Writing as a Team: Joanna Nadin on Flying Bikes and Writing With an Olympian

Joanna Nadin has published more than 40 books, including the well-known series Rachel Riley, but writing with an Olympic cyclist was new to her! 

The now Sir Christopher Andrew Hoy has won more Olympic medals than any other cyclist, and more gold than any other British athlete.The first two books of their six-book series, Flying Fergus, come out this spring. 

Words and Pictures caught up with Jo for a brief Q & A in her busy life. What is it like writing a book with a partner?

Art by Clare Elson
Q: How did you come to write these "cycling adventure" books with Chris? Was it your idea, an editor's idea, his idea?

The initial idea came from Chris, whose goals, post-racing, have included getting more kids excited about bikes. I was sent an email by my agent, which read something like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but with a bike – are you interested?” Needless to say I was, and Chris and I met and discovered a shared love of ET (flying bikes) and the cyclist Graeme Obree (who built bikes from washing machine parts), and a shared philosophy about not expecting overnight success, and that no-one is born a hero. These seeds slowly grew into a single book, and then expanded into the Fergus series. 

Q: Is this the first time you've written as part of a team? Did you work with Chris face-to-face or long-distance?

I’ve been speechwriting and ghostwriting for politicians and CEOs for seventeen years now, so I’m pretty used to working in partnership with someone else’s ideas and voice. I’ve also spent the last three years (it wasn’t supposed to take that long – but other work snuck in) co-authoring a YA novel with Anthony McGowan, which was conducted on a “consequences” basis, with each of us writing first-person as one of the main characters and taking it in turn to come up with a chapter. Both this novel and the books with Chris were written remotely, with drafts passed backwards and forwards by email. 

Q: As you write these books about Flying Fergus, do you have a specific audience in mind? Or a specific goal for the reader? 

The audience is children aged five and up, and their parents who read to them – I am always aware of the parental audience when writing for this age, and of how a book sounds read aloud. And yes, we had very specific goals, or rather we had messages we wanted readers to close the final page believing: that no one is born a hero or heroine, that success isn’t instantaneous, and that hard work pays off. Kind of an antidote to 'X Factor' overnight fame, I suppose. 

Q: What are some of the advantages of writing a book with a partner? What was the hardest part? 

I actually find working within other people’s parameters and ideas incredibly liberating (strangely for someone who likes to be in strict control, and plots and plans everything to the nth degree). I enjoy the challenge, and I also enjoy being handed utter gems that I would never have come up with myself. I suppose some might find it hard to let their partner kill their darlings, but when you’ve had the Prime Minister’s red pen all over your work, you’re pretty open to editorial change.  The hardest part for me is the time issue. As I say, I plot heavily, and I write a single draft once everything is detailed down to the level of scene. I also write fairly quickly, because by that time it’s really just writing up a clean version of notes. So waiting for others who work in different ways, or who have very heavy schedules, can be frustrating. So alongside any book written in partnership, I make sure I’m working on one of my own as well. 

Q: What did you enjoy the most about writing with Chris? What do you think he learned from you? 

The whole process has really been a joy. I’m not a sporty person (I’m the girl who got picked last at PE, week in, week out) but working with Chris has brought home the effort required, and the joy experienced, even those times when you don’t bring home gold. And his passion – about hard work and the joy of just riding – fuelled the entire writing process, and means I now cannot watch a race without welling up. From me I think it’s not so much what he learned, but that he realised that writing and riding have the same sense of exhilaration when they’re going well, and they both have the potential to be a means of escape, of leaving the humdrum, and your everyday self, behind. I know he also loves the endless possibilities afforded to writers in children’s fiction – you really can let your imagination run wild. 

Q: You have written two books together so far, both coming out this year, and four more will be published. Can you tell us a bit about the books?

There are five books in the Flying Fergus series, which will follow Fergus and his grandpa Herc (and dog Chimp*) as they set up a cycling team, battle to build a track and save the local park, and take on their arch rivals Wallace’s Winners in a host of different races. On top of that, Fergus will be fighting to find his dad in the magical land Nevermore – so there’s quite a lot of adventure packed into each 9,000-word book. The sixth book is a children’s bike manual, also featuring Fergus and friends, which means I now know more about cycling history, safety and maintenance than I ever thought possible. 

Q: What is the most fun bicycle fact you have learned?

I have two: Firstly, that no one thought to make a bicycle small enough for children until the 1920s – over 100 years after the first bicycle was invented. And secondly that the need to wear trousers to ride a bike played an important part in changing the way women dressed out of the saddle too. Bicycles will forever be equated with freedom in my mind now, in so many ways. 

Joanna Nadin is a former broadcast journalist and special adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she’s written more than fifty books for children and teenagers, including the award-winning Penny Dreadful series (Usborne) and the bestselling Rachel Riley diaries (OUP). She’s a winner of the Surrey Book Award and the Fantastic Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize and the Booktrust Best Book awards, amongst others, and thrice shortlisted for Queen of Teen. Her middle grade novel Joe All Alone is currently on the shortlist for the Leeds, Hull, Sheffield and Leicester book awards, and its sequel White Lies, Black Dare has just been published by Little, Brown. Jo also lectures in creative writing at Bath Spa University and is in the final stages of a PhD in Creative Writing focusing on mutable and multiple self in young adult novels. 


Sir Christopher Hoy, MBE, is a world-champion cyclist from Scotland. He retired from competitive cycling in 2013 but still enters the occasional race! He remains passionate about bikes, and has started a successful business, Hoy Bikes, making "proper, affordable bikes" for children and adults; he also lectures and does a great deal of volunteer work.The Flying Fergus books are his first publications for children. 

“Working with Jo has been fantastic and my hope is that Flying Fergus excites and inspires children, opening their eyes to the freedom and adventures two wheels can offer with just a little hard work.”


*The name Chimp is an in joke


  1. Always interesting to hear about how people collaborate - thanks!

  2. Excellent post! I think I was the girl who got picked last in PE too. Very inspirational. Thank you.

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