November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Chris Russell On Boy Bands, YA Lit, and “Songs About a Girl”

Photo by Chris Russell

In Chris Russell’s debut YA novel, Songs About a Girl (Flatiron), British teenager Charlie finds herself in the inner circle of the world’s biggest boy band, caught between boy next door Olly and mysterious Gabriel and facing an intriguing mystery involving the band’s lyrics. It’s engaging and super fun and should be on everyone’s radar.

Songs About a Girl is the first book in a planned trilogy. The second book, Songs About Us, published in the UK in July 2017.

From his home in London, Chris spoke to SLJ about the book, how he came to write YA (he’s in the band the Lightyears), the period he spent writing gossip updates for a One Direction fan site, and the project he has for Songs About a Girl that finds him writing and recording original songs from the book. Listen to the songs (they contain spoilers!) here, and read our chat, which was edited for length and clarity, below.

For people who haven’t read it yet, how would you describe Songs About a Girl?

It’s basically a romance in the world of a world-famous boy band. It tells the story of a teenage girl, Charlie Bloom, who is an aspiring photographer. She gets swept up into the kind of intoxicating universe of Fire&Lights, who are this chart-topping boy band, and her life is turned upside-down by them.

How did you come to write a YA boy band lit novel?

Technically the journey started when I was about 13 and I started a band at school with my best friends. We kept the band going, and when we finished university we decided to try and make it our full-time career. I used to write tour diaries about our various adventures and wrote a novel, which was loosely based on the Lightyears. My first book, Mockstars, was told very much from the point of view of the band, whereas I knew I wanted this book to be from the point of view of an, in quotes, “ordinary person” who gets thrust into that world. I’ve always been fascinated by well, pop music in general, but by boy bands and by fame, and it just felt like a natural fit for the next thing I was going to do. So I called the band Fire&Lights, which is sort of a slightly cheeky, in-joke reference to the Lightyears, but the band members themselves are not based on us. I’ve been asked that and have to be like, “No, they’re quite a lot younger and prettier than we are” [laughs].

But everything that I’d learned from being in a band and being on the road and the dynamics of a band, I plowed all of that into creating Fire&Lights. Although at first all you see of the band is the outer shell, and the fame and the excitement and their celebrity personas, for me, it was really important that I went behind that. Charlie describes them as ordinary boys living extraordinary lives. I wanted people to feel like they knew them and that they were getting to see something that the fans don’t get to see.

You specifically didn’t have Charlie come into it as a fan of Fire&Lights. How did that allow you to explore fandom and fame?

The obvious thing for a book that owes a lot to fan fiction is the sort of classic self-insert fulfilling of a fantasy. I thought it makes the whole thing so much more interesting if she’s not a fan of the band. That helped me to help Charlie to be able to see the band as real people rather than as icons because she hasn’t seen them as icons prior to meeting them. She almost sees them as real people first. I think probably that is one of the reasons why Gabriel and Olly and Aiden and Yuki are so drawn to her. All they get all day every day is people who adore them, and here’s someone who’s kind of weirdly immune to that. And so they drop their guard for her.

Olly is going through this extraordinary thing, thrust into the spotlight, so it’s not inconceivable that he might reach out to somebody from home who knew him before all that. Was that important in framing the story?

Yes. At the end of the day it’s still wish fulfillment of a fantasy, but I think people do want a plausible foundation for the story. And also you know, I think probably Olly’s character arose from that as well. Charlie says about him a couple times that he’s the one who kind of hasn’t changed or at least he hasn’t changed in negative ways. He’s in touch with his previous life, and he doesn’t have delusions of grandeur, even though he is grand. Even though he is that incredible pop star, he doesn’t walk around with that on his sleeve. You’ve got this dichotomy in the book between the ordinary, everyday world of Charlie’s existence of going to school and then you’ve got the polar opposite of that which is the lights and the concerts and the paparazzi. And both of those things have to be real. Otherwise you don’t feel the impact of it. I wanted it to almost be like she’s stepping from a black-and-white world to a Technicolor world.

I also loved the mystery surrounding the band’s lyrics. It completely drew me in and really propels the plot. What made you include that?

The first thing I came up with was the basic premise of a boy band and a teenage girl and some kind of connection. And then I was listening to “Story of My Life” by One Direction, which was my favorite One Direction song until they released “Steal My Girl.” I thought about that classic thing that has been in pop music since the Beatles, which is you sit at home and listen to your favorite band and there’s this little voice inside your head that’s going, “This song is about me.” And I thought, what if that song really was about you? And then I got Songs About a Girl, and I suddenly thought there’s more to this—it’s not just the basic story of Charlie getting involved with the band and the shenanigans that go along with that. There’s a deeper element to it. And that really appealed to me because I wanted to investigate family, the importance of family and the importance of memories, and how music ties in with that. I’ve always been really fascinated by how a song can unlock a memory.

Photo by Chris Blizzard

You’ve turned it into a project as well, recording songs from the book. Did you always know you were going to actually write the songs? 

I always knew I was going to do that. Right from the very beginning, I wanted to create something that, in theory, if you took it to its logical, infinite conclusion, is creating the band. So that meant that I had to first of all create an authentic band, and also a band that you’d want to get to know. People talk about how the great thing about the Beatles is that you knew who they all were. You know, so there are four guys and it’s like the Ninja Turtles, it’s like any great squad. I wanted to create a band where each member was really intriguing in his own way. I also knew that the lyrics were going to be part of the story, which meant that I had to write those songs in tandem with writing the book. It was a challenge when it came to editorial, because my editor would say, “We need change this,” and I’d be like, “No I need to rewrite the song!” My dream in the long run would be for there to be a movie or a TV show out of which would emerge a band. I’ve made some basic recordings of some of the songs from the book, but that’s just me on my own. Since then, I’ve recorded “Dance with You,” which is the main song from the book, with some friends. We’ve got four male voices on it, and it’s been produced to have that sort of modern pop sound. I’ll be releasing that soon.

“Dance with You” is so catchy. I’ve had it stuck in my head.

It’s always tricky when you’re creating things that go beyond the story world because on the one hand you’re kind of stepping on the reader’s imagination. Part of the magic of books is that you imagine all that stuff. But I think especially now, when writing and reading have become more multimedia experiences, it’s fun to have a little bit of that stuff on the side. I’m planning to create some Fire&Lights merchandise and T-shirts and that sort of thing. I got an illustrator over here to draw the band for me recently. I was thinking of doing a Fire&Lights tour T-shirt.

I love that type of thing! You also have a Twitter for them for them, right?

Yes, I do, I have a Twitter for the band. It’s @fireandlights and the band are not always active because sometimes I’m writing novels. But it’s really good fun. People are starting to follow it and starting to interact with the band. It’s a nice way of kind of expanding on the characters. Unsurprisingly, Yuki does most of the tweeting, because he’s kind of the funny one. But you get their different personalities coming through.

I read that you did work for a One Direction fan site. Can you tell me about that?

Yes! This is part of the story. I’d written my first book and had this idea sort of filtering through my brain for Songs About a Girl. Before it was fully formed, at the time I was doing a lot of freelancing. This particular job was described in quite broad terms: “We need a ghostwriter for a fan site of a British pop band. Your job will be writing daily updates on what’s going on with the band and interacting with our users” and that sort of thing. So I applied for the job as I applied for various jobs and then heard back from them and they hired me. It was weird because they didn’t tell me who the band was until they hired me. I think they were worried it would put people off. They said, “By the way the band is One Direction. Are you cool with that?” and I said, “Yeah, I love One Direction.”

Wait, so you liked 1D before you got the job?

I appreciated them as a musician because I think their songwriting is really good. The songs, it’s not all them, but everything about One Direction is just really well put together. But I would appreciate it from a distance. And within about two or three days of doing this job, which involved writing probably three or four little gossip updates a day (“Louis has been spotted with so-and-so” or “Harry has cut his hair”), I became so immersed in their world that I basically woke up one day and went, “Oh my god, I am a Directioner. I am genuinely now obsessed with this band.” And not only that, but I’m interacting every day with largely teenage fans of the band. I was experiencing firsthand that fandom in a way that as a man in your mid-30s you normally wouldn’t, because you wouldn’t normally be in that space. And that’s part of the reason for the “Fire&Lights Forever” blog that you get on page 2 that reappears throughout the book. The kind of stuff I was writing, I then used that in the story. The important thing was I was just totally head over heels for 1D by the end of it. I think to write a book like this, you can’t be cynical about it. You have to genuinely love pop music. Because otherwise, it’s just reporting fandom. Whereas I think you need to, in whatever way, live that fandom. I don’t know whether the book would have necessarily happened in quite the way it has if I hadn’t had that experience.

What can readers expect from the sequel?

They’ll get more insight into the band members and find out more about them and their inner lives. And the mystery deepens and some questions are answered and more questions are asked. I like to think it’s the same kind of idea, but it gets more intense, and the stakes get higher. But it’s also lots of fun, or at least it was fun to write. My aim with it was to make it something you want to devour and you just want to read it all and be part of it. Hopefully, I’ve achieved it.

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Amanda Mastrull About Amanda Mastrull

Amanda Mastrull (amastrull@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Editor at Library Journal. She's @amandamastrull on Twitter.

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