I live in rural Staffordshire with my husband and four children. I studied medieval English Literature at Balliol College, Oxford and then trained as a professional singer at the Royal Northern College of Music. I have sung with a number of ensembles such as The Sixteen and The Monteverdi Choir, and particularly enjoy my solo oratorio and recital work. I also enjoy playing the piano and am a Glenn Gould fanatic.
We spend many of our weekends walking in the Shropshire hills - The Long Mynd and Stiperstones in particular. I also love making bonfires, a childhood obsession that I have never grown out of. I once single-handedly set alight a large section of a railway embankment when a fire of mine got out of control, and Network Southeast had to be suspended for a couple of hours. I suspect The Fires in Exit 43 owe a lot to this!
I am an extrovert and a bit of a hothead.
THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43
A quirky debut middle-grade novel that is adventurous, charming and poignant by turns, but which also focuses on the biggest issues of life and death.
Finn Oliver will never accept his father’s death, but he finds a few minutes of forgetting as he joy-rides over the moors in the beat-up family car. Then the accident happens – and Finn hurtles through the wafer-thin divide between the living and the dead. The Underworld is threatened by storms on the Other Side, and the ghosts who live there know their only hope is an ancient prophecy: that a mortal child and a child of the Underworld will together unlock the Firepearl from its elemental enchantments and save the dead from disaster. Now that moment has come, and Finn is about to embark on an extraordinary journey to the centre of the Earth!
The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43 is your debut novel. Is it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?
I have no other manuscripts hiding anywhere! Exit 43 really was my first attempt at writing a novel.
How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I think I always knew I had writing in me - but needed a really good concept to get me going. When the idea for Exit 43 came to me in a dream in the summer of 2005 I knew at once that I was onto something.
The best thing I have done to improve my writing is to do more and more of it. It is just like anything else; practice makes perfect.
What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
The story and characters did that for me. I didn’t even stop to consider.
But yes, I do enjoy reading children’s literature. I like to read the stuff my elder two children read. And before you ask, I like Harry Potter very much indeed! Also anything by Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransome, CS Lewis, John Masefield (The Box of Delights), Charlie Fletcher. Just getting into Philip Reeve too. I read lots of picture books to my younger two children too.
When I saw the bit in Sarwat’s interview about The Iliad, I thought, “Help! Tracy’s going to ask me about the last book I read - and it was almost certainly either Mog’s Christmas or Postman Pat’s Busy Day. Bang goes all my street cred.”
Have you changed genre since you first started writing? If so, do you feel your writing suits a specific genre and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other?
I don’t think about it too much. I think my writing suits this genre, but have ideas (and titles!) for other genres and age groups too, all on the backburner for now.
Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you’d like to write for in the future?
I’ve never tried but wouldn’t rule it out. The second book I’m writing is darker then Exit 43 - and makes me wonder if there might be some latent ability to write horror stories lurking inside me!
Yours is an unusual story, in many ways, you are an ‘overnight’ success. What inspired you to write The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43 and how long has it taken you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
I had the Exit 43 dream back in the summer of 2005, a couple of weeks after I had given birth to my fourth child. I didn’t start writing for another few months, as I was obviously a bit busy. When I finally started putting pen to paper I wrote for just half-an-hour a day, every day. The whole of the first draft was written in longhand! I still have all my messy notebooks.
Gradually the writing bug took hold and I did more and more each day. I kept the whole thing a secret - didn’t tell a soul...I needed to keep all the energy for the book itself. At first I thought this was going to be difficult, but soon realised that my family was completely absorbed in their own lives and hadn’t a clue what I was up to! In the early days I remember writing half a chapter on the way up to Yorkshire to visit my mother-in-law, with my husband blithely driving away next to me and all four children in the back of the car murdering each other. These days I need much more privacy. I suppose you just adapt to circumstances - and the only way for me to write at the beginning was in the midst of noise and chaos.
That first draft took about seven or eight months - a long time, I know - but I was writing for only very short spells each day. That autumn I sent it off to Cornerstones for an editorial report and began work on a second draft early in 2007.
By the time the second draft was ready it was the summer holidays and the marauding masses were upon me. I decided to send it out to agents in the autumn once the children were settled back at school.
But during that summer I did one thing. One crucial thing. I entered the story into the inaugural SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition. And then forgot all about it. One weekend in late September 2007 I went into our local WHSmith and bought a load of envelopes and folders, all ready for sending off to my first round of agents. I packed two or three up at the beginning of that week and sent them off. And then that Wednesday the phone rang (and yes, I remember exactly where I was sitting at the time, exactly what I had just been doing, exactly what I was wearing even!) and I was told I had been chosen as one of the winners of the SCBWI competition.
Then it was a whirlwind for a few weeks. Interest from several agents, meeting Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency, the scream of delight when I knew she wanted to take me on, a weekend of utter euphoria...
And then back to earth with a bump.
Sarah wanted SERIOUS revisions. I remember looking at her nine pages of notes and swallowing very hard. Then I printed them off, reached for a pen and began marking what I could do quickly, what would take some thought and what would take A LOT OF THOUGHT.
It started to come together. Sarah always kept faith in me - and I began to see that the book that was now emerging was a hundred times stronger than the old one. It was submitted to publishers in March 2008 and I got the deal at the end of April.
Would you recommend entering competitions and working with a literary consultancy? Do you think these can be an important deciding factor in finding success other than simply writing a good novel?
Definitely. You need to get noticed - and this is a good way of achieving just that.
The in-depth Cornerstones editorial report was invaluable. After reading it through I took their advice and put the book to one side for six weeks. When I got it out again I set about tearing it to shreds. Although their report had been wonderfully positive, I could only see the things that were wrong with the book - underdeveloped characters, too much tell and not enough show, horrendous attacks of adverbitis, no real grasp of dialogue...The list was endless. But I guess I was my own best teacher. I learnt so much during that process.
And then, of course, there was the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition, without which there would have been no Sarah Davies. Her input and guidance has been incredible. She is ferociously intelligent and direct. A little terrifying at first. But also wonderfully warm and very human.
If several agents were interested in working with you, how did you decide which one to choose and did you meet them face-to-face to help you decide?
There was only a week or so between knowing I was one of the SCBWI winners and being taken on by Sarah Davies.
Two other agents were interested - but all by instincts yelled at me to go with Sarah. I met her in London and thought she was great - if rather scary. I felt pretty deflated after the interview. Not at all sure whether I’d gone down well or not! And I knew that if she took me on I would be in for one hell of a revision process. But that somehow made her all the more appealing.
Would you recommend having an agent and, if so, why?
Absolutely. Certainly for a beginner author like me, Sarah’s editorial input was brilliant. But I shouldn’t think most agents provide that kind of input - and of course Greenhouse was in its earliest stages, so Sarah had a little more time then. I’m much more on my own now, which is how it should be.
You achieved a fantastic two book deal. Has it changed the way you approach your writing? Do you find you are more productive as a result or do you still write the same amount a day? Have you adopted a specific way of writing, eg structured hours or you do you write as the muse strikes?
It has given me a huge amount of confidence. And it dovetails very nicely with my singing commitments, which tend to be on Saturday nights. I get the best of both worlds.
Can’t be doing with all this muse business really. Tenacity, yes. Hard work, yes. Refusal to give up, yes. I suppose I DO have a muse - but he or she is no respecter of time or privacy. I get visited in my writing shed sometimes - but just as likely in the bath or under the duvet. And quite often when I’m driving too. And in any case, my muse is pretty much title-obsessed and can get very silly, reeling off inappropriate suggestions that would best adorn the front cover of a tabloid newspaper.
As for how much I write, I don’t stick too rigidly to a set word target or anything. If I did that I think I would probably disappear up my own bottom. But once the children are at school, writing is almost always the first thing I do - sometimes just for a couple of hours, sometimes for five or six. It depends on what singing commitments/concerts I have coming up. At 3.30 it’s back to being a mum again though - and thank goodness, too. Writing is quite, quite wonderful, but it shouldn’t be allowed to eclipse everything!
I love that you have a ‘writing shed’ - I picture one similar to Roald Dahl’s. Have you always worked in this private space or did it become a necessity once you achieved the publication deal?
My shed is the new love of my life. I got it back in the summer when the children were all on holiday and I needed somewhere to escape to for a couple of hours each day. I had some revisions to do for my publisher and had started the second book too, so it was the perfect solution all round. It has a desk and a chair, a dictionary, a thesaurus and a lot of scribbling material - but that’s about it. We wired it up in October, so I have a snug little hideaway now. However, the main power switch is in the house - and I’m afraid it has been known for my children to plunge me (on purpose) into freezing cold darkness, leaving me stranded at the top of the garden writing a scary story all by myself with nothing for company but a couple of spiders. Charming.
Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?
Loved Roald Dahl as a child. And shameless gobbler of all Enid Blyton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Chalet School stories. Then went through precocious Thomas Hardy phase and finally fell head-over-heels in love with EM Forster, Dickens and Iris Murdoch at university. More catholic tastes now.
Recent reads have included Life of Pi, The Alchemist, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Birdsong, A Fool’s Alphabet, The Lovely Bones, Man and Boy and a biography on Glenn Gould.
Add a healthy dash of The Gruffalo, Where The Wild Things Are and Curious George and you’ll get a flavour of what goes on inside my addled brain.
I suppose there’s more variety in children’s literature these days. As to quality, I don’t know. You can’t get much better than Roald Dahl - and he’s been around for ages. I think it’s dangerous for writers to get bogged down worrying about what children want to read these days. There are so many kinds of books out there, all catering for different tastes. I think you have to write the story you have inside you - you have to write what is your own.
Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
The first draft of Exit 43 was hardly planned at all. But I think you need some kind of framework, an A-Z if you like. I have a pretty good idea of where I’m heading with the second book, but it’s not too tight. There’s plenty of room for adjustment and surprises.
You achieved a two-book deal for The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43. Is the second book a sequel and, if so, did you have ideas in mind?
No, the second book isn’t a sequel. It’s got nothing to do with the Underworld AT ALL!! There could be a sequel to Exit 43 one day, but it works (has to work) as a whole.
I am inhabiting an entirely different world with the second book. A darker, nastier world.
That’s interesting, I presumed it would be a sequel. When the publishers took you on for a second book unrelated to the first, did you have free rein to write any story you wish, or are they looking for something in a similar vein?
I had free rein, yes. I sent the publisher a synopsis of the story, along with the first chapter or two and we had a chat about it over a very nice mushroom risotto! It is, of course, for the same age group. It’s hard to look at the two books objectively, but I think I can see my ‘style’ emerging and as long as I continue to enjoy writing it I reckon I must be doing OK.
Titles: How many titles did you work with until settling on The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43? Aspiring writers are often told how important a title is - do you have any advice on what a good title is?
I didn’t have a title for Exit 43 at all until I rang Cornerstones asking whether I could have an editorial report on my novel. I remember Helen Corner asking, “And what is the novel called?” I was standing in the kitchen looking out into the garden and said, “It doesn’t have one at the moment. Call it The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43 for now!” And I’ve never looked back! I secretly think that’s the only reason Sarah took me on!! And I have a great title for the second book too - and for a third, should I get the chance! In fact it’s become a family joke; whenever I’m looking a bit vacant (which is quite often) they’ll all say, “Sshhh...she’s coming up with another title!”
They just come very naturally to me.
(I contacted Sarah Davies asking her to comment on why she’d chosen to represent Harriet and she did mention the title.
NB Sarah‘s comments can be found at the end of the interview.)
Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?
My two elder children (11 and 8) get to read what I’ve written when the work is at a fairly advanced stage. I don’t take a vast amount of notice of them though - they are my flesh and blood, and are therefore bound to be biased. Having said that, they both shoot from the hip - and their comments were useful in the early stages of Exit 43. And of course all the children are very proud!
At the top of our garden we have an unconnected underground drainage system, linked by various inspection holes. These holes are covered (badly) by planks of wood - and my younger two children are very fond of uncovering the holes, pointing down them and declaring that “down there is Exit 43!”
Regarding artwork for the book covers. As the author do you have any input into the choices made or is the decision left entirely to others?
I’ve had quite a lot of input into the Exit 43 cover. I am the most hopeless artist on the planet, so anything anyone came up with was going to be pretty spectacular in my eyes. But the Stripes designer (the very wonderful Tom) has produced something beyond my wildest dreams - a mysterious green vortex, ringed with embossed ladders.
(I shall be adding book cover artwork as soon as possible.)
What sort of publicity and marketing will you be asked to undertake and what will it entail? Will it be arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own ideas?
Some will be done for me - things like exposure at book festivals and the like. Some I will do myself, including as many school visits as I’ve time for. I love talking to children and have already spoken about the book at my elder children’s school and asked their opinion about possible jacket covers. It was such fun.
Anyone reading this who knows of a school which might like to have me, do get in touch!
Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Do not wait for this muse thingummywhatsit to strike. It might be fictitious itself, you never know. Sit down, block out the outside world and allow yourself to be sucked into the world you are creating. Even if it takes a little while, inspiration of some kind or another will almost always come. If it truly hasn’t after about half-an-hour, then it’s probably just a very bad day and time to ditch the writing and go for a long walk.
Also, don’t get hung up about how many words you should write every day. Some of my best writing days are when the number of words I have written DECREASES. The paring away process is very important, I think.
Agents comments: SARAH DAVIES
Why I chose Harriet:
I loved her title – THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43 – and I felt that her story could be very commercial in today’s marketplace, because it blended contemporary with fantasy, and had both a boy and girl character as protagonists. It was very imaginative and fresh conceptually – and Harriet just wasn’t daunted by an ambitious premise.
A common denominator with all my authors is that they are totally committed, very up for major revision, and they understand that this is a very tough business and success rarely comes easily.
THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43
UK/Commonwealth: Stripes Publishing (an imprint of Magi; Autumn 2009)