Author Q&A:
Elissa Soave 

Ginger & Me

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Wendy is 19 and living alone in an unloved house that holds memories of the gruelling final months of her mum’s illness. With the help of a social worker she is just about managing to hold down a job, driving her regulars on the 255 bus around Uddingston, remembering to buy milk, and she’s even joined a writing group – although they are all amateurs compared to her. 

When one of the group members recommends she reads the work of a local author, and Wendy meets a younger girl with flaming orange hair, she finds herself with two hugely important females in her life – but only one of them is truly her friend. As the events of one exhilarating summer unfold, Wendy begins to think life was simpler before she had friends, and that’s before she realises just how much trouble she’s getting herself into. 

A touching story about two girls navigating a life filled with hardship, Ginger & Me is the beautiful debut by Scottish writer Elissa Soave, who won the Primadonna Prize for unsigned and unrepresented new writing talent with an extract of the novel. 

Wendy drives a bus for a living round Uddingston, the Lanarkshire town that’s home to Tunnock’s. Why did you choose that location and occupation and what do they allow you to achieve in the book?
I wanted to set my story in Scotland but more than that, I wanted to set it in a small, largely unknown town rather than a big city. There are so many novels about the lives of mainly middle-class people who live in exciting cities like London or Dublin, say, that we can forget that ordinary people in supposedly unexciting places have stories to tell too. I wanted to make the point that the ambitions and desires of ordinary, working-class girls like Wendy and Ginger are just as valid as anyone else’s.

I chose Uddingston partly because I was brought up there and know it very well, but also because, like many towns, it has very affluent pockets in close proximity to more deprived areas. This serves to illustrate very well how individuals’ life chances are affected by the privilege or otherwise into which they’re born.

Wendy’s occupation as a bus driver allows us to travel around with her and see her interactions with various passengers, several of whom become her friends. And yes, she often goes to Tunnock’s for her steak pies and she loves Tunnock’s teacakes!

Wendy appears to have an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder – her mum having discouraged diagnosis in the belief that difference should be accepted. Would her life had been much different had she been properly diagnosed?
That’s a very interesting question. Wendy is never described as being autistic, or neurodiverse, or having Asperger’s but I know that some readers have assumed she is. I agree that she has some traits common to those conditions but I’m not keen to label her. Yes, she sees the world differently to many of us, and yes, she finds it very difficult to pick up on social cues and has a tendency to take things literally. However, whilst this has made it difficult for her to make friends at times, we also see that when people are willing to accept her for who she is – like the women on her bus and at the writers’ group, as well as Ginger of course –  she is a loyal, funny, and caring friend. I’m not sure how things would have been different if she’d been formally diagnosed. In general, I would love to see more acceptance of people who are different from the crowd, and less insistence from our school days onwards that we all have to be the same.

At 19, after the death of her mother, Wendy is supported by social worker Sanvi, whereas Ginger has no intervention but lives in a dangerous situation at 15. What does this contrast illustrate about the state of social services?
The reason Wendy comes into contact with a social worker is that her boss is concerned enough to notice she hasn’t come into work for a while after her mum dies. When he visits her at home, he realises immediately she is not coping and calls in social services. Unfortunately, Ginger does not have someone who is similarly concerned for her welfare.

I think it would be very easy for someone like Ginger to slip through the net – our public services and all who work in them are underfunded, undervalued, and overstretched. In an ideal world, someone at Ginger’s school would notice her frequent absences and investigate her home life further, but it is not right that we have to rely on particular individuals going above and beyond for this to happen.

As a society, we should care what happens to the Gingers of this world, and perhaps it is the fact that we so rarely hear from working-class girls that has allowed us to get what they need so badly wrong so often.

Why does Wendy misdirect her concern and efforts to help towards Diane instead of her friend Ginger, who really needs them?
Wendy tends to take things at face value. She suspects there’s something wrong with Ginger but when she asks her if anything’s wrong, and Ginger says no, Wendy believes her. As soon as she does realise what’s going on in Ginger’s life, she does her best to help, it’s just that her solution is wildly impractical.

With Diane, on the other hand, Wendy builds a whole (mistaken) narrative around her life and her relationship with her husband and convinces herself that only she can help. Ironically of course, although Wendy believes that she and Diane share the same troubled background and home life, in fact it is Ginger with whom Wendy has much more in common, and Ginger who desperately needs someone to look out for her.

Diane, the fictional author of the novel, champions under-represented voices but when Wendy reaches out to her – albeit a bit inappropriately – she doesn’t actually help her. Is there often a gap between the lip service paid to diversity and the reality?
I think that’s being a little unfair on Diane. You are right that she doesn’t really help Wendy but what could she have done? I think Diane genuinely worries that publishing is a closed shop and she wants to see it opened up more, especially to working-class writers. She tries to encourage Wendy to keep writing and her insistence that everyone’s story matters does have a positive impact on Wendy. However, I think you are also right that many talk a good game about diversity but don’t quite follow through. In terms of publishing and working-class writers specifically, there remain real barriers to entry and progression. There are many reasons for this, including how the industry is structured and who the gatekeepers are. Many are working hard to turn this around, including Kit de Waal*, Natasha Carthew, and of course, my own publisher HQ who are taking a chance on publishing a novel by a complete unknown about two working-class Scottish girls. There is much to be hopeful about, I think.

Although most hopefully wouldn’t stalk their heroes, readers might be sympathetic about Wendy’s feelings towards Diane – a writer who speaks to her on such a personal level she feels she has a personal connection with. Which authors have had that impact on you?
It is the fictional characters, rather than particular authors, that have an impact on me. I read almost exclusively contemporary fiction and am most interested in stories about ordinary people I can relate to. I am often very invested in those characters and I think about them a great deal long after the book is finished. Characters that have remained with me – for years sometimes – include Patrick Doyle (James Kelman’s A Disaffection), Mira Ward (Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room), and Francine Snaith (Rachel Cusk’s The Temporary). There are many others.

Does Ali Smith need to watch out?
Ha! Ali Smith strikes me as a thoughtful and caring individual, certainly her books reveal someone who is interested in the human condition in all its forms. I think she’d be kind to Wendy if they were to meet. Mind you, if I ever go to one of her book signings, I might refrain from telling her I’m her number one fan…

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