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The Square Root of Summer

Harriet Reuter Hapgood

Gottie H Oppenheimer has already lost so much, so when her beloved grandfather dies and then Jason, the boy whom she loved, won't even hold her hand at his funeral, she is left reeling. Then time starts to do strange things and she finds herself back in the past, trying to navigate a way to herself in the present.

This is a remarkable story about love, loss and quantum physics from debut author Harriet Reuter Hapgood. She answered the following questions for us about THE SQUARE ROOT OF SUMMER.

Q: You're a journalist by trade but communications are changing so fast, what do you feel makes a good journalist now?

A: I've been a journalist since 2008 and I started out by being interested in people and wanting to know what their story is, but now I see people coming up in journalism and they're not asked to have shorthand or to go out and get stories, it's more about finding things online. So I'm really not sure what makes a good journalist anymore!

Q: What about your Masters in Fashion, what took you there?

A: I just liked fashion, it was fun. I was never a super stylish person, I was a charity shop teenager all the way but I knew what I wanted to wear and I read Just 17 religiously.

Q: Where did The Square Root of Summer, which features heartbreak and a slightly dysfunctional family with Germanic roots, begin?

A: It started with my grandmother, her and her whole family. She was very bolshy, loud and opinionated - like a lot of women in my family - and I saw the role she played in my family and how she held the family together which I didn't realise before she died.

But she was from Barnsley, it was actually my grandfather who was German. He came to England in 1933 from Berlin and he kept many of his Germanic habits, like eating German sausage for breakfast while we all ate cornflakes. I love German food now, even sauerkraut!

I wanted my main character, Gottie, to have aspects to her character that isolated her from her peers, so she is very clever and grows up with all boys in her house, so she grows up isolated from her peers and there are elements about her - like eating German food - that are different from her peers.

Q: How real are your characters, especially Gottie, to you as a writer?

A: My characters do become very real to me but they are also very independent. I still don't feel I know Gottie completely. My first draft was full of strong cardboard cut-out figures, it takes a lot of writing to get them down on to the page. A writer drafts and drafts and drafts and at some point, it clicks and the characters become real.

Q: In this story, Gottie experiences the death of her grandfather and the loss of the boy she loved, and then finds she is slipping back in time to rediscover her past. Why did you decide to use this element of time travel to explore her story?

A: This was because all the action had occured occurs in the previous summer; she falls in love, someone dies, her brother goes off to university, but I foolishly set the story a year later, so time travel was a structural choice.

I didn't want to set the story a year earlier when all this happens because that wasn't the story, it's not just a coming-of-age story because another batch of stuff happens to Gottie the next year.

I think what I am exploring is that you constantly have upheavals in life, after you leave school there's university, then there's the trauma of not being able to find a job, then the first time you're fired or the first time you have a baby.... As teenagers you've made the cookie dough, but it's not done baking. There will be a whole lot more stuff to deal with!

Q: You also get Gottie to explore quantum physics to help her explain these 'flashbacks', or time travel. How much of the science and the theories of time travel did you need to explore?

A: I've always had a fondness for maths and physics and I wanted Gottie to be into STEM subjects. I did some initial research into quantum physics and found I was really interested in it. There's all this stuff going on around us in the universe and it just fascinated me.

Q: During her time travelling, Gottie experiences multiple time frames for past events which also affect her present. How complicated was it to bring all this together?

A: It was very complex, especially as I didn't write the story in a linear way. I was constantly writing post-it notes to myself to explain what happens when. The walls were covered in them!

The time travel element was a good metaphor for the grief process; Gottie is going back and forth in time remembering and re-ordering things in her head. I wanted to explore how she copied with the death of her grandfather, heartbreak and her brother leaving for university. If there is too much happening at one time, how do you deal with it?

Q: As Gottie becomes reconciled with her past, she also gets the chance to have a brief chat to her younger self. What would you want to tell your younger self?

A: I don't know that I would want to tell my younger self anything. I think you need to stumble through life and make your own mistakes. I might want to tell my young graduation self not to worry - it took me a year to find my first job. I loved university because you're taught things, challenged and given feedback. In the job world, you don't even get feedback.

So on one hand I'd want to tell her 'You will get a job and move on through life' but on the other, I think mistakes are fine and if you could go back and solve everything, you'd never learn what the mistakes are meant to teach you.

In the story, Gottie sees that at the end and tells her younger self that 'we will make mistakes and learn from them'. That's life, you can't fix it.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: I am working on another YA contemporary novel with a bit of a twist. It's written with dual perspectives, and it's about the history of magic, folklore - and the weather.

I was in a bookshop researching for book two and found myself back in the Science section. I'm writing a character who is very interested in water and meteorology. We kind of think that we've discovered everything there is to know about the world but in terms of the underlying science, we suddenly find there's a planet hiding behind another, or there's a black hole we didn't know about, and it's fascinating. I have really enjoyed dipping back into science for the next book.

Q: What do you do to relax?

A: I do a lot of yoga and big walks and baking. I like solitary pursuits because after spending several hours with characters, you can't just go off to the pub and talk to people. I need an interlude, to do something quiet and not too demanding. I also like going to the cinema.

Q: What would your ideal writing spot be?

A: I'd like a room with a sofa and blankets for mid-writing naps, and for the cat to be comfy, and it would be in an overgrown garden with high stone walls and lots of pathways that I could get lost in...

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