Sara Lawrence could easily have walked off the pages of a Mallory Towers novel. With the requisite bobbing blonde curls, sparkly blue eyes and wicked chuckle, she could certainly pass for one of Enid Blyton's bubbly, high-spirited schoolgirl heroines.
She is also extremely frank. "I never had a burning desire to write a novel" she says blithely, when we meet to discuss High Jinx, the first of a new teen series for Faber children's books. "I always wanted to be a journalist.
"Got this great job at the Times, loved it, was poached from there to go to the Daily Mail, hated every second. Crap stories. Went to stay with a friend of mine, was complaining bitterly, absolutely miserable, just so bored out of my mind every day, couldn't freelance because of my contract. She said, 'Write a book!' I sat there and thought, 'I'm going to write about school.'"
A lifelong fan of Blyton's school series— "My friends and I still read Mallory Towers now. W're really sad"—Lawrence was educated at Roedean, which was founded in 1865 by her great-great-aunts. High Jinx is set in Stagmount boarding- school, which is based, like Roedean, in Brighton. "Obviously I'm very lazy. It seemed like the easiest thing to do."
Lawrence remembers Roedean with fondness. "I had an absolute ball," she says. "I had great friends, great teachers. People say that pupils at boarding school are alienated from their families—nonsense. It worked out really well. Roedean is progressive and feminist. It was drummed into you from day one that you can do whatever you want to do so long as you put the work in. I think that's great."
She did, however, get suspended twice. "We decided to have a beach party and thought it would be hilarious to go to the nudist beach. We got so blind drunk on alcopops, the nudists put us in taxis and sent us back to the school. I got suspended for that, and for smoking. So boring—so tame!"
High Jinx is a contemporary take on Blyton. Heroine Jinx has a great time in the Lower Sixth at Stagmount, despite horrible teacher Mrs Gunn, until her group of friends is disrupted by the arrival of a suspicious-seeming new girl.
So far, so traditional: but Jinx and her pals also smoke skunk and pop the odd E, and some of them are busy shagging their boyfriends. The angst-free drugs and sex will prove controversial for some booksellers, although in a more right-on vein High Jinx is also robustly against the anorexia and self-harm culture that can prevail in some girls' schools.
Lawrence explains: "When I wrote the thing I didn't have an audience in mind. My three best girl friends got a chapter every week, and as long as they found it funny I knew I was on to a winner. But I was quite surprised when they said it was a teen book.
"I hadn't read a lot of teen stuff before. I've obviously started now. Melvin Burgess is an amazing writer but it's so depressing.
"Teens get a bad name but for the most part kids are the same as they always have been. Not everyone is a junkie crack whore slumped in the doorway. My 18-year-old sister and her lovely friends—yes, they go out, yes, they probably binge drink, but so what? You can be a really nice girl, work hard at school, have fun, but not be a bad person. I don't get myself worked up about things like some people do."