We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of one of our sparkling alumnae, award-winning author and comedienne, Louise Rennison on 29 February 2016. We interviewed Louise in 2011 for our alumni magazine, The Brighton Effect, and in tribute, we are again sharing our profile on this very vivacious woman.
IT’S A FUNNY OLD BUSINESS
If you could build a career based on your adolescent fantasies, you’d probably be laughing. Not bad work if you can get it. Comedienne and author, Louise Rennison, tells us how voicing her inner teenager has led to a prolific publishing career, award-winning books and why research is no big chore.
What did you graduate in and when?
I think it was 1987 when I graduated (with a first darling, a first!) in Expressive Arts as it was then – so lovely and 70s and cosily kaftanish.
Why did you choose your course at the University of Brighton?
I had just done one of those courses in London for women with no qualifications. (My parents emigrated to New Zealand when I was 15 and it was a nightmare of geothermal activity. I refused to go to school and lay in the back garden – being thrown around by the thousands of cubic feet of molten rock trapped beneath the earth’s crust, until they sent me home.) I did a threshold course and was advised to apply for a literature course and got a place at Cambridge but then I saw a brochure of Expressive Arts students at Brighton and I thought that is what I would really like to do.
What are your main memories of life as a student? Was it what you expected?
At first it was absolute agony. I was a mature student and I had had a lovely life in London and then I left it all to come to a bedsit in a strange place. But worse was the fact that I couldn’t do anything. I did think about leaving, but my tutors persuaded me to just hang on. Then I was given marvellous help and advice and I just threw myself into everything. Even when people didn’t ask me to, I performed all the time.
Every day I couldn’t wait to go to college. It was very hard work, but it was a dream come true to do something I loved and that was so creative every day. Plus, we had loads of venues as our playground. I began performing at the old Zap Club on the seafront. First of all in Women With Beards which was a feminist group. One of the girls in the group was very Celtic and actually did have a bit of a beard. So as an act of solidarity, the rest of us wore false ones. We supported all sorts of people, Ben Elton amongst them.
Could you describe your career so far?
Accidental and lucky! After WWB split, I used to do Fellini films with my mate Jane. We were a cult darling, a cult. Then I did a one-woman autobiographical show called Stevie Wonder Felt My Face (which he did actually). The show did well and won awards and was on TV so I toured for a few years. During that time I was asked to do a lot of radio and began working on Radio 4 Loose Ends, Women’s Hour, the Afternoon Shift and then the John Peel Show on Saturday mornings’ Home Truths. John was an enormous pal to me and let me more or less do whatever I wanted column-wise.
The Evening Standard in London asked me to write for its Friday evening magazine. I wrote a piece about having to have my shoes surgically removed in casualty in Charing Cross Hospital. Oh, you know the sort of thing – wearing shoes too small for me and cut into my feet, going home after a few drinks, lying down for a snooze on the sofa, fully dressed, waking up in the morning with the shoes embedded in my feet (swollen flesh hiding the straps).
A publisher read the piece and said did I want to write a book. And I said: ‘What sort of thing, contemporary woman around town?’ The publisher said: ‘No, we want you to do a teenage girl’s diary because we haven’t read anything so childish and self-obsessed for ages, and we think you could really do it.’ And that was the birth of Georgia and Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging and the film and now the theatre show which is out in February 2012 at the West Yorks Playhouse in Leeds (my home town!).
Is there such a thing as a typical day for you at work?
Up at the crack of midday! I like to do something physical before I go to the office. So I will play tennis or do yoga or swim before I plunge into the nightmare that is my mind.
There is often a lot of variety in my days. Recently I have been making a little film for the marketing people about my new book in the Withering Tights series about Tallulah who is in a really bad performing arts college in Yorkshire called Dother Hall although the locals call it Dither Hall.
I sometimes have gigs to do and book covers to think of and interviews here and in America so the days do vary.
What is the most challenging part of your career?
Doing the work! I forget about this part of it when I am swanning around doing readings. But you do have to dig in and work. Withering Tights was especially hard because I had written 10 books about Georgia, and to change to a new person and place was very hard. I had to get to know her and the place. I am quite proud of myself because there was a lot of other personal stuff going on but I did it.
What has been the major achievement for you so far within your work?
Blimey. So many lovely things have happened to me. First going on stage and being able to do something was marvellous; the first book review I got for Angus I cried and cried because I just couldn’t believe that people loved it; letters I get from girls and often their parents; girls hugging me, telling me stuff; mixing with the nicest people, having a film made. I bet this is making people want to kill me!
I did get an award in America. They were very excited about it and rang me at midnight. I had just got in from dinner and was a bit, erm, ‘relaxed’. They said: ‘Ms Rennison, we are so thrilled to tell you, you have won the Michael Printz award.’ I said: ‘Who?’ and they said: ‘It is so prestigious, it’s like the best award!’ And I said: ‘I see. Does it mean I am sort of like the Dickens of children’s literature?’ and they said ‘Who?’. You’ve got to love them.
Did you ever envisage getting into this type of work when you started your degree?I think I genuinely only thought day to day. Also, I do have quite a lot of hippy traits… money is nice, but I didn’t set out to make a fortune. As I say, I think if you can live moderately well, the best thing is to do something you love.
Have you been back to the university since you graduated?
Yes, I used to go back quite a lot when I knew the tutors still and I occasionally get asked to dos. In my embarrassing way I have said to some tutors I have bumped into, ‘thank you for changing my life’. I like to say it because it is actually true.
If you had your time again, would you change anything?
No, I wouldn’t change a thing, not even the hard bits – maybe especially not the hard bits.
What advice would you give to current students?
Please relax. I know that sounds like the most useless and annoying thing to say, but there are more things to life than money and I feel they have been really railroaded into careers and mortgages. We are all renting now – it’s the way forward. Let’s live in communes and not bother about stuff so much and have happy creative lives. As I said as Anita in La Dolce Vita: ‘I believe in three things: love, love and love.’ I believe that is the moment my dress fell off, but …