“If I’m not writing honestly there’s no point in writing at all” – Q & A with Author Holly Smale

Holly Smale is the author of the incredible Geek Girl and Valentine’s Young Adult series. At the age of 39, after decades of always feeling different, Holly was diagnosed with autism and everything about Geek Girls’ Harriet – and Holly’s life – made more sense.

Her new book The Cassandra Complex is her first foray into adult fiction and explores how an autistic and neurodivergent adults traverse relationships and life differently.

I’m overjoyed to share my Q&A with Holly below.

What inspired you to write The Cassandra Complex ?

I had the basic idea for The Cassandra Complex six years ago, after a particularly confusing break-up. It had ended abruptly, I had zero ideas why, and I spent a long time looping through the relationship in my head and trying to work out what had gone wrong and what I could have done differently. I blamed myself for it.

All I wanted was to travel through time so I could edit the relationship, and understand it better (and maybe create a different ending). When I finally emerged from my bewildered and obsessive ‘looping’, I realised that was an idea for a book: a woman who can time travel, and uses it to try and fix her relationship.

But it didn’t feel like a full story at that point, and a lot of the feedback I was getting from family and friends was why? Why would a grown adult loop backwards, obsessively, to unpick a short relationship that had fallen apart? Why can’t she just… move on?

It was only when I got my autism diagnosis, and I abruptly made sense to myself, that the story suddenly made sense too. It was about a woman who was stuck in a loop – repeating – because she’s autistic, and that’s the way her brain works.

The need for familiarity, repetition, and patterns – combined with this aching loneliness and deep need for human connection and love – was what drove her. And, obviously, it was more than just about a romantic relationship.

It was about all of her connections with other people, and it was less about trying to fix her relationship with her ex-boyfriend and more about trying to fix herself. 

Can you tell us a bit about the book in your own words?

On the third worst day of her life, Cassandra Penelope Dankworth is dumped by her boyfriend, fired from her job and told to leave her flat by flatmates who don’t like her.

When she discovers she has the power to turn back time, she uses it to try and fix her life: get her boyfriend back, save her job and fix the relationships she seems to have screwed up. And – as expected – nothing turns out quite as she predicts.

It’s a story about love, connection, grief and being human. With a rather large splash of Greek Mythology and a little bit of magic.

What difference has being diagnosed as autistic made in your writing style?

Honestly, there isn’t an enormous difference: my writing has always been about being honest, and exploring the parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of and try to hide.

From the beginning, it has always been a conscious dive into the differences between us all, even when I didn’t know quite what that ‘difference’ was or have a ‘label’ for it.

I’ve always had an incredibly strong sense of self, and a recognisable narrative voice: even before I knew I was autistic.

I think the major change has been that – where a lot of my energy used to go into trying to explore that difference by essentially stabbing at it in the dark – now I know what I’m trying to say. I know exactly what those differences are because I know myself even better.

So there’s been a subtle shift: I’m spending less time trying to ‘work it out’ on the page, and more time expressing it as accurately as possible and essentially ‘unmasking’ in the process. 

It’s not an enormous change – I don’t write in a different way. Anyone who has read my books before will absolutely recognise my voice in my adult books. But the energy and the focus have been honed and sharpened. That’s been truly liberating.

Why was telling all sides of Cassie’s story – the good bad and in-between-  important?

Humans are multi-dimensional: none of us are all good, or all bad. We are all a fascinating combination of the awful and the beautiful, the shameful and the inspiring, and that goes for everyone.

I think one of the problems when you’re writing a minority – or anyone who hasn’t traditionally been given a voice – is that there are both external and internal pressures to slightly flatten this. And it makes sense.

As autistic people, we’re so used to awful stereotypes and offensive characterisation – the ‘autism is bad’ message – that the urge is incredibly strong to try and rebalance it.

You want to write an amazing, perfect, completely flawless and loveable version of an autistic person who in some way counteracts all the hideous stuff that’s already out there, in the public.

The problem is that, by doing that, we reduce ourselves to one-dimensional characters, and we reduce our characters to essentially positive PR stunts.

There are many, many things that I – as an autistic person, but also as a human – do that are unlikeable, unattractive, off-putting and frankly shameful, on occasion. If I wipe all of those out to create a character that feels ‘easier to like’ and ‘entirely relatable’, I’m doing a disservice to both humans and real autistic people.

The point of writing our experiences is, to me, to tell the truth. And, given that my character is – like many autistic people – told she’s ‘unlikeable’ by the rest of the world so frequently, it seemed like a massive disservice (and lazy writing) not to show why.

Instead of simply erasing those parts of the character, I tried to show the thinking and the emotion and the reasoning behind it. Showing behind the curtain, rather than pretending the curtain just isn’t there.

For me, if I’m not writing honestly there’s no point in writing at all. 

This is your adult debut how was it different to writing for children?

Honestly, it was an absolute joy. I’ve been writing children’s books for a decade, and I genuinely love it. But I’m also a 41 year old woman now and it’s been bliss to write about an adult, with adult content and adult issues.

I enjoyed swearing so much, my editor counted 224 F-words in the first draft (and made me take a lot of them out, obviously, because most of them were totally unnecessary).

I got to write about sex, and an office job, and pubs, and getting drunk. There was a real sense of freedom. I didn’t have to consciously step into a teenager’s mind anymore, or monitor what I was saying or how I was saying it: I could write as me.

It was a little like having the writing stabiliser wheels taken off my bike and I just shot straight out of the gate. I adored every minute of it. 

Relationships are a major driver in the story, why is it vital to show neurodivergent relationships and how autism can affect relationships?

For me, it was less important to show the impact of neurodivergence on relationships and more important to explore my personal relationship with them, as an autistic person.

A lot of neurodivergent people have very happy, very close relationships – particularly romantic ones – and I’m in no way claiming that this isn’t the case or that autism is some kind of general ‘barrier’ to love.

But my experience has been quite unusual, especially for someone my age, and it’s something I’ve historically been ashamed of and tried to hide. I struggle to connect with people, especially romantically, and I find relationships exhausting and confusing.

The ‘mask’ I wear in public just isn’t sustainable on a daily, intimate basis, and that has created difficulties in my love life, as well as with friendships. It was important to me that I write about that honestly, and reflect my experiences as brutally and candidly as I could.

I would never try to insinuate that my experience is across the board, or ‘an autistic one’: just that mine is one version of the impact being autistic can have on an individual. 

I think a lot of autistic people struggle with relationships in some way – even if it’s just in making friends – and that isolation and sense of ‘distance’ from the world seems to be quite a common one. It’s one that doesn’t get talked about enough, because we’re still ashamed and embarrassed about it.

I wanted to explore that, and the complicated dynamic between needing to be alone and also craving human connections.

Was that an intentional decision to focus on relationships?

Absolutely: everything I do and everything I write is intentional. In fact, the ‘shame’ that came from my inexperience in relationships – especially romantic – was part of what stopped me writing an adult book for so long.

It’s easier to hide this naivety when you’re writing from the perspective of a teenager who isn’t expected to know everything. It’s a lot more vulnerable to write an adult who still doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The idea of admitting that publicly – in creating a character who isn’t what we tend to see in fiction – was terrifying. Would anyone be able to relate? Would anyone find it realistic? Would I ever be able to expose myself like that?

But the truth is: I’ve spent a lot of my life, searching literature for experiences like my own and finding very little. It’s incredibly isolating, and seems to confirm that you’re a weirdo, a freak, an outlier. And, as a writer, I realised that all I could do was bring my experiences and my perspective to the table, and simply put it out there as honestly as I could.

It wasn’t easy, and there were a lot of passages in this book where I actively cringed while writing them. I know exactly how weird and annoying and unlikeable Cassie can be, and – by extension – I can too.

But, for me, writing is about shining a light on what it’s like to be a human, and the only thing I could offer was my truth and hope it connected with others. My ego – my need to be liked – had to be put aside if I was going to create anything worth reading.

Your hugely successful book Geek Girl is currently being adapted for TV, how does that feel? 

It’s the dream, obviously, and I’ve been vehemently manifesting a book-to-TV deal since I was six years old so I’m still pinching myself.

It’s so exciting to see something that has lived inside my head for so many years becoming real and three-dimensional, with cast and locations and stylists and an entirely brilliant team behind it. But I’d be lying if it wasn’t also a bit overwhelming and scary.

The world I built in Geek Girl is incredibly personal to me – it’s like my family – and Harriet is my fictional child. So I’m super protective, and also a total control freak: it’s a bit of an exercise in trust, letting go, and allowing other people to bring their visions and talents to the table.

I have total faith, though. They know what they’re doing, and I can’t wait to see my books come to life with an openly autistic female protagonist on a mainstream, worldwide platform. 

Why is it important to write about autistic and neurodivergent characters in all their forms? Especially those who are imperfect?

There really isn’t that much literature out there featuring autistic characters, written from authentically autistic perspectives. It’s changing, thank goodness, but it’s not a viewpoint we’ve seen much of, traditionally.

Representation – as we know – matters, because we all deserve to see ourselves in the world represented by books and television. We deserve to know that people like us, people built like us and wired like us, exist, and are valuable, and have voices worth being listened to.

We’re main characters too, and we deserve to be accurately written about, by people who have lived that experience. I want to celebrate neurodiversity, but I don’t think the way to do that is to create ‘perfect’ versions of us. We’re real humans – not flat tropes or ‘quirky characters’ – with flaws and issues and traumas and darkness, and we deserve for that to all be represented.

I will never claim to represent all autistic people – it would be impossible, even if I wanted to. I can only offer one autistic voice, from one autistic viewpoint. That’s the only accuracy I can rely upon: my own experiences.

The more true voices that are out there, the more the narrative around autism and neurodivergency will begin to shift from stereotype to real, authentic representation. And that’s a very exciting slice of history to be part of.

The Cassandra Complex by Holly Smale is published by Penguin and available now.

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