Interview with Sophie Kinsella

Posted by Goodreads on February 6, 2017
The first installment of Sophie Kinsella's wildly popular Shopaholic series, Confessions of a Shopaholic, introduces Becky Bloomwood, a financial journalist whose "perfect life" is tenuously supported by crushing credit card debt.

The bestselling author has revisited her endearing protagonist over the course of seven more novels and a short story and has written several standalones, including the young adult book Finding Audrey. Each delves into a contemporary theme while entertaining the reader with relatable characters and a liberal dose of humor.

In her latest novel, My Not So Perfect Life, Kinsella examines our present-day obsession with social media and the impulse to project a perfect life through a carefully curated online presence. While Katie Brenner struggles to make ends meet in pursuit of her dream career in London, she covets the life of her glamorous boss and posts perfectly framed photos of cafés, friends, and a glossy life that isn't actually hers. When she suddenly loses her job, Katie must return to her country roots and dismantle the facade, discovering a different view of her boss in the process. Based in London, Kinsella spoke with interviewer Regan Stephens about social media, the myth of the perfect life, and learning to be a more relaxed parent.

Goodreads: My Not So Perfect Life explores the theme of perception versus reality through the lens of social media. Where did the idea come from?

Sophie Kinsella: I've always written what I see around me. When I started writing Shopaholic, it was because I saw everybody shopping too much, including myself. I've always had radar, whether it's workaholism, whatever the topic is, and I've been fascinated by the explosion of social media.

I think it's brought out a part of us that's always been there. We've always wanted to put our best foot forward and give a good impression. People used to have their portraits painted—this is nothing new, the instinct has always been there. But I think with social media you add a new dimension. You can hide behind it, you can present a front, and it can be that the people you're connected with never see you in person, so these little fictions—which we all indulge in—they never get put straight.

In contrast, we're humans and are built to pick up signals, so you might meet a friend and she starts off saying everything is wonderful, but you pick things up from her expression, or her eyes, or her nervous laugh, and you can get to the truth behind this image. But with social media you don't have that; you just have the image. And it just seems to be the convention that we relentlessly put out information and images, and no one seems to break that convention. So we're stuck in this cycle of "isn't this great?" There's nothing wrong with that, except that it becomes the perception that this is what reality is, and I think if you're feeling insecure, rather than see someone's holiday pictures and think, Well, that's only one side of the story, you can think that's the whole story. It can lower your own self-esteem.

GR: As a person in the public eye, do you feel more pressure to present a certain persona to your followers on social media?

SK: I think there's a balance. Obviously, if I post a picture online, I'm going to take ten. You understand, it was the tenth picture, always! [Laughs] You do become aware, what you're projecting. But funny enough, everybody is now putting pressures on themselves. Everyone is living as though we're living in the public eye because there is a public eye. Actually, instead of more pressure, I think it's the other way. Everybody is feeling pressure. And I think this is not good for the psyche. We just need to relax and be more honest.

I think the truth is, we're all learning and finding our way with social media. It's so new, and I think that everyone got a bit overexcited; it was like a new toy. We are not quite there yet, but we're going to find our way, we're going to find a balance. And I think people are going to differ. Some people want to share, and some people don't want to share—that's another thing, this feeling that you have to share. We're going to find a balance, but we're not quite there yet, and I think there have been some casualties along the way.

GR: I noticed that the book inspired its own Instagram feed—are you getting submissions? Have you had your own recent "My Not So Perfect Life" moment?

SK: Since I've written the book, when things go wrong, I started using this phrase around the house and it cheers me up. When something goes wrong, I say "not so perfect." The thing is, you grow up, and you go to school, and everyone says you should aim as high as possible, you should try to get 100 percent. You have these standards drummed into you. And while it's good to aim for 100 percent, it's not always possible in life. It's good to just have that knowledge and stop being so hard on ourselves. Because actually people waste a lot of time worrying about these sort of things and measuring their likes. Is it a real connection with people? Should we be so worried? I think we're going to look back and see some of this as not the way to be. We kind of had to go through it to learn, really.

GR: The book is broken into two parts: Part one features Cat in London, and part two is Katie in Somerset. Can you talk about this structural choice?

SK: It really does feel like two lives that she has. The whole thing is this duality—she has two locations in her life, two names, two identities—so it felt really natural for it to have a different feel. In the finished copy there's a line drawing of London and a line drawing of the countryside, and it's so lovely. It just sums up the two parts of her life.

This is a girl feeling, wrongly, that she has to choose between the two and define herself by one or the other. She's hard on herself, she's trying to strive for this perfect London life, which is a myth. She's feeling that if she does that, she has to jettison her old life and her old name. She's living this life of fiction, really. She perpetuates the perfectness of life in London and consequently ends up lying to her family about her job situation because she can't admit that things aren't great. This is a coming-of-age book for Katie—for her to feel happy in her own skin, to delve beneath image and realize no one has it perfect.

There's a romance, obviously, but for me the key relationship is between her and this boss, Demeter, who herself is living a sort of fiction. She radiates the perfect hip, cool London life. That's an interesting one in itself because that's not the fault of social media. That's part of it, but it's a function of what happens when you live a professional life and project one image, and your real life might be quite different.... Through seeing that her love/hate idol is not perfect, Katie is able to become more confident in herself, to realize that nothing is ideal, and to find a more realistic and happy place in life, which is not dependent on any kind of fiction or myth but is real and grounded and filled with great values and people she loves. I hope she ends up in a far better place as a result of it.

GR: Even knowing she's created a false reality for herself, Katie still believes that her boss has the perfect life. Why is it so hard for us to believe other people struggle, when we know our own social media presence is, at least to some extent, fabricated?

SK: This is such a human flaw. We can lose all sense of logic, and it's an insecurity. We think, I might have an untidy kitchen, but I bet they don't. Theirs is all perfect. I'm aware of this in myself. I'll see some impression of perfection online, I'll see some family (that's my Achilles' heel) and they're all playing together—creative play—and I think, "Oh no. They do that all the time, and they're so much better than me, and they never watch telly or snap at each other!" And I can feel myself thinking this despite the fact I've written an entire book on the subject, so I should know better!

GR: Katie emulates her boss, Demeter, whom she imagines to have the perfect life. Was there anyone you emulated when you were just starting out? Do you ever think about that person now with fresh eyes?

SK: There was nobody in particular I looked at and wanted their whole package, but there were definitely people I would look at—there was an editor on the circuit when I was a journalist, and she was renowned for taking over her magazine at the age of 25. Everybody thought she was amazing, and I got slightly obsessed. How did she do that, and could I be like her? I was nothing like her, which shows how ridiculous it is. And I didn't even really want to be an editor for a financial magazine.

I think it's natural to latch onto people and think, Well, this is my role model, and I'm going to see what they did because you need some sort of guide. Other people I've looked at who have had their children before me, and I've looked at them and thought, What have they done, what decisions have they made? I look at somebody who has been there before me and try to map myself from them. Which can be useful, or it can be really stupid or irrelevant because their life is nothing like my own, and I've learned that. I think I have a natural propensity to compare and contrast. It's such a natural instinct, and can be useful, and can be a red herring.

GR: I read that you have five children and that there's a 15-year age gap between the youngest and eldest. What differences, if any, have you encountered in raising them? Has technology made it easier or harder? How has parenthood changed from then to now?

SK: I'm far more relaxed! Your first child, you're absolutely paranoid. Every phase you think will last forever—they'll cry forever, you'll breastfeed forever—but you get such perspective after 15 years, and now I'm just so superrelaxed, whatever goes on. They'll all learn to read, they'll all learn to do up their buttons, they'll end up eating vegetables one day. I remember my third in particular, I remembered thinking, "This is fun. I have a baby, and I'm not freaking out."

And obviously the world has changed, and I think I'll have to be more vigilant about technology than I was with the first children because it's just a different matter. I haven't really let them have technology very young. I'm afraid we're the mean parents who wouldn't let them play the computer games or have a phone very early. It's a fascinating topic. I wrote a young adult book called Finding Audrey, and there's a secondary character called Frank, the brother, who's completely addicted to computer games and has an ongoing battle with his mother about it, which is the comic release. And let's just say I've had some family research on that.

GR: Your first novel was published in 2000. Have the expectations from readers changed, particularly regarding the romantic interests and plots?

SK: I haven't really ever felt any particular drive or reaction. What my readers say to me most of all is, "I laughed. I love your books because they make me laugh." And sometimes they make my readers cry and think. And those are the three reactions that I get, and I suppose I'm always trying to have a balance in my books. I love to write comedy, and even if I'm trying to put a message across, I like to do it through humor and with humor. I don't know if I could give that up; I'm slightly addicted to it. And a plot that makes you turn the pages. I think my readers do like something to chew on and think about.

Obviously I've examined consumerism quite fully. I've covered most aspects of shopping, and with each book, whether it's to do with a relationship or whether it's to do with some contemporary trend or a problem that people are facing, I think people do like to feel that there was a theme. What's so interesting, the theme of social media—that wasn't a theme when I started out. What's fascinating about being a novelist is that you respond to what happens in the world.

GR: Goodreads member Siri asks: Is it difficult to transition between writing the Shopaholic series to a standalone book?

SK: They both have different challenges. It's not difficult to transition, but I'd say that each type of book requires a different approach. Writing the Shopaholic series is like returning to an old set of friends or old family members. I feel I know them so well. I know Becky. I feel like she's been alive and well in between books, and I've just been dipping into this universe. It feels very cozy, in a way, to return. I love writing each of those characters, but obviously I'm constrained by backstory, so I don't have that sort of exhilaration of the wide-open horizon. When I start a standalone, that is the particular joy of a standalone. Where can I go? I can go anywhere. I can write anybody. I can choose any theme. And that is sort of exhilarating. So there are two sides of writing, and I love them both.

GR: Goodreads member Melissa asks: How do you relate to Katie? How do you relate to Demeter?

SK: I definitely relate to Katie because when I was writing her, I channeled my own life when I was starting out working in London. I haven't been in exactly her situation, obviously, but I've known what it's like to be starting out, feeling that everyone else is really with it and completely on top of it. Having those insecurities, desperate to please but not quite knowing how to do that, and slightly idolizing boss figures. So I understand that. And I got very fond of her because I think she's just so gutsy and has so many obstacles, but she jolly well gets over them.

In terms of Demeter, I would hope I'm a tad more sensitive than Demeter, but I am very scatty. When I visualize her office, covered in paper everywhere, I'm afraid that is somewhat similar to when I print out drafts of my novels, making notes and scribbling, and then I end up losing stuff underneath a novel. Three chapters and a vital phone bill underneath. So I can relate to the scattiness. But Demeter's insensitive, tactless nature I hope is more of an invention.

GR: You definitely succeeded in making her unsympathetic, especially in the beginning, but I actually really sympathized with her as a woman in the workforce, who not only has to be really good at her job but also really quite likable to succeed.

SK: I absolutely loved writing her. Like you said, you present an image which is not very likable, and it's slightly misconstrued, as we discover, and then you realize the pressures on this woman. She's presenting this professional front, she's keeping it all going, she's juggling all these balls, and actually she's exhausted. She's dealing with home stuff. And I think this is the truth for a lot of women. They keep it all together, but it doesn't take much to see the strain underneath. I don't want to give spoilers, but this particular situation she finds herself in, I found fascinating. I researched it: Being bullied from underneath happens. Katie and her whole staff fall into the trap of thinking that because she's the boss, and because she's got some cool clothes and authority, everything must be fine for you. And it's an easy assumption to make.

GR: Goodreads member Kathy asks: What is your process when creating your characters?

SK: I walk around London a lot, or wherever I happen to be, and while I walk I try to think my way into each of these characters. Who are they? When I'm creating a cast of subsidiary characters, I really want each of them to stand out, so I'll often give them something like a trait or a look. The lovely thing about the subsidiary characters is that you can just give the shortest snippets of dialogue, which can be so much fun to write. One particular favorite was Steve Logan, who believes that he and Katie still have a future. I loved writing him so much! It's a treat for me because it's a real comic release.

GR: Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any sort of ritual you follow?

SK: If I can possibly do it, I start writing first thing in the morning, and my husband, brilliantly, will shepherd the children through breakfast and to school. Because if I sit and do breakfast and hear about every schoolbag and issue, my entire story seems to be wiped from my brain. That's my only thing, if I possibly can, I'll go straight to the computer because I often wake up and I've got voices in my head. [Laughs] I have the dialogue ready to go. So the best thing is to start straightaway, but other than that, I'm quite low maintenance. I need a cup of coffee, and I often put on music—aerobics music, with a bit of a beat to give me some energy—and that's it, really. Writing doesn't change.

GR: What are you reading now? Have you read anything you've really enjoyed lately?

SK: I just read Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I loved it, I love her writing, and I love stories about big families and the interweaving of the generations. She's just such a clever and interesting writer. I've loved everything I've read by her. And I'm just starting Elena Ferrante's The Story of a New Name. I'm enjoying it so far.

GR: What authors or books have influenced you?

SK: I have to reference Jane Austen. She's the queen, really, for me. So elegant and so witty. You can read her over and over again and still find something new. And a lot of children's authors, I realize now, have really influenced me. I read a lot of an author called E. Nesbit. She wrote Five Children and It. She's sort of an Edwardian writer. She has these children who are always doing their best, with good intentions, but things go horribly wrong. I reread some of these novels, and I thought, Oh yes, this has definitely influenced me, I can see this in my heroines who start out with such good intentions, and it's really not all their fault that it all went wrong. And I did love reading Dorothy Parker's short stories. I mean, I can't pretend I write like Dorothy Parker, but her crispness and her wit are something I aspire to.

GR: What are you working on at the moment?

SK: I'm working on a new standalone novel, so that's exciting.

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