What if ...
Bridget Carrington speaks with Lisa Williamson, author of First Day of My Life, published in January by David Fickling Books. Read Bridget’s review of the book on the Spring Young Adult section.
Bridget: You’ve written about specific teenage dilemmas in your earlier books. What in particular drew you to write about Jojo’s situation?
Lisa: It was a simple ‘what if?’. I was actually chatting with a friend about Paper Avalanche (the novel I was working on at the time) when the conversation took a slightly surreal turn and we found ourselves mulling over why someone might steal a baby. Weeks later I was still thinking about it. Of course, the story (and Jojo’s situation in particular) ended up being about so much more than just a stolen baby, but it served as a brilliant starting point.
The book is very much about real friendship, and to what extent it can overcome serious disagreements. Had you experienced something yourself which allowed you to write Frankie's side of the story so powerfully?
I don’t tend to write from direct experience, but I like to think I’m pretty good at putting myself in other people’s shoes. In terms of Frankie’s story, I was very attracted to the idea of the more confident, gregarious friend losing out to her quieter, more unassuming counterpart, and the impact this might have on their established dynamic. Frankie is frequently referred to as a drama queen, and yet it is Jojo’s actions that create the majority of the drama here. In many ways, I found Frankie the easiest character to write because she is so upfront with her emotions. Her complete lack of filter was really refreshing.
The book is divided into three, so that each major character has the space to tell their own story. Did you start writing with a clear idea of the characterisation of Ram, Frankie and Jojo?
From the beginning, I had a pretty good idea of the dynamic between Frankie and Jojo. Initially Ram was Jojo’s ex, not Frankie’s, and was far cockier and combatative than he appears in the finished book. In the very early stages of writing, it was a dual narrative, with Frankie and Jojo taking it in turns to tell the story, but the more I wrote, the more it became clear that Ram’s side of the story was also begging to be told. Dividing the book into the three clear parts (plus the fourth and final part in which all three characters narrate chapters) really helped me nail down the story and time the various reveals.
Which was the easiest character to create?
Definitely Frankie. She wears her heart on her sleeve at all times and frequently acts on impulse. Being in her head was never boring! She’s probably the character who bears the least resemblance to me, and I suspect that’s why I found her easier write. I tend to be attracted to characters and situations that are quite different to my own.
And the most difficult was…? Can you explain why?
Probably Jojo. She’s much more reserved than Frankie and less outwardly emotional. On top of this, she’s grappling with something so painful and complex and multi-layered, it was sometimes hard for me to compute the enormity of her situation and put it into words. Once I did though, I absolutely loved being inside her head.
There is the ongoing mystery until quite late in the novel. There are other books set around situations similar to Jojo’s, but none (as far as I know) with a mystery like this threaded through the narrative. What was your inspiration for this?
I didn’t realise I was writing a mystery until quite late on. Indeed, I think I would have found the writing process a lot more daunting if I had! I don’t tend to plan a great deal. On the one hand, this is quite a scary way to write, but I find it helps keep things surprising for both me and the reader. Every time I sit down to write, my focus is on keeping things as entertaining as possible and leaving the reader wanting more, mystery or no mystery.
Swindon! Why did you choose Swindon as the location for the denouement?
I wanted to pick somewhere incredibly ordinary where Jojo could disappear and Swindon was the first place I’ve visited that came to mind. It could easily be any large British town though. The club Frankie visits (Aphrodite’s) is entirely fictional and I’ve been pretty creative with the town’s geography. I really hope the citizens of Swindon don’t mind!
It looks as though First Day of My Life was originally due for publication in the summer of 2020, before Covid 19 stepped in to delay things. Did you make any changes to when you found you had another six months before publication?
I didn’t. The book had already gone out in proof form and I was pretty happy with it. I’m quite good at knowing when a project is finished and am always itching to move on to something new. It’s a shame it was pushed from its original slot, but I’m hoping a story set during a heatwave is actually what we all need right now!
There’s quite a complicated ethical dilemma in the situation which arises with Jojo’s family’s reactions. How sympathetic do you think readers will be to Jojo’s Mum, step-mum Stacey and to Jojo’s own changing decisions?
No one is infallible and I like to challenge the misbelief that adults (especially parents) always know what’s best. It's my hope that readers will be able to see that everyone is doing the best they can in a series of very difficult circumstances. This is not to excuse some of the decisions made, of course, but it’s a very complex situation for all involved.
In many ways the final pages leave us with a powerful desire to know what happened next. Have you considered writing a sequel?
I haven’t. I love writing standalone stories and letting readers make up their own minds about what happens next. Having said that, I do find endings quite difficult and I certainly found it quite hard to say goodbye to Frankie, Jojo and Ram (I’d really enjoyed being in their heads). I like to leave readers satisfied, but tend to avoid wrapping things up too neatly, which often takes quite a bit of time to get right. The book ends with an epilogue. For a while we went back and forth as to whether it was needed, but in the end, we felt the characters (and readers) deserved it. However, I think the book works perfectly well without it too.
Thank you so much for telling us more about yourself and your writing!