I should start this off by saying that I didn’t write the current blurb for Gemini Rising. This is A Very Good Thing, as the original blurb that I wrote was a bit weird and rambling (funny, that) and included at least one quote from a Smiths song.*
However, as the clever blurb writers chez my publisher inserted phrases such as ‘posh’ and ‘exclusive private school’ into the description of the setting, it makes what I am about to say sound a bit odd.
Yes, the all-girls school in Gemini Rising – the ‘weird, small, semi-religious’ St Therese’s, nicknamed ‘the Virgin Megastore’ by the wittiest local boys – is based very much on my old school. The characters are different, and (luckily for me) no storylines even remotely like that in the book ever occurred, but the setting is pretty much the same.
I went to a tiny all-girls school in a suburb outside of west London. There were sixteen girls in my year. Like Sorana in the book, I was there on a scholarship. I believe it has changed quite a lot since I went there, but in those days it was pretty insular.
Sorana whinges quite a lot about her school – the lack of boys, the hideous uniform, the pressure of the tiny class sizes – but then she is quite whingey by nature, I feel. However, I very strongly believe that one day Sorana – like me – will realise that she was, in fact, incredibly lucky.
I kind of think that people who say things like ‘schooldays are the best days of your lives’ are probably losers. However, I do feel pretty grateful for my school experience. For one, I probably wouldn’t have lasted more than five minutes in a ‘normal’ school without getting beaten up.
Then there’s the fact that my teachers knew me really well, so I was encouraged in the things I was good at from a very young age (and they *kind of* let it slide that I couldn’t do hockey or long division without giving me too much hassle). My best friend from school is now a successful actress, and we often discuss this – we were a couple of proper little weirdos, but we were able to be confident in our roles as ‘actress’ and ‘writer’ from the age of about 12, which is really a gift.
This brings me to the fact that most of the people who I considered my best friends at school are still some of my best friends today. They are awesome human beings, which I’m sure must have been helped along by our education. The girls I wasn’t particularly friendly with, or I lost touch with, I still always think of fondly and – judging by my newfound love for Facebook – they look to be a generally happy and thriving little bunch.
Of course, there was bitching. And, in a class that small, it was bad news if everyone decided for a week that they didn’t like you (which was known to happen). There were fights and there was (quite a lot of) crying. However, there was nothing so bad that I feel bitter about it – and I hope that comes across in the book.
One thing I wanted to convey also came from a conversation with my best school friend: she asked me if I remembered a nasty little incident from our shared schooldays, which centred around her; ‘I remember so clearly that I went home and cried all night,’ she added. To my shame, I had literally no recollection of this. Then I realised that this was probably the point: we all attach great importance to our own experiences as a teenager, but a lot of the time we’re a bit too self-involved to be properly tuned into anyone else’s. Another still-good friend from school remains convinced that I ‘bullied’ her in our youth, whereas I genuinely believe the opposite to be true – of course, we’re both right. In fact, I pretty much based the whole dynamic between Sorana and Shimmi on the two of us.
That’s the point, too: I know none of us is perfect, particularly when we’re still growing up and feeling insecure about ourselves. I very much know I wasn’t. There was a definite pecking order and, like Sorana, I was somewhere in the middle – and I sometimes behaved in ways I’m not proud of in retrospect. Still I think (hope?!) that everyone feels like this and I was… kind of OK.
In fact, if you want to sum this up far more succinctly and hilariously than I could ever hope to do: just go away now and watch Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Not only is it One Of The Greatest Films Of All Time, but keep your eyes on Heather Mooney, as played by Janeane Garofalo, for an accurate snapshot of how I felt at school, at pretty much all times – so busy feeling angsty and put-upon that she didn’t realise people could be a bit scared of her.
Another good one is, obviously, Mean Girls. This brings me to a final point I would like to mention here: after writing the book, I read an interview with the amazing Tina Fey, in which the amazing Oprah asked who in life she would most like to apologise to and why.
She answered: ‘Well you know, when I wrote Mean Girls, I had some archetypes in my head—like the prettiest girl and the most popular girl. And as I was working on the script, I threw in some names of real people from high school and mixed them up with other random names. I later heard from a friend who went to my high school reunion that some of my former classmates weren't pleased. When they saw the movie, they were like, "What did I do to her?". I was inadvertently hurtful. So I apologize to the women whose names I used.’
This quote struck total fear into my heart because I have done the exact same thing. I didn’t even have archetypes in my head; I just chucked in a load of names from school that I liked the sound of, simply for my own amusement. Now I’m worried that people may be offended.
So, if you are reading this and were at school with me, please be assured (and I really, genuinely mean this, whoever you are) that I think of you fondly and wish you well. And, for everything, I am sorry.
* ‘spending warm summer days indoors…’ from the sublime Ask – although sadly I couldn’t find a place in which to shoehorn the next line, ‘writing frightening verse/to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg’…