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.
Seems as though you were, in a way, practising in your head, rather than getting the words down on paper for many many years. That's an interesting start. So, what happened then? Agent? Publisher?
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.
OK, excitement over. Can you tell us about the pitch for The Somnambulist? How did you and how would you pitch it? I'm always banging on about the importance of the hook - can you set us an example?
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.'
Now, you haven't told us why Victorian? Are you immersed in the Victorian Period or would you write about other times? Is it history that gets you or that particular era?
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
Essie, thank you so very much - that was fascinating and useful. And huge good luck with the Somnambulist, published by Orion in May 2011.
So, what do we learn?
- 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.
Congratulations Essie, very interesting interview :)
This is so inspiring and encouraging. All too often these days we hear nothing but bad news and it's easy to become dispirited. Thanks to you and Essie for sharing her story with us.
God I want to read The Somnambulist NOW! Thanks for sharing this story, and I will certainly keep a look out for the novel next Spring.
That's very inspirational. And it does sound like a fantastic story.
Great interview, and congratulations on your success, Essie. The book sounds brilliant - can't wait to read it!
Congratulations, Essie. Glad to know that you were able to make it happen. Some day, I hope to get there, too! So very happy for you.
Congrats to Essie. This sounds great.
Wow, the most positive exciting dental experience ever!
Congratulations Essie! Thank you Nicola for such a great interview! And I'm with 'womagwriter' -- I want to read THE SOMNAMBULIST now!
HUGE Congratulations, Essie. What an inspiring story. It's wonderful to know that success like this can still happen in these difficult times.
It's (slightly) restored my faith in the industry and has given me a shot of virtual delight.
Information and point breakdown is both encouraging and very helpful.
Giggles and Guns
Brilliant interview - thanks both! I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on this. Go Essy!
That's great news! Many many congratulations, Essie! I love your writing on the VV blog (and everything else about the blog - it is amazing).
Congratulations, Essie. And thanks for an interesting interview that was also inspirationa.
Oh, thank you - such lovely comments. I'm genuinely touched.
There is so much talent out there, and I'm sure many writers - and many of you - are far better writers than I could ever hope to be. There certainly is an element of luck in finding an agent and publisher and sometimes it is simply the fact that your work happens to fit a niche.
The main thing is that if you love to write then you will always gain something from your work - that buzz of creating a story and living every line can be better than any film you watch. So, first and foremost, enjoy - and hopefully other things will come.
And meanwhile, keep reading books -especially the best in your genre. Learn what you can and then add something new. Believe in yourself and keep trying because, as someone in this business once said to me, it's not always the finest writers who go on to win success - it's those who are most determined and refuse to give up.
I'm sure there is something in that advice.
Huge congrats to Essie :))))
Nicola, you mentioned meeting Essie on twitter but didn't give her twittername - is that something Essie's prepared to share so we can follow her progress?
dan - good point. I'm sure Essie won't mind if I tell you that she is @essiefox
Thanks, all, for your supportive comments.
Congratulations Essie. I found this so encouraging. Thank you. (Thank you to Nicola, too!) And I wish you every success with The Somnambulist and your forthcoming novel.
Its always great to read someone's route to publication, everyone's story has something unique and special about it and reminds us that there are many ways to the final goal. Lovely post and all the very best of luck to you Essie.
Congratulations! And I think I've wandered through your blog a few times too.
I'm lookng forward to reading The Somnambulist.
Well done and huge congratulations. I, too, am most definitely going to buy a copy. Unmissable!
Wonderful news-very well done! I, too, am looking forward to buying& reading your novel as I'm a huge fan of all things Victorian, Gothic etc etc etc.
Very best wishes,
Fantastic news, Congratulations Essie!
I loved Nicola's interjections, because she said what I was thinking 'you mean you got a deal first time?' LOL!
Yay, party, party, party!
Oh my gosh, I can't WAIT to read it, your synopsis had me hooked! Well done, I'm not at all surprised you got a deal out of this.
Big congratulations to Essie! I absolutely love novels set in the Victorian era and can't wait to read The Somnabulist :o)
Great interview, very inspiring. Well done, Essie. I'm going to read your Virtual Victorian blog. It sounds fascinating!
Congrats to Essie! Thanks for sharing your story!
Congratulations, Essie! I love the Victorian era. Now I want to read this book!
I'm also really really envious, but that only makes me want to work harder. :)
Wonderful interview Nicola & Essie.
Congratulations - let the party begin - can't wait to get my hands on The Somnambulist.
Many congratulations, Essie, and thanks for a great interview, Nicola
Though I understand your sort-of-wish that you'd started writing earlier, it seems to me that your eventual eruption into the world of published authors was timed perfectly. We are all a product of our experience and your years of creating stories in your head, having a child, living, seem to have culminated in a passionate flood onto paper (that sounds more graphic than I'd intended...!). It's wonderful that you managed to find a successful outlet for your talent, when so many others lie dormant. I'm sure you'll enjoy a long and fulfilling career, Essie. You defo deserve it.
An inspiring story - your success is very much deserved:)
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Great interview and very inspirational story. Huge congratulations to Essie.
Congratulations Essie on your success, which you thoroughly deserve for the way in which you worked to bring it about. Your story's an inspiration and encouragement to those of us not so far down the publication road.
Thanks to Nicola for a great interview and for bringing us Essie's story.
Thank you so much for all the lovely comments.
That's very inspirational. And it does sound like a fantastic story.
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