Something to be Proud Of: Interview with Anna Zoe Quirke

Something to be Proud Of is the sparkling YA debut from Northern Writers’ Award-winner Anna Zoe Quirke. It follows chaotic bisexual Imogen as she enlists the help of Ollie, the openly gay captain of the football team, to plan a pride festival and tackle injustices in their school and beyond.

Jack, member of the First Edition 18-25 writing group, and George, member of Cramlington Young Writers, put their questions to Anna to find out about the book’s LGTBQ+/disabled/neurodiverse representation, the authors that brought comfort to a younger Anna, her dream Pride Parade headliners, and more!

Jack Stewart: When you created the main characters, Imogen and Ollie, did you draw on any of your own experiences and personality traits, or those of your friends? Did you learn anything in the process?

Anna Zoe Quirke: Definitely, yes – I always like to give my characters little parts of me.

I really wanted to write a story that accurately represented autistic people like me who don’t fit the super prevalent stereotypes, so Imogen got my deep sense of empathy, really strong sense of justice, and my general passion and excitability for things. And then Ollie’s character goes on a similar journey that I went on when I was younger, figuring out what – if anything – I wanted my gender to mean to me, and my parents got divorced when I was about Ollie’s age, so I was able to draw upon my experiences with that too. Writing both characters’ stories was intensely healing and such a joy for me.

JS: At the beginning of the novel, Imogen is comforted by the drag queen Auntie Septic. Who do you think Imogen’s favourite Queen from RuPaul’s Drag Race would be and why?

AZQ: Imogen’s never been massively into Drag Race for various reasons (including RuPaul’s disappointing involvement in fracking), so they’d recommend getting into your local drag scene instead! There are so many incredible drag queens out there that deserve more recognition – Auntie Septic was based on some of the gorgeous drag queens who I’ve met on Canal Street in Manchester. Oh, and Mama G is a truly lovely drag queen who shares lots of amazing book recommendations online, so keep an eye out for her!

JS: If you could throw your own dream Pride Parade, who would you book (dead or alive) to headline the event?

AZQ: Oh gosh, this is such a tricky question! At the minute I’m obsessed with Chappell Roan’s music so they’d have to be the music headliner, with Renee Rapp and MUNA performing later on. I’d have lots of great drag acts on, have talks from lots of my favourite queer and disabled activists, and comedy from incredible LGBTQ/disabled/neurodivergent stand-ups like Rosie Jones and Fern Brady. As well as that – because I’m a literary nerd through and through – I’d love to set up a literary corner near the quiet area and have authors from history do readings. I’d especially love to have Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott at a pride event so that they could see how far we’ve come with being able to be open about queerness.

George McBryde: What demographic do you particularly hope Something to be Proud Of reaches, and what do you want it to be for them?

AZQ: I wrote Something to be Proud Of for any LGBTQ+/disabled/neurodivergent person who’s ever felt like they’re not loved for exactly who they are, in the hope that they can at least see that they should be and hopefully will be one day. Everyone deserves to find their people.

But, particularly, I wrote it for autistic girls and non-binary people like my younger self who don’t often get to feel represented in stories. I wanted to write a story that felt like both a joyful hug and a hopeful rallying cry that one day we’ll get to live in a world where we feel loved, accepted, and accommodated rather than sometimes feeling like a burden or like Imogen says in the very first line of the book – like we live in a world that wasn’t designed for or by us.

GM: While discovering your own identity, did you have any books that were there for you, or made you feel seen?

AZQ: Yes! Lots! Reading was always my way to escape things growing up so there are lots of books that I credit with helping me through things or navigate my feelings. My first favourite book was Little Women – chaotic, arguably queer, and neurodivergent-coded, writer Jo was everything to closeted, undiagnosed baby Anna!

Queer YA in general was an absolute godsend when I got to high school. I read all of the LGBTQ+ YA books we had in our school library, and I read and loved Heartstopper when it was still just a webcomic. One of the reasons why I love writing YA so much now is because I want to give back to the book community that helped me out so much when I was younger. And, now I’m older, I still read tonnes of YA, but I also love getting swept away and feeling seen in a queer adult rom-com too –Casey McQuiston, Alexis Hall, Talia Hibbert, Alexandria Bellefleur, and Ashley Herring Blake are some of my fave authors.

I also love how many books with disabled/neurodivergent characters are popping up nowadays. We’ve still got a long way to go but I know how important that kind of representation is and all it can mean to a person, so it brings me so much joy to know that future generations have access to texts with such a diverse range of characters that more accurately represent the diversity of the real world!

GM: There is a deeply diverse cast of characters in Something to be Proud Of from many different communities. What advice would you give to an author writing characters from a demographic, group, or minority outside their own experience?

AZQ: Writing outside your own identity definitely requires a lot of really careful thought. I think it’s really important to ask yourself why you want to tell that character’s story and whether you’re the best person to do that. When I’m writing characters that don’t share aspects of my identity, I try and make sure that their story is focused on something that I do have personal experience of in some way. For example, while I’m obviously not a British-Japanese gay teenage boy like Ollie, his story is largely focused on figuring out what he wants his gender to mean to him and how to navigate tricky family relationships, both of which I have experience with. So while his identity as a British-Japanese person is a hugely important part of him, the story largely isn’t *about* that identity because that’s not my story to tell.

I always knew I wanted lots of different kinds of people to feel represented in Something to be Proud Of, so I did lots of research on the identities I wasn’t super familiar with (listening to and reading first-person accounts especially). And getting sensitivity readers to take a look at your story is a vitally important part of the editing process. I’m so grateful to my sensitivity reader, Will Dobson, for his invaluable help in making sure Ollie’s British-Japanese identity was authentic.

So, to sum up, there’s not necessarily a right answer to any of this, but some good places to start include doing your research using first-person accounts, using sensitivity readers (and paying them for their work) and just trying to go about it all as thoughtfully as you can.


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Something to be Proud Of was published on 6 June 2024 with Little Tiger, and we have three copies to give away!

For a chance to win, tell us what you’re reading on X (Twitter), Instagram or Facebook using the hashtags #SomethingToBeProudOf and #NorthernBookshelf. Winners will be drawn on 28 June 2024.