1. Why did you want to become a writer?
When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to live across the road from the country’s most gorgeous public library; Anlaby Park Library in Hull. It looks like a little secret cottage nestled in the middle of a village green. I wanted very much to go and live there (in fact I only went home when they closed) and from the love of reading came a love of writing.
I decided I was going to be a writer when I was about six, but accidentally ended up going into FMCG Marketing instead, because it paid well and student loans are terrifying. I volunteered for every possible project with a vague requirement for writing skills, and wrote short stories and novels for my friends in the backs of my notebooks during meetings. The next fifteen years of my life were essentially everyone who knew me telling me “Um, you do know that what you really want to be is a writer, yes? I mean, you are aware of this?” and me replying, “la la la, can’t hear you, not good enough, world doesn’t need another struggling author, bills to pay, ‘kaythanksbye”. Looking back, I can see how this must have been annoying.
I finally took the plunge when I wrote a collection of short stories for six very dear friends in America. Each short story was based on the favourite fairy-tale of the recipient. They all ganged up and me and insisted that I try and get it published. So I entered New World Fairy Tales for Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize for short stories. To my utter astonishment, it won, and shortly after my first novel The Summer We All Ran Away was published by Legend Press, and shortlisted for the Amazon Rising Stars award. The moral of this particular fairy-tale is probably listen to your friends and family, because they know what they are talking about.
2. What's the toughest part of the writing process for you?
Sharing something that’s not finished! Some writers thrive on writing groups and feedback. I do not. I am absolutely, 100% the “hide in a cave and deny all knowledge until everything is exactly the way I want it to be” type of writer. The literary image I relate to most strongly is Jane Austen’s squeaky door that gave her time to hide away her work before anyone saw it.
However, as my writing career progresses, I’m being asked to share my work at much earlier stages. It makes me cringe. Every time. Sometimes I have to get other people to press “send” on the email for me because I can’t bring myself to do it.
3. What's the most enjoyable part of writing?
Oh, so much to choose from! I love editing – taking a rubbishy first draft and making it into something good. I love writing beginnings, and endings. For every project I have five or six key sections that I really look forward to writing, and they’re like little oases scattered throughout the first draft. Most of all, I love the moments when the characters suddenly come to life and I feel as if it’s them telling the story, not me. Of course, that’s an illusion, but illusions can also be real.
4. Out of all the amazing books out there, which book do you wish you had written and why?
The “Alice” books. Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land. I truly believe 1865 is a watershed year for creative thinkers across the world; there’s Before Alice, and After Alice. Her influence is everywhere – in books of course, but also in films and TV series, in art and music, in theoretical physics, in evolutionary theory, in politics and economics… I was lucky enough to do a TEDx talk about this a couple of years ago. One of the best moments of my life.
5. If you could only save one of your characters from fictional calamity, which would you pick and why?
I’d save Finn, from my second novel The Beach Hut. It’s a story about the special magic of the sibling bond, and Finn reminds me of my own little brother (who is taller than me and has two children and his own engineering company, but is still “little” in my head).
6. If you could spend the day with your favourite literary character (not from your books), who would you spend it with and what would you do?
I’d visit Tove Jansson’s Moomin family. They’re very welcoming to unexpected visitors, they know the importance of making space for creative pursuits, they understand and embrace the sadness of life as well as the joys, and they’re simply excellent in a crisis. Also, their house and garden sound magical.
7. What can we expect next from you?
My third novel Lily’s House was published by Legend Press in October this year. It’s the story of Jen and her daughter Marianne, who have returned to the house of Jen’s grandmother Lily, to clear it out after Lily’s death, and the family skeletons that come tumbling out of the closet as they do so.
For my next book, I’m working on a very dark and creepy Christmas project, following in a long tradition of Christmas-Eve ghost stories.
8. Is there any particular writing advice you wish you'd been given at the start of your writing career? If so, what is it? If not, what advice would you give to someone starting out?
I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few schools and colleges to talk about writing – which I always find very strange and humbling, because I still feel as if I’m right at the start of the journey myself. Here are the things I always tell them:
- Writing happens when you use both your head and your hands. It’s a physical act. Don’t try and tell the story in your head. Get it out onto paper.
- Beginnings are easy. Endings are easy. The bit in the middle is the tough part. When you get to Chapter Four and think, “Now what?” – we’ve all been there. The difference between writers and wannabes is that writers don’t give up. Keep going.
- Write something every day. Even when you don’t feel like it. Even when every word is flat and dull. Even when you don’t know why you’re bothering. Nothing’s wasted. A bad first draft can be cut and polished later, but you need something to work on. Keep going.
- Some days writing is the best fun ever. Some days it just kind of sucks. That’s how it is for everyone, so make your peace with this and accept it. Marathon runners don’t enjoy every training run either. Keep going.
- You will learn something from everything you write. If your first novel isn’t published, write a second. It will be better. If that’s not accepted, write a third. Keep going.
- The more beautiful your notebook, the less willing you will be to pollute it with the messy, untamed horror that is a first draft. If it makes your heart happy, go ahead and buy that beautiful notebook; but know that it is for looking at, not for writing in. Writing is not a pretty process. And that’s okay.
- Unlike actors, dancers and even musicians, there’s no such thing as “too old” to start. You haven’t left it too late. Start today. And keep going.
9. Tell us what a typical writing day involves for you.
When I’m writing a first draft, I write between 1,000 and 2,000 words a day, depending on how much freelance work I have on at the same time. Some days the words come easily, and some days it’s like pulling teeth while balancing on a tightrope!
I start with an outline that I build using sheets of paper and post-it notes. Each sheet of paper is a chapter, and each post-it note is a plot point. Once I have this plan, I guard it like it’s the world’s last viable dragon-egg and it has to go everywhere with me. However, I very rarely refer to my plan, and the final version will always differ wildly from the original. I suppose it’s more of a comfort object.
I work standing up using a cheap-and-cheerful desk converter on top of my dining room table – better for your back, your blood pressure, everything really – and I can directly correlate how well my writing is going with how clean and tidy my house is. When I’m pleased with my day’s work, I can easily convince myself that it’s charmingly bohemian to have books and papers on every available surface, blankets and cushions all over the floor, and cats everywhere. When I can’t even bear to look at what I’ve written, I clean the house, basically so I can think “Well, AT LEAST MY HOUSE IS CLEAN SO THERE’S THAT” and feel comforted.
10. Finally, what are you reading at the moment?
I’m savouring every word of the utterly exquisite short story collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” by Haruki Murakami. The novel I’m most in love with at the moment is “Owl Song At Dawn”, by fellow Legend author Emma Claire Sweeney. It’s beautiful, poignant and simply gorgeous.
Lily's gone, but the enchantments she wove and the secrets she kept still remain. In Lily's house, Jen and her daughter Marianne reluctantly confront the secrets of the past and present - and discover how dangerous we become when we're trying to protect the ones we love.
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