Interview: Simmone Howell
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Current Song: Nolita Fairytale by Vanessa Carlton
Notes from the Teenage Underground by Simmone Howell shows life through the eyes of a young Australian filmmaker. The more Gem works on her film, the more she learns about her friends -- and about herself.
There's something utterly delightful about Gem's take on things - fairly straightforward, totally accepting, and extremely thoughtful. This is one of those stories that is fairly timeless, really, in a modern sort of way. I've included it on booklists such as From a Land Down Under and But I DO Want to be Famous!
Now it's time to focus on Simmone Howell. The author of Notes from the Teenage Underground is just as candid and honest as her protagonist. She loves shopping in thrift stores, then coming home to watch old movies with her family - and make movies of her own.
When we got to talking about movies, music, and books, we went on for a bit, so let's talk directly about her novel before we veer off into other interests.
What made you write about kids growing apart, rather than telling a (fairy) tale about Best Friends Forever!?
I didn't set out to write about a friendship that fell apart. I knew I wanted to write about three girls but my original idea was that they would all have adventures and support each other and be suburban hipsters - but I think my own high school experiences infiltrated. I always found myself in bizarre friendship triangles. I was always searching for "my people," not understanding that your friends are the ones who are still hanging around after things get weird. I was quite deluded and big on reinvention and I was impressed by bad-a$$ types and broken homes.
Also, when I first started writing notes there wasn't much plot just a lot of obscure film references... something had to happen - I knew it wasn't going to be a love story so I decided to make it an emancipation story. In the end, Gem isn't losing friends; she's gaining a life.
Notes was heavily influenced by films. Did you pick films you personally loved or had seen prior to writing the book, or did you watch more movies as you wrote?
Well, there are a lot of fave raves in there - and quite a few fell by the wayside as I realised that the films were going to have to do more than just cult-y references - they're supposed to mirror and/or inform Gem's personal development. The Sandpiper is one of those films that I just adored even though I knew it was a bit crap. I mostly love it because of the house. (I have house lust.) There is an article about the house here.
I remember telling people in screenwriting class that I generally preferred to watch films that I knew were bad rather than films people told me were good - and everyone looked at me like I was weird - but I find big comfort in bad movies. I don't know why. But I will say that Gem Gordon's top five would have all at one point featured in my floating top five.
I did watch movies as I wrote. I watch movies most days. And notes took ages to write - lots of hither and thither and blather and smoke - the character of Marco wasn't anything much until the final draft so then I got to put lots of stuff about Disaster movies in. And initially Dodgy was only into crap films and didn't know anything about Godard or Nicholas Ray.
One of your short stories was turned into short film Pity 24. Would you ever turn Notes into a movie?
I'm doing a slow adaptation of it ... I would love to see notes have a second life - but I think that about everything I write. I am all about possibility and nothing about practicality.
What do you think are the biggest differences between American and Australian publishers and bookstores?
Everything in America is bigger! You also have a lot more publishers, more $$ and with that comes the willingness to take more chances. I think Australian publishing is pretty conservative across the board but I come from a small press background so I've always had a bit of an us and them mentality.
On your blog, you said, "I can be weird and sentimental and obsessive about clothes." Do you have any favorite op-shop (thrift shop) finds?
Too many! But my favourites are usually the things I give back. I am good at culling - when I have a bad dress day I can happily chuck half my wardrobe in a bag for the salvos (Salvation Army) - since pretty much everything I buy is secondhand, it always feels replaceable.
One item I will always remember was a 1950s bathing suit that was leopard skin and had a bone-coloured fishnet midriff - so racy! I hung onto it for years and years until the fabric was literally crumbling. I regularly post my op-shop (the 'op' stands for opportunity shop) findings on my LiveJournal. These days I mostly buy books - and, of course, I am weird and obsessive about those too.
Country music - Who do you listen to regularly?
Bobbie Gentry, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, I like the old stuff, I love western swing and bluegrass. I play the banjo. One of my favourite country music film is That Thing Called Love which is about a bunch of crazy kids trying to make it in Nashville - River Phoenix in his next to last role. Ah. I like some alt country but not all. I have a soft spot for Dwight Yoakam, possibly because of his hair (or lack thereof).
L.A. fiction - Such as?
I love Gavin Lambert, Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, F. Scott's Hollywood stuff, Eve Babitz, William Faulkner's story Golden Land, Nathaneal West. I love reading about old Hollywood and want to have an extended holiday in L.A., but only if I am rich enough to eat out all the time and have a swimming pool and a driver. Failing that I will walk everywhere and drink mimosas and watch the crazies at Venice Beach and go and stare at John Lautner's spaceship house.
Old movies - I share this interest. What or who are your classic film favorites?
I love Joan Crawford because she was such a maniac - she radiates maniac! I love Kirk Douglas because he's always looking so pleased with himself.
Movies: seriously all the three-girl films! How to Marry a Millionaire, the Letter, The Girls of Pleasure Island, The Best of Everything, The Pleasure Seekers, Where the Boys Are - actually, there's four girls in that one.
I like romantic secretary stories, and grim noir. I like stories that start off in the murky present then go into glorious flashbacks - Rebecca, All About Eve, North by Northwest, Night of the Hunter, Douglas Sirk stuff, Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, The Bad and the Beautiful.
I also love the 70s stuff - particularly anything by Hal Ashby. I love Midnight Cowboy. And Elvis movies. And Gidget. I don't watch very many modern films - they always disappoint me.
Pulp fiction - Would you ever write any, satirical or otherwise?
I would like to write something noir-y. I can't do satire.
Sixties music - What songs make your day brighter?
Early Byrds. Bob Dylan when he's being all stupid-raucous. The Shangri-Las. Fuzzy poppy stuff like Crimson and Clover or Liar Liar by the Castaways. Beach Boys. Beatles.The Kinks. I like very twee things like Bus Stop by the Hollies or Goodbye by Mary Hopkin. Give me a backbeat and I will rock my mod fringe!
Trash and treasure - Do you turn the trash into crafts?
No - I am not crafty. I am too slap-dash to manage it. I once did a course in leadlighting and practically had to get anger management because I couldn't cut straight.
I do lots of marketing and garage sales. One Christmas, I made special gift baskets for people. My favourite was called 'Romantic Lady' - it had white gloves, a copy of Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, a fifties silk scarf and a pair of old opera glasses in it.
I am big on stuff - and I like the idea that my stuff has other stories attached to it.
Walking - For sport/exercise or for fun? Where to today?
Walking for thinking. I hate driving. I like walking around my suburb and looking at people's garden furniture. I used to walk with my dog, but he's got arthritis, so now I walk with my husband and son. We live near the beach so we do lots of beach walks, collecting driftwood and weird plastic toys that wash ashore. I walk for coffee. And baby wipes. And to send off eBay parcels. Today, it's raining and cold, so I'm not walking anywhere...
Writing and YA fiction - When did you know you were destined to write for teens?
I don't know about destined. I have always written teenage characters though. I always wanted to write the kind of book that a teenager would find on their own and hide from their parents - so I'm not sure if I've landed in the right space. But time will tell.
Finally, what are ten of your favorite books?
That's too hard. Instead, I will tell you the books on my bedside table:
Dramarama - E. Lockhart
Stainless - Todd Grimson
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte - Daphne Du Maurier
Mockingbird, a portrait of Harper Lee - Charles J. Shields
Defending the Little Desert - Libby Robin
Beige - Cecil Castellucci
Elsewhere - Will Shatterley
Starlust - Fred & Judy Vermorel