Sarah J. Tipper is a pioneer. The first to merge young adult novels with the world of heavy metal, she created the character of Cleo Howard, a teenage girl who deals with teenage topics, but with an added twist of discovering the heavier end of music in the late 90s/early 00s. The series draws as much from Adrian Mole as from Anthrax, from teen troubles as from Type O Negative. We reviewed the first volume already [check that out here], and on the twenty-year-anniversary of the book’s setting, sat down to learn more about Sarah and her experiences in both writing and, of course, metal.
Firstly, what has Sarah been doing since the latest Cleo Howard book – The Nearly New Millennium Diary of Cleo Howard 1999 – which came out last summer? First on the list is Sarah’s audio version of The Very Metal Diary – “It’s weird reading things out in a room on your own, especially rude words, and my hair was a problem for the video version. Episode one is remarkable not for the content but for the bad wig I’m wearing. I have naturally red hair, like Cleo Howard, but sometimes it’s dyed pink and so I wanted to hide my pink hair for the recording, in which I was pretending to be Cleo Howard. I’d quite like it if people listened to Very Metal Diary on Soundcloud rather than watching it on YouTube.”
In scribbles, she’s been working on the next Cleo Howard installment – entitled The Y2K Diary Of Cleo Howard. “It’s a lot of fun looking back to the year 2000 and realising none of that millennium bug stuff happened and civilisation didn’t break down, no matter what crackpot guests on This Morning With Richard And Judy were leading us to believe. Cleo will go off to uni in her Y2K diary and then her diary series will end.” Presumably it is not Sarah’s intention to continue as Sue Townsend did with the famous Adrian Mole character – well into adult life – but one can probably draw their own comparable timeline with metal-loving friends they know.
Aside from metal writing, she also points to a “readable advent calendar” of short Christmas stories called Tales To Take You To Christmas, for which she has been writing a sequel: “Some punk has crept in to this second book of Christmas short stories, and there will be a story about the Ramones’ first London gig in 1971.” She’s also writing a wonderfully-titled sitcom called “Herberts and Sherbets, about three retired men in a pub which is being gradually changed and gentrified around them.”
It’s not all been sitting in front of a computer, though. “I’ve been to Birmingham to see the splendid Sisters Of Mercy. They used so much dry ice that to begin with I was just applauding fog in the hope that they were behind it. Thankfully they were, so I didn’t feel silly. Supporting them were The Membranes and I got a copy of singer/bass player John Robb’s book Punk Rock: An Oral History.  I’ve seen Motörheadache who were awesome. All of these things and going to the pub count as research for the next Eviscerated Panda book!”
Hold up, Eviscerated Panda? What’s that? Sarah’s other main metal-based series, about a fictional thrash band of the same name, and the lives of its members – including a recurring appearance of Cleo. “I didn’t think too much about the name Eviscerated Panda, I just needed a name that could sit on a poster for a metal gig that wouldn’t look out of place between say, Black Skies Burn and Napalm Death. Most band names when you pick them apart sound a bit lame, but after the band is formed and successful you cease noticing the name, just like you don’t notice words like eggcup and toaster. Yes, I have just had breakfast, why do you ask?” She adds with a cheeky wink. We press on. “Eviscerated Panda are included in the Rocklopaedia Fakebandica, and I tend to check this site and also the Encyclopaedia Metallum  when I make up a support band name, to check it’s not already taken. All the good one word band names have been used already.” The series comes highly recommended, even if she notes that book six – still in the works – is the final volume.
Speaking of metal – where did she first get into this genre and scene? Which bands caught her attention? “It was about 1987 when I first heard heavy metal door openers Iron Maiden and I swiftly became interested in all things metal, early favourites being Anthrax, Alice Cooper, Megadeth, Metallica, Ozzy, Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies, The Misfits, Zodiac Mindwarp and basically anything loud and heavy.” She recalls fondly the ‘battle’ between thrash and glam – “if pushed I’d pick thrash over glam, but I have to confess I once snogged someone in a Dave Lee Roth T-shirt. I’d rather it had been a Megadeth T-shirt. Shallow? Moi?”, she signs off with another cheeky wink. “I was quite a shy teenager but luckily had metal friends at school (love you guys!) and in the local rock pub (a finer bunch of drinking buddies couldn’t be wished for!).” A perfect environment for cultivating a love which she carries with her. She’s also invented a metal subgenre which contains all 26 letters of the alphabet: “ctoquvbdefryglmwnhaxzs – and it’s a metal subgenre about difficult games of Scrabble and hard-to-resolve crosswords.”
To this day she’s still blasting metal – well, that or comedy DVDs. “If it’s music it’ll often be Slayer, Bolt Thrower, Rancid, Type O Negative, Motörhead, Asomvel or Danzig. I’m eagerly awaiting the Memoriam album that will be out this year.” Us too – the Karl Willets-fronted supergroup has members of Bolt Thrower and Benediction, and there are a few live videos floating online which caught our attention. On the comedy front, “it’s likely to be Red Dwarf, Peep Show, Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Alan Partridge, Saxondale, Home Town or Raised By Wolves. Sometimes I’m writing to the sound of my husband practising guitar. He’s in two covers bands and is a big Joe Bonamassa fan.” 
Please click on the tab at the top of the page to read the second half of this interview!
1. Punk Rock: An Oral History by John Robb.
Turning back to her writing – when writing metal fiction, has there been a desire to ‘panda’ to the metal crowd? “The metal crowd are basically the crowd I’d like to please, but I’m also keen to make the novels accessible for non-metal readers, which is why there is a Girls’ Guide To Metal in Eviscerated Panda: A Metal Tale. I think readers sometimes like a glimpse into a world that is unfamiliar to them (I think this might account for the popularity of Fifty Shades Of Grey) and the Pandas Saga provides this metal tourism for people who might not want to set foot into a sticky floored venue or loud jukebox pub.” And it is a fantastic gateway – far better written than many other accounts that often portray metalheads – especially extreme metal listeners – as brutish, loutish and other negative words ending in -ish.
We also discuss feminism – a topic Cleo Howard has often been outspoken about in her diary, and a discussion point as deeply important for teenagers in 2017 as in the 1990s. Sarah names herself “a convenience feminist – I mean I don’t concern myself with overthinking how to be a feminist, I just am one. I can be a feminist and still enjoy the film Carry On Girls. I don’t get bogged down by every little detail. If, for instance, an eighty year old man calls me “My Duck” or says “Hello I recognise that pretty face,” I smile and say thank you. I don’t launch into a diatribe about being patronised or judged on my appearance.”
She states that she is very hard to patronize – “I realise that if someone is judging me based on my gender without knowing anything else about me, that doesn’t say anything about me, but says a lot about them.” She also brings up the differences between men and women, saying she thinks these differences are “overstated. Feminism benefits men as much as it benefits women because at its heart it is all about choice and about freedom; the freedom to have the education you want, the career you want, control over if and when you become a parent, freedom to have the sex life you want (if you want one) and freedom from sexual violence. I don’t think this is contentious. I do think feminism is misunderstood and misrepresented.” Certainly misrepresented if you see the attacks that are leveled against women on a minutely basis, both online and in person.
To bring this back to her writing, she references two characters from Eviscerated Panda, Nick [singer of the band]and Jenni. “In Nick and Jenni’s relationship, Jenni will end up being better qualified than Nick and Nick is very supportive. Nick is well-educated but chooses a non-academic career; it’s choice which is the key. Education isn’t for everyone. Although, I think once large tuition fees were introduced in 2012 we took a massive backward step in England. I’m still angry about this. Another example from my writing is [Eviscerated Panda guitarist] Phil’s attitudes. He is a feminist and he believes that women have as much right as he does to a satisfying sex life.”
Sarah has received a lot of praise for her writing – from the world of fiction in her accurate portrayal of teen highs and woes, and from the metal crowd in a light-hearted yet ‘one-of-us’ representation of metalheads. She does, however, have a few favorite compliments: “I don’t read books but I read yours,” “I can’t read it before bedtime because it makes me want to go out to a gig.” and “a reader who had a parent who died of a heart attack (akin to Cleo’s own father in-story) said I’d captured how they felt in Very Metal Diary.” She is also extremely grateful of the “massively supportive and generous” metal community, including the reviews and interviews she’s had from similar sites to this one.
Looking to the future, Sarah’s got a stack of personal and writing plans for 2017, including seeing Joe Bonamassa with her husband. “I’ll also be feeding things to Snaggletooth.”  “My writing plans are to complete the Eviscerated Panda saga, the Y2K Diary Of Cleo Howard and a second book of Christmas stories. I plan to continue spelling diary correctly because no-one wants to read a metal dairy (or do they?), and most of all I plan to continue enjoying writing.” And one cannot ask for a better goal from a writer. All hail the eviscerated panda!