W&P's roving reporter Sarah Broadley talks to writer Joanna Nadin about ghostwriting, prizes and planning.

There can be negative press about ghost writers in particular alongside celebrity authors. What has been your experiences of this, can you describe your relationship as a ghost writer and the creator of the idea? Sir Chris Hoy on Flying Fergus, for example?

I’ve always ghost written. I worked in politics for years, no politician has the time to write speeches or press articles. It’s natural to me, I’ve always been the background woman writing someone else's words so it didn’t even occur to me that it might be a controversial or tricky thing when I was asked to do it.

My only concern about it was that I have literally zero interest in sport and my experience of sports people was not particularly positive in terms of a meeting of minds. I just thought we’ve got nothing in common, I’m not interested in it and they’re not going to be an academic or a sparky ideas person.

Within about five minutes of meeting Chris, I was absolutely ashamed. He is more academic, his A level results are better, his degree is better than mine... he was so full of ideas. We talked for two to three hours, it was incredibly inspiring. It was very much at that point a brainstorm, firing ideas off each other. He had the initial idea – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but with a bike! Then we both talked about how much we loved ET and that scene where they fly, so that came in. Then we went off on a tangent about a guy called Graeme Obree, a famous Scottish cyclist who built his bikes out of old washing machine parts. He was so excited and said “you’ve got to watch this film called The Flying Scotsman” and started to show me clips of the film on his phone. That’s where a lot of the book came from. 


I know nothing about cycling – all of that had to come from him. I do know how to turn that into a structure that works. All the characters came from him, they’re all based on people he knows, his family so it was a really enjoyable, fun collaboration. What was important was that he was completely open. He said in the first meeting that he wasn’t going to claim to have written these books, everyone knows he’s not a writer. Although he can write and draw, very annoyingly capable at both, he was very clear that both our names would be on the books and it was very much a team effort with Clare Elsom, the illustrator as well. When we’ve done events the whole thing has been about working as a team.

It’s been a really positive experience and positive feedback as well from the number of parents who’ve been in touch saying that their kids had never read before and now they were reading, riding bikes and getting outside. The books are also published with a special dyslexia font so we’ve had a lot of feedback from parents with dyslexic kids and how incredible this has been for them so there’s not been a single negative thing about it. If it’s honest and open, I think it’s a positive thing.

I remember a conference speech recently – it may have been SCWBI –and the speaker was mentioning [the phenomenon of celebrity children’s books] and suggested to try to think of it as that these people have been at the absolute pinnacle of their career and what do they see as higher than that? Writing a children’s book. That for them is the absolute pinnacle.

I thought that was such a positive way of looking at something we don’t have the power to change. There’s no point getting stressed about it so we have to find ways of working around it. We also have to remember that every time someone is ghost-written there is a real author doing the work and getting paid for it. It’s not like none of us are getting any work because of it. We are. I don’t see [these books] as any lesser than the other books I write. There’s also comments made about the standard of some of them and I find that absolutely insulting to the authors that work on them. I find it quite sad when people try to dig at it like that.

It’s like World Book Day, those books are for kids who don’t have any books at all. Their parents/guardians will be more likely to pick up a book with a celebrity on it. The difference World Book Day makes to kids reading is astonishing and I do think the celebrities do help with that. World Book Day is not a day about authors and we have to take our egos out of it. It’s a day for underprivileged children or children who are hard to reach getting books to them and getting them reading. The chance for them to own a book for the first time in their lives, it’s not about sales for Joanna Nadin.

How does your experiences writing the Flying Fergus series compare to your collaboration with Carnegie Medal Winner Anthony McGowan in Everybody Hurts?

Yes! He’s waited a long time for this. He’s been long-listed and nominated so many times it’s hugely deserved, the book is astonishing.

My experience with Chris was wonderful, he was very much the ideas and the data. Chris was meticulous about the bikes and would tell me when brakes wouldn’t do certain things and that kind of correction, with Anthony it was a much more equal thing.

He came to me with an idea of writing together although I had also thought about it separately. We had known each for years and we fought quite a bit, quite argumentative but we write very similarly and about the same kind of things.

He had an idea about a girl and a boy who would meet in a hospital canteen or waiting room and it would end in a disused sewage pipe in Leeds. That was literally it. He’d do the boy’s part and I’d do the girl’s. We weren’t commissioned to do it, it wasn’t something either of our agents were keen on us doing so we had to keep it as a side project.


So he sent me four chapters and I had to write the in-between chapters. We played ping-pong after that. It could’ve been a nice easy process had that carried on but I would send him a chapter and then wait and wait and wait. A process that could’ve taken six months to a year took three years. It was the most fun I had writing though because half the responsibility was gone, half the expected word count had gone so I only had to write 35 to 40,000 instead of 70 to 80,000 words. It was so freeing to write this one part and be only responsible for writing my part of the story. It evolved much more how a story should evolve as I was playing a feisty, upper middle class girl and he was playing this awkward gawky teenage boy so we clashed quite a bit which made it feel much more realistic. The only awful time was when we realised we had to write a sex scene and we’d not thought about the implications of how we’d feel doing that.

Both my collaborative processes have been brilliant, one of them was substantially easier than the other though.

Congratulations on your BAFTA win for Joe All Alone! Can you give us an insight into the whole process from conception of the idea to being nominated and winning the award?

The book was written around 2012 and published early 2014 but it was optioned for TV before publication. A TV exec read it and called me up and wanted to go ahead. I knew Joe was in safe hands because he was the guy that brought Tracy Beaker to TV and did all these amazing things at CBBC in the past. It was very exciting but you have to take everything in publishing with a pinch of salt as things get optioned all the time. And we heard nothing for a long time. Towards the end of 2017 I e-mailed my agent asking if there was any news as it was probably a no, so she checked with them again.

An e-mail then confirmed that it had been green lit by the BBC and was being filmed! It was amazing! I was able to attend the first cast read through. I asked if I could write one of the episodes but they politely declined. They had a BAFTA-award-winning writer anyway so I was very lucky having him on board.

It was incredible seeing the characters I had created in my head standing in front of me. They weren’t what I had imagined but as soon as they all got together they were just perfect. I didn’t get to see the actual filming of it as I was away on holiday but even before they started filming, they had an inkling that it was BAFTA-ready. It was a serious story and the cast were all new to the screen and it’s lovely to see them all in other productions now. For example, the boy who played Joe is now appearing in the BBC’s Northern Lights.

As to how nominees are selected for the BAFTAs, the committee are sent DVDs of everything I think, and they watch them all and decide what goes up for nomination. We were up for two awards – Best Drama and Best Production and we won Best Drama. The children’s BAFTAs aren’t given the same kudos as the main BAFTAs as they don’t get televised so you have to keep an eye on Twitter as the awards are announced. It also got EMMY-nominated too but we didn’t win.

It’s amazing that my little book got through all of that, was Carnegie-nominated and won lots of prizes and nominated for awards and yet I didn’t sell that many copies. That’s the thing with awards, you don’t become a bestseller overnight, it can make very little difference to sales but it has made a difference to the kids who’ve read it. I know that.

From Penny Dreadful to Queen of Bloody Everything and then onto the bogey-filled classroom of the World’s Worst Class – how do you plan your writing year ahead?

It depends on what gets commissioned. I don’t write for YA anymore as the market’s too difficult for me. I like to write YA with sex and drugs. Instead, I just do adult books about teenagers so they’re cheating adult books really as they’re mostly about being a teenager. Most of my ideas are either adult or lower middle grade, like a lot of my earlier series. It depends what sells and when. I look at what I am commissioned to do and try to fit it in with what the publishers have requested – I have a re-write of Sense and Sensibility coming out in October so that’s what I did over the summer – and then shift my things around. I keep all my ideas in a book and when I get the chance to pick one, all the information is there for me to edit. The adult books are difficult because I can only write one every two years due to the hardback and paperback releases. 


What’s next for Joanna Nadin?

I am writing the third and fourth in the Worst Class series, all plotted out and once the school’s go back I will start writing those up. I’d love to do another ghost-writing book as they’re quite freeing as it’s not my responsibility to get it sold and my name’s not on the front.

For years I wanted to write with David Levithan or John Green and do a dual YA thing but I feel that I have done that now with Anthony. I’d love to work with Richard Ayoade as his brain is fascinating!


Joanna Nadin is a former broadcast journalist, government speechwriter and special adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she’s written more than 80 books for children and adults, including the Worst Class in the World series, the Flying Fergus series with Sir Chris Hoy, and the Carnegie-nominated Joe All Alone, which is now a BAFTA-winning BBC TV drama. She’s also a doctor of children’s literature and lectures in creating writing for young people on the acclaimed MA at Bath Spa University. 


Sarah Broadley lives in Edinburgh with her family and two cats. She is a member of SCBWI Scotland. Follow her on Twitter.

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.