But we had a tea break, so I decided in my tea break that I’d go home and I’d have a bottle of wine to sort of set me off for the evening. So, by the time I got back to work, to the bank, I was quite drunk and this woman came in and she didn’t have any money in her account, so I gave her some money. This old woman. I remember clearly thinking in my head, ‘Well, that doesn’t seem fair, I know lots of people who have lots and lots of money in their accounts, and they never use it’. So, I gave her this money and then of course I got found out, about two days later and I thought, ‘Good. They’ll deport me back to England because I don’t want to stay in scummy New Zealand anyway,’ but they didn’t. They made me stay on in the bank and pay it off! That was my worst job really”.
If you couldn’t write what would you do?
“I tell you, strangely, this takes us full circle. When I started work, I used to work with teenagers. I used to work in Brixton in the really rough housing estates, we’d build all those jungle gyms, the kids would watch us put them up and then take them back down. Someone should have written ‘cunts’ on our forehead with an indelible marker. But I really enjoyed it, in a strange kind of way and last night I was talking to mate of mine at the Brian Wilson gig, and he said, ‘I saw Graeme something or other’, ‘Oh what’s he doing?’, ‘He’s out in Africa setting up playgrounds for kids,’ and I had they just real, ‘God I’d like to do that’ moment. The other thing that’s happened to me, which came right out of the blue, is the Holiday Show, they’ve asked me to guest present and I really want to do it! I don’t know why, I don’t fly; it will be good fun if I can write it myself. I won’t fly and nor should anyone else. They said, ‘For your first assignment you can go round a South African vineyards on the back of Harley Davidson’”.
To which you said?
“No! I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to show myself up that way. I would like to do that show though and be the anti-Judith Charmers, I’m going for the pasty look”.