Queen of angst, panic, and book symmetry - Gemma Tizzard
Gemma tells us her book wall has been described as 'enough to give a librarian a breakdown' and people have spent a long time trying to work out the system. The truth is, there isn't one. I am a true agent of chaos when it comes to storing my books’
When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize?
I first heard about CWIP when it was launched in 2019 and was immediately excited by the idea of witty women being recognised for their funny novels. I was even more excited when I saw there was an unpublished novel category. I was already working on This is 27 then, but it wasn’t ready. Each annual longlist announcement has added more brilliant books to the tottering TBR pile I have by my bed. It has now reached dangerous heights and threatens to one day fall and crush me in my sleep. But what a way to go!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
I’ve been reading and writing for as long as I can remember. As a child I was basically Matilda (without the magic powers or awful parents, my parents are great), taking out truckloads of books from the library every week. I wrote my first proper story when I was seven and my wonderful teacher typed it up and made it into a ‘book’ for me. I still have it now. I sent my first novel out on submission when I was nineteen; it was absolutely terrible, and I can’t apologise enough to the people who had to read it. But I kept writing, getting better, (I hope!) and many years later, here we are.
Talk to me about teenage angst: Was it manifested in poetry or diary form?
I only attempted poetry once and it was so bad it was a cause for more angst. I think it was mainly emails for me. When we went off to different universities, I sent my friend Alexa a LOT of angsty emails. Sorry Lexi, I hope they were at least funny. I’m not sure why I have said this as if I don’t still do the same now, all these years later. I do. We sign off our emails with ‘I love you more than…’ and add something funny. We’ve been doing it for fifteen years now. I love a long-running gag.
Can you describe what your novel, THIS IS 27, is about in two sentences?
This is 27 is about a woman called Nicola, who has just turned twenty-seven and finds herself in the grips of a quarter-life crisis. She has a sudden realisation that the things she hoped to happen in her life, like marriage and children, may not fall into her lap as she once expected them to, so she decides to try online dating to see if she can help things along.
Did you set out to write a funny book?
The book is essentially a romcom, although not a traditional one, so I did want it to have moments of both rom and com. I think comedy is very subjective, so my main aim is to make myself laugh, and hope other people find it funny too. I subscribe to the idea that if I have fun writing something, hopefully other people will also have fun reading it.
What inspired you to explore the ‘life plan’ trope?
There is a period of ten to fifteen years in life I call the Big Decision Years™, where you really have to decide what kind of life you want to have. One of these big decisions is whether you want children, and for women, there is obviously a deadline for this, and you normally have to start thinking about it just as your career is taking off. It’s all very stressful, and there’s no guarantee anything will work out the way you want anyway. And if your friends seem to be ticking all the life shopping list things off with ease and you are the one who isn’t, it can be very hard not to panic or compare yourself to others and feel left behind. I wanted to look at some of these things, through a character in the middle of it, and make it funny. While on the surface it is a book about bad dates and finding a boyfriend, it is also about trying to accept and enjoy where you are in life right now, realising you can’t control everything, and you’re just fine as you are. My hope is that this would be the first in a series following Nicola on that journey of making her Big Decisions.
Are the disastrous dates in your novel a case of art imitating reality?
Luckily no! It is all made up. I have heard far worse stories than the ones I used, but I don’t want to scare people off dating! There are lots of lovely genuine people out there, having great dates, there’s just nothing funny about that! It’s only funny when it goes wrong.
Who do you enjoy reading?
So. Many. Authors. In terms of funny fiction, I really enjoy Mhairi McFarlane, Lindsey Kelk, Kirsty Greenwood, Candice Carty-Williams and of course Queen Marian Keyes. I also love Liane Moriarty; I think her writing is some kind of witchcraft, she’s so good. David Nicholls, Angie Thomas, Joanne Harris, Kevin Kwan, Hanya Yanagihara... I could go on and on, and usually do, for hours and hours. I just love books.
What’s your favourite type of humour?
I love all comedy; sketch, improv, stand up, physical, all of it. My favourite type of humour is observational, because I think all comedy relies on the truth. Something is funny because we relate to it, because we recognise our own experiences being articulated by someone else.
What’s your most cringe moment in the last five years if you’d care to share for our delight?
I fell flat on my face in the street when I was in Brisbane a couple of years ago. That was embarrassing. In terms of cringe though, one evening on a beach I once said, ‘The moon is super bright tonight,’…and it turned out to be a floodlight. Not the moon at all. I can laugh about it now, and actually I did laugh about it at the time, but I also cringed so hard I nearly turned inside out. What makes it even funnier/worse is I did it AGAIN at a cricket match. For shame. I clearly expect too much from the moon.
Is there a funny line, scene or book that you wish you’d written?
I love funny descriptions. Mhairi McFarlane is so great at them. One that springs to mind from one of her books is when she described something or someone as ‘smooth as a buttered otter.’ I love that.
There is also a very funny scene in Kirsty Greenwood’s book, He Will Be Mine, that involves a cameo from Nicolas Cage and a chicken. If you haven’t already, I urge you to read it!
(Although not a book, I also love Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside.’ It is genius, and in the song ‘30’ there is the line, ‘When he was 27, my Grandad fought in Vietnam, when I was 27, I built a birdhouse with my Mom,’ which I think is hilarious, and also quite fitting with my novel.)
Where does your writing magic happen, and can you tell us about your writing routine?
I have a tiny desk in a tiny room full of books and I try to write something most days. I write first drafts quickly, carving out as much time as possible so I can stay in the flow and get down lots of words a day. I always know the end before I start writing. I then edit slowly, and under duress, wishing I was writing something new instead.
Gemma’s writing cave – she is not in prison, she promises. “No distractions, just me, my ancient laptop, and 40,000 post-it notes.” Helen Lederer says j’adore your cave Gemma - itching to place coffee mug on coaster that says ‘you don’t have to have a thousand books on your wall to be funny - but it helps’ loving your witty vibe!
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