Elle McNicoll: Keedie

In this episode, Elle McNicoll talks to Nikki Gamble about her novel, Keedie, the prequel to her novel, A Kind of Spark, now a BBC television series.

About Keedie
Set in Juniper five years before A Kind of Spark comes a powerful coming-of-age story from award-winning author Elle McNicoll.

As Keedie and her twin Nina approach their fourteenth birthday, they seem to only be growing further apart. Keedie instead feels drawn to, and fiercely protective of, their quiet younger sister Addie – who on the surface is the opposite of loud and fiery Keedie, but in fact, they have more in common than anyone knows.

Interview transcript

Please note this interview has been edited for readability. Repeated words and pauses have been deleted, and some sentences have been reordered. The content and substance of the interview remain true to the words spoken.

Elle McNicoll, in conversation with Nikki Gamble

Nikki Gamble:

I’m thrilled to welcome back Elle McNicholl and talk to her about her recently published book, Keedie, the prequel to A Kind of Spark. There’s so much for us to talk about here.

As I mentioned, the book’s title is Keedie, so I think we will start by introducing the main character and the characters surrounding her.

Elle McNicholl:

Keedie is a 14-year-old Scottish teenager who is also autistic. She lives in a very small town and has two sisters. She has a twin, Nina, who she’s becoming increasingly at odds with as they become teenagers. And she has a younger sister, Addie, who’s about six, who she really doesn’t know very well. And she’s going through all kinds of mental health issues, typical teenage struggles.

School is proving to be a bit challenging for her because she’s frustrated with the social politics and bullying that go on there.

She decides one day to do something about it. She wants to start her own anti-bullying agency, using nonviolent approaches only. As she does this, she becomes closer to her younger sister, Addie, and realises they have way more in common than she first realised.

Keedie is quite feisty, very opinionated, sometimes doesn’t look before she leaps and she’s quite a vivacious person. Throughout the book, she learns that she’s not always right, which is a big struggle for her.

Nikki Gamble:

She’s not always right, but she is often right.

Elle McNicholl:

She’s not always right, but she’s never wrong.

Nikki Gamble:

There are so many richly drawn relationships in this novel, but I will start with Nina, Keddie’s twin, who is the source of some tension.

We think about how close twins are, with an unbreakable bond. Do you know many twins?

Elle McNicholl

I don’t know if Scotland has more twins, but I grew up around a lot of twins, and I find them very interesting anthropologically.

Keedie and Nina’s personalities are so different; they have different neurotypes because Nina is not autistic, and Keedie is. This book explores how their outward relationship is struggling a little bit. But as fragile as their exterior relationship sometimes is, that bond is always there.

Nikki Gamble:

And I suppose it comes to light at this particular point in their growing up because at 13 and 14 years old, children are coming into their own skin and becoming more aware of themselves as people detached from their parents and their family. So, this is the source of the tension, isn’t it?

Elle McNicholl:

Around the middle of the book, the twins have their 14th birthday.

When we were 12, everyone said when you turn 13 or 14, you’re going to start to feel different. Your emotions are going to change. And I remember thinking at 12 years old, yeah, yeah, yeah, okay. But then it hits you. You don’t even know that it’s happening. And so, the twins are completely swept up by these changes.

They’ve become way more self-conscious, I think. Even Keedie, who likes to act like she doesn’t care what anybody thinks, still cares about her image and what people see. And Nina is drowning in the need to be accepted. So, self-consciousness affects them both differently, but it’s definitely inspired by that time.

Nikki Gamble:

This, of course, is true for all teenagers, including neurotypical teenagers.

Keedie loves fashion. She’s a very colourful character. I’ve seen a wonderful photo of you in a gorgeous pink dress with layers of frills. Did you buy the dress because of the story?

Elle McNicholl:

Well, I’ve always loved fashion, and the reason I chose to make Keddie that way was that I think there has always been a stereotype about autistic women and girls that they are very brown and grey – I don’t want to say dowdy – but that they don’t like fashion. Of all the stereotypes about autism, I find that the most offensive. And so I wanted her to be colourful, vibrant, and interested in fashion. The book talks about how she goes to charity shops, and she uses her creativity and her lack of funds – necessity being the mother of invention – to make a fashion wardrobe that’s a bit more exciting.

That was very personal because many of the amazing autistic kids I meet when I’m touring the books are also big lovers of colour and vibrancy. It’s not that I see an outfit and say, ‘Oh, that’s what Katie would wear’. It’s probably an outfit many people wouldn’t wear, which is sometimes the appeal. Keedie is a big lover of fashion, and Nina, I think, is a lover of trends and style.

Nikki Gamble:

Keedie has two friends. Well, she has one friend at the beginning of the book, Bonnie, and she acquires another friend, Angel, both of whom are autistic. I think one of the things that this book does is make the point that autism isn’t a personality. Neurodivergent people are not all the same.

Elle McNicholl:

That’s one of my favourite mantras – autism is not a personality. It is a physical condition. Bonnie is very different to Keedie and Angel. She’s much more fragile, and her support needs are maybe a little bit higher.

Angel has had a lot of privilege and good things in her life. So, she’s extremely confident and happy with herself, and she’s an homage to many of the really great kids I meet doing this job who have great support networks and great families behind them. And because of that, they feel like they belong. They flourish, and they thrive, and they’re doing really well. Keedie sometimes looks at Angel and thinks, ‘Gosh, why can’t I be like that?’

It’s always important for me to have multiple neurodivergent characters in the story to show that there is no one type. At the beginning of this career, it was tricky to feel like you were holding a microphone for an entire community of people. And I’m always trying to demonstrate in the books that there are so many different ways to be autistic because that’s my experience.

Nikki Gamble:

I want to discuss the setting of this story a bit: Juniper, a small Scottish town on the banks of the Leith Water.

You’re in North London now, but the book is set in Scotland. Anybody listening to you can hear that you hail from Scotland.

Elle McNicholl:

I was born and raised in Scotland. I’m still quite new to London.

Nikki Gamble:

People often think of growing up in a village or a small town as something that those of us with urban backgrounds would aspire to. At one point, you write, ‘This place is picturesque, but I don’t fit into this picture’. Did you grow up somewhere similar?

Elle McNicholl:

Very similar. I grew up in a village in West Lothian, which was on the Water of Leith. If people know the area, they will know exactly which place I’m talking about. And it is idyllic. It’s stunning, and the people are lovely. It’s a great place to live. But growing up in a place like that as a teenager, let alone a neurodivergent teenager, is quite difficult because everyone knows each other in any small village or town. You can’t find yourself or reinvent yourself when everyone knows you and has known you since you were a few months old.

On a more serious note, as an autistic person, when I didn’t naturally conform to certain things, I did feel a little bit like an outsider—never in a cruel way, never in a harmful way. People were just bemused. So that’s a big theme in Keedie and A Kind of Spark.

I think all children feel that way anyway, even if they live in a big urban environment. They still know what it feels like to have eyes on them all the time. They have so many people in their communities watching and monitoring them. As adults, we sometimes forget that it can feel intense for children. We do it out of complete care and love and because we want them to thrive.

Nikki Gamble:

Despite that, do you think it still might be easier in a larger environment?

Elle McNicholl:

I think it would have been so different. I’m 31 and have lived in cities for a while now. Cities are very overstimulating. We just had sirens in the background, which, for me, is extremely loud. Things are brighter and busier, and there are more people. You’re more likely to feel claustrophobic.

You have more anonymity but are much more likely to become overstimulated. It’s just a different experience.

Above all, I try to remember what it’s like to be the age of these characters.

Nikki Gamble:

At the beginning of the story, Keedie is hidden in the branches of a tree. A group of children who have been bullying her best friend Bonnie are below. And Keedie is taking matters into her own hands with a water pistol full of icy cold water. The incident brings one of the major themes, bullying, right to the forefront of the story. You have some really interesting things to say about this.

One of the early episodes involves Keedie climbing onto a pool table with a ball clutched in her hand. Tell us a bit more about that scene.

Elle McNicholl:

When Frank Cottrell-Boyce read the first chapter, he told me it reminded him of Errol Flynn in Robin Hood. I hold that very close to my heart.

Keedie is in a youth club, a dying out youth club that’s on its last legs, and the boys have fully taken over the space and are commandeering all of the social activities. One of them knocks a ball off the pool table, and it hits another girl hard. He doesn’t apologise. It doesn’t even occur to him to apologise. And so Keedie picks up the ball and says, you will apologise, or I will take action with this very heavy snooker ball. And when he doesn’t, she climbs up on the table. All the action in the room stops, and everyone’s looking. Eventually, he apologises out of sheer embarrassment because she won’t let it go.

At that moment, the adults notice her and think, ‘Oh gosh, what’s she doing now?’ Nina is there and is mortified because it’s in front of all her friends.. It ends with Keedie eventually jumping off the table, and someone says to Nina, ‘Oh, your sister is such a freak. Why is she like that?’

Part of Keedie is also thinking, I don’t know why I’m like this, but I cannot let this behaviour go unchallenged. That really starts the journey in the book for her where she thinks I won’t let these social politics continue to grow like this. If the adults won’t do something, I will.

So, that scene becomes a microcosm of the whole story.

Nikki Gamble:

One of the things that you do through this book is present a nuanced understanding of bullying.

You mentioned that these bullying incidents are not happening to her. At one point, she wonders why it is easier to deal with other people’s bullying than her own.

Elle McNicholl:

I was a bit of a loner in primary school. After I moved schools, I got bullied horrendously. I could never say anything; I would just get really small about it. And then I was sitting in the playground one day, and these other girls were very visibly bullying another girl, and I felt it was the easiest thing in the world to stand up and say, ‘Stop, you’re being horrible.’

I remember the look on that girl’s face when I told her to stop what she was doing. She was so surprised. It was like it had never occurred to her that she was doing something mean. She was so horrified by it. So another exploration in that book is to remind people these ‘quote-unquote’ bullies often don’t know what they are doing. By disrupting their scenes, so to speak, you completely shatter whatever’s happening. Keedie finds that a lot when she’s taking on these bullies.

It’s a strange cosmic force that makes it so hard to stand up for yourself but very easy, at least for me, to stand up for others. I guess it comes from empathy because you know what it feels like to be on the other end. And you, at that time, wanted someone else to step in.

I didn’t raise my voice often, and once it was over, I thought, ‘Well, that had the desired effect. They stopped bullying that girl, at least for that moment.’ But then I felt mean. Was I too hard on her?  Keedie has a lot of moments like that where she thinks. ‘Did I go too far?’ To become the thing that you never wanted to be is a hundred per cent a possibility when you have been bullied

Nikki Gamble:

You write so beautifully about what is a not-very-pleasant aspect of human personality. Here are some of your words, ‘Some forms of bullying feel more like smoke than fire. They leave you gasping for air instead of burned. The damage is internal and harder to prove.’

Elle McNicholl:

Thank you.

I don’t like to generalise between boys and girls, but, as a girl, I do think girls’ bullying was so much cleverer.

I talked to my boyfriend about this when I was researching bullying before writing the book, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I would get punched on the arm, and then a bruise would form, and I would tell someone, it’s horrible, but you could say, look, look what they did.’ With girls, that just wasn’t the case. It was always a clever, psychological kind of warfare. It’s difficult when you’re a young person. You can’t articulate to the adults around you. I can’t explain that you spent the last hour having people whisper about you and laugh loudly whenever you speak. Psychological bullying is death by a thousand cuts.

Nikki Gamble:

On this same theme, you write that Nina is not a bully, but she’s possibly worse. She stands to the side of the bully and whispers into their ear, giving them a better way to do their job.

Elle McNicholl:

I think Anne Fine wrote in The Tulip Touch about the expression ‘hold your coat merchant’ –  the person who holds the coat while the other person does the boxing, so to speak. And that’s what Nina is. It killed me to write this because I’ve been working on the television show. Caitlin, the actress who plays Nina, does it so beautifully. She’s really developed the character, so it hurt to go back and write about her character before she became this really great person.

But yes, Nina is a bit of a coward and a sneak. She doesn’t want to do the ugly stuff, but she gets great pleasure from watching it. I think that’s survival. She doesn’t want to be on the other end of it, ever, so she’s worked out a way to protect herself. It really galls Keedie because she knows that Nina’s better than that,

Nikki Gamble:

Despite feeling guilty about writing Nina in that way, it never comes across that you don’t like her.

Elle McNicholl:

I’m really glad you said that because I don’t dislike her.

At the end of the day, she’s just 14. I meet so many kids in this job, and I feel for them so much because they are under a microscope with social media. Nina is a character who’s very active on social media and the internet. It alters brain chemistry and sometimes makes you behave in ways that aren’t normal.

I think Keedie is too hard on her sometimes, and I think there will be moments when the reader thinks, ‘Oh, come on, give her a break. ‘

Nikki Gamble:

One of the things I appreciate about your writing is that all the characters feel fleshed out, even when they might not have big starring roles. For instance, you describe Mum as ‘the boat with the oar, moving through the water, smoothing the conversation.

Dad is such a well-drawn character. And I absolutely love – maybe you can guess – great-grandmother Astrid. Isn’t she wonderful?

Elle McNicholl:

She was so much fun to write. I will try and talk about her without crying.

There is one big chapter where Astrid and Kitty have a heart-to-heart. It’s probably the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written because that was my grandma.

My grandmother was a Norwegian refugee from Nazi occupation, and a lot of what Astrid says in that chapter is what she used to say to me. I wrote it in one go and didn’t touch it afterwards because I couldn’t go back to it. I haven’t read it since. She was a real character, which I hope comes across in the book. It would take thousands of pages to fully capture who she was, but it was such a pleasure to put her in the book.

In A Kind of Spark, Addie talks so much about Keedie as a huge role. She adores her, and it’s the heart of that book. I wanted to show that Keedie had that person, too, at one time. And that was probably Astrid before her memory started to go.

Nikki Gamble:

Well, it’s interesting because that obviously comes off the page. It’s one of those memorable chapters that sticks with you.

Elle McNicholl:

Oh, thank you.

Nikki Gamble:

Let’s talk a little bit about structure. One of the things that people often talk about are first lines, – the first lines of a book, the first lines of a chapter. I actually think that the final lines are the punctuation and pacing of the story. And you’re very good at it. I won’t say the book’s last line, but I will ask you whether you knew it would be the last line.

Elle McNicholl:

I think I did, yeah.

I’m not very good at opening lines. A Kind of Spark opens with Miss Murphy speaking and then ends with Addie speaking. That journey is about how it changes from being her story dictated by someone else to finishing in her voice.

Keedie’s book starts and ends in her voice, and that is deliberate because while she develops and changes, she is fundamentally, at her core, the same person. I knew the last line was going to reference what it did. I’ve loved how much the kids have loved that line. They get in touch a lot about it, and it’s very special.

I agree with you. I think the last lines are very important. I don’t think it’s a spoiler now to say that the last line of A Kind of Spark is ‘We’re going to dress as witches’. That was always going to be the end of that story.

For Keedie, I knew (without saying what it is) that it would reference that in some way.

Nikki Gamble:

One thing that we haven’t talked about is the other strand in this story, where Keedie is researching local history. Tell us a bit about that.

Elle McNicholl:

Anyone who has read A Kind of Spark or watched the show will know it is about Scotland’s historic witch trials. A couple of times, it is implied that Addie gets her love of history from Keedie. So, I thought Keedie has to do something related to history in the prequel.

I remember being told to write a speech about someone in school, and, like Keedie in this book, I learned a little bit too much about the person I was writing about. Some of it was completely different from what I had heard.

So, Keedie writes about the founder of her village, Duncan Juniper. He’s completely fictional but heavily inspired by Henry Dundas, a very influential person in Scotland – and long dead.

I try not to generalise about autistic people, but I do feel when it comes to history, we can be quite black and white. I don’t see any issue in talking about someone’s heavy faults and flaws as much as their achievements. Keedie wants to talk about all of him as a historical figure and not just the parts that are sanitised. It felt quite timely, and it is something that I talk a lot about in schools. Children are really engaged when I talk to them about it.

Nikki Gamble:

I guess you’ve talked about this in other interviews, but I think it would be interesting for our listeners to get a sense of what it’s like working on the television series. Being in the writer’s room and writing scripts is so very different from writing a novel.

Elle McNicholl:

It is so different. We were just talking about how it’s great to write the last lines of chapters. You don’t get to do that in a script. You don’t get to write any descriptions or prose. You just do the dialogue and the stage directions, and in some ways, that’s freeing. You don’t have to think, how do I phrase this nice descriptive bit of prose? You just think about what people have to say or, more interestingly, what they’re trying not to say.

It is very strange to be on a TV set of something that was just in your head for so long. And it’s strange to meet the kids on the show. I say, kids, they’re all 21, but to me, they’re kids. They are so passionate about the characters, and it’s so much more than a job to them. So it’s very humbling and emotional to meet them.

Lola, who plays Addie, has a notebook full of notes that she’s taken and thought about. She’s perfected what Addie’s handwriting would look like.

When I was writing season two, I had the kids in my head that time around. I could see them, and I could hear how they were going to say the lines.

If you want to write scripts, you have to turn off that self-conscious voice exactly as you would when writing a novel.

You also have to be prepared for last-minute changes. The script is constantly changing until the camera stops rolling, which is very different from writing novels.

Nikki Gamble:

I guess you have to be a certain kind of writer to] acknowledge that it’s now co-creation rather than solo creation. You can either embrace that or feel irritated by it, I suppose.

Elle McNicholl:

Well, I was so lucky because an all-women team brought A Kind of Spark to TV.

Anna, the co-writer and showrunner, was so respectful and understanding that it was a very personal book.  I was always very stern about respecting the audience and respecting the children that the books are about and not taking them for granted. And they all understood that. That’s very special and very rare.

I didn’t mind when they said, ‘Oh, we want to give Nina a boyfriend in season one’. I said, ‘do it. That’s fine.’

Their ideas were really good, and I’m proud of what we’ve all made together.

Nikki Gamble:

Elle, it’s been such a delight to talk to you again.

Elle McNicholl: Ah, thank you so much. Thank you.

Elle McNicoll: Show Us Who You Are

If you enjoyed this episode, you might like to listen to Elle talking to Nikki Gamble about her novel, Show Us Who You Are.