"I studied English at university, but I can’t say I ever expected to become a novelist." - An Interview With Chris Russell

This is Chris.

The ever-so-talented Chris Russell is a YA author and musician. His popular series Songs About A Girl tells the story of young photographer Charlie Bloom and how her life is turned upside down by her decision to take a chance and work with the members of a famous boyband, Fire&Lights. Chris is now a Zoella book club friend and as a huge fan of his writing, I am so happy to welcome him to my blog today and for the chance to ask him some of my most burning questions...

Music is obviously a huge part of who you are. You’ve toured the world with your band and even recorded some of the songs from Songs About A Girl. Why is music special to you?

It’s not really possible for me to overstate how instrumental (LOL) music has been in my life. When I was thirteen, I started a band with my best friends from school - and that single decision laid the blueprint for pretty much everything I’ve done in the twenty-three years since. Our band, The Lightyears, has toured the world, lived in each other’s pockets, played stadiums and dive-bars and everything in between, and it’s just been the most amazing adventure. When I’m not writing, I get to spend my time playing gigs with my closest friends, and I feel incredibly lucky to do that.

How did this love of music transition into a love of writing about music? Have you always been an avid reader?

Strictly speaking, writing was my first passion, before music. I read The Hobbit when I was around ten years old and was so inspired that I immediately sat down and wrote a teeny tiny imitation novella called The Dark Tower (I guess that was fanfic, technically!). I’ve always been obsessed with words, and I studied English at university, but I can’t say I ever expected to become a novelist. It happened almost by accident. In my twenties, I got into the habit of writing tour diaries for the band - blogs for our website, essentially - and then in 2010, our lead singer, George, sat me down and said: “Buddy, I think you should write a novel”. Since I have a history of doing pretty much any mad thing George tells me to, I did - and here I am, seven years later, a published YA author. It’s a funny old world.

Onto the books. The guys in Fire & Lights are all attractive in their own ways. Do you plan your characters before you start to write and what’s your method for making each character unique?

I love squads. I grew up on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Tolkien’s Fellowship, and when I hit my teens, I became obsessed with the ultimate kind of squad - rock bands. Take Guns ’n’ Roses, for instance. If a scientist distilled pure rock ’n’ roll in a lab and then brought it to life, it would look like GnR. Every member brings something different to the party. And after years of performing in a band and fanboying over other bands, I knew I wanted no deadwood in Fire&Lights. Every member had to be fascinating in their own way. As for planning, I am a turbo-geek planner. Everything is plotted out in advance; in fact, my novels start as an intricate series of spreadsheets. Some of them are (ahem) colour-coded.

There’s a nasty stereotypical set up about women always being fangirls and men always being the successful musicians. While writing male artists and female fans, how did you go about trying to avoid sexism and stereotyping? (You do this really well by the way!)

Thank you! That’s a relief. It was so, so important to me, right from the beginning, that Charlie didn’t fall into the age-old groupie stereotype. I wanted her reason for ending up with the band to be based on her talent, not on fandom (she isn’t even into Fire&Lights when the book begins). Of course, we live in a misogynistic society, and when a photograph of her is leaked online, the media lazily label her as a “random groupie”. But that’s the last thing Charlie is, and it’s why the boys love her. Indeed, as the story progresses, we come to understand that Fire&Lights need Charlie just as much as she needs them.

Let’s talk about Charlie Bloom. What inspired you to tell Charlie’s story?

The very first novel I wrote, Mockstars, was very loosely inspired by my tour diaries for The Lightyears, and was told from the point-of- view of (unsurprisingly) a musician in his early twenties. When I came to write SAAG, however, I was determined that the story wouldn’t be told by a member of the band, but by an “ordinary” teenager being unexpectedly thrust into the band’s world. This is partly because I felt it would be more identifiable for my readers, but mainly because, quite simply, it’s more interesting, as you get to see Charlie’s life being turned upside down.

How do you find writing a female perspective as a male writer?

It’s second nature to me now, after all these years. In fact, I can’t really remember what it’s like to write about a man in his thirties! But I have to say, whenever anyone compliments me on my ability to write in a young female voice, I get a little glow. I suppose it is fairly unusual. Still, as a writer, it’s your job to step into someone else’s shoes, and in a sense, it
shouldn’t matter whether or not that person shares your age, gender, race or sexuality. All that matters is your imagination.

Charlie and Gabriel go through a lot of self-searching in the books and identity is a big theme. What do you think inspired this?

I think it’s inevitable when you’re writing YA. We all spend our teenage years exploring our identities, and books are one of the most effective self-discovery tools in existence. Also,
the trilogy’s mystery element was important to me right from the start, and at its most basic level, Songs About A Girl is the story of Charlie finding out who she is, and where she
comes from.

Likewise, parents are a big topic for discussion. Was this purposeful and, if so, why?

I’m not really sure! I should mention, first, that I have the greatest parents in the known universe, and so Charlie and Gabe’s dysfunctional families have very much sprung from
my imagination. But family has always been a preoccupation for me, perhaps because I come from rather a large one (I have four brothers). There’s nothing more precious to me
than my family, and I guess part of writing Charlie’s story was wondering, in a macabre sort of way, what it might have been like to grow up without them.

After you’ve finished the Songs About A Girl trilogy, do you have any ideas about what comes next for you?

I do indeed! I’m already working on ideas, but I can’t reveal them yet. *twiddles moustache*

Finally, what have you been reading lately that you’ve loved? Or what would you recommend for fans of Songs About A Girl?

My favourite book of 2016 was My Secret Rockstar Boyfriend by Eleanor Wood. It’s just the most hilarious and charming YA read, and it’s perfect for fans of SAAG. The novel I finished most recently was Release by Patrick Ness … and good grief, can that man write...

“Wade’s face suddenly hardened, like a camera coming into focus on a wasp’s nest”.

That is STUPENDOUS wordsmithery, Patrick. Bravo.

Thanks Chris for those great answers! I strongly encourage everyone to pick up the songs about a girl trilogy from their local bookshop, Book Depository or Amazon. I actually recommended Songs About A Girl in a blog post with Sweet Cherry Publishing recently as my top YA pick!

Love, Jess

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