Susie Bower on The Dangerous Life of Ophelia Bottom and her favourite funny books for kids
What inspired you to writeThe Dangerous Life of Ophelia Bottom?
Ophelia is different, and she doesn’t like it. She longs to have well-behaved parents, with ordinary jobs, and to live in a house that stays still. Instead, she travels the country in a converted removals van, helping her embarrassing actor parents put on disastrous plays at Bottom’s Travelling Theatre.
I wrote about Ophelia because I felt different when I was young. Although I didn’t have actor parents or live in a travelling theatre, we did have to move – a lot – because of my dad’s job, and I went to around 7 schools and lived in 7 different houses by the time I was 13. So I was always the ‘newbie’ at school and wanted very much to fit in. The trouble is, if you try to fit in too much, you risk not being yourself. And this is the problem that Ophelia faces when her family arrives in the seemingly ordinary town of Stopford. There’s a plastics factory on the hill, and plastic things are made from moulds so that they’ll all be exactly the same. The motto in Stopford is: Plastic is Fantastic – Different is Dangerous. And Ophelia has to work out whether it’s better to be just the same as everyone else, or to celebrate her difference.
What research did you do for the book and did you learn anything that surprised you?
I did lots of research about plastic pollution, and how plastic is killing and injuring sea-creatures - how we are making and using more and more plastic and how dangerous this is for our planet. I was amazed to discover that plastic can last for up to 1,000 years before it breaks down. I also researched the different ways that plastic is disposed of and was shocked to find out that it’s often dumped in rivers and seas, or buried, or sent abroad.
Are any of the characters inspired by real people?
Yes! Ophelia’s father, Ar, is a Shakespearean actor with a ‘wild black beard exploding from his chin’, who always talks in capital letters (i.e. shouts!). I based him on a famous actor who is known for his big beard and loud, rich voice. And Miss Smith, the posh Head Teacher at Stopford School, is based on a character called Jean Brodie in a story called The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, which I loved when I was younger.
We love all the Shakespeare references! Which is your favourite play?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that my favourite Shakespearean play is Hamlet! I always felt sorry for Ophelia, who was bossed about by her father and came to a nasty end. So ‘my’ Ophelia gets to organise her hapless mum and dad, is clever and brave, and ends up saving her friends, her parents and her town from the sinister Professor Potkettle.
Do you have a favourite place to write?
My writing happens in two places. When I’m coming up with ideas for a story, I have a special notebook which I can carry anywhere. I jot down ideas in any old order as they occur to me. Maybe I’ll be out on a walk – I’ll stop and scribble something down. Then, once I have enough ideas to make a story, I move onto the computer and type them all up. And then the writing begins.
Why did you choose to write books for this age group?
I guess my favourite stories mostly come from the time when I was 10+ - I loved the Narnia stories and a series of stories called Swallows and Amazons about children learning to sail and camping on islands. Somehow, although I’m old now, it’s very easy to remember my 10-year-old self and the things she loved and hated, and the problems she faced and what was most important to her. I also love to write about magic, and hope – and this is the best age group to write about such things for.
What other funny books would you recommend our subscribers read next?
Well, I love Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell – it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s funny in a clever, quiet way and is full of oddities, which I enjoy. I also really enjoyed reading Fire Boy by J.M. Joseph – about a boy who learns he has a superpower and uses it to rescue a circus. He has a truly awful grandmother who makes me smile!
Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Ophelia?
Hmm… I don’t know! I’ve never written a follow-up book, as I do love the freedom of writing whatever’s uppermost in my mind (and heart). I hope that Ophelia will have lots more adventures, though – in the imaginations of her readers!
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