Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Anatomy of a Novel: Girl, Aloud

 Anatomy of a Novel: Girl, Aloud
Guest post by Emily Gale

Anatomy of Girl Aloud

The Kitchen Table
“...the round table is protected by a vinyl tablecloth with a red apple pattern. The apples are all identical, and shiny, and the kind of vivid red that is probably supposed to make you feel like skipping through an orchard.”

The kitchen table of my youth was the site of so much of the frustration and joy (in order of frequency) that my family shared. We’d come together - often reluctantly in the case of those of us who were teenagers - for meals that my mum desperately wanted to be happy times (I feel that so keenly now that I have my own family to feed). Or I’d sit on it to watch my mum cook, or we’d play board games (that often ended in tears), or do our homework. The kitchen was where it all went on. Same for Kass, the main character of Girl, Aloud, only she has to sit down to much bigger problems than I ever experienced. The vinyl tablecloth is a symbol of glossing over domestic dramas - wiping them clean and starting again, pretending there isn’t something more sinister underneath. Kass’s mum tries to Cillit Bang their troubles away, but for Kass those shiny red apples are mocking and poisonous because they represent her family’s unwillingness to look their troubles in the face.

The Dinner Guests
“...the game show host takes a seat next to me - grinning and fidgeting, oblivious to the bright orange pepperoni juice smeared across his cheek...”

A variety of celebrities and fictional charcters could be said to sit round that table. In the early drafts of Girl, Aloud (when it was called Push or The Light That Shines On Me or The Girl You Think I Am), the Dad character was never quite obvious enough - as a writer I was skirting around the issue of his mental health as much as my fictional family were doing. But somewhere around draft three I let myself go - I thought of those brilliant mockumentaries like The Office and Summer Heights High where the characters seem so over-the-top at first but somehow you buy into them to such an extent that along with the laughs you experience real sadness when things go wrong - even when, as in the case of the wonderful Chris Lilley, one man is playing all the main characters.
Kass’s dad, Paul Kennedy, reminds me of David Brent: he’s a cringe-making tragedy of a man, but every so often you can see why Kass loves him. The mum, Grace, always made me think of Jane Horrocks playing Little Voice. Her tiny frame and rabbit-in-the-headlights look but the powerful voice inside so desperate to be heard. You want to shake her, but at the same time you fear breaking her...she turns out to be tougher (and more flawed) than anyone imagined.

I loved the film Mommie Dearest as a young teen. That jaw-dropping scene where Joan Crawford discovers a wire hanger in her daughter’s wardrobe and - caked in face pack - begins a terrifying rant. Kass’s dad isn’t violent or mean to Kass but what I was interested in exploring is a child’s devotion to a parent who reliably stuffs up. It is thought that Joan Crawford may have suffered a form of Bipolar Disorder - her story and others like it (my own grandmother was diagnosed with a personality disorder in her eighties - they said she’d probably suffered with it her whole life) always make me wonder how different their lives might have been were there not still this stigma attached to mental illness.
When I was writing Girl, Aloud, there was a fair bit of publicity about celebs like Kerry Katona being Bipolar but this information, lightly dotted in the pages of celeb magazines, seemed to confuse the issue even more - as if Bipolar was the new celeb accessory. Stephen Fry made an honest documentary about his own experiences (Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive) that shed some useful light on the illness, and I wanted to write about an ordinary family going through it. It had been a passing comment in my family (“your great-grandfather had it...” thrown in over a Sunday roast before moving onto the next topic), but it was never really ‘out there’.

I listened to KT Tunstall’s album “Eye To The Telescope” whenever I wrote Girl, Aloud, and her song ‘Other Side of the World’ fit so well because it’s about having a long-distance relationship, which is what I felt this whole family were experiencing even seated round the same kitchen table.
Finally, Simon Cowell came into the mix because he’s got bad cameo written all over him. He’s the perfect symbol of all that is mean and rotten about shows like X-Factor. Ricky Gervais playing Andy in ‘Extras’ puts it well: “The Victorian freak show never went away, now it’s called Big Brother or X Factor where, in the preliminary rounds, we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multi-millionaires. And fuck you for watching this at home. Shame on you. And shame on me.”

The Refuge
“It’s at times like this that I remember why I chose the room at the top of the house. Most people focus on the bad points: There is almost no floor space...I’ve had to develop a semi-permanent stoop...there is almost no light...there is even less is almost certainly a fire risk...[but] Up here, I can almost forget about down there.”

I’ve always loved attic bedrooms. In my second year of uni I had one - that’s the room I was picturing when I was writing Girl, Aloud (the image here is a lot more Homes and Gardens...).
I remember feeling so trapped as a teenager. I wanted to escape and had nowhere to go. But more than that - I didn’t have the courage to be anywhere else but home. Now I think it’s funny the way we send little children to their room when they’re naughty, but a few years down the line we’re begging them to come out and they don’t want a bar of us.
I was very lucky because home was a safe place, but still I treasured my top-floor bedroom. I would stare out of my window for hours and hours, wondering when life was going to get started. Kass is less cautious - she’s already spent a lot of her life putting out the fires her dad starts - but up in her attic she can lay her thoughts out on the unmade bed and try to make sense of them.

Anatomy of a novel is an occasional series where authors dissect their books for your delight. Pass it on! 


  1. I have that hope for our kitchen table too (that it can be a place of happy family togetherness) - ours is large and pine and unpolished - we wax it - and when the boys work at the table, doing homework or drawing pictures, their pen scratchings leave marks in the wax and you can find random words all over it if you look closely enough.

  2. I like that, Rebecca. I think our table is the only item in our house that wasn't dead-cheap / off a skip / Ikea / ebay - but somehow I don't mind the children scribbling a little history onto it.

    p.s. I gobbled up your book last week. Loved it. Top stuff.

  3. Oh, this is all wonderful and I really enjoyed reading it. I had an attic bedroom in my third year of uni. I loved it, and I adored your description.
    Your kitchen table Polyvore is fantastic!

  4. Thanks so much, Luisa! I'd never used Polyvore before - never do visual things like this - so thanks Simmone for introducing me to the whole concept.