Debut children’s author and comedian Zoe Norton Lodge takes us behind the scenes in her new book Elizabella Meets Her Match.
Elizabella likes to write poems. Can you tell us why people will love Elizabella, with your answer in poem-form?
What’s there to like about Elizabella?
She’s knotty and schemey, she cooks like Nigella
She’s a little bit grimy and incredibly rhymey
And she has a crush on a Huck with his shoes that are slimy
“No I don’t!” she protests, sounding over-rehearsed
‘Cause she likes him so much she commits it to verse
There’s Dad Martin, Bro Toddberry, a Lizard called Larry
There’s Ava and Evie and Sandy and Daphne
There’s Poor Mr Gobblefrump, feeling lovesick
There’s frenemy Minnie where the plot gets real thick
And all of the while Elizabella will write
Poems and Fixytales all day and all night
And one day she will be Shakespeare but better
Instead of reworking histories, she’ll fix Cinderella
And she’ll give you a Sorry Poem instead of a sonnet
But make her write another love poem and she’ll definitely vomit.
The tween market is crowded with male characters. Why do readers need a female heroine?
For starters, it’s so important that girls have a range of female heroines to instil within them a sense of their own power. But for the world to be a better place everyone needs more female heroines. I just had a baby boy and I want nothing more than for his universe to be full of them. I’ve started by dedicating this book about an incredibly naughty ten year old girl to him.
Are you Elizabella, or did you want to be her?
I would say I was an aspiring Elizabella, but I never quite got there. I did always love writing like Elizabella, though. Apparently when I was in kindergarten I came home with a merit award declaring proudly that I was “Arthur of the Month” which my parents have never let me forget.
How did you come up with Elizabella?
I honestly sat down in the bath one day and thought really hard about who I wished I was when I was a kid. Ambitious, fearless, questioning authority, popular, creative. Then I thought about all the things I hated as a kid. Being embarrassed, making mistakes, feeling jealous. Then I mixed them together with a pile of dirt and knotty hair and out came Elizabella.
How did you find writing for children instead of adults?
Often when I have tried to write for adults, I wind up appealing to children. The Checkout was very popular among kids, and even my first book of short stories Almost Sincerely was read by a lot of young people (mildly disturbing given some of the themes!). Essentially, I think my humour and general reverence for the ridiculous make writing for children my natural wheelhouse. Also, I’m about as mature as a ten year old so that helps.
What is Elizabella’s message to readers?
Of course I would love for Elizabella to shine a light on her readers’ inner power and strength. To show how anyone can be wild and brave, and that it’s okay to question the rules. But it was also important to me for Elizabella to show us that sometimes when we’re feeling jealous or angry or upset we may let those feelings dictate our behaviour and that it’s important to learn to forgive ourselves when that happens. After all, we’re all just silly humans doing our best.
What’s up next for you and Elizabella?
In our next book Elizabella is taking on a huge task when a big corporation tries to take over the Bilby Creek Primary tuckshop, which would put Miss Duck out of a job! Elizabella doesn’t know a lot about business, but she knows what people like to eat and she’ll do whatever it takes to restore the gastronomical status quo.
Which kids’ book characters inspired you growing up?
I was fairly obsessed with Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman and of course Roald Dahl. I always loved the way the characters would teeter on the edge of acceptable behaviour in Jennings’s stories. I loved the depth of Gleitzman’s characters, especially Rowena in Blabbermouth. And I remain in complete awe of Roald Dahl’s ability to conjure magic in every sentence, and his frankly enviable ability to marry the absurd and fabulous with heart-aching poignancy.
How is writing a book different to writing for TV?
I find writing for TV and writing a book very different experiences. With TV, especially The Checkout (which was a consumer affairs comedy show if you don’t know it), you have a lot of masters. What’s the message? Is it clear? There are matters of legality and editorial policies to be considered. Then there’s the budget, resources, the very quick turnaround timeframe. Whereas writing a book you have this sort of terrifying freedom, you really are only limited by your imagination. It’s also much harder because there are interweaving stories that stretch across a huge manuscript and need to be kept in check – unlike writing for The Checkout where the stories are short and revolve around a few simple messages. And where TV is usually highly collaborative, writing a book is a very isolated experience – until that glorious moment when you get to hand it over to your amazing editors, who make everything better!
Did you experience hosting Story Club influence your writing?
Absolutely Story Club has influenced my writing. Story Club, if you’re not aware, is a live comedy storytelling night (and podcast) where people tell true stories around a theme. I have been running it every month with Ben Jenkins for over a decade. We started it at uni and just, well, I guess we forgot to stop! As a result (and with some breaks here and there) I have basically written a new story every month for ten years. The best thing about Story Club is that you know straightaway whether your joke is funny or not. Laughter is amazing, and its absence tells a cruel truth!
If you could pull off any prank in school, what would it be and why?
It’s ambitious. It would involve the cooperation of the entire student body, and some mainstream media outlets. But it would be great if you could convince the entire teaching staff that there was a new public holiday (let’s call it, I dunno, something boring and believable – Rest Day) so that one Monday (Rest Day) none of them came to school and the kids could do whatever they wanted in the school for a whole day. That would be brilliant!
What’s the naughtiest thing you ever did in school?
I did actually once forge a note from my high school principal to one of my teachers saying that he needed to see her in her office immediately to discuss some “very serious matters”. He was extremely unimpressed with me after a very confusing meeting with her (whatever – I maintain he deserved it!). I also once successfully bribed my English teacher into upgrading my essay mark with a skim latte and Portuguese tart …
What’s the best apology you’ve ever given or received?
One of my Story Club stories is called An Open Letter of Apology to Georgia Norton Lodge Volume 1, which is about the time I accidentally almost killed my little sister when she was three and I was nine. Every time I tell the story I make her come and sit on stage with me while I read it to everyone.
Your sister Georgia illustrated Elizabella. How did you find working together?
Believe it or not, surprisingly trouble free! Georgia and I have always gotten along well (I suppose possibly with the exception of the time I tried to kill her – see above) and because of the six-year age gap between us, the older we get, the closer we become. We’ve always wanted to do something like this together, and luckily seem to have inherited complementary, rather than competitive, skills.
Who are your literary heroes?
Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Dorothy Parker, Roald Dahl – to name the first five that leaped out of my heart when I read that question!
Zoë Norton Lodge is a writer, actress and television presenter, known for her work on ABC TV’s The Checkout and the live storytelling night and podcast Story Club, as well as her collected short stories Almost Sincerely. Elizabella Meets Her Match is her debut children’s novel.
By day Georgia Norton Lodge leads her graphic design team at an award-winning interior design and branding agency specialising in the hospitality industry. By night she is an illustrator, married to her side project Georgia Draws a House where she delights people with deliveries of their hand-drawn homes. She’s also Zoe’s younger sister – Elizabella Meets Her Match is their second book together