Abby McDonald is the author of both teen and adult novels, her latest being The Liberation of Alice Love. She grew up in Sussex, England and studied Politics, Philosophy & Economics at Oxford University. She has worked as a music journalist and entertainment critic. (Interview by Angela Smith)Interviewee A to Z
Tell us about your latest novel The Liberation of Alice Love.
The book is about a capable go-to girl, Alice, who keeps her life – and everyone else's - in perfect working order. But when her card is declined, she finds that somebody has stolen her identity, her life savings, and wracked up thousands of pounds of debt in her name! When she discovers that the thief is closer to home than she ever imagined, she decides to track them down - with a little help from a dashing fraud investigator, Nathan. But as she becomes increasingly obsessed with revealing the truth, she finds that the glamorous life being lived in her name might just be the one she was supposed to be living all along...
Did you find it hard to write on the topic of identify theft?
I found the whole topic fascinating! I consulted with real-life experts, to get my facts straight, and the stories they told really were chilling. These days, we take so much trust for granted: putting all our information online, being cavalier about throwing out old bank statements - but all it takes is for someone to nab your post from the communal hallway in your flat, or use your birth-date and maiden name to bypass the security questions, and, well, everything that happens to Alice could happen to you! It wasn't just the criminal element I found so interesting, but the notion of reinvention and identity in general. We all wish we could become somebody else - or rather, a different version of ourselves - and the thief in the book does just that. But at what cost?
Who or what inspired the character of Alice Love?
I try to make my characters relatable, and I think we all know an Alice: somebody who gets taken for granted, not because they're a pushover, but because they're so efficient and organized, they can't help but step in and take care of everything. Alice has spent her life looking after everyone else: her scatter-brained father, her ditzy step-sister, her eccentric boss, but the theft acts as some kind of wake-up call, to show her that she's been stuck in a rut. Finally, she's forced to use all her fabulous skills to sort out her own life, and it's surprising just what kind of changes she makes.
Do you find it easier writing for teens or adults?
Oh, that's a tough question! They're both such different experiences. My teen books are much more playful: they're comedies about the agonies and thrills of becoming the person you're going to be as a young adult. My adult books are still light and entertaining, but I try to delve deeper, emotionally speaking, and explore more adult themes around friendship, relationships, and - yes - identity. I'd say, my adult books are about the emotions I'm going through now, whereas my teen work is about remembering how I used to feel - so I have the benefit of hindsight and distance.
Do you have any plans for your next adult novel?
I did - but then I realised the concept would work far better as a movie, so I'm currently writing it as a screenplay! It's under wraps for now, but it's a modern throw-back to those wonderful classic rom-coms with Doris Day and Rock Hudson: very light, frothy, and (hopefully) fabulous.
What inspires you to write?
Book by book, ideas will come from anywhere: TV, newspapers, random emails. Sometimes I'll think up the hook, or character first, but then I always let it sit in the back of my mind for 6 months or so - then it naturally develops until it's 'ready' to be written. In general ... I'm not quite sure! I've always loved books and writing. I was the kid with big glasses and four different novels in her backpack. I read as an escape, a way to visit other worlds, and different lives, and it really did keep me sane through a rather awkward and lonely adolescence. I suppose in my way, I'm trying to give that same escape I enjoyed so much; the kind of book that sweeps you into it, that you finish feeling much more hopeful and excited about the possibilities of your own life.
What other jobs have you considered or undertaken besides writing?
Well, after watching West Wing, I was determined to become Amy Gardner, the wonderful feminist political strategist. I went to Oxford to study politics but it didn't quite work out that way! I started writing novels while I was at university, so I've never had a 'real' job (although writing 2 books a year feels pretty real to me), but I've worked as a receptionist and data entry monkey, and a music journalist for a while - interviewing bands like Kings of Leon and Maroon 5. Like a character in Alice Love, I think that volunteering is important, so I've spent the past year working with Abortion Rights UK - the UKs pro-choice campaign. So, I'm almost Amy, in a way!
Do you think every story needs a villain?
No. But every story needs conflict, and characters that challenge the protagonist - whether that comes from someone we identify as 'bad', or from the natural conflicts that come from different people working to achieve different goals. Some people might see the thief in Alice Love as a villain, but that character was one of the most interesting to write for me, because I had to understand everything motivating them to act the way they did - whether or not we see all of that back-story on the page. Simply casting someone as 'the villain' can sometimes be a lazy story-telling move; I think every character needs to have believable motives, and a well-rounded personality, so I try my best to empathize with everyone I write.
At 25, you've already achieved so much at such a young age. What else do you want to accomplish?
I'm just getting started! For me, these past 5 years have flown by, so there's tons more I'd love to achieve. I have another 3 teen novels due out over the next few years, so I'd love to reach more readers, and meet them via conferences, and book events. I'm also just about to move to LA, and take my first steps as a screen-writer, so that's a whole new scary industry to navigate, with plenty of new challenges. And who knows, I'm sure there are plenty more adult novels in me, just waiting to be told.
What was the best thing about going to Oxford?
Well, it's a beautiful city, for one thing! I studied at Magdalen, which is the picture-perfect Oxford college, with old sandstone quads, rolling lawns, and even a deer park! It's been used as a setting for lots of films, and it was wonderful to spend 3 years in that environment. I also loved getting involved with music writing on the student paper, which led me to some of the adventures I used in my debut, The Popularity Rules, about a female music journalist.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I'm kind of a TV junkie, so I spend far too much time watching fabulous US imports. My tastes are pretty varied, so I wind up watching everything from Mad Men to Make it or Break it; Vampire Diaries to The Wire. I also love reading, of course, and simply settling into a cafe or coffee place for a few hours, with my notebook and eyes - and ears - open for some good material.
If you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Italy. I wrote a whole section of Alice Love based in Rome and Positano, but I've never been myself. I'd love to take a break there, and eat my way around the countryside.
What do you think are your strengths as a writer?
Another tough one. A lot of reviews have called my work 'smart chick-lit', and I'm really glad, because I don't think they're mutually exclusive terms. I started writing because I wanted to find frothy, escapist books where the heroine wasn't tripping over herself, or getting into fantastical scrapes because of miscommunication, or jumping to conclusions. I'm not saying that kind of comedy can't be enjoyable, but I also want to read about women who are capable, and confident, and who deal with situations in a way I can relate to - but who nonelethess have adventures and excitement in their lives. So, hopefully that's my strength.
What other authors inspire you?
I have something of a career crush on Emma Forrest, another British author who got her start young, and has successfully made the switch to screen-writing. I actually got my first agent via hers, and was scouted by my managers after reviewing a script she wrote, so she's turned out to be a great north star. Plus, her writing is so vivid and full of life, I love it.
What is your favourite chick lit book?
This is the hardest question! My favorites are Love Walked In and Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos; a whole ton of Jenny Crusie; Sarra Manning's work; and a fabulous book by Sharon Krum called The Thing About Jane Spring which not many people have heard of, but is a must-read for all chick-lit fans.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Don't stop. You'll face so many challenges, really heart-breaking almosts and not-quites, so you must write for the love of writing, not in order to get a book deal/find fame/live a fabulous life. The best thing I came across was a saying: the only difference between a published author and an unpublished one, is that the published one didn't quit. Good luck!