Holly Smaleand Jeff Norton, GEEK GIRL (TV show + book)

Holly Smaleand Jeff Norton, GEEK GIRL (TV show + book)

Zibby is joined by Holly Smale, the author of the cheeky, hilarious, internationally bestselling GEEK GIRL series, and Jeff Norton, the executive producer of the books’ recent Netflix adaptation. Holly and Jeff discuss their long-standing friendship and Jeff’s relentless commitment to adapting the series. Holly emphasizes the importance of keeping her protagonist, Harriet, true to her British identity and relatable outsiderness—which has resonated with audiences worldwide. Finally, Holly opens up about her late-in-life diagnosis of autism and dyspraxia.


Zibby: Welcome. Thanks so much for coming on Mom's No Time to Read Books. So explain your relationship to people who don't know and how the two of you teamed up on your project for Netflix.

Jeff: So, I'll start, Holly, and then you can chime in if I've gotten anything wrong. So, we've known each other for a long time, not quite as long as you and I have known each other, Zibby, but quite a while. And both Holly and myself, our debut novels came out at the same time, back in 2012, 2013. And so I was very aware of Geek Girl, and I had read the book as soon as it came out, because it burst on the scene in the UK and then globally.

And then maybe, I want to say, Holly, seven years ago, Is it seven? 

Holly: I think it's seven. Yeah, I was trying to do the maths. 

Jeff: Yeah, I approached Holly and, and asked if she would do me the honor of letting me try and get her books and bring Harriet Manor as her lead character to the screen. Um, because, Zibby, as you know, I, I split my life between writing books and also putting together TV shows.

Holly trusted me with that, and through thick and thin and ups and downs and all sorts of, um, you know, trying to move this creative boulder up the hill, we finally got there. But it's been, I think, about seven years, Holly. 

Holly: Yeah, I mean, it has. It was a long time, wasn't it? And then, yeah, I mean, my, story is exactly the same is that, you know, um, we, we just come out, I think we've optioned with another company because Geek Gun had been under option since it was published, you know, when it, when it sort of went out into the big, uh, into the wide world.

Um, but there's nothing that really happened. So I think by the time Jeff approached me, I was like, Oh, not again. I can't go through this. But I just really liked him and like my general life ethos is to just kind of go with my gut where possible and, you know, just a really good, great guy. So yeah, I was just like, I trust him and it was a trust that paid off, I think.

Zibby: Oh, you know, it's funny. They give publishing such a hard time for being slow and yet look at how long it took to get this made. You know, I think Hollywood has somehow escaped that wrath. I don't know. Feels faster or something but. 

Holly: Yeah, yeah, I think, yeah, I think TV and also TV has changed so much, Jeff. I mean, I know Jeff will know more about this than me, but over the, when the books came out in 2013, like the TV just wasn't where it was at that point.

Like all the big, big shows haven't really kind of cemented themselves in. sort of worldwide culture. So it still felt like a very movie based place and I think that has really changed in the last, uh, decade and that's, that's a really good thing for me because I always wanted TV because I was always just a big fan of those stories that you can expand and make bigger than just a movie.

Um, but yeah, I think that shift is, uh, maybe left a few things that needed a bit longer to get made. 

Jeff: One of the things I remember you saying right, right at the very beginning is that you had been approached by numerous parties and invariably almost all of them wanted to take Harriet to the U. S. They wanted to Americanize the entire story universe.

And you know, you've said, I really, it's really important to me that it remains authentic, that it remains British. And, um, that's, you know, that's something that we committed to right from the very, very beginning. And, um, you know, I think the idea of staying authentic to the character and staying authentic to the story that Holly had created, I think that's ultimately why we're able to get this made.

Um, and, you know, the whole story really is about being your kind of authentic self. And, you know, I think staying true to that right from the get go has stood us in good stead, even though it took a long time. 

Holly: Yeah, I think, you know, that, that's something really beautiful about that, you know, the ethos of the books is always, you know, kind of be proud of who you are and stick to your guns and, you know, you know, be yourself.

And I love that the team behind it feels the same way and has kind of approached the project as Jeff said, in exactly that way, which is, you know, if it's, if it's authentic and then it will be right. Um, so yeah, I'm really glad because I just, I didn't feel right about making Harriet American she just.

Zibby: No, no, no. 

Holly: You know, she's, she's, she's based on me as a, as a teenager and I, I don't think it would have, yeah, it would have felt a little bit weird to be, to be around. 

Zibby: Watching it was so fun. I can't speak for all Americans, but I will say that the glamour of the British accent and the British, you know, the, where was it?

The Tate Modern, where the fashion show was or some, I mean, it was so cool, right? It's escapist and glamorous, but in a way we haven't seen here. Right? So I think it was, that's huge. Selling point, in fact. Um, but Holly, talk a little bit about the inspiration for the series and when you started writing it and how you have felt now about the series.

It's blowing up ridiculously over the years. 

Holly: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's crazy. Um, the Geek Girl ride has been a bit of a rollercoaster, generally. Yeah, I've been, I've wanted to be a writer since I was tiny, since I was like four years old. Um, and I'd written this really massive, um, very serious adult novel, but will never see the light of day because it was terrible.

Um, and while I was sort of like feeling very defeated by that, um, my friend said, why don't you write about when you were, uh, Teen model. And I was like, I think I can do better than that. I've got a Masters in Shakespeare. So I was incredibly snotty about it. Um, but you know, she dared me. So I, I went home and sat down and it was like 2008 Christmas.

Um, and wrote, my name is Harriet Manners and I, and I'm a geek. And I said this line and just thought, this is the story I'm supposed to tell. And it's not, you know, it's got modelling in it, but it's really about, you know, how I'd felt as a teenager, where I always felt like I didn't fit in and that I just would do anything to be like everyone else.

Um, and you know, the troubles I'd gone through at school, um, but kind of with a sort of comedy, fairy tale, aspirational spin to it, and this kind of loving yourself message, um, that, you know, just felt really, really important. And Harriet is me as a, as a 16 year old. That is, you know, the only difference is she's not a writer.

I think that's the only thing that I changed. Um, but yeah, she, um, the books, um, Just kind of blew up out of nowhere. No one expected them to. I was a debut, no one knew who I was. Um, and so that was incredible ride, you know, especially in the UK. Um, and you know, when we came to do the TV, we just wanted to do something that felt like, that it was fun and fresh and real and authentic.

Um, but we didn't, I mean, I can't speak for Jeff, I can't speak for anyone else, but I was like, this will probably just be a tiny little show, you know, that, that people, that a few people like who liked the books and, and, you know, probably won't reach that many people. And then, yeah, it's number three in the world right now.

So it's just for the last few days going, what, like what? So yeah, it's been amazing, incredible, Harriet just keeps giving. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. How does that feel, Jeff? I mean, I know you've done so many projects and already had so much success, but still that's got to feel good. 

Jeff: It feels amazing. And I think it's, I think it's incredibly validating as well, right, is the process itself.

You know as we we talked about earlier takes a long time but also it's one that's always filled with rejection right you know, um, you know, we tried to get this set up multiple times banged our heads against the wall until they were bloody, you know, and it took a long time to put the pieces in place to finally find other people who believed in as much as we did to kind of get this train on the tracks and so to have it be so well received is incredibly validating.

I think the other thing that is validating is. You know, Harriet Manners is a very, very specific character and as Holly said, it's loose, you know, it's sort of loosely based on, on, on her, not that loosely even, but one of the things, one of the things that I, I always believed about Harriet and about the books is that they were actually incredibly universally appealing.

And what I mean by that is. Harriet, everybody feels like an outsider and Harriet is an outsider. And I think, you know, it's not just the story of a teenage girl who becomes a model, or it's not just a story of somebody who's neurodiverse. It's a story of somebody who doesn't feel like they belong in, in their life and, and figuring out how to be their best self.

And I think that's universal. I remember reading the book so many years ago, Holly, I'm thinking like, I feel like Harriet Manners. And I think I think the show has been so widely received because everybody actually deep down feels that way. Um, and I think that's, that's, that creatively, that's incredibly validating, um, is that people have just sort of seen themselves in this incredible character and in this incredible story.

Holly: Yeah, it's amazing. And I think, as well, like, there was so much joy, just, just, you know, when we first sat down, Jeff, I remember, like, talking about, like, what, what do we want this show to be? And it was, like, we want this to be joy. And, um, you know, the, the, there's a line in it where it's, uh, where Nick tells Harriet, joy spreads, it always does.

Um, and, yeah. For me, like, the, you know, the cast, the crew, everyone working on the show, like, from the actors to the directors, every single person was bringing it to it, this kind of just, this fun, this sort of like silliness, this, this good, warm heart, kindness. They were just bringing this amazing energy on set.

And I think that that is what has touched so many people. They can kind of sense it coming through the screen. It's like, this is coming from a good place. This is coming from a place from good people who want to spread joy. And, um, you know, I think that's special and it's, you know, it's, it, it, it makes something that, you know, it could have been seen as niche actually, as Jeff said, um, appealing to everyone.

Zibby: Wow. And Holly, talk a little bit more about your neurodiversity and how the book actually enabled you to. 

Holly: Yeah, it's all very meta. Um, so as, as I mentioned, Harriet is me as a teenager. Um, and my, my main goal when I was writing the book was that I couldn't see people like me in books. So, um, I was like, well, you know, then I'll just write it if I can't find it.

You know, it's that Toni Morrison quote. Um, so I, my focus was on why do I feel different? I'm trying to express those differences, you know, in, in the many different areas of my life that I struggled with. Um, and. There was quite, it was kind of an elephant in the room. I didn't know the word for, I was like, I'm trying to explain this and in a way it worked in terms of, because I didn't know what I was trying to explain there and I didn't do it in a cliched way because I was just trying to be honest.

And then the books came out and people started coming up to me and going, um, Harriet's autistic, you know that right? And I'm like, what, no, what, is she? And I was like, no, of course she's not, because I'm not, that would be crazy. Um, and then, and then the National Autistic Society messaged me and was like, um, you know, she's autistic.

And I was like. I was quite rude and dismissive and, and sort of said they were barking up the wrong tree. Um, and then as the messages got started getting more and more frequent, um, and I was struggling more and more of my personal life, I, I just, during lockdown, I just had a lot of time to think and a lot of time to, you know, meltdown privately.

Um, and I suddenly thought, you know what, I think it might've been on the money. So I went down that process and yeah, fully autistic, also dyspraxic. So everyone who's like, Oh, she's so annoying. She falls So many times and I'm like, not, not as many as I do, actually. I can't get through a doorframe without smashing into it.

Like it's,. 

Zibby: Wait, can you explain dyspraxia to those who don't know what it is? 

Holly: Um, yeah, it's, well, it's, it's, it's mostly famous for being the clumsy neurodivergency. It's, it's basically very simply like, um, from a physical perspective where you can't really control your kind of muscles, neurons, there's something going on there that sort of slows that down.

So you can't pick up a pen without focusing on it intently. Like I drop things and I break things constantly. There are other elements that go on with, you know, like ability to read maps and that kind of thing, but it all gets a bit technical. Um, so yeah, I didn't know I was dyspraxic either and Diagnosis as well.

Um, so yeah, when I was writing it, I was just trying to express how I'd felt. Um, and you know, I came onto the neurodivergency scene relatively late at the age of 38. Um, and suddenly had all these answers to the questions that I'd been asking for literally my entire life. Um, and it was mind blowing. It just, yeah, it changed so many things for me.

Um, and it really, you know, Writing Harriet made me love myself more. Um, and I think that she is that special character where she, you know, she didn't just touch other people's lives, she also touched mine and she changed the way I saw myself. Um, which is, I just think it's a beautiful thing. 

Zibby: So then how does it feel to watch your younger self?

I mean, we always talk about, you know, what would you say to your younger self? Like, you have that person sort of dancing around on set, so how do you feel? How does that feel? And Jeff, how does it feel knowing that you've sort of recreated this, you know, not only a character, but a person at a different stage of life?

And, you know, one who has changed so many lives. That's a big responsibility to depict that correctly. 

Jeff: Yeah, it's a, it really, it really is a big responsibility and, and I have to, you know, give a shout out to, to Emily Carey, who is, uh, the lead who plays Harriet, she's just absolutely incredible and, and embodies the character and, you know, carries a lot on her shoulders, um, but one of the things I think that's really incredible is that, you know, we, we deliberately in the series, we, even though Holly later in life has been diagnosed and, and, you know, We didn't want to do that in the series because that young version of Holly, Harriet Manners hadn't yet been diagnosed and what we didn't want to do is make this a show about autism.

We wanted this to be a show for everybody and there is going to be a journey and those who know clearly can see it. And I think one of the things and Holly, you and I were joking about this the other day, you think that every GP in the country, I suppose the world is, is, is good. Their phones are going to be lighting up because I think people are, a lot of people are going to see themselves, particularly young women in Harriet and be like, Ah, ah, it makes sense now.

Um, and I remember one of the things that you told me a while ago was when you got your diagnosis, it was like, all of a sudden your life just made sense. Um, and I think that's a really, really powerful thing that we're able to do for the audience. 

Holly: Yeah. It's like a light going on. You're suddenly like all these things that you hate yourself for.

And, you know, although Harriet finds so much self love at school, It took me a little bit longer, um, you know, because it isn't an autobiography. She is me and I was a model when I was her age and all of that, but it is fiction. I'm a fiction writer. Like, you know, I oversee fictionalized it. Um, but, uh, it took me longer to find that, that level of self love.

Um, and my diagnosis did help with that. Um, and as Jeff said, we, we really thought along and hard about how we were going to approach that in the show because The reality is when you're autistic, you know, you don't always want a show about that. We're humans who have lives and loves and, and friendships and, you know, we want all of that stuff.

Um, we don't want to be separated out into that's an autism story. Um, because we're just humans getting on with it, um, like everybody else. And, and as my experience as an undiagnosed teenager, it was really important to all of us I think that we, we show that because it is, it is the majority, I think 80 percent of teen girls are not diagnosed.

So, you know, it is the majority experience that we wanted to show. Um, so yeah, I'm really, and it's been, it's been, uh, it's been accepted so well by so far Touchwood, the, uh, the autism community who've just really like, just embraced it and said, you know, that they feel reflected and seen and valued and it's amazing.


Zibby: And not to put you in any position of being any type of mental health expert, because you've written a novel and you know, we can't do that. But if there are parents who are listening and 80 percent of teenage girls are undiagnosed, is there something parents should Maybe see as a, as a, a wake up call or something that maybe they should check out more that you wish people had noticed about you.

Holly: I think to be honest, I mean, it's not, it's not one, one characteristic. It is, it's an entire neurology. So, you know, I think if, if, you know, if, if If it seems to be lighting up a bell somewhere, then you can do some research, look into it a bit more and, and you'll start to see, okay, this is not for me or, or, uh, okay, this is starting to feel familiar.

So, you know, I'm definitely not kind of a doctor or a psychologist for anything like that. I'm just speaking from my own experience. Um, but yeah, I think it's, you know, and what I really, really, really hope is that the show goes a little bit further into um, just, just making everybody like every, love everybody.

Like we don't need to have these kind of stereotypes and taboos and like, you know, it, we're all just wanting to get on and be happy. So that's the, that's the, the sort of. The lasting message, I think, is just let everybody be themselves. 

Zibby: I mean, one of the themes in the book and the show really is about friendship and the different forms it takes and loyalty and, you know, all of that, which we're all dealing with at any age, at any neurology, you know, neuro whatever.

It doesn't matter, right? You know, you get something a friend wants and how do you handle this and, you know, all of that, so. 

Holly: And it matters, you know, like I saw it somewhere, um, and it was described as Low, low stakes, which I thought was really interesting. So I was like, yeah, I wonder if that's because it's a female based show, because the things we're dealing with, like friendship and love and identity.

And, you know, uh, you know, all of the things that family and all the things that I would argue are the most important thing in most of our lives. Like they don't feel low stakes to me. They feel like they're high stakes. You know, they are the things that matter. Especially when you're that age, when you're 16, and you're working on who you are.

So, you know, I do think that it's a show that hopefully is tackling, you know, things that matter, but in a very joyful, uh, light way. You know? 

Zibby: Well, I have to tell you, as I was watching the show, and there's the one scene when Harriet is desperately trying to reach her stepmother and her father and the father's daughter.

It's just like, you know, doing air drums on the couch, listening to music. And the mom was, I don't know, bringing in Fresh Direct or something and nobody was picking up the call. I literally just like reached over to my phone and I was like, turn ringer on, you know, it's like, here I am watching TV, you know, it's so easy.

I feel like I'm always missing calls from my kids now, even though I'm like trying to be available all the time. But um, anyway, I kind of saw that from the parent point of view as well. 

Holly: Yeah, and that family, I know like when we spoke early, very early in the process, Jeff, we were both really keen on making sure that family is in the books, the family is a very strong kind of bond.

And you know, that's something that sometimes does get overlooked in sort of teen dramas, because it's almost like, get rid of the parents, they're boring. And we've just felt like, you know, we, a lot of us have, you know, families that we love and want, we want to share that experience. You know, but I think that was quite an early conversation, wasn't it, Jeff?

Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, I think that's one of the reasons why the show has been so successful is it's not just a teen demographic, you know, we, it was really important, uh, that the adult, all of the adult characters were fully formed. They all have their own lives. They're all, I always like to say everybody's the star of their own movie.

So every single character You know, Richard and Annabelle in particular, you know, they're going through all sorts of things. I won't give any spoilers, but they're going through all sorts of things in their marriage, in their lives, in their relationship with Harriet, in the relationship with one another.

And I think it's really important to reflect that back to the audience, that it's real. And, you know If that's low stakes, listen, we don't need a bank heist to make amazing. You know, I think that's, that's life. And I think that's one of the things that people have really responded to is that we're, we're holding up a mirror to people's lives.

Now it's a fun house mirror, right? Because, you know, it is a rom com, it is a comedy, it is wish fulfillment, it is a Cinderella story. It's all of these things, but it is a fun house mirror to everyday life. And I think people, Cherish that particularly in these times where everything is just so fraught and can feel really negative to put joy back into the world is a good thing.

Holly: It's amazing and I mean it's only been out a few days and I, uh, not even a week yet and I, I've had so many messages from people of all ages to be honest saying, you know, I've had a really rough day and like one of them was like, I've just had a really rough day and I, I've been crying for two days and I watched your show.

And I got up and, and, and felt like 100 I just felt like, you know what, I can do this. I, I love me, so I'm all right. And those kind of messages, you know, they, they mean like the world, you know, because yes, of course you want to appeal to readers of the books that have loved them for a long time. You want to appeal to new people, but what you want to do is like reach people and, and make a difference to just their day, to be honest.

Like, even if it makes them laugh when they're feeling a bit low, like that's enough for me. I'll take it. So, you know, I think it's, I just think bringing out something that's joyful and fun is just, I don't know, it feels, it's a good feeling, isn't it, Jeff? 

Jeff: It's a great feeling. And I think, you know, for the folks who are listening who are parents, because Zibi, you and I are both parents of children of roughly the same age, one of the things that I think is also missing out there that we're providing is something to watch together.

You know, there's just, you know, I, I, I often struggle to watch something with my 14 year old that isn't cringe that I'm not going to be, that he's not going to be embarrassed. I'm not going to be embarrassed or it's totally inappropriate. And I think putting something out there that parents and young people can watch together, you know, giving that gift of time is, is, is precious, I think, because there's just not enough of that time together.

And if it's, you know, quality time on the sofa, watching a great show that you can do all together as a family, I just think let's bring it on. There should be more of that. 

Zibby: Totally. 

Holly: Special I mean I have an EC7 and we're very close um and it's the first time I've been able to watch anything with her where you know we're both watching the same thing and she was gripped I mean I mean she now looks at me with a lot more respect than she used to I was just the auntie who wore pajamas all the time but you know it's Uh, yeah, it's, it's been, it was gorgeous just sitting there with my niece who I love more than anything and just watching her little face while she was watching the screen because she's seven and you know, she, she, she's still dealing with stuff at school and all that kind of stuff and just watching her face light up at like the really lovely bits and, and get really like mad at the bits where she was, it was just lovely watching her go through that journey and being able to go through it with her because the Gemstone is for everyone essentially, um, and I think that's, that's a pretty, something pretty remarkable.

Zibby: I actually recently watched a couple weeks ago, uh, 16 Candles with my kids. Have you ever? I hadn't watched it in decades or anything, but it, it is that same sort of, On the outside, right? This is like the new 16 Candles, if you will, right? Trying to be accepted, trying to feel seen. Yeah. 

Holly: I think we've got a song from 16 Candles in Geek Girls.

Jeff: Yeah, we've got, we've got, we've got a neat, we've got a really fun Easter egg, um, for the John Hughes fans. Um, I won't, I won't spoil it cause people will want to discover it, but you're absolutely right. I mean, there is, you know, the, we talked a lot about those sort of 80s rom com John Hughes films in terms of, you know, the, The different perspectives of the teenagers and again, that idea of feeling, feeling like the outsider, because I think that is, it's a very teenage thing, but I honestly believe it never goes away, you know, I know that we now have the phrase imposter syndrome, but I think, honestly, I think everybody.

Has that for their entire life. And as Holly said, they're just, we're all just people trying to get on. And I think the show really captures that in a really loving, joyful way. 

Zibby: Yeah. 

Holly: Yeah. I think that's it. Warm hearts. 

Zibby: Yeah. 

Entertainment with a heart and a purpose. It's perfect. Right. Um,. 

Jeff: And hopefully it brings people back to the books as well.

I mean, I think that's the other thing is, you know, we're, we're all three of us are authors and, and, um, Holly Zibby is a fantastic author in her own right, and I think, you know, one of the things that I always try and do with projects that I do, because they're all book based, is if you can create that virtuous circle where maybe somebody didn't know the Geek Girl books, but now they discover the show and they can go back to the books, or maybe Holly discover Cassandra Complex, which I think in the US is called Cassandra In Reverse.

Zibby: Yes. 

Holly: It's called Cassandra In Reverse in the UK. Now as well. We've, we've shifted, switched it. Gotcha. 

Zibby: Which was, which was a Reese's Book Club pick. That's huge. Oh my gosh. It's the biggest thing ever. . 

Holly: I know. I got that phone call. I got it after I missed it, I got back from running, which I almost never do.

And I had like 15 missed calls and I was like, nothing. This never happens. Um, and I was like, I should go running more often because I feel like, yeah. Good things happen when I do. 

Zibby: I'm gonna go for a run now, just hearing that. Let's see what happens if I actually go for a run. 

Jeff: Absolutely, yeah. 

Zibby: Um, Jeff, do you have any more books of your own coming soon?

Or any, what are you writing right now? 

Jeff: Yeah, so I'm deep, um, I'm deep in editing on a chapter book series. Um, it's, I guess it's targeted at, at sort of seven to nine year old boys, but again, everything I do hopefully is for everybody, but it's really fun. It's called Dino Nights. And so it's the third book in that series and it's medieval nights on the backs of dinosaurs, um, kind of does what it says on the tin, but it's just swashbuckling fun.

So I'm deep in the line edits on that right now. 

Zibby: Amazing. 

Holly: I think, I think Harriet would be obsessed with that book. Like, you know, that has to be like the ultimate. 

Zibby: And what about you, Holly? Are you writing anything new or editing stuff? 

Holly: Yeah, I'm just coming to the edit of my second adult book, um, which is yet untitled, um, and I've got a title, but I see if it's been approved yet.

Um, so yeah, that's, that's coming out next year. So it's, it's not a sequel to Cassie, but it has the same feel to it. So yeah, it'll be like a high concept romance, um, comedy romance, which is kind of what I do basically. 

Zibby: So great. 

Holly: Yeah. 

Zibby: Well, it's so wonderful. I'm so glad the two of you have teamed up and found this great partnership, which I'm sure will just continue to be wonderful.

And I'm so excited selfishly to have a new show and a new series to give my kids, watch with my kids and all of that. So thank you for all of it. Thanks for coming on. 

Jeff: Thanks. It'd be so great to see you. 

Zibby: Great to see you too. Bye 

Holly Smaleand Jeff Norton, GEEK GIRL (TV show + book)

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