When I moved to rural mid Wales in 2010 with my husband, a nine month-old baby and a toddler I didn’t give a second thought as to what I would actually do for a living.
So, when I heard about the Literature Wales writers’ bursaries, I applied in a heartbeat. I was awarded just over £1,000 to pay for six months of childcare during which time I said in my application form that I would make significant inroads into writing a novel.
The sample I had sent in with my application was from an entirely different book, an autobiography of my childhood which amounted to 80,000 words. I’d written the book aged 25, half of it during a five-day retreat in Paris where I was practically mainlined to espresso. The problem with that book was three-fold: a) nothing happened to me b) nobody knew who I was, and c) it wasn’t very good.
This new novel would take some elements of the autobiography – the theme of divorce, the late 1980s setting – and move it into a fictional world populated with characters born from my imagination. I had no idea how to begin.
I tried plotting the novel in Excel with headings like ‘conflict’, ‘point of view’ and ‘location’. Intuitively I knew that the key to this book would be to tell a story about an ordinary girl in an extraordinary way. However, looking back at the spread sheet now, I’m bamboozled by how I thought I could make such conflicts as ‘Harper looking in the Argos catalogue and realising that she can’t afford to buy a toaster’, or ‘Harper eating some chocolate eggs’ as anything other than snooze-inducing. Over Christmas, I wrote an encouraging mid-term report to my funders, and despaired.
Once the kids were back in nursery in the New Year I opened a Word document, typed ‘Chapter One’ and didn’t move from the kitchen table until I absolutely had to leave to collect the kids. Harper’s voice cut through my confusion and in my caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived brain synapses began to fire again.
Here was a protagonist I believed in, one I could happily champion. She was only twelve years-old, but Harper was an old soul with a big heart and a story to tell in an unforgettable voice. She was also hilarious, which came as a shock. When I tell jokes, I forget punch lines; they are usually met with with tumbleweed expressions. I remained in Harper’s service for two years, trusting that she knew where we were going. It turned out that what I needed most was confidence in myself coupled with a cast iron commitment to apply that to the prose.
When I submitted the novel to Sophie Lambert at Conville & Walsh, she read and replied within hours. I got the email requesting the balance of the manuscript while I was sitting on a train at Bristol Temple Meads station with the kids; we were on our way to see the remains of the Roman baths. I spent the day giddily shepherding them both around the excavations of ancient hypocausts. I could barely believe that this was the self-same day that I was laying the foundations of my own writing career.
Three months later, when I got the email saying that Sophie wanted to take me on as a client, I was on holiday in a Welsh bothy with several other families. Although we were on a woodland explorers weekend, somehow between us we’d also packed a laser, a smoke machine, a saxophone and a keyboard. Once the kids were asleep, we celebrated into the small hours, toasting Sophie with Spar’s best bubbly that I’d bought in Chirk.
Within six months of Sophie taking me on, we worked on two subsequent drafts, one of them addressing more structural issues, the second looking at polishing the prose and the novel was acquired by Atlantic Books three days before my 36th birthday. The gift of a lifetime.
Meeting my editor Margaret Stead and the rest of the staff at the publishers was an unreal experience. Upwards of a dozen staff sat and listened intently as I spoke about the book’s gestation and my background as an author. There was a palpable love for the book in the room. I knew that we had delivered Harper into a safe harbour. I was thrilled that Atlantic Books would be launching her story into the hands of readers and, when I saw the treatment for the cover – its orange, pink and turquoise tones popping off the cassette deck cover – I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I can’t wait to see how Harper’s journey into the world unfolds.