Ask The Author

Sally Nicholls

Things A Bright Girl Can Do

There have been a lot of books about the Suffragettes this year, why do you think that is? – Carys and Emma, 12

Women in Britain got partial suffrage in 1918 – so 2018 is the hundredth anniversary of British women’s suffrage. Lots of bookshops ran promotions or special tables celebrating books about the suffragists, so lots of publishers wanted to write something that could be included in those promotions.

The popularity of books like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls has also played a part – publishers saw how successful that book was and wanted to publish something similar.

And there’s a thing that happens when something is in the news or popular culture – as Suffragettes have been with the film Suffragette and other Suffrage stories – that authors start thinking about it and are inspired to write something about it. I’m expecting to see a lot of books about climate change and ocean plastic published this year and next, as that’s also been in the news in a similar way.

Do you think that you share any of the same traits as any of the characters? Udayvir, 12

Yes, always! Like May, I grew up a Quaker, and although my mum isn’t an activist in the same way as May’s mum is, she’s certainly got a lot of sympathy for progressive causes. I knew several women growing up who’d been involved in Greenham Common and similar protests, and men who’d been conscientious objectors in the Second World War. I wasn’t as active politically as May is, but I bet I was just as annoying at times.

Like Evelyn, I’m not very romantic – I really enjoyed writing a romance with a main character who just got cross and grumpy when faced with all the classic romance scenes. And although I don’t have as much in common with Nell, I really sympathise with how hard she finds it living with eight people in two rooms. That would be one of my worst nightmares.

How did you get inspiration for your character names? Julia, 12

Evelyn started out being called Roberta, because I always pictured her as looking a bit like Jenny Agutter in the film version of The Railway Children. But it never quite worked, because Roberta IS that character, and I wanted her to have a name that was her own. I called her Evelyn after Evelyn Sharp, the Suffragette children’s author and journalist whose writing inspired some of the key scenes in the book. Evelyn felt like a good Edwardian name, but also an unusual one that I hadn’t seen used in any other YA novels.

Nell I think I named because of a scene in a 1930s detective novel where a character says something like ‘half the girls at my school were called Nellie’. It wasn’t a name I’d seen used a lot in historical fiction, so it worked well, because I wanted her name to be quite practical and prosaic, but not overused.

May I named after a child in AS Byatt’s Possession. Her mother says ‘She is called May. It suits her.’ And it does – she’s a very happy, easy-going child – you meet her in a gorgeous scene set entirely in a field of spring flowers. I wanted something of that for May – her optimism, her innocence, her capacity for happiness.

So they were all inspired by characters in books I read! That’s rather nice. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question before, thank you. Usually for historical fiction, I spend a lot of time looking at lists of popular names for the time my characters were born. You may not have noticed, but there are a LOT of minor characters in the book called Mary and John (or Johnnie or Jack), because those were both hugely popular names in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Why did you base your book round politics? – Rhea, 12

Because I was asked to! My editor at Andersen asked me to write a book about Suffragettes, because she knew I was interested in early feminism. I think it’s a great subject for a book, though. Politics affect every aspect of your life, from the fact that you’re allowed to take secondary school exams, to how much money your parents earn.

How was it that Evelyn and Teddy ended up happy even though she was desperately unhappy and he was completely changed, for the worse? – Rafaela, 12

I don’t think Teddy is exactly completely changed for the worse. I think he’s not very well, and he’s very unhappy too, and that doesn’t make him easy to live with. But she didn’t love him for his optimism and his silliness. She loved him because he’s a good human being, who made her feel safe and loved, and he is still those things.

Evelyn is a character who will always find being happy difficult. She’s not someone who finds it easy to feel safe, or to accept happiness when it’s given to her. She’s always fighting and questioning and challenging. The times in the book when she’s happy are very brief and they tend to be the glory of being given something new – a university place or a fiancé she thought was dead. I’m not sure how long either of those happinesses would have lasted.

I think even if the war had never happened, Evelyn and Teddy would have found being married and living together difficult. Evelyn likes her independence, and she doesn’t find it easy to relax or relinquish power. Her natural response to a difficult situation is to fight – and that doesn’t bode well to married life, which is all about working together and compromising and forgiving and loving.

Their life will get easier when the war ends and her university course ends and Teddy begins to come back to himself a bit more. I think the fact that she’s going to have to earn most of the money will actually make their relationship work a bit better. I don’t think she’d have been very happy being expected to be a wife and mother and nothing else, and now she has a socially acceptable reason to go out to work.