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>> When life isn't quite perfect...

When life isn't quite perfect...

When life isn't quite perfect...

The Valentines are a famous acting family. But what if their lives are not quite as perfect as they might appear? We take a closer look at HOLLY SMALE's new book, FAR FROM PERFECT.

Happy Girl Lucky, the first book in THE VALENTINES series by Geek Girl author HOLLY SMALE, featured Hope, the youngest sister in the famous acting family. Now, in FAR FROM PERFECT, we get to see behind the scenes of middle sister Faith's life.

Beautiful, calm and loving, Faith's life is strictly controlled by her famous grandmother and her social media assistant. But she is constantly in the eye of the press, supporting a dysfunctional family, and forever on the run - so just who is the real Faith? Funny, poignant and moving, fans of Geek Girl will adore The Valentines series.

Author HOLLY SMALE tells us more about FAR FROM PERFECT:

Q: Can you tell us a little about your Valentines series, and where the latest book - Far From Perfect - fits?

A: As some of my readers may know, I spent a decade writing Geek Girl: the story of a normal girl who gets given a fairytale and has to decide what to do with it. With The Valentines, I really wanted to flip that narrative over and explore what it would feel like to be born into a fairytale, and to try to find normality within that.

I've always loved stories about sisters - I have one, and it's easily the strongest, most complex and most enduring relationship of my life - so it felt very natural and instinctive to be examining that dynamic further. I also realised pretty quickly that I wanted to write one big story from three incredibly different perspectives: a gradual unfolding of one big plot, but through individual books that jig-saw together.

Far From Perfect is Faith's story, and the middle book of the series. Faith is the middle sister: beautiful, sweet, somewhat passive, and trapped into a life she doesn't necessarily want. In Happy Girl Lucky we see Hope idolise and pedestal her lovely sister, and it's only when we get to Faith's story that we begin to see how unhappy she really is. It's actually a loose rewrite of Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, and we see Faith as the swan: beautiful and calm on the outside, but paddling frantically under the water where nobody can see her.

In essence, I wanted it to be a story about the danger of living your life for other people: about being brave, finding your own voice and empowering yourself to make your own choices instead.

Q: Why did you decide to write Faith's story as book two?

A: There were quite a few reasons, although if forced to boil it down the answer would be: it just felt right. I wanted to move from youngest sister to eldest - thus allowing the reader to age, but also allowing me to develop the story into perhaps slightly more mature territories - and Hope felt like the right place to start.

She's shut out of the Valentine family which leaves her as an outsider, much like the reader: we thus get to know their world much as she does. Mercy needed to be the final book, as she's the explosive firework at the end, and Faith is in every way a middle child: a people-pleaser, a go-between, a lynch-pin.

So it made sense - emotionally but also structurally - to put her in the middle: trapped between her sisters in every way.

Q: What is it that draws you to Faith as a character, and why did you give her this name? Was she hard to write, given how much she needs to hide from everyone, and from herself?

A: I think, in many ways, Faith was by far the trickiest of the three sisters to write. Hope and Mercy have such clear narrative voices - even though they're polar opposites - and I'm very aware that as readers we all tend to connect to flawed, imperfect characters. It's a human instinct, and a particularly British one: we back the underdog. With Faith, her problem was that she didn't really have any obvious flaws: she wasn't just beautiful, but she was also kind, thoughtful, loving, modest, loyal, sweet. So when I sat down to write her, I remember thinking: blimey, she's a bit dull isn't she?

Obviously, that's when I realised what the story was. A girl so stuck being perfect that she has no voice and no agency: she's always performing for others, and so she slips into a hole of feeling inauthentic and boring, to herself and to everyone else. As soon as I realised how Faith must be feeling, the story became alive and I loved her: she suddenly felt like a real, multi-dimensional person, and I knew how to engage with her. Hopefully my readers feel the same way.

In terms of names: I wanted the famous Valentines to have ridiculous, matching names, and I also wanted the twist - at the end of book two - to be so obvious it's hiding in the light, if that makes any sense. I also wanted each of the names to kind of match the sisters, and inform their characters. Hope is hopeful, Faith is constant - to her own detriment - and Mercy... Well, she's working on it.

Q: There is a lot about appearance in Faith's story - were you drawing on your days as a model for some of her experiences?

A: Probably, yes - a bit - but I was mainly drawing on my observations of girls as a whole, especially in the media. Ironically, I didn't really dive into this topic while I was writing Harriet for Geek Girl - it actually seemed more important to veer away from appearance, in order to keep the integrity of the series as being not about looks - but for Faith it seemed very relevant.

The way boys/men, society and the media treat girls - particularly beautiful or pretty girls - still horrifies me: they are objectified, valued sheerly for their appearance, not listened to, judged, trophied, both exploited and discarded, raised up and demeaned. We still have this surreal assumption that good-looking people have to be either stupid or unpleasant, as if there's some kind of cosmic scale that need to be balanced, and it's just not true.

It was important to me to lift a veil on that, as well as showing it as an important element in Faith's struggle to find her own voice. Nobody's listening, because for them she's just a prize to be won and displayed. Less a human, and more just something nice to look at.

Q: The Valentines seem to have everything, and yet their lives are far from perfect. Do you feel it's important that young people see what's on the other side of 'perfect' - especially regarding social media?

A: Absolutely: the more we're surrounded by curated, glossy versions of real life, the more we need to balance it out by showing the hidden reality. Even as adults it can be difficult not to compare our lives, our clothes, our faces, our friends, our relationships, with those we're seeing online; as younger people without experience or perhaps as much perspective, it's even harder.

It was incredibly important to me to show that we're surrounded by fabrication, lies, edits, but that - perhaps even more crucially - even if they were to achieve The Dream, it wouldn't necessarily make them happy. Perfection is a false idol, and we need more than a life that looks good.

Q: Why did you decide that romance would be a bit of a fail in this book, just as it was for Hope in book one?

A: I planned all three novels simultaneously: while they exist as separate books, they're really all one big story, so it was essential that they worked together. Once I knew what kind of personality each sister had - and the issues they were working through - it was very clear to me what kind of love story would help reveal them to themselves, grow and develop.

Hope and Faith have very different romances, and learn very different things, but I felt instinctively that successful love wasn't necessarily the journey they needed to go on. For Mercy, it's going to be a very different story, and romance will therefore have a very different role.

Also, I think it's important to note that it's a three book story, and so while Hope and Faith end their individual books see their lives continue in their sisters' books. So it was important to me that their love stories often play off-stage, through the eyes of the people who love them. Which is true to real life. We don't just stop living and loving because nobody is watching us.

Q: Do you have a favourite moment in Far From Perfect?

A: There's a moment towards the end of the second act - I always think of my books in three acts, like plays, because that's what studying Shakespeare does for you - where Faith finally lets go, stops caring about what other people think and kind of explodes in a torrent of honesty and openness. It was incredibly cathartic to write: I got such a sense of freedom, and I could feel Faith's liberation and relief. That's my favourite scene.

Q: What do you have planned next for the Valentines siblings? Can you give us a glimpse into book 3?

A: I'm actually on the second draft of Mercy's novel right now, and she has been an absolute joy to write. She's nothing like any protagonist I've created before: Mercy Valentine is angry, sharp, mean, funny, sarcastic, defensive, self-destructive, and I'd be lying if I said I haven't enjoyed every second of it.

I'd also be lying if there weren't huge chunks of me in her too. As a children's writer, there's always a bit of a glossy veneer between the real me and my public self: it's been incredibly liberating to peel back some of it and reveal a darker, snarkier side. I think my close friends will recognise me in Mercy far more than my readers might expect.

Without too many spoilers, it's clear by the end of Far From Perfect what the key problem for Mercy is - the cause of her anger and sadness - so I think it's fair to suggest the third and final novel in the series will be her dealing with this, and perhaps finding a way for the family to heal. I won't say anymore in case it ruins Faith's story!

Q: You've mentioned you will cover each of the Valentines' sisters - what about the brother, Max?

A: I love Max - he's hilarious, and a perfect balance to the sisters - and his perspective is something I've been asked for repeatedly. The only problem for me is that (as you'll see by the end of Faith's story) there is a very specific story to The Valentines, and a dramatic arc revealed carefully and deliberately over three novels. It's not just three random sisters, sharing their unrelated stories: it's one story, revealed selectively through three perspectives and jig-sawed together.

Throwing Max into the mix would potentially disrupt that. Writing a book is a little bit like captaining a ship, and I just feel instinctively that it would capsize if Max got involved too. But who knows - maybe a short story?

Q: Are you already exploring what you'd like to write after The Valentines books? How long do you spend in the planning stage of new characters / books?

A: I spend a very, very long time coming up with ideas for books: I frequently spend years sitting on ideas, turning them around, holding them up to the light, seeing what I feel about them and how they shift and change with time. The idea I'm working on right now has been sitting in my head for over four years, and it's still interesting to me: I think that's how I know it's something worth pursuing.

I'm actually very slow in terms of 'planning' too. It's a bit of a casserole situation, and I need the physical time to let things stew and get richer and develop in flavour. Plus I just enjoy it - pottering around in my brain, rolling around in ideas and themes - and I don't want to rush things or it takes a lot of the joy out of it for me.

As for what I'm doing next, I'm afraid I'm a bit superstitious and tend to keep ideas to my chest until quite late in the game... So you'll have to stay tuned!

Q: Where have you been writing during lockdown, and has lockdown helped or hindered your creative process? Would you include the pandemic in your future books?

A: Most of lockdown was spent writing in my study at home, and I think a lot of people - including some of my friends - assumed I'd have 'lots of extra time' to be super creative. Sadly, that's not really how it works; like a lot of people, I've been very lonely, bored, anxious, stressed, missing my loved ones... It made me extremely unproductive and honestly, I spent a lot of time binging box-sets just to calm myself down!

I can't see myself writing about the pandemic - frankly, there are writers out there who I believe will have a better perspective on it - but I'd never rule anything out. I've certainly found the impact of isolation on society interesting, so if anything it'll be the emotional consequences I use to inspire me.

Q: What are you most looking forward to doing, or is there a place you're excited to visit, after lockdown?

A: I was supposed to be in Mexico for the whole of March, and it was cancelled - for obvious reasons - so I'm really excited about the prospect of finally having my big trip. I'd actually already packed my backpack and printed out an itinerary (I'm a bit of a keen bean when it comes to travel) so as soon as things are safe again that's where I'll be heading. Bring on the whale sharks and cenotes!

Q: Are there any new books you've read that you could recommend to our members?

A: I'm currently reading Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge, and - while it's not specifically a teen book - I do think it's a book everyone should be reading.


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