Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist who’s interviewed billionaires, hackers and
would-be Mars colonists. She holds a 2019 New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust and lives with her family near Edinburgh. The middle-grade thriller Friend Me is her first novel.
1. Your main character, Roisin, has moved from one part of the world to another. Writing about her experiences starting not only a new school but a new life in a completely different culture, what were you keen to get across about the changes she would encounter?
My own journey went the opposite way from Roisin’s: when I was 21, I moved from Massachusetts to Dublin, Ireland. I wanted to get across a lot of the strangeness I felt: missing food from home, or even the smell of my own laundry detergent; having people instantly notice my accent and see them mentally put me into a box – like my accent was all they needed to know about me to figure me out. I really remember missing family I’d left behind, which is probably where the idea came from, for Roisin’s father to be back home and not yet with her.
2. Mobile phones and the friendships created around the technology she uses, play a huge part in Roisin’s story. Reading ‘Friend Me‘ plants an important ‘what if there is such a thing as…’ in the reader’s mind long after the last page has been read. What research did you undertake to get the details of the AI involvement so seamlessly integrated throughout?
I’ve written and read about artificial intelligence and robotics in my work as a technology journalist for 25 years, and I’m still a copywriter working for tech companies. Much of my research for FRIEND ME came in the course of my daily work, looking at how AI and machine learning algorithms — once they have a large enough data set – can make decisions. Two things that stood out for me were an article I read in the New Scientist, one of the first deepfakes that would allow any text to be read out in the voice of a real person; the conversation that Lily and Roisin have in chapter 14, sitting on the balcony at Lily’s summer house, came directly from that article. I also attended a fantastic robotics exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland which had a robotic cat and I knew that FRIEND ME needed one!
3. Jealousy, manipulation, peer pressure, palpable tension – these are all prominent in your edge-of-the-seat thriller and drive the plot forward to the fantastic ending. What message would you like young readers to take away from the events that unfold in ‘Friend me’ with regards to toxic friendships and the face-value comprehension of messages received on apps?
Anyone who’s owned a mobile phone knows how personal these devices are — being bullied is horrible, but when it hits you in the form of a direct message that only you can see, it’s extra awful. Most of all, I want any reader who is being bullied to remember that the mobile phone is just a machine, and any message that’s sent or received on it is public, not private – screenshot any bullying message and show an older person you trust, because it’s evidence and can help put an end to the bullying.
I love technology and won’t lecture anyone not to use it. But be aware of your own instincts: if you’re wondering whether to post something, don’t do it. That niggle inside is your common sense trying to get your attention. If anything on your phone makes you feel uncomfortable – a message from a friend who’s becoming controlling, or even a post where someone else is being bullied – don’t ignore that sense of discomfort. Talk to an adult about what’s happening. Sometimes the things on our screens can feel more real and urgent than real life, but your relationships with the humans around you are much more important.
4. Many pupils move from one friendship circle to another, trying to find a place for themselves in amongst the politics of school life, with some struggling to ever find that place until they leave the education system altogether. If you could time travel back to when you were Roisin and Lily’s age, what advice, if any, would you give teen Sheila?
Don’t stay in friendships with people who don’t value you, who talk you down, or who embarrass you in front of other people. This is a kind of bullying that happens in friendships which aren’t real friendships – it’s called relational aggression, and it’s a typical ploy used by mean girls (they’ll always follow up a barb with something like, “I was just kidding,” or “you’re so sensitive.”) And don’t be afraid of using your voice: I wish 12-year-old me had stopped bullying that I witnessed, or told the teacher, or done anything to advocate for the shy girl I saw being picked on. That’s a real regret for me.
5. Devices in the home, workplace and schools are now commonplace. What would you say are the pros/cons to technology that’s such a huge part of our lives now?
The pros are easy: devices and apps help us find like-minded people who can become our support circle – social media is how I first connected with others who shared the dream I had, of writing books for young people. The cons are addiction to devices and apps, and social comparison — mistakenly believing everyone else’s lives are better than ours because of the impression we get from social media. Limit your time on social, and disable social media notifications on your phone: notifications pull you back into the apps even if you don’t want to go there and feed the compulsion to keep looking and comparing. Use your devices and apps to connect meaningfully, and never scroll aimlessly — it’s been proven from psychology research into these apps that it can make you feel worse.
6. Can you share what you’re writing now? More MG high-tension or perhaps a dip into YA or picture books?
It’s another techno thriller for middle grade! This time it’s about a shy 12-year-old who dreams of changing the world with technology, but whose life gets turned upside down when her town wins a jackpot of technology and cash from a generous tech billionaire. It’s got lots of tech, lots of twists, and hopefully more of the same high-energy action that will keep young readers turning the pages. If you want to be first to hear more, you can always sign up to my newsletter, which comes out four times a year and includes great recommended middle grade reads. Find that at http://bit.ly/SMAsignup