Joanna Nadin on that hallowed object, the teenage diary, and the influence of her teenage years on the hilarious Rachel Riley Diaries.
One of the most-oft asked questions of writers is: “Is the book autobiographical?” Or “Is there any of you in there?”
The easy answer is that every book contains a little of its author: these are, after all, words we have sweated, cried, laughed, sometimes screamed over. But in the case of My So-Called Life, what’s on the page is pretty much all of me. Well, of the thirteen-year-old me that was stuck in a small market town in Essex non-affectionately known as Suffering Boredom.
Joanna as a teenager
I had started out trying to write a tragedy. The kind of book I had devoured as an orphan-obsessed teenager (and adult), the kind involving star-crossed lovers, or mysterious benefactors, or just an ill-advised night in a nightclub in Camden. But the thing was, I had never experienced any of these things, been to any of these places, at least not until I was old enough to know better, and be constantly checking my watch to make sure I could get the last tube home. As Rachel says:
“Why is life never like it is in books? Nothing Jacqueline Wilson ever happens to me: I am not adopted, my mum is not tattooed, I am not likely to move to the middle of a council estate or be put into care. My parents are not alcoholics, drug addicts or closet transvestites. Even my name is pants.”
And so I went back to my own diaries I had kept at school, in the hope of unearthing something, anything wracked with even a tinge of tragedy. I found this:
5 October 1985
Went to Stephen Howell’s 16th at Wenden’s Ambo Village Hall. Drunk dubious champagne that Lucia won at the bingo in Spain. She and Boo went as Madonna. I went as me because mum won’t let me wear fingerless gloves. Anyway it was totally depressing as the love of my life i.e. Nick, is going out with Big Debbie B. And she does IT.
26 October 1985
Have got off with Guy.
7 November 1985
I really like Guy.
8 November 1985
Have decided to chuck Guy. Karen is going to tell him for me at work tomorrow.
It’s not Romeo and Juliet. It’s not even ITV drama. But the thing is, there is a kind of tragedy to it. Not the kind to take a vial of poison over, more the kind to mope about listening to The Smiths to. But it doesn’t make it any less devastating – the stakes still feel as high. No, my first kiss wasn’t on a balcony, to a background of violins, with a boy I was meeting in secret because our families were at war. It was at a lower school disco, to the sound of Spandau Ballet, with a boy who kept pigs. But I still couldn’t eat or sleep afterwards. Or go near the school farm without thinking I might “literally die” from sheer excitement and embarrassment.
And so that’s what I wrote about. Small town lives. The ones that don’t usually get immortalized in print. And we’re all in there: my friend Jude became Scarlet, Stuart became Sad Ed (though in real life he has never had upper arm issues). I won’t say who the Kylies are based on, but they were very real, and very mean. My family is there too – though it’s me, not James who can sing the books of the bible off by heart – I do have to get some revenge on him for being sick on my Noggin the Nog book aged five.
So this really is my so-called life. Welcome to it . . .
Joanna Nadin grew up in Saffron Walden in Essex, before studying drama and political communication in Hull and London. She is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she has written the bestselling Rachel Riley series for teens, as well as the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers, and many more books for children and young adults. She has thrice been shortlisted for Queen of Teen as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She lives in Bath with her daughter.
Follow Joanna Nadin on Twitter
Find Joanna Nadin on Facebook