AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Andrew Norriss

    Andrew Norriss

    JESSICA'S GHOST

    PUBLISHED BY DAVID FICKLING BOOKS

    MARCH 2015


    Award-winning author and screenwriter Andrew Norriss (Aquila, Archie's Unbelievably Freaky Week) moves into very different territory with his latest novel, Jessica's Ghost.

    Francis, a lonely boy in the playground, is the only person who can see Jessica and they immediately bond, even though Jessica is a ghost. She helps Francis to not mind being different and to find a new group of friends. These friends, in turn, decide to help Jessica by finding out how and why she died. But why is Jessica's passing such a mystery, and does she really want to know the truth?

    Jessica's Ghost is a warmly-told story of friendship, hope and identity that also explores, in a deceptively simple style, the difficult subject of teenage suicide.

    We asked author Andrew Norris to tell us what inspired him to write Jessica's Ghost:



    Q: This book is very different from your earlier books that focus on comedy. What took you into writing for teenagers, and about death?

    A: Yes, the book is about a boy who can see a ghost but really, it's about friendship. From the first draft, I let the question of why Jessica had died hang. I had just decided to write about a ghost, to see what would happen and when it would end. I thought I would just let her meet someone and see how it went. She had met all three of the other characters in the book before it dawned on me why she had died.



    Q: So you hadn't planned the outcome for Jessica before you started writing?

    A: I wrote this book very differently from how I usually write. Writing for television taught me to plan before I start to write, because you need a strict structure of how it will end and you need to lay down your surprises at various places along the route.

    For this book, I just sat down and started to write and I wondered where it would go. Other writers can do that but I don't, so I wondered where it would take me. I am marginally more aware these days of the voice inside that says, go this way and not that way, and that it's a voice worth listening to.

    The plot of the novel hasn't changed much from the first draft I wrote, but it read very badly and I had to go back and start writing it again. It sounded too preachy and I had to step back from that.

    The story is written in a very simple style while drafts one and two were very verbose but the final text is a result of that process of going through and taking stuff out and expressing it as simply as you can. It felt right to me. Because of the subject matter I didn't want to over-dramatise it. Anything that made it too big a deal or over-dramatised it or that sounded too moralistic, was taken out.

    I wrote about 20 drafts in the end and within that, needed to go over and over some paragraphs to get them right, to get the words true to the people.



    Q: The focus of the book is friendship rather than action. Did that make it harder to write?

    Not a lot happens in the book and it's very difficult to write when you don't have lots of things happening. As you say, the book is about the young people's friendships and I had to go back and write a lot more about that.

    The screenwriter Richard Curtis does that brilliantly. There's a scene in Notting Hill, it's a dinner party, and in a way nothing happens but to write about friends like that and to know how good they are to each other as friends, it's among the most heart-warming things I've read. I've always thought that the love story in Four Weddings and a Funeral was rubbish but the friendship was solid. It's much easier to write about people having a row than people being good friends.

    I spent hours thinking about the different characters I wanted in this story. Francis, the main character, is interested in design but I'm not sure how I ended up with that, I don't know anyone who makes dresses and I know nothing about fashion, but that's just what he was interested in. Some very odd things can happen when you let the creative process go like that and don't control it.

    There's a girl in the story whose mother called her 'Thuglette'. That came from a real woman I met who actually did call her daughter 'Thuglette', which I found hard to believe. It's a joke when they are little, but what happens when they grow up?



    Q: You have said you have lots of unfinished stories and ideas; what made you want to finish Jessica’s Ghost?

    A: The book took ten years to write. There were some years when I didn't work on it at all but at various times I would haul it out and look at it again. This book seemed to matter and they don't always. I cared about it. I'm a bit frightened of the subject matter and of treading on toes; it's a bit like writing about heroin when you don't know any drug addicts. I live a sheltered life in a village in Hampshire, I don't have a gritty, urban life, so I was very aware of treading on toes.

    The driver for me in finishing Jessica's Ghost may have been that I have suffered from depression. What I have learned over the many years of my life is that it is extraordinary how life can change in a moment. You don't know where depression comes from or what the best things to do when you're depressed. Personally I always think the best thing is just to get enough sleep, or relax, and often you'll feel better after that. Most of us get the glums and you just have to deal with it, it's actually a very common thing.



    Q: If readers take one thing from the book, what would you like it to be?

    A: I once wrote a book called The Unluckiest Boy in the World because I had often wondered why some people seem to be lucky, and others not, so I explored that. Then I met a woman whose son used to go around saying, 'I'm the unluckiest boy in the world!'. When she saw my book she bought it for him as a bit of a joke and he read it through twice, and never said those words again.

    When I heard that, I thought, 'If I wrote this book for just that one child, then it's been worth it, it's achieved something'. I think if your books can speak to just one person like that, then maybe they are worth writing.

    For Jessica's Ghost, I hope what comes through is the lesson that I was slowest to learn myself, that things can change, than it doesn't have to be like this; things will change because they always do. Hanging on isn't much of a philosophy, but I think it's the best one.



    Q: Are you planning any follow-up to Jessica's Ghost?

    A: I'm not planning to write other books like this, I think I'll go back to light comedy, although the next book I am writing is about parenting - another area where I found things a bit trickier. What interests me is what makes us tick, that's the fun thing.



    Q: Where do you do your writing?

    A: I work from my office at home and I just write for two or three hours a day. I write for enjoyment now, I don't have to do it for a living. I draw the curtains while I'm writing or I just get distracted by what's happening outside the window. If I find I need a break, I'll just go out for a walk in the village.

    I find as a writer that I grow slower and slower, I have umpteen drafts and a computer full of ideas of things I could write. I usually send a book to my agent first who invariably tells me that 'no one can publish this, go back and do some more work on it'. So I write umpteen drafts before it starts to look like something anyone would want to read.