Amy Kean, the author of bestselling illustrated book The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks, discusses a difficult period she went through, how writing this book was like therapy and using her career in advertising to gauge her audience. Plus a thought on swearwords…
Where do you live and with whom?
I live in a cute terraced house with death-trap stairs in Queen’s Park (London) and I do it solo. I’m not married, have no kids, and am at that lovely age where your own company feels like a treat.
Alongside your book-writing, you have a day job. What do you do?
I work in advertising, for my sins. I’m global head of strategic innovation at a big agency. The innovation part means I’m incentivised to get businesses doing stuff they’ve never done before. Which isn’t easy, because people don’t often like doing stuff they’ve never done before and in a professional context, they’ll often resist. I do this four days a week to pay the bills, and then on the fifth day I lecture at universities, consult for start-ups, write columns, run workshops in schools, make books, and generally have a lovely time. I live for the fifth day.
When and why did you decide to write The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks?
I’ll try to give my most honest answer, without it sounding like a pity party! I was living and working in Singapore when I first started writing the book – about two and a half years ago, now. I was at my least confident and most anxious, and it was probably the best worst time of my life. Singapore is an amazing place… diverse, vibrant, and the gateway to all these incredible unforgettable places in Asia, but it’s also small, and can feel claustrophobic.
Becoming an immigrant (I believe some people call them expats) was a challenging process. I loved it in many ways and made lifelong pals, but the transition affected my sense of self, for sure. Having to forge a whole new social life, I’d never been more aware of my personality and became convinced I gave an appalling first impression, and that everybody found me weird. I assumed I was a burden to my new friends. I felt ugly.
The CEO at my company would make loud, public comments about my weight, what I wore and what I ate. One day in the pub the office manager announced it was such a shame I was fat, when I had such a pretty face. In response, I spent a lot of money on plastic surgery and slimming tablets, neither of which worked.
I didn’t take well to the dating scene, either. I remember one guy screaming at me on a busy Singapore street because I wouldn’t go back to his place on the second date, and “did I know what that was doing to his self-esteem.” Then an abusive ex-boyfriend moved fifteen minutes down the road, dragging up lots of painful memories. I had a male colleague who wanted my job and adopted an odd Machiavellian approach from day one, questioning everything I said, especially in meetings, so that I doubted myself constantly and became afraid to speak.
I hired a confidence coach, and even tried hypnotism to get my spark back. I was drinking too much. Eventually I built up a scary dependency on Xanax, and at the point when I was knocking back four tablets a day, I knew enough was enough. I was giving all the fucks, and it was making my life a load of crap. I was existing in a bubble of stress and self-indulgence. I felt like a victim and I was acting like one, too.
I was so disappointed with myself: a woman in her early thirties who still hadn’t got her shit together. But then I realised the way I felt was in no way unique. Everyone goes through times like this, especially women. The trick is to admit it and move on. Admitting it might make you feel like less of a badass girl boss, but hey – let’s not fall into the trap men have: convincing ourselves we need to be strong all the time.
I’ve always written, but until then it was only short stories and articles. I decided to craft something that might sort my head out. I hypothesized that if I put a story out into the world… if I grabbed the increasingly popular concept of giving zero fucks by the balls… if I announced my intention, somehow, then I’d have no choice but to live that way. I wanted to create something that other women could use when they were going through any kind of confidence crisis. So I started writing and and Elodie-Rose, The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks, was born.
What was your writing process; how long did it take, when did you write, where did you go for inspiration?
I originally wrote it as a short story and every time Elodie-Rose gave zero fucks she’d sing a song, that rhymed. I asked my friend Anna to read it and she told me it was boring, apart from the songs. Feedback is a gift! So I turned the whole thing into a song! And began the daunting task of finding an illustrator who’d appreciate what I was trying to do. Jem Milton was recommended by a mutual friend and got it instantly, turning the text into a proper experience. Jem’s a genius and I was very lucky to find them.
Would you recommend that I read it to my (four-year-old) daughter, or is it more for me?
I mean… I think it should be read to babies! The word fuck – whilst considered offensive by some in society – comes from the vocabulary of 16th century German monks. Offence is subjective. Words change their meaning over time. How wonderful if little girls grew up using the word fuck as an act of defiance, a refusal to be told how to behave, but stopped using words like ugly, fat, stupid and weird, which can do real damage.
But I’d never force it on anyone. Young kids love the pictures and when reading out loud you can substitute the word ‘fucks’ for ‘yucks’. In the book, fucks are fluffy little creatures that represent girls’ self-esteem, so the meaning is surreal enough for it to work with either word. When I do talks at schools I use the word ‘yucks’!
Make sure your daughter reads it for herself when she hits her teens, though, because as we know that’s when the tough stuff really kicks in: the body image worries and the boys and the bullying. But I hope you love it, too! So many women message me in social media telling me “I needed your book, today.” Christ, I need it too, most days.
You crowdfunded the book – was this after trying traditional publishing routes, or did you bypass that?
I sent the finished version to many literary agents! The response was always the same: it’s entertaining, I get it, but it’ll never sell. They couldn’t work out how they’d convince a publisher to take it on. They couldn’t see it being embraced by a mass audience. Of course, it’s been an Amazon number 1 bestseller since then so I’m allowed to be smug.
Working in advertising or 15 years has taught me what people like, and I studied psychology, so I know what makes them tick. I was confident I had something. I sent it to Unbound and they replied to me within half an hour. Unbound change people’s lives, and offer a microphone to voices that dare to be different. May they long continue. If you browse their site you’ll find the most unexpected, challenging pieces of literature. Some of the stuff they publish is brilliantly batshit crazy.
I think the publishing industry can sometimes be guilty of dumbing-down female literature and underestimating women. I saw a poster for a book at a tube station the other day that said: “It’s like Bridget Jones, in WW1 Britain!” Not all of us want to read the next Bridget Jones. Some of us didn’t even want to read the original. I’m sure some of us wish we hadn’t.
How has it been received?
Mostly lovely. So many readers are telling me why they bought it and who they bought it for. There’s always a story: I’m getting this for my sister who’s going through a tough time, my friend who’s just had a baby, my aunt who is the embodiment of zero fucks! I cry a lot, when they tell me these things. And there’s been lots of sharing on Instagram, because Jem totally smashed the front cover!
Men love it, too. I’ve had lots of men tell me they’ve bought it for their daughters. An MD called Dale bought copies of the book for every single one of his employees (male and female) for International Women’s Day. The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks has had more success than I anticipated but I think it’s going to be a slow-burner, too. I rely whole-heartedly on word of mouth because I’m not allowed to advertise!
What was your experience of growing up as a girl?
I went to an all girls’ Covent school and have seen first-hand the underlying complexities and toxicity within women’s relationships with each other. I don’t want to be too negative; women are fucking great, are the reason the world’s so magnificent and I love being one, and but we fuel each other’s insecurities and regulate each other’s behaviours in a way that men don’t. This is painful to acknowledge, but we must. If we want every generation to grow up feminist (as we should) we need to start young – binning the archaic ‘lucky princesses marrying princes’ narrative. Young girls (and society) believing that life is about marriage is the source of so many of our issues.
What would you like to see change, in terms of the expectations we have of girls and boys?
What if the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ were banned from schools? Why would you need to say those words, anyway? Everyone has names, and I’m confident that if all clichés, stereotypes and gender assumptions were barred from classrooms it might have a huge impact on how children see themselves not only as children, but for the rest of their lives. I suppose that’s radical-sounding, but when you think about it in terms of teachers being asked to refute traditional unhelpful parameters then it could be a very positive thing. Some would say that it was ‘the world gone mad’, of course. But I work in innovation; people call me mad all the time.
Any other comments?
I think we’re entering a new, very exciting era of feminism. The 5th wave? Maybe! One that’s more inclusive, more supportive; one that calls women out for bad behaviour as well as men, and one that’s going to change the world real nice. An era in which we seek out new voices, and make listening to each other and understanding each other’s experiences a priority. An era where we focus less on heroes giving these big talks on even bigger stages, and instead concentrate of on all of us, together, making the world better. An era where we don’t just work to have what men have, but we strive for proper equality. If you look at the pictures on the Women’s Equality Party website you’ll see it’s all women of a certain colour, class and age. That’s not helpful. These norms will soon be shifted, I’m sure of it. Feminism needs to work with womanism. I believe we’re getting there. I think those first brave feminists would have been proud of what’s coming.