Lottie Biggs is NOT mad - honestly
Gosh, time flies. We spoke to ex-Suffolk girl Hayley Long five years ago. Blink and we find she's clinched a big-league book deal.
Gosh, time flies. We spoke to ex-Suffolk girl Hayley Long five years ago. Blink and we find she's clinched a big-league book deal. She tells Steven Russell all about Lottie Biggs, who's not mad - or (should you pick up the French version) n'est presque pas cingl�e
HAYLEY Long's not an extravagant soul - she's even buying fewer of her beloved vinyl records these days - but she did celebrate a two-book deal with Pan Macmillan by treating herself to a new car. “That was my indulgence,” she laughs. “It's not that cool, really; it's a Seat Ibiza Sport. What was quite funny was I'd got this lovely, shiny, new black car . . . that made me feel sick! I didn't realise that sports suspension meant you bump across every bump in the road! So for the first month I was staggering around, feeling sick, every time I got out. In the summer I picked my friend up and we did a kind of road trip all round Wales, so my little car was going up big gradients and I bonded with it. But it was a bit of a shock at first. I thought 'Sport' meant I'd just got nice seats! I do have nice seats - but you need them, 'cos it's really uncomfortable! 'Sport', they should have just said, meant 'hard suspension' - and then I wouldn't have bought it!”
The car's the tangible prize for creating a fictional teenager whose quirky vulnerability has found an echo in the hearts of real girls, as well as publishers who know their markets.
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The narrator of Lottie Biggs is Not Mad is on the cusp of 15. People at school call her Lottie Not-Very-Biggs - which she's never found particularly amusing - and her hair colour is Melody Deep Plum: not as nice as Melody Forest Flame but better than the dodgy custard hue it once was.
Lottie's story is about important things “like boys and shoes and polo-neck knickers and rescuing giraffes and NOT fancying Gareth Stingecombe . . . It is definitely not about sitting in wardrobes or having a mental disturbance of any kind!”
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Actually, wrapped up in the laughs is the story of a girl who has to learn to come to terms with the fact she's suffering from depression. As a teacher for many years, author Hayley was aware that teenage depression is relatively common. Without preaching at her readers she wanted to help break down the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues - particularly in the often-unforgiving classroom, where children are wont to exploit any weaknesses.
Very loosely speaking, we can thank an old Suffolk shop for Lottie.
Some years ago, Hayley received a missive out of the blue from someone she used to work with as a teenager at a Felixstowe shoe-shop.
“It was a kind of 'hello, how are you?' email and it ended with 'Remember the You Pays . . . ?' which made me laugh. Me and this other girl used to work in a cheap shoe-shop in Hamilton Road and every Saturday we had to put these 'You Pay' stickers into the shoes. It was like 'Actual price �30.99, you pay �2.' It was that time when you're 16 and you don't take anything very seriously. It was the most fun job I've ever had in my whole life!”
Hayley mused about writing the story of two girls working in a shoe-shop, but realised the plot was a bit thin. “Then I thought one or both of them could be stealing shoes from the shop - and not just shoes, but going on massive shoplifting sprees, in that kind of teenage way.
“As a teacher, you get bits of information about quite quiet youths, usually teenage girls, that have been in trouble with the police. It's actually quite common. So I thought maybe I could address the shoplifting issue. From there it just grew to thinking 'Why is she doing this? Maybe there's a reason . . .', and that's where the whole kind of teenage depression angle came from.”
Earlier this decade Hayley worked at a secondary school in Cardiff, Britain's biggest state school, and before that taught in London for three years, so she's met a lot of different youngsters. Teenage depression wasn't uncommon. Sadly, though, talking about such things is still something of a taboo among children.
I guess the teenage years are difficult for many because of hormonal changes and the challenges of establishing your own identity.
“Oh yeah. I wouldn't go back to being a teenager even if I were promised a million pounds on my 18th birthday!” Their behaviour is also a lot about insecurity and defence mechanisms, she says.
“The first thing everybody asks me is: Am I Lottie Biggs? No, I'm not! We've got certain similarities, definitely: an obsession with orang-utans (!) and things like that, and the musical tastes.”
A second book, Lottie Biggs is Not Desperate, is due out next May. Now a year 11 pupil, Lottie will have rather a dishy counsellor.
“I didn't want to make the counsellor scenes too dry! You get all these stereotypes in your head, so I thought 'Let's go for a young New Zealand guy who looks exactly like Johnny Depp - and that way she wants to go!”
Hayley's agent is negotiating a new two-book deal with the publisher, so it looks likely a third Lottie will appear. In fact, writing is under way. The author thinks a trilogy “is a nice place to leave it.
A happy goodbye to Lottie? “Yes, definitely! I don't do miserable endings. Honestly, I watch the news and find life miserable enough without finding a need to replicate that in fiction! It's kind of a thoughtful ending. I suppose the first two books are very much 'Me, me, me, me, me', and by the third she's learned to think about how it is for her mum, and how it is for her friend, and how it is for other people around her. She's become a bit more thoughtful - which shows how she's growing up.”
The genesis of Lottie Biggs actually lay in Hayley's being asked by the national books council of Wales to write something for the teenage market. It coincided with a bit of a creative crossroads for the author.
Her first book, The World of Elli Jones, was published in 2001 by a fledgling press and is “impossible to find now! They printed about 200 copies. But, really, no, it should probably never have been published! But I learned such a lot from writing it: things like narrative structure and keeping the plot going”.
Fire and Water, partly autobiographical and featuring the long train ride from Wales to Felixstowe, was issued four years ago by Parthian. The Welsh imprint also published Kilburn Hoodoo, in 2006.
“I thought that was my work of genius,” says Hayley. “I think it sold about four copies . . . At that point I thought 'Well, if I'm to carry on with this, I need to find an agent and a big publisher if I can. Otherwise it's nothing more than a hobby.'”
With her teenage story about halfway done, Hayley told the books council, “'I hope you don't mind; I'm going to turn the commission down because I just want to see if I can get a London agent now'.”
Hayley and husband Graham had been living in the Cardiff area; she was assistant head of English at the high school and he worked in university administration. But redundancies were mooted at the University of Wales and the future didn't look too promising. Graham got a job at Norwich University College of the Arts and in 2007 the couple moved east. Graham actually hails from the city, and Hayley has her mum in Ipswich, so in a sense it's a homecoming. Hayley got a job at a Norfolk sixth-form college.
It was soon after moving back to East Anglia that she sent her Lottie manuscript off to the Holborn-based literary agents Pollinger Limited. They were very interested, and it wasn't long before a couple of major publishers were bidding for it. Macmillan won.
A two-book deal having been struck, Hayley asked the college if she could go part-time, as it would have been impossible trying to write a sequel while working full-time. She now teaches two days a week.
Hayley's thrilled to be a properly-published author, though she compares each book to climbing Everest. “It's quite scary as well. I have just started on the second chapter of the third book and my confidence goes up and down depending on what day it is, I think.
“I'm glad I still have the teaching job, because that's really important for sanity purposes!
“I was watching Mock the Week, I think it was, and they said people who work from home get increasingly isolated, bizarrely dressed and cut off from reality, and I thought 'Yes, that's me, sitting there in my ancient Smiths T-shirt, eating chocolate biscuits from the packet!' It's good having a couple of days where you have to look reasonably smart and talk to people.”
Let's make a date to talk in another five years and see how things are going. “Yes! Hopefully then I'll be saying 'Yes, Monte Carlo's really nice. I like living here . . .' I don't think so, though!”
LOTTIE Biggs is being translated into several languages. It's already available in French - “Lottie Biggs n'est presque pas cingl�e”
Publishers in different territories have very different approaches, she notices. “Whereas the English cover is very pink, and it's got words like 'manly thighs' printed large in the blurb on the back, the French version has quite a stylish cover and says things like 'Lottie has a friend, Goose, who's an existential absurdist'! They've picked out completely different, quirky, intellectual things. It's obviously a really different market!”
Lottie Biggs is Not Mad is published by Macmillan at �5.99
Hayley Long . . .
Was born in Ipswich in 1971
Moved to Felixstowe at the age of six
Went to Orwell High School
Read English at university in Aberystwyth
She's got a rabbit called Irma