Have you ever wished to just snap your fingers and become invisible? To hide from the world, just for a moment. Ross Welford’s brilliant new novel What Not To Do If You Turn Yourself Invisible is here to change your mind.
12-year-old Ethel desperately wants to get rid of her acne. After trying a combination of illegally acquired Chinese medicine and a sunbed, she succeeds: her acne is gone – together with the rest of her body. As if this wouldn’t be enough trouble, her Gram is obviously hiding something from her, and Ethel sets out to uncover a secret that will change her life forever.
Ross Welford graduated from the University of Leeds in 1984 with a degree in English before working as a journalist and eventually becoming an author. His second book Not To Do If You Turn Yourself Invisible is a lovely, funny and wise story about being invisible and seeing and accepting people for who they really are. Despite being busy with his next book, he took the time to chat to The Linc about Ethel, writing, and invisibility.
How did you get the idea for the book?
“It grew from another book I was struggling with that just didn’t work out, but I knew I liked bits of it. The only thing that was working were the kids, Ethel and Boydy, so I took them and thought, what could happen? Originally, it was going to be Gram who’d turn invisible. But then I realised that Gram herself was becoming the main character, and I wanted the kids to be in the centre stage…so I rewrote it all.”
How long did it take you to write the novel?
“Including writing the failed book, it took me about 6 months. Writing the first draft has to be done fast. If I agonise too much and take too long, I forget who did what. And you don’t get too attached to the first draft if you write it fairly quickly – it’s easier to cut bits out if you haven’t worked on it for months and months. My first draft is always full of notes to myself because when the writing flows, I don’t want to take a 20-minute break to look something up on the internet – I can do that later.”
Your concept of invisibility is perfectly normal and scientific, in contrast to the seemingly prevalent view that invisibility belongs to fantasy and sci-fi stories. Why?
“Simply because I don’t really want to write about magic. There is already so much magic in children’s books. For my first book Time Travelling With A Hamster, I took a sort of semi-scientific approach on time travel, it’s basically fantasy with a gloss of science. I quite liked that, so I decided to do that with again with this story.”
In most books dealing with invisibility, it only works on the outside of the body – the person experiencing it can neither see what is on the way to their stomach nor can they see through their eyelids. You chose to let Ethel experience both – why?
“It’s got to do with that idea of it being real. I just wanted to imagine what would really happen. Like when Ethel dials 999: the response she gets is exactly the response a 12-year-old would get if she called and told them she’s invisible. So, if you’re invisible and it’s got nothing to do with magic, I figured the body would be totally invisible.”
Have you ever wished to be invisible?
“Not really. Definitely not since I’ve grown up. What would you do with such an ability? Probably you could get free travel on airplanes or eavesdrop in the White House, but in the end, you’d probably bump into people and be discovered, or be stuck in a place.”
Have you ever felt invisible in the way Gram thinks when Ethel first tries to tell her about the misfired experiment?
“I’ve never contemplated this, but I think it’s part of the human condition to feel terribly lonely sometimes, even when we’re surrounded by people. Especially kids around the age of 10 – it’s a difficult age, they are just about to start growing up. Everything changes, the world grows bigger, everything is different.”
Are the beach and the lighthouse in your Twitter profile the same as in the book?
“Yeah, this is the actual place! There’s the most fabulous video on YouTube that someone has done with a drone, it shows the exact setting of both my books. You can see the whole run Ethel does at the end, it’s great.”
Do you think Ethel would have been able to cope with the discovery of her past this well if she hadn’t experienced the invisibility issue?
“I don’t know. Probably not, though, because I think turning invisible and dealing with it gave her a different insight into herself.”
Who of the characters do you most identify with?
“Boydy. He is me as a young boy, actually, but in a hugely exaggerated version. And I didn’t even realise it until I was halfway through the book, when I wrote one of his lines and thought, “That’s something I could have said!” I was a rather boisterous and large child, just like him.”
What was your favourite scene to write?
“I enjoyed writing the first few chapters, where Ethel tries these obvious routes to get help – calling 999, calling her Gram. But my favourite scenes were those in the school, when the invisibility is slowly wearing off. That was the most fun to write. I had sort of forgotten that Ethel was naked and had to find a way to get her out of this situation, and that really gave me the opportunity to show Ethel’s panic of this dream of being naked in public (a dream we’ve probably all had) coming true. It took a few goes to get these scenes right, but it was fun.”
Invisibility, time travel…what will come next? Is there a new book in the making?
“There is, I’m working on number three at the moment, but I can’t tell you anything about it. I learned from the last time, when I told everybody what I was writing about and then had to scrap it because it didn’t work out. My publisher knows, my wife knows, but no one else.”Tweet