It’s a pleasure to welcome Scottish author Margaret Montgomery to the Reading and Writing blog today. I loved Margaret’s début novel, Beauty Tips for Girls, and the way in which we get to know three very different females and the problems they face. I particularly loved the characterisation of teenager, Katy. Margaret has kindly taken the time to answer my questions, but first a little about the story.
Beauty Tips for Girls
What happens when bad advice is given at the worst possible time?
Katy is an impressionable teenager obsessed with Misty magazine and its beauty tips. With her once-glamorous mother, Corinne, spiralling into self-destruction, she turns to Misty for advice, with disastrous but often hilarious consequences. Only Katy’s teacher, Jane, has the insight to put her pupil back on track, but she has a story of her own to tell. Can these three very different women each find their own voice in a society obsessed with perfection?
"A true gem. Don't be fooled: although immensely readable and full of wry humour, Beauty Tips For Girls' unflinching observation cuts to the bone." -- Kirsty Logan
Welcome to my blog, Margaret, and thanks for answering the following questions.
Have you always written fiction? What did you find most difficult about starting a novel?
Yes – I can remember feeling really excited when we were given a story or poem to write at school. It was something I enjoyed doing anyway so it didn’t feel like ‘work’ the way other things at school sometimes did.
Starting the novel wasn’t hard but keeping going when I had a lot on at work, or in my personal life, was difficult at times.
I love the structure of Beauty Tips for Girls. Why did you decide to write from the point of view of a 14 year old girl, her mother and her teacher? Did the story idea or the characters come first?
I wanted to tell the story of how a girl’s character is formed – the influences she has to deal with, and sometimes fight against, to find her own voice. The point of view of the girl (Katy) emerges through the voices of others – magazines and adverts she reads, her teacher and her mother. It is quite far into the novel before Katy actually has a voice of her own, and that is deliberate. The overall story is, I hope, about character – I don’t really remember characters or story coming first.
It’s a while since even my daughter was a teenager and I was slightly appalled by some of the ‘advice’ given in the teen magazine. Is this a real reflection of the kind of thing written these days or did you create a purely fictional magazine?
Girls’ magazines changed quite a lot in the early naughties, when the main part of the novel takes place. Some of them moved from providing fairly innocent advice about boyfriends and how to apply eye make-up to much more explicit topics. The cult of celebrity has become a lot more prevalent in the past twenty years as well and there are a host of magazines with celebrities on the front offering comment about their weight loss, or gain, their fashion faux pas and the like. ‘Misty’ (the fictional) magazine Katy reads is a blend of both these types of magazines. It’s an exaggeration perhaps and a bit satirical but representative of the kind of thing girls can sometimes be absorbing.
The mother is a complex character sensitively written – did you have to do a lot of research about her problems?
Most of the research was done by talking to people who’d been in a similar situation and by reading up on her problem or similar ones. Some of her back story as a mother was more difficult. I don’t give too much of the story away but I did do some research on this as well.
One of the book’s strengths is the addition of the teacher, yet she too has her own hang-ups. Was this character easier or more difficult to portray?
Jane’s difficulties really stem from her life not having gone the way she would have liked. She is grappling with this as the novel opens but does find her way to peace and a more content existence. I guess I wanted to show something of the modern relationship experience – the expectations versus the reality, as it is sometimes, and the circuitous journey people can take to love in an age when relationships are often very ‘disposable’ for both men and women. If there was a challenge with this character it was trying to portray someone with quite an austere persona who is actually very vulnerable.
Did you want the novel to convey a strong message, or two, or to reflect life as it is for some?
I wanted it to reflect life as it is – for some. People are flawed and make mistakes but if they want to, and the circumstances are right, they learn and grow from these. If there is a message it’s about the pressures women are under to be and look a certain way and the effects this can have. I was interested to read recently that some teenage girls have created an app to lodge happy memories in … a sort of on-line ‘journal’ they keep and read themselves as a refuge from social media and all the insecurities created by being ‘unfriended’ or having fewer ‘likes’ than someone else. Katy’s story takes place before the boom in the internet so it’s just texts and some catty comments in the classroom that she has to deal with (as well as the bewildering ‘messages’ from magazines and so forth). But I think the app and the fact that teenage girls have felt the need to create it does show that the pressures girls find themselves under are still very real and to be taken seriously.
Did it take you long to find a publisher and how did/does it feel to be a published novelist?
I found an agent fairly quickly but the publisher took longer. I’m really pleased with the publisher I am with (Cargo) as I like their list and they’ve been great to work with. They recently merged with another Scottish publisher (Freight) and the two companies complement each other really well. Being published is a lot busier than I thought it would be. I suppose I’ve always thought writing was a quiet thing that ended when a story or poem did and began again – quietly – when you started another.
Is it difficult to fit your own writing around your day job?
Yes, in a word. But a day job is necessary and I enjoy what I do (working as a tutor).
What’s next as regards your writing?
I’m working on another novel.
Any tips for new writers?
I don’t feel qualified to give tips but the best advice I’ve been given is just to keep going. If writing’s what you love to do, you’ll probably do it anyway. Feedback is important but I do agree with someone who told me it’s also important to make some judgements of your own. If you incorporated every bit of feedback you ever got into a given piece of writing it would stop being yours. A bit like Katy in the book, it’s important to find, and believe in, your own voice.
Excellent advice, Margaret – thank you!
Margaret Montgomery grew up in Ayrshire and lives in Edinburgh. In addition to an undergraduate degree, she holds a professional qualification in Journalism and M Litt in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews She began her working life as a magazine journalist. She has since worked for a number of newspapers, including The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.
Throughout most of her working life, Margaret has combined journalism with teaching, and has taught English and Media-related subjects in Scotland and abroad. She currently combines writing with one-to-one tuition for undergraduates and postgraduates. She also teaches short writing courses for the University of Edinburgh's Open Studies department.
Margaret's first novel, Beauty Tips For Girls, was published by Cargo Publishing in 2015.