I know Essie Fox from Twitter and was thrilled when I saw that she'd got her first publishing deal. I asked if she'd be interviewed as a blog baby and so, here she is. I wanted to unpick the journey to publication, hoping to uncover some advice for you lot.
Hello, Essie, and CONGRATULATIONS! Now that you've calmed down a little, can you tell us how you came to writing? I'm interested in whether you were born with a pencil in your hand, or what?
I started writing four years ago now. I’ve always been obsessed with books and, soon after leaving university, worked as an editorial assistant for the publishers, Allen & Unwin. But, my career took an entirely different path when, after the birth of my daughter, I decided to work from home, setting up as a commercial illustrator.
Many years later, when my daughter left home, I found myself wondering about what I really ‘wanted to do with my life’ and the answer was always the same – to write. I signed up with the Open University for a short creative writing course which was online, and lasted three months –
just long enough to give me the impetus and confidence to sit down and begin a novel.
In some ways, I wish I’d started to write earlier. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always had stories floating round in my mind – but I never quite equated that with actually setting them down on the page. There again, creating a story is a bit like illustration for me. You start off with a blank sheet of paper/screen full of hope and possibilities. There’s nothing like the thrill of beginning to make your own mark on the page, juggling with the tools of your trade to construct something real and logical from a tumbling jigsaw muddle of words. From that description, you’d be right to deduce that I tend to write by the seat of my pants, rather than being a planner. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
I wrote my first novel very quickly, in a rush of feverish excitement - another slight regret right now as I think it could have been better. Nevertheless, when I sent off my sample chapters to Blake Friedmann, they liked them well enough to request the full manuscript. Isobel Dixon, now my agent, helped to allay any anticipation and stress by reading the novel over the weekend – and emailing me during the process to say how much she liked it.OK, now I'm getting a tad jealous. You're going to tell me you got a deal straightaway, on that first novel? You mean there was no struggle?? No huge horrible re-writing?
With that first novel there was a little tweaking, but no major re-writing. [Snarl.] Even so, it failed to achieve a deal - [hooray!!] - always falling down at the hurdle of the publishers’ Sales and Marketing meetings – maybe something to do with it being mixed genre, and the fact that, if I described it now, I would have to say something like...a dark historical, gothic, supernatural, crime thriller, with a bit of twisted romance thrown in. Or, should I say one square peg forced into several round holes? [Good points and good analysis.]
What that ‘misfit’ experience taught me – apart from the fact that I still love that book and am determined to make it work one day – was that a mixed genre novel can be very hard to sell. If I really wanted to be a published author – and I really did – then I had to do more than simply write the book that only I might want to read. [OOOOOOHHHH - *falls down at the feet of Essie Fox and declares undying love*] I had to think of fitting within a specific genre and, with that firmly in mind, I began to write The Somnambulist – the novel that won my publishing deal.I am more than delighted that you came about this eventual success for all the right reasons. So, you fully deserve to have a fabulous moment of delight when you heard of your publishing deal. What happened?
The Somnambulist went straight out on submission and this time with no changes at all. But I will say that, on this occasion, I took a great deal more time over the plotting and editorial process, going over the novel again and again....and again...and again...and... well you get the idea. [More undying love.]
I can honestly say that I wasn’t holding out much hope of achieving a deal and was wondering what to do with my life if The Somnambulist was rejected. All I wanted to do was write, but writing a novel takes a great deal of time and commitment and lures you away from so many other things in life – such as interacting with friends and family – or cleaning the house – or keeping fit. So, while waiting to hear from my agent, I kept myself busy by catching up with everything that I’d neglected, and then by joining a gym (to try and shift the blubber gained while sitting around for months on end doing very little but writing). I made long overdue appointments for checks with the doctor and dentist and, it was while having a filling one day, when my mobile phone had been switched off, that I happened to miss several calls from my agent...to tell me that an offer had come in from Orion. [Hooray!] It was a Tuesday and I hadn’t even realised that the book had gone out on submission the day before. It all happened incredibly quickly, and I still have to pinch myself to believe that I’m awake and not dreaming.
With both of my novels, I wrote a short and a long synopsis. In addition, for The Somnambulist, I sent in a ‘blurb’, or pitch, which began with a quote from the novel, followed by just two sentences...
‘Some secrets are better kept buried, some claims left unrecognised.’ The Somnambulist is a Victorian mystery set in the East London music halls and docks, and an isolated country house in Herefordshire. Suffused in colour and music, this dramatic and sensual novel deals with themes of loss and stolen lives, of racial and religious bigotry.And this is how my publisher, Orion, announced the novel to the trade press…
Sweeping from the boisterous Victorian East End music halls to a desolate Herefordshire mansion where a body lies buried in the woods, the story follows Phoebe Turner as she unravels a tangled web of family secrets. Haunted by visions of bloody footprints in the snow, Phoebe is forced to confront the darkness in her past in order to reveal her true parentage.
Kate Mills, my editor at Orion, said: 'I'm a huge fan of the classic Victorian ghost story and Essie Fox has given the genre a delightful twist. From the moment I began to read this, I was desperate to publish it. It's the most vivid and compelling story I've read in a long time, gloriously brooding and atmospheric. Peopled with music hall artistes, laudanum addicts, grieving widows and wicked half-brothers, Essie creates the seething underbelly of Victorian life. It's wonderfully commercial with shades of Sarah Waters and Diane Setterfield, but there are nods to Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte as well. You can tell how much Essie enjoyed writing this story and that enthusiasm is utterly infectious. Everyone at Orion fell under her spell and we're very much looking forward to publishing The Somnambulist in hardcover in Spring 2011.'
I am absolutely fascinated by the Victorian period. I LOVE it. It was a time of amazing technological development and yet with such social extremes and constraints – particularly where women were concerned. For me, the era is close enough in time to be able to empathise with the people and, of course, the places – so many Victorian buildings still providing the backdrop to our lives, and so many events that happened then influencing our current society – not least how we are viewed internationally.
My own house which was built in 1840 has been a great inspiration and featured in my first novel. The Somnambulist came about after a visit to Wilton’s – one of London’s original East End music halls – such a magical, atmospheric place. Many of the scenes in that novel are based on other real places in East London. And those which occur in Herefordshire are set inside a stately home where, when a student, I worked as a cleaner.
My next novel will also be Victorian, as will the one after that – both of them very strong in my mind. But, one day, should fate spare me the time, I would love to write a contemporary supernatural mystery based on the life of John Latham, an artist who came to notoriety during the 1960’s and whose work was strongly influenced by the science of quantum physics. So, maybe a little time travel? But, for that, I’ll need to do a great deal more research, and hope to get my mind around some extremely complex issues! For now, I still feel I have only begun to scratch the surface of the Victorian era and, as much of the research that I do would otherwise be wasted, I recently started to write a blog which is called The Virtual Victorian. The VV would love to see you there! www.virtualvictorianblogspot.com
- Publishers ARE taking great stories and selling them with passion.
- Being immersed in the genre / era is essential for a writer.
- Professionalism, talent and hard work win the day.
- You cannot overlook the importance of writing something that publishers can publish because readers want it.
- You cannot keep a good writer down - IF she finds the right story to tell. And you cannot ignore a cracking story - IF it's been written well.