Ipswich-born writer Hayley Long on surviving our teenage years

Hayley Long. 'A good story is a good story, however old you are. I write about life. I write about k

Hayley Long. 'A good story is a good story, however old you are. I write about life. I write about kids and parents and ordinary working people and old age pensioners. But yes, I always put a young person in the central position' - Credit: Archant

Don’t worry about how many friends you have on Facebook

Sophie Somone, by Hayley Long

Sophie Somone, by Hayley Long - Credit: Archant

Hayley Long’s books are about feeling different during those sometimes-tough teenage years. Steven Russell asks her for a ‘How to Survive as a Teenager’ took-kit, and hears about growing up in the 1980s

Hayley’s new book is called Sophie Someone. What’s it about and where did the idea come from?

“Sophie Someone is about identity and confusion and shocking family secrets. It’s the story of a 14-year-old girl who lives with her parents and younger brother in Brussels. Sophie’s family are English in every way apart from their Flemish surname and the city they live in. As Sophie grows up, she starts to question her background and the stories that her parents have told her.

“The inspiration for this novel actually came from a local news story which went international. I don’t want to give too much of my plot away – but maybe you can guess the story I’m referring to.

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“In the 1990s, a man in Felixstowe disappeared quite deliberately. At the same time, his wife and four-year-old son disappeared too. Being a Felixstowe girl [it’s where Hayley grew up] I heard about this story on the news and it caught my imagination. But the detail that interested me the most was the child. I always wondered ‘What about that little boy?’ How on earth do you grow up in circumstances like that?

“So that gave me a starting-point. Added to this, I wanted to capture the sense of such overwhelming shock and disbelief that the brain can’t instantly process it. I’m talking about that feeling which makes us say, ‘What? I just... huh?’

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“So I wrote the whole book in a coded language. I’ve wanted to do this ever since I read A Clockwork Orange when I was 15. It was definitely the trickiest thing I’ve ever written and it took me twice as long to finish as any of my other novels.

“And it was a risk, too. I mean, what kind of nutty pigeon writes an entire bucket in code, for Google’s sake!”

What do you think of the life of the teenager in the 21st Century? If you had to choose, would you want to be a teenager now or in the 1980s?

“Growing up in the 1980s was no picnic. I remember being about 13 and having to read this book called Z for Zachariah in our English lesson. It was all about a girl who survives a nuclear war only to be left defenceless against a random pervert man who wants to use her to repopulate the earth. I’m still traumatized by that book!

“At much the same time, my class was shown the film Threads [a docudrama about northern England following a nuclear war]. For a while, I honestly thought I was going to die.

“Even so, there’s a lot I can look back on and be thankful for. I’m thankful that I went to university and didn’t pay a penny of tuition fees. I’m thankful that I had a student grant to help me. I’m thankful that I graduated without tens of thousands of pounds of debt. For these reasons, I’m glad I grew up in the eighties.

“Many bright teenagers today won’t ever have that experience of leaving home at 18 to go to university because they’ll be put off by the thought of all that debt. Or they’ll study for a degree but stay at home.

“And then they have social media to contend with. No Facebook message can ever match the excitement of a handwritten envelope in your pigeon hole.

“The pre-tuition fees and pre-digital age had a lot going for it.”

As a former English teacher who knows a fair bit about teenagers, what’s your view about social media and technology in general? Should parents be angsty?

“Very good question. The thing about social media and other technologies is that it’s here and it’s unlikely to go away, so there’s really no point banning it. Teenagers won’t thank you for it. If anything, they’ll probably just want it more.

“I think it’s a good idea to allow kids access to it from a young age but to supervise their use and to encourage them to do lots of other stuff, too, that’s real rather than virtual. This way, there’s less likelihood that young children will associate social media with something that’s cool because it’s the exclusive domain of teenagers.

“And it’s worth remembering that it can be a force for good. Many teenagers find it very supportive to belong to a fandom or some other online group. It’s just important that they’ve got a healthy balance of real socialising and virtual socialising. And, to be honest, real experiences are always more interesting than virtual ones, aren’t they?”

Is technology killing reading and literacy?

“No. If anything is killing reading and literacy, it’s parents who don’t have books in their house and don’t read to their children.”

Could you give a sort of Teen Survival Kit, which might help someone get through a time that while fun for many is torment for others?

“1. Share nothing via the internet or text that you don’t mind the whole world having access to forever.

“2. Don’t worry about how many friends you have on Facebook. So long as you have one or two actual ones, you’re doing just fine.

“3. Look everyone in the eye and smile at them. It works wonders! (I wish I’d had this piece of advice when I was a teenager.)

“4. Life is exciting! Once you hit 18, the world is out there waiting for you. Go out and explore it.

“I’ve written a non-fiction book called Being a Girl which is basically a girls’ guide to surviving the teen years. It was published in June.

“I was actually asked to write it and I couldn’t believe it. I remember reading the publisher’s email and thinking ‘Are you sure? You’re asking me to do this? I was a hopeless teenage girl! What advice can I give?’

“But then I realised that’s why I was the right person to write it. I know how awful being a teenager can feel. I know all the pitfalls. So I said yes and wrote the book that I wish my 12-year-old self had been given.”

We first spoke 10 years ago. How do you think you’ve changed in that time?

“Oh dear. I think I’ve got middle-aged! Ten years ago, I was dragging boxes of records around Cardiff, and my friend and I were DJ-ing in bars and clubs.

“At the same time, I was teaching English and dreaming about escaping Ofsted inspections and target grades and the mountains of marking by becoming a filthy rich author.

“I’m still dreaming, I suppose. But not about being filthily rich. I’ve wised up enough to learn that having a few books published is unlikely to change your life.

“I have left teaching, though. I gave that up just over a year ago. I’ll always have enormous respect for teachers. I know how difficult their job is.”

Your website describes you as a deep thinker. What’s normally going on in your head and what kinds of things do you think deeply about?

“Ha! Yes, this is true. I think very deeply about very useless things. It’s quite weird, actually. I mean, I can’t walk past Norwich Cathedral without thinking ‘Oh my gosh – men in tights built that!’

“And then that gets me wondering how I’d have coped 900 years ago without electricity, ibuprofen, dry-roasted peanuts, Stevie Wonder, PJ Harvey or Nirvana. And then I get anxious.

“But mostly I’m just thinking about words and sentences. Honestly. When I’m working on a book, it’s pretty much all I think about. I want each word to be perfect.”

Can you remind me when you moved to Norwich? As a Suffolk girl (via Wales ) can you see a difference between Norfolk and Suffolk people?

“My husband is from Norwich. We moved from Cardiff because of family. Norwich is a beautiful city and I was born in Ipswich and grew up in Felixstowe, so I’m a true East Anglian. And yet, it’s when I’m in Wales that I feel like I’m on home turf. It’s weird, I know, but we don’t choose these things. I think Wales got a hold on me and will keep a hold on me forever.

“Is there a difference between Norfolk and Suffolk people? Well, I haven’t lived in Suffolk since I was 18, so I’m probably not the right person to ask. But I used to be able to hear a really clear distinction between a Norfolk and a Suffolk accent. Since I’ve lived in Norwich, I no longer can. It’s all just blurred into one East Anglian accent.

“That’s probably not what anyone in Ipswich or Norwich wants to hear. Sorry.”

Previous jobs include cleaning tents and guiding people through a Tunisian souk. Do tell.

“When I finished my degree, aged 21, I couldn’t find a job – not in the UK, anyway. This turned out to be one of life’s unexpected gifts. For me, it was the start of four years living in different countries in Europe and North Africa.

“I did the most random collection of jobs you can imagine. First of all, I went to France and worked on a campsite in Brittany. Most of the time, I sat around in a deckchair and waited for cars with British licence plates to arrive and then I’d get on a bicycle and they’d follow me in their car as I led them to their tent.

“It wasn’t all sitting around, though. I also ran a kids’ club for a few hours a day and I did a bit of tent cleaning. I lived in a tent for nine months and had so much fun. I think that may well be the best job I’ve ever had.

“A little while after that, I got a job with a tour operator and they sent me to Hammamet in Tunisia. If I’m honest, I liked it a lot less than the campsite in Brittany. I had to wear a horrible blue skirt and matching horrible blazer and there were these awful ‘minimum make-up requirements.’

“One of the things I had to do was guide tourists through the Hammamet souk. It’s a maze of little alleyways and the only training I had was to walk through it one day with a local man who spoke to me in rapid French the whole time. My French was OK but it wasn’t good enough for that.

“The man was telling me the history of the souk and everything, and I was just nodding and writing things like ‘TURN LEFT AT THE CAT’ into my notebook.

“When I gave my first tour, it was a total disaster. I made all the history up and we got lost because the cat had moved.”

You’ve got a quotation from Emily Dickinson in Sophie Someone. A favourite of yours?

“Despite being an English teacher for years, I’m not massively keen on poetry. But I do love Emily Dickinson. She’s like the original goth or emo or whatever – her mind is on a higher plain, she’s obsessed with death and she’s ridiculously miserable.

“Having said that, there’s a huge amount of beauty in her misery. There’s one poem, A Certain Slant of Light – about the fading of daylight on winter afternoons – which is so stunning that it takes my breath away every time I read it.”

Do you think the day will come when you move away from troubled teenagers and write about another age-group?

“The scenarios I write about are all different and the central teenage characters are not always troubled. Sometimes, like Sophie, they’re completely sane and sensible and have very good heads on their shoulders – it’s their parents who are the problem. Or maybe – as in What’s Up with Jody Barton? – it’s the narrow views of society.

“I like writing for young people but I don’t feel as if my writing excludes anyone else. A good story is a good story, however old you are. I write about life. I write about kids and parents and ordinary working people and old age pensioners. But yes, I always put a young person in the central position.

“Life is intense when you’re a teenager and, to a certain degree, you’re a hostage to fortune. Your whole life is shaped by the adults around you. There’s a lot there for a writer to work with.”

Easy one. What’s your favourite colour? Only joking. Do you often drop down into Suffolk ? Have you still got family here? If you had to nominate three Suffolk places or Suffolk-based activities you miss most, what would they be?

“It’s blue, anyway.

“Yes, I often visit Suffolk because my mum and my brother live in Ipswich. Even though the road from Norwich is tedious, it’s a lot less boring than driving from Cardiff!

“My top three Suffolk places are these:

“1. The Treasure Chest bookshop in Felixstowe. I’ve been in a lot of second-hand bookshops in my life but this one is still my favourite. Back when I was a teen, it was just a few shelves at the back of a gift-shop, but now it’s a labyrinthine maze.

“The best thing about it is that the books are all good quality and they are all sorted out. I love that place. I wish I could visit it more often.

“2. I’m still sticking with Felixstowe but I need to mention Felixstowe seafront. I love the sea. When you grow up with it, you get used to that freshness in the air and that big open space that you can only stare at.

“When I was a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time on the seafront – sometimes just watching all the ships and wishing I was on one of them! Maybe that’s where I got my travel bug from.

“3. Christchurch Park in Ipswich. Not every town has a great big park and a mansion plonked right in the middle of it. Norwich doesn’t!

“When I was little, I remember feeding the ducks on the pond and I also remember sledging down a hill when it was covered in snow. Christchurch Park is a very special place and Ipswich is lucky to have it.”

* Sophie Someone is published by Hot Key Books at £10.99 hardback.

Hayley Long born 1971 in Ipswich

Moved to Wales at 18 to study English at Aberystwyth University

Became an English teacher in 1997

Taught first in London, then Cardiff and Norfolk

What’s up with Jody Barton? was shortlisted for 2012 Costa book awards

It won the 2013 Essex Book Award

Recent tweet: I have sold my never-worn 1987 Madonna tour T-shirt. I feel irrationally sad

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