How does it feel to have an upcoming Netflix series? Does autism help you write better?

by Holly Smale
(MIRA; Original edition, 6 June 2023)

Interview by Anna Roins


“A Time-Twisting Delight” —Reese Witherspoon (Reese’s Book Club June ’23 Pick)

If you had the power to change the past…where would you start?

Cassandra Penelope Dankworth is a creature of habit. She likes what she likes (museums, jumpsuits, her boyfriend, Will) and strongly dislikes what she doesn’t (mess, change, her boss drinking out of her mug). Her life runs in a pleasing, predictable order…until now.

  • She’s just been dumped.
  • She’s just been fired.
  • Her local café has run out of banana muffins.

Then, something truly unexpected happens: Cassie discovers she can go back and change the past. One small rewind at a time, Cassie attempts to fix the life she accidentally obliterated, but soon she’ll discovers she’s trying to fix all the wrong things.

“A great read-alike for The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore, and The Boys by Katie Hafner.” —Booklist (STARRED) – Goodreads

AUTHORLINK: Holly, thank you for joining us here on AUTHORLINK to discuss your new adult novel, CASSANDRA IN REVERSE – A Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick! Congratulations. Not only that, but you are also the best-selling author of the Geek Girl series which is soon to be on Netflix! What success! How does it feel?

“Writing is a tough business, and I’m fully aware of how rare my situation is.”

SMALE: Hello, and thank you for having me! It’s incredible, and – without wanting to sound like a total cheeseball – there hasn’t been a day in the last decade where I haven’t been grateful for my luck. Writing is a tough business, and I’m fully aware of how rare my situation is. I never take for granted being able to tell stories for a living, and I’m constantly convinced that at some point my luck is going to run out. It has to, right? So I’m appreciating it as much as I can, while I can.

AUTHORLINK: You were diagnosed with autism at 39. We understand you began playing your life out again, “except now with a brand-new lens”. You have managed to turn your gift into a very enjoyable livelihood. You are a multi-million, best-selling author who wrote the middle-grade Geek Girl series (6) — a story about an intelligent, socially inept, painfully sensitive, bullied teenage girl who gets a fairytale and decides what to do with it. Later, you had great success with the young-adult The Valentines series (3), where you flipped over the above narrative and explored what it would feel like to be born into a fairytale and try to find normality within.

Up until you wrote your first adult novel, CASSANDRA IN REVERSE, did you feel, when [if] comparing yourself to other writers, that your excellent neurodiverse qualities created a different writing experience for you? In other words, even though everyone’s writing experience is subjective, did writing become more accessible to you despite your gift or more difficult because of your gift?

SMALE: I’ve never really compared myself to others, in any regard: I’ve always appreciated that we’re all very unique humans, with different qualities, strengths, and weaknesses. Honestly, I think that character trait has been a blessing when it comes to writing. I’m never concerned about what others are doing because I’m far too busy doing my own thing. That brings with it a lot of freedom and fun.

My main concern was that – having always known that I was ‘different’ – my stories, my voice, and my way of seeing the world would be too weird to be popular, or even sellable. I struggled for quite a few years with a deep fear that my writing wouldn’t be ‘normal’ enough for anyone to read or buy. It’s only when I let go of this anxiety – and allowed my real voice to come through – that my writing really began to improve and gain traction.

“I genuinely believe that my writing skills come, largely, from the fact that I’m autistic.”

Admittedly, some people do still find my characters ‘weird’ – as expected – but I no longer mind at all. Being liked by everyone is a goal I’m no longer interested in chasing. I genuinely believe that my writing skills come, largely, from the fact that I’m autistic.

Language has always been my life’s biggest ‘special interest’, and I’ve studied it obsessively since I was two years old. My ability to observe detail, to hyperfocus for long periods of time, to note and appreciate pattern, to stand slightly on the outside, looking in: they’re all part of my autistic wiring, and they make me a better writer. I’m not sure who I’d be without it, but I certainly wouldn’t have had the career I have had. I feel lucky to have been given the gift of my specific neurology, even if it often comes with challenges.

AUTHORLINK: Tell us what inspired you to write CASSANDRA IN REVERSE.

SMALE: Like a lot of stories, it was inspired by a particularly messy break-up, about six years ago. I was in a state, where I didn’t understand what had happened and I spent a long time spiraling: looping backwards and forwards, and going painstakingly through the entire relationship, trying to pinpoint exactly where it went wrong and what I could have done differently. I kept imagining an ability to go back and tweak bits – to see how they played out, and if the relationship ended up in the same place – and it was all-encompassing and disorientating.

When I finally emerged, I realised it could be an idea for a book: a woman, given the gift of time travel, who uses it initially to try and get her ex-boyfriend back. But I was in the middle of writing the Geek Girl series, and I wasn’t ready to move to adult books. It also felt like it was missing a pretty essential key: why was she so obsessed? Why was she constantly looping? Why did this relationship matter so much?

” …it felt like a story I had been born to tell.”

It was only when I got my autism diagnosis, during the pandemic, that the story finally made sense. Cassie would be autistic too, and I would use it to explore that experience: from love to family to friendship to work. In many ways, the over-arching narrative structure represents autism, on a grand scale. Autistic looping, the patterns, the repetition, the need for familiarity and predictability: it’s all in time travel. The concept supported the character, and vice versa, and that’s my favorite kind of novel. From that point on, it felt like a story I had been born to tell.

I also loved the idea that it was about a woman who, deep down, isn’t trying to ‘undo’ time: she’s trying to undo herself. When you’ve spent your life being told there’s something ‘wrong’ with you, it’s very hard not to internalize that and wish you were different.

AUTHORLINK: We understand that you, too, like Harriet Manners in your Geek Girl series, were bullied at school. Tell us a bit about that. Does your current success make you feel like telling those old school chums, “Ha! Look at me now!” or are you in part grateful to them in a way to have made you so resilient?

“…without the bullying, I don’t think I’d have written Geek Girl…”

SMALE: Ha! I’m mostly grateful. I don’t really have much of a vengeful streak, and – while obviously a little jealousy from specific people would be nice – I’ve completely let any resentment go. I also don’t think I’d want my past changed. Being bullied so relentlessly and so vigorously for my formative years shaped me in a really powerful way. And, while some of that shaping has been undeniably negative (my therapy bills have been huge), I also think it’s given me strength, compassion, and resilience that I may not otherwise have had. I have become a kinder and more powerful woman as a result. Plus, without the bullying, I don’t think I’d have written Geek Girl, which is the book that changed my life (and continues to do so, more than a decade later). If I had to trade who I am now for who I’d have been without that difficult time at school, I don’t think I would do it.

AUTHORLINK: How did you get started on your road to being published? We understand you wrote for years, but by 25 you had two finished manuscripts you felt were ready to be seen by agents. What were they about? Did you encounter any challenges along the way? What happened next?

SMALE: My road to publishing was… chaos. I’ve been writing stories since I was five and turning them into books using cereal boxes and sellotape, so I had no intention of not being published, whatever it took. By 25 I’d written a 120k word manuscript for adults – a frankly incoherent mess about ‘death’, which was something I’d never actually experienced at that point in my life – and the first three chapters of Geek Girl, which was semi-autobiographical. I started sending them both to agents at the same time, hoping that by the time one was interested I’d have ‘finished’ Geek Girl too (I was unbelievably naive about the publishing industry, and largely just winging it). My adult novel was rejected by everyone, and Geek Girl caught the interest of the first agent I sent it to. I then (this is very embarrassing) lied and pretended I’d written the whole thing, before attempting to ‘charm’ my way onto her books anyway. I have no excuse other than being 26 years old and desperate. Unbelievably it worked, although my agent and I laugh about it now and I don’t think she’ll be doing that again: it took me three years to deliver the rest of it. It was a steep learning curve for me. I didn’t have much faith in myself, and the first draft was rubbish. I had to scrap it and start it again, after doing some proper planning. That was by far the hardest part. I had managed to find someone who believed in me and my ‘potential’, but I had to really work and fight my own demons to get a sellable book written.

“Sometimes the hardest thing to accept is that your first idea isn’t always the best one, even if you spent four years writing it.”

After that, I’m a little mortified to say the rest was comparatively simple: Geek Girl went to auction just before my thirtieth birthday, and it became the biggest-selling teen book of the year. But, for anyone feeling daunted by rejection, my enormous debut adult novel is still lying in a dusty heap under my bed, unwanted and unread. Sometimes the hardest thing to accept is that your first idea isn’t always the best one, even if you spent four years writing it. Everyone’s path is slightly different, and mine just… included a lot of lying, unfortunately.

AUTHORLINK: Do you have a particular method of writing a book? Do you plot the story beforehand or write by the seat of your pants? Do you like to write in the morning or the evening; with pen and paper or with the computer? How many times do you edit? Tell us about your writing process in general.

“Following the hot mess of my first draft of Geek Girl, I became an obsessive planner…

SMALE: Following the hot mess of my first draft of Geek Girl, I became an obsessive planner: I have never ‘winged’ a novel since. I’m also dyspraxic, which means that I struggle to structure thoughts in my head, so now I don’t start writing until I have an entire plot outlined in painful detail, chapter by chapter. It means that when I’m actually writing, I can focus on the fun stuff – narrative voice, humour, and details – without getting lost on the plot. It works for me, and as a bonus, I’ve also found the move into screenwriting relatively simple as a result, because that’s the way TV shows are largely written too.

My planning is handwritten – lots of scribbled notes, far too many Post-Its – but the second I start writing the novel itself I switch to typing. I can type nearly as fast as I can think, which means I can essentially imagine the words onto the page, without any kind of barrier (or pain in my hand). I also slightly pedantically lay it out so it looks like the pages of a book as I’m writing: I have a weird need to know how it’s going to look when it’s printed, immediately, and obsessively tweak so it looks ‘prettier’.

I tend to do very little work for quite a while – I meander around my house, ruminating on the story – but when I actually start writing I hyper-focus and frequently work fifteen-hour days, for months on end. It’s not ideal for my health – and I’m normally super sick and unfit by the end of it – but I’ve tried moderation and it’s not really how I’m built. I need my world to become the world of the story, or I’m just not invested.

So far, every book I’ve written has required two drafts: one to get the bulk of the story down, and another to spruce and weave threads through more tightly, and perhaps add some more humour and sharpness. I think because I plot so intensively – and my editors all approve it before I start writing – it takes away the need to do any huge structural edits, which also makes me more comfortable during the writing process. We’re all on board with the story, and there’s no huge shocks coming. I like twists for the reader, but not so much for the writer.

AUTHORLINK: What inspired you to write your first adult novel, CASSANDRA IN REVERSE?

SMALE: Ironically, my intention had always been to write for adults. Geek Girl was an accident, and I was actually under the impression it was ‘a grown up book’ the entire time I was writing it. (Again, naivety and ignorance about the publishing world.) Once I was part of the teen writing world, however, I loved it: I do genuinely believe that the books we read as young adults and children shape us in a way that adult books rarely do. As teens, we’re still working out who we are, what we want, what we believe in, and books become magic keys to so many of the answers. So I was very happy as a teen writer, I loved my readers and it took a long time to think about moving on to adult books.

“Honestly, when I finally felt ready what held me back was my own lack of ‘adultness’”

Honestly, when I finally felt ready what held me back was my own lack of ‘adultness’. Perhaps because I’m autistic, my life and brain have never felt particularly ‘grown-up’ and I’ve consistently been accused of being ‘childlike’ (which is horribly insulting for a woman now in her forties). My experience of love and relationships has been tangibly different from those of my friends and peers, and I feared that I didn’t have the necessary life skills to write a convincing adult protagonist: that I would have my inherent ‘immaturity’ revealed and mocked. There certainly weren’t many characters in books that I felt I could truthfully identify with.

It was only when I got my autism diagnosis – and began to finally accept that I’m wired differently – that I felt comfortable writing my version of being an adult. We deserve for our books to represent us all, not just the average experience, and my shame at being exposed simply dropped away. Without that fear holding me back, I was suddenly bursting to write an adult novel. In many ways, I had been ‘masking’ with teen books – nobody can accuse a fictional teenager of ‘not being mature enough’ – and this was me finally refusing to be boxed in or hidden anymore.

Every single moment of writing Cassie was pure, unbridled joy.

AUTHORLINK: We understand your sister felt like she was reading your diary when she first read CASSANDRA IN REVERSE. Has Cassie, charming, neurodiverse, and the main protagonist, been inspired by your inner thought processes and the management of your sensory info-load?

SMALE: Cassie is essentially me. I knew from the start that – having just received my own autism diagnosis – I wanted to write an openly autistic female protagonist, and the only way I could do that authentically was to write my own experience, as honestly as I could. We are all so different, and there isn’t one way of being neurodivergent, so the only voice I really had at my disposal was my own.

It’s been an interesting process though, because it was an incredibly vulnerable book to write. Obviously, the ‘story’ (time-travel) is made up, but so much of Cassie and what she goes through isn’t. The most important thing for me was to write a fully-rounded, multi-dimensional character – neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ – and to do that, I had to be brutal about my own faults and flaws. Some scenes were painful to write, and I cringed writing them, but without those unlikeable, difficult parts it wouldn’t be a book: it would be a puff piece and a narcissistic pat on the back. Cassie’s thought process is mine, to the point where it was incredibly quick to write because I didn’t have to hold anything in: I just had to write as I was thinking. It’s almost stream-of-consciousness (albeit with a meticulously planned plot). Her way of speaking, her sensory difficulties, her social ineptness, her bluntness, her difficulty forming bonds or making relationships: they’re all mine too.

Writing the book was total freedom, and it brought me so much joy.

Amusingly, it’s also been a touchstone for how well people actually know me. Those closest to me have been alarmed by the accuracy, while those who are more peripheral in my life ‘can see a few similarities’. It’s a strange phenomenon, exposing your inner workings to the world, and it’s brought me much closer to the people I love (and perhaps highlighted those I don’t).

AUTHORLINK: Recognizing girls or women on the spectrum is still statistically less likely than recognizing it in boys or men. Incredibly, at one point, girls were not considered mentally complex enough to warrant study! We believe the more the narrative around autism and neurodivergence, the more there will be significant shifts from the stereotype to more authentic representation. It must be a great feeling to be part of history in that way. How do you hope to change people’s perceptions of autism?

SMALE: The history of autistic girls and women is shocking: we simply weren’t included for the vast majority of our autism history. It means that we’re only now beginning to understand the different ways females present, mask, and hide, and the impact of that on our mental health and wellbeing. There are so many misconceptions and inaccuracies: autistic people can’t laugh, can’t be funny, can’t ever make eye contact, can’t have friends, can’t feel love or emotion, can’t hold down relationships or jobs. Most media representations have been from the outside looking in, rather than from the inside looking out, and that will never be a true or real one. It only emphasizes our position as ‘other’.

“Stories are how humans have always understood each other.”

After my diagnosis, I realised that Harriet in Geek Girl – based on me as a teenager – was obviously autistic too and that what I’d been trying to do all along was show how it felt, rather than how it looked. That’s what we’re doing with the TV show too, and what I’ve done with Cassie. I think the more honest, accurate representations of autism there are – written by autistic people, rather than about them – the more we can encourage empathy and compassion, which can only be a good thing. I truly believe stories are the way to do that. Stories are how humans have always understood each other. They close the gap between us like nothing else can.

AUTHORLINK: We enjoyed the parts when Cassie could see and feel colours emanating from a person to detect their feelings. A form of instinctive synesthesia – which we also feel lucky enough to possess! Is synesthesia something that you also have? How does it help you and your writing, would you say?

SMALE: You have it too? I love that! Yes, I’m a synesthete: I refer to it as my ‘bonus neurodivergence’ because it was casually diagnosed during my autism diagnosis as almost an aside. I experience the same synesthesia as Cassie, so I see noise as coloured lights (very literally – like fireworks) and, in a slightly more complicated sense, emotions become colours too. My theory is that because I have alexithymia (along with many autistic people), I struggle to identify, process or express emotions – my own or others – and so my brain simply does it in a different, more visual way. It’s certainly an interesting phenomenon and one which I thought was common to all humans until relatively recently. We all tend to assume that our way of experiencing the world is The Only Way of experiencing it, even when it absolutely isn’t.

As a writer, it’s been fundamental to my work. When I look back at my teen novels, I now realise that Harriet never says ‘I feel angry, I feel sad, I feel happy’: she expresses how she’s feeling in sensation and metaphor (usually animal-based). I’d never noticed before, but it’s clear with hindsight that as I didn’t have ‘the right words’ I had to find other ways to express things on the page. Being autistic (and alexithymic) has had an enormous influence on my writing – the nuts and bolts of it – and I’d argue that it sometimes makes it easier for the reader to identify with it too, especially for children and teens. I’m not telling you the emotion my character is feeling – I’m showing you how they feel – and so you can feel it with them. But, for a lot of my writing life, I didn’t realise why I was doing that. It was just how I saw the world, so it was instinctive.

AUTHORLINK: We also really enjoyed the references to Greek mythology in CASSANDRA IN REVERSE. What inspired you to include the mythological tales in Cassie’s narrative? You once said if you could have Cassie’s ability to go back in time and see or experience one historical event, it would be, “1687 and stop the Parthenon from being blown up or used to – unbelievably – store gunpowder” That’s an touching affinity you have for Greek history. Where did that come from?

SMALE: While I was planning Cassie, I was also desperate to write a separate Greek mythological retelling: it’s one of my special interests, and I know so much about it that I’ve been drafted in to write party quizzes. I felt torn, and it was only when I realised that I didn’t have to choose – that I could make Cassie’s autistic special interest Greek Mythology too – that the story really came alive. I got to pour all of my love and fascination for Greek mythology into the story, as well as making it a touch-stone for Cassie’s experiences (in much the same way I use it too). It was such a joy, to be that openly dorky instead of excitedly boring people down the pub, and it feels fundamental to her character and to her journey.

I think a lot of neurotypical people don’t necessarily understand the sheer joy that comes from an autistic special interest: it really brings the world alive for us and carries so much happiness with it. Some readers have admittedly found it ‘annoying’ (which is true to life – good luck finding an autistic person who doesn’t irritate others with the things they’re obsessed with) but a lot have also fallen in love with it as a result. I love that I get to share that joy. They’re the most magical, bonkers, important stories ever told. Their influence is all over literature, even if you don’t see it, and has been ever since.

AUTHORLINK: The brilliant Kristin Atherton is your Audible narrator in The Cassandra Complex (UK title). Do you get a chance to test your Audible narrators before they’re chosen? When you listen to her narrating, do you recognize Cassie’s voice? It must be tricky for an author to qualify the voice in her head with a professional narrator’s voice of her main character.

SMALE: I’m incredibly lucky that my publisher sent me tapes of potential narrators and allowed me to choose which one felt ‘right’ for the character, and the moment I heard Kristin I thought she’d be brilliant as Cassie. She has a warm, smart but dry tone – inherently likeable – and she genuinely ‘got’ the story (she actually contacted me afterward to say how much she had laughed while recording it). It’s always a strange experience to hear your character outside of your own head because it’s never quite as expected: when I’m writing, all my characters obviously have my voice. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d forgotten I’d made Will Scottish and was momentarily surprised he had a Scottish accent – probably because I can’t do accents, even in my head. But it was all spot on, and it really does bring the story to life.

AUTHORLINK: When it comes to your environment when writing, where do you sit? What do you listen to? With Geek Girl, we understand your playlist included Ludovico Einaudi, The Glitch Mob, Explosions in the Sky, Yann Tiersen, The XX, Florence and the Machine, and Bombay Bicycle Club to name a few. Quite an eclectic mix. What was it for CASSANDRA IN REVERSE?

SMALE: Most of the time, I’m at my desk in my home – I can completely disappear into the novel for hours, without annoying interruptions. If I’m doing something requiring less focus, I also rent a studio with some friends, where I mainly go to annoy them and distract them when they’re trying to work because I’m a hypocrite. As for music, it’s a hodgepodge (as always). I love so many different genres, so I tend to pick them according to what kind of chapter I’m writing. If it’s highly emotional, I’ll choose something instrumental – Hans Zimmer, Einaudi, Philip Glass, Sigur Ros, The Cinematic Orchestra – but if it’s a brighter, more comedy scene I’ll switch to upbeat: Britpop, Tame Impala, Bombay Bicycle Club. Ironically, for a novelist, I’ve always written as if I’m writing for screen – on a number of levels – and that includes the soundtrack to go with it!

AUTHORLINK: On a final light-hearted note, if you could invite three people, alive or ‘gone to the other side’, to a dinner party at your house, who would they be?

SMALE: Anne Boleyn, William Shakespeare, and my grandfather, who passed away last year. Slightly less light-hearted than it could be, but my joy at seeing him again would be ridiculous: he was genuinely my favourite person on the planet. Plus I think he would have some epic questions for my other guests too, and we’d laugh a lot.

AUTHORLINK: Holly, what a treat! Thank you once again for your time and generosity today. We wish you continued success and look forward to your next novel! All the best!

SMALE: Thank you so much! It was an absolute joy!

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Holly Smale is the internationally bestselling, award-winning author of the Geek Girl and The Valentines teen series, which have sold 3.4 million copies worldwide. In January 2021, Holly was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 39. Suddenly a lot of things made sense. Holly regularly shares, debates about, and celebrates neurodiversity on Twitter and Instagram @holsmale.