Q&A with Author Sophie Jo

  1. What inspired you to write The Nicest Girl? 

Strangely enough, it was a character called Marissa Cooper from my favourite TV show of all time, The O.C. I was watching it a few years ago (for something like the 873rd time, because I am and always will be obsessed) and it suddenly struck me how difficult Marissa found it to say no to people. She really struggled to set proper boundaries and often ended up attracting people who took advantage of her kindness.

I’m a bit of a lifelong people-pleaser myself and only started to break out of that mould in my late 20s, so assertiveness and boundary-setting is something I think about a lot in my day-to-day life. I started to talk to friends and colleagues and acquaintances about these sorts of topics, and almost everyone had a story to tell – especially women and girls. I’d never read a book about someone who was ‘too nice’ but all of a sudden I desperately wanted to write one, because it felt like something lots of us could relate to.

2. Can you describe your story using only three words? 

Nice girl erupts…

3. What was the process like writing about this wonderful book? Did it come easily? 

My journey into publishing is a little different from the traditional one – I’d written around 15,000 words of my first draft by summer 2020, and I saw that the Madeleine Milburn literary agency was looking for entrants to its 2020-21 mentorship. I got very excited, applied, was successful, and spent the rest of 2020 finishing off my first draft.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist and find it hard to part with things until I’m really happy with them – truthfully, I do not have good first draft energy. I’ve realised I prefer the editing process, when I have something to work with and have built up a better relationship with the characters. When I’m on draft one, it’s almost like I’m meeting them for the first time and we’re all a bit shy and awkward around each other!

4. How long did it take you to write this book?

From start (thinking of the idea) to finish (sending to print at the end of the editing process), I’d say around two and a half years. It sounds like an absolute age, but it’s quite normal for publishing.

5. What is a significant way your book has changed since the first draft?

Hmm – I had a really good answer for this but it’s spoiler-y, so I won’t share it! My non-spoiler-y answer is that in the first draft, Anna didn’t really make much progress in terms of shedding her people-pleasing ways throughout the book – at the time it was deliberate, to show how difficult she was finding everything, but during the editing process we worked really hard to show how her work was paying off, so that there was also pay-off for the reader.

6. Can you recommend any other books that are similar? 

One of my very favourite YA books of all time is Beautiful Broken Things, by Sara Barnard. The main character, Caddy, has shades of Anna – she’s known by her friends as the nice one, the sensible one, etc, and she struggles with that identity.

7. What advice would you give to those who are writing their first book?

I guess that it’s a little bit like doing Couch to 5k – you can spend ages buying new trainers and reading blogs about running techniques and trawling the Gymshark website for overpriced leggings, but ultimately the only way you’re going to get going is to actually do the running (i.e.… write the book). I feel a bit fraudulent giving that advice, because anyone who knows me knows I am a) the least sporty person ever, and b) a very slow writer who should take her own damn advice. But you know what I mean!

It’s definitely good to plan, if you’re that way inclined. But my advice is: don’t be so focused on doing the planning that you forget to do the doing.

8. How does it feel being a published author knowing readers are really enjoying your stories?

It’s all I ever wanted. My favourite feeling in the world is when you read a book and at sporadic points throughout it you just feel seen, like there is someone else in the world who feels the same way you do about something really specific that you thought you were alone in. And all of a sudden you’re there thinking, oh my god, it’s not just me. The fact that people might be feeling that way about something I’ve written just blows my mind.

9. What has been your favourite moment building up to the publication of your debut novel?

So many, but I adored working with my editor, Emma Roberts. She is an absolute hoot, so warm and welcoming, and she really took the time to get to know me as a person before we started working together. As someone completely new to publishing, I really appreciated that.

10. Where is your favourite place to write?

Anywhere that isn’t my house! I quite like writing in restaurants (also a great excuse to take myself out for lunch – dreamy) and have also been known to check into a hotel for a couple of days to get some writing done. I’m a bit of a dawdler, so the fewer distractions (WiFi… my cat… my boyfriend), the better.

11. Which authors do you most admire and why?

For me, Holly Bourne and Sara Barnard are at the top of the list – I love reading about fairly normal people wandering around doing fairly normal things but still feeling everything really strongly, and those two ace it every time. Danielle Jawando is a huge talent, too – I know for sure that I will think about And The Stars Were Burning Brightly for the rest of my life. I can’t forget Alice Oseman, either. Their writing feels deeply authentic, and Solitaire especially has this edge to it that I think is quite rare.

12. What are common traps for new authors?

I guess it’s different for everyone, but I know that from my perspective it’s been very easy at times to think so much about book one that I forget to focus on book two, book three, etc. It’s a bit of a juggling/balancing act with lots of focus on the future, which is really exciting – so my goal is to get better at that side of it all.  

13. Who do you trust for objective and constructive criticism about your writing?

My fellow Madeleine Milburn mentees – they’re the best group of women and I know they’d tell me straight. My mom is also pretty good for some constructive feedback. She’s very proud but if she spots something she doesn’t like then she is READY with the pens and post-it notes!

14. What were your favourite books growing up?

When I was very small, I liked anything that rhymed. Hairy Maclary, AA Milne (I can and will recite Forgiven on demand), Michael Rosen. When I was older, I was absolutely obsessed with The Princess Diaries. Mia Thermopolis felt like she was speaking directly to my soul – in fact, I feel like she’d get on well with Anna from The Nicest Girl. The first line of the first TPD book is: “Sometimes it seems like all I ever do is lie.” Whew!

15. Are you writing anything else at the moment? If so, are you able to give us any clues? 

I’m working on book two at the moment – it’s in the very early stages, but I’m really excited about it. The main character in this is a lot more outspoken than Anna – very feminist, very cynical – so she’s a lot of fun and very different to write.

I want to say a huge thank you to Sophie for taking the time to answer my questions and feature on my blog. You can buy The Nicest Girl from all booksellers, online and of course using any independent bookshop.

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