Nat Luurtsema knows what it’s like to feel like a teenage failure – and that’s what’s inspired her new book for young adults, Girl Out of Water.
It’s my first novel though. I went non-fiction first time, which is easier because it’s things that had actually happened, often to me. Dead easy.
Whereas fiction is lies and, as anyone who’s tried to juggle bigamy, will tell you, lies are tricky.
It’s a book for teenage girls and it’s called Girl Out of Water. It’s the story of a girl called Lou Brown – 5’11”, badly dressed and with a name like an unflushed toilet.
She thinks she’s going to be an Olympic swimmer but she’s not fast enough, though her best friend, Hannah, is and spends the book living THEIR dream. Meanwhile Lou is left without her friend and only her squashed dreams, unemployed dad, prettier sister and low grades for company. At the tender age of 15 Lou feels like a failure and that’s why I wrote the book.
I was that washed-up competitive swimmer and I spent years trying to be the best at something else, be the cleverest, the fastest, the best, the thinnest – because that’s what you’re meant to do, right? I was forced to rethink this life philosophy at five stone and hooked up to a drip.
Happily, Lou is a sturdier heroine than me. She falls into training an underwater synchronised swimming team (it’s basically synchronised swimming without all that pesky breathing) for a TV show.
I wish someone had told me at that age that competitiveness is useless. That failure is where the interesting bits of life are found. Failure pushes you down paths you would never have considered, makes you re-evaluate yourself, makes you more determined and less precious and it shouldn’t be feared.
I mean, don’t run to embrace it, getting face tattoos and turning up to work experience with your shoes on fire…but just be nice to yourself, OK?
The boys stop to get something from the vending machine and I don’t want to look socially clingy so I go and wait outside. My phone dings: a message from Hannah.
Did YOU know bananas were fattening?! Get outta town! I LIVE OFF BANANAS! 🙁
Dad pulls up in Mum’s car.
“What?” “You know full well what.”
He’s just wearing pyjama shorts with a coat thrown over the top. He’s even still got his slippers on. “I look normal from the outside,” he says. “You can only tell if you’re right next to the car and look in and down.”
“Bye, Lou,” say Roman, Pete and Gabriel as they walk right past the car, looking in and down.
“Oh dear,” grins Dad, “have I made you look uncool?”
“Yes, actually,” I tell him, “so don’t smirk at me like it’s no big deal because that’s exactly what you’ve done. I’ve got zero friends at school, just two and a half acquaintances” (given the mild, bubbling hostility off Pete I won’t consider him a whole acquaintance) “and you’ve just embarrassed me in front of them. So you can stop smiling about it.”
“Louise, being popular isn’t about trying to be cool,” says Dad.
He has no idea how wrong he is. This is exactly the sort of terrible, awful, useless advice you get off people over twenty-five. I’ve heard it a million times, along with how I’ll be pretty when I’m older and one day I’ll regret shaving my legs. (When? When I want to stuff a duvet cheaply and need all that thick leg fur? I don’t think so.)
“You know, being popular,” says The Man Who Doesn’t Get It, warming to his theme, “is about doing what you like.”
Why doesn’t he just tell me to be myself?
“Just be yourself. Do what makes you happy, and then everyone will see how cool you are and want to be friends with you!”
“OK! Thank you so much, Dad, I really appreciate that you care, especially as you’ve got so much on your plate at the moment, but this is terrible advice. Being cool is not about being yourself, it’s not, and you need to stop handing out that advice in case one day someone actually listens to you and you ruin their life. I am myself and I have one friend, who emails me details of meals! And my school days are so lonely and it’s not fun. You have no idea what it’s like to be lonely. I’m sorry, but no.”
There’s a silence. “It’s lonely being unemployed,” says Dad. I rub my finger along the door handle and stare at the chocolate wrappers on the floor.
He takes a deep breath. “You wake up and you have nowhere to go and everyone rushes off to school and work, where people notice if they’re not there and where people need them, while I sit at home and email people asking them to notice me or need me, and no one does. That’s unemployment. If you don’t like school, Louise, at least it will end soon and you’ll make new friends somewhere else. But I don’t know when this will end.”
We stop at some traffic lights. On impulse I grab Dad’s hand.
“We need you!” I tell him. “Me and Lav and Mum, we all need you, and we like having you around. Look, you and Mum are divorced and she’s still happy to live with you, think how amazing that makes you! And I’m having to share a room with Lav and all her girl… smells… and glitter that gets everywhere and spiky boot things, and I’m still happier that you’re here.”
“Thanks, Lou,” he says. My palm sweats gently. “Shall we stop holding hands now, Dad?” “Yeah, I need to change gear.”
Someone behind us beeps loudly: the lights have gone green. “Do you mind?” Dad yells. “We’re bonding and we’re new to it!”
We drive home in silence. But a nice silence.
I text Hannah.
Then why aren’t monkeys fat?
You can buy Girl Out of Water here.4713 Views
Nat Luurtsema is a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter, stand-up and author.