LUCY VAN SMIT ON WINNING THE BATH CHILDREN’S NOVEL AWARD 2015 WITH HER NORDIC YA THRILLER, THE HURTING
Thanks, it feels ridiculously wonderful, I’m still fizzling with a childlike delight, I didn’t expect it to be so exciting.
A little nerve wracking, I danced around my bedroom when I made the shortlist, but I never, ever expected to win. I was on longlists for the Mslexia Novel and The Caledonia Novel Award, and assumed THE HURTING was too YA to progress any further. To win The Bath Children’s Novel Award, and get my agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, in time for Christmas was brilliant. I was so flabbergasted, my 14-year-old son Archie had to read the announcement for me to confirm I’d won.
Respect! Love it. The best reaction was from my husband, Nick. It’s a long game, writing, it takes years to learn the craft, and no one in your family knows if you’re any good. Nick’s always been supportive, and he was so proud of me, kept smiling to himself at work, and emailed all our friends. When Sallyanne Sweeney offered to represent me, I was touched how happy it made my ninety-year-old mum. Even my nephew gave me a bottle of champagne to say well done. My MA mates were thrilled. It was quite humbling. Archie kept giving me advice how to negotiate Hollywood deals!
Sallyanne likes the emotional abuse aspect to THE HURTING. We’re working on the structural edit, to simplify the major reveal, and include more on the Catholic family at the end. She’s sounded out a few publishers, and someone I know at a major publishing house is keen to see it, but Sallyanne says to wait until I’ve done the edits. I hope it’s ready in time for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.
We were thrilled to discover your connection with Bath. [Van Smit lives in London, but studied Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, graduating with Distinction in 2015.] What were the most valuable things you learned during your MA?
I think I learned the importance of being gentle with my writing, and myself. Julia Green, the MA Director, always says you can only know something when you are ready to learn it. Ironically, the Publishing Module helped me the most, and I really didn’t want to do it. I wanted to concentrate on writing, and not worry about getting published, but Janine Amos helped me to up my game, understand where HSG might fit in the market, and how good something has to be to stand out. John Mclay, the international scout, teaches on the course too, and I ran the idea of Norway past him. We are very spoilt on the MA for contacts and advice; every tutor is a published author.
I’ll never forget the privilege of having a one-to-one with David Almond. He’d inspired me to draw on my Catholic background, and I was thinking, Oh My God, Oh My God, it’s David Almond, while he critiqued my scene saying lovely things about the imagery. He and Julia taught me to think about rhythm in writing. And I found my tribe, my writing buddies, Chris Vick, Eden Endfield, Sarah Henderson, Jak Harrison, Rowena House, and Philippa Forester. They are super talented.
Originally, I started with the baby’s abduction scene, which came from an exercise on the Bath Spa MA, to show character through action and dialogue. I thought about the worst thing my protagonist could do, and to steal someone’s baby is right up there for me. We’ve lost years in the IVF wilderness trying to have children, had multiple miscarriages and lost one son in stillbirth. But as my story evolved, I realised I wanted to write about a love that could never be, not an unrequited love, but a great love, with a dilemma. What if this love meant you couldn’t live with yourself?
[Read the first chapter of THE HURTING, Lucy’s winning YA manuscript here.]
I love Nordic Noir, and thought the fjords would be a perfect setting for YA. I didn’t want snow, and tonally the setting is like a Vlaminck painting, wild vibrant colours, bold lines, and dark shadows. A Fauve Norway that looks too bright, and has deadly undertones. As for wolves, Ellie is scared of dogs, and has to overcome her fears to save the baby from a wolf. I was interested in myths of feral children and needed to find a way to make it more plausible, hence the abandoned wolf reservation. Norwegians hunted wolves almost to extinction, and the recent reintroduction of wolves, near the Swedish border, is hotly debated, the farmers hate them. My antagonist is their champion in the book, who believes the predator, at the top of the food chain, saves his world by killing prey. It’s a twist on Cascade Theory in ecology.
I think THE HURTING was very lucky to have champions amongst the teenage and adult judges in the earlier rounds, but ultimately it won because competition judge Sallyanne Sweeney and The Bath Children’s Novel Award team were brave enough to run with a YA novel that was a bit controversial.
At the extract reading stage, our panel each have a golden pass to give to one manuscript they absolutely love and want to see on the longlist. THE HURTING is the first book to win two golden passes, and also sparked some of the liveliest plot debates we’ve ever known. Have you had similar strong reactions from other readers, either during your MA or whilst out on submission to agents?
Yes, I was told this story of a boy manipulating a girl to steal a baby couldn’t work for children. But my tutors, Steve Voake, Julia Green, and Lucy Christopher, my second marker, were very encouraging, although Julia did say my story kept her awake at night thinking about the baby on the mountain. When the opening chapter was published in our MA Anthology, twelve agents contacted me, requesting the full manuscript, but I’d just ripped it apart to turn a granny into a dying sister. At the Foyle’s launch, several agents came up to me to asking to see it, and a couple who’d read it said how much they admired it, and thought it was a daring story, but not for their list. One agent told me outright that my antagonist was too horrible. So after three rejections, from agents who’d been super keen, I knew I had a problem, and realised if you change one character it changes everything, and Ellie now seemed selfish to want to be a songwriter when her sister was dying, so I sat down and rewrote it, made Ellie more empathetic, and the antagonist more dangerous.
I was completely convinced I wouldn’t win, and thought Sallyanne Sweeney would go for a Middle Grade funny novel. Also, two of the books on the shortlist had been independently published, and one long-listed for the Carnegie Prize, so I thought they’d be more polished, and at best I’d be the runner up. I’d won a SCWBI one-to-one with Sallyanne, and she’d given me feedback on my short story about a girl desperate to fight alongside her brother in WWI, written in second person through letters. Sallyanne liked it, but short stories were tough to sell, she gave me her card to keep in touch.
That was a dream job after Art School; I worked for Canadian Broadcasting and pitched my first art documentary on John Le Carré. My boss said if I get him, I could produce it, expecting Le Carré to say no as usual. He’d not given an interview for ten years, ever since Melvin Bragg’s The South Bank Show. I worked out why, wrote to him, and told him what I wanted to do. When Le Carré rang to say yes, I fell off my chair in the Journal office. I’ve produced/directed docs on writers like Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, P.D. James, Kingsley Amis, Nadine Gordimer, and even Jeffrey Archer. I always wanted to film them in such a way the audience could get a real feel of the authors and their books. I hadn’t studied literature, I’m dyslexic, but I always thought I was a writer. It took years to admit to anyone that’s what I was doing, my non-writing friends and family still think of me as a painter.
SCWBI is tremendously supportive of children’s writers and it’s well worth being a member. They run workshops, conferences, master classes and agent parties, and socials.
It definitely helped give me confidence. I came up to see the Bath Children’s Festival, and Julia Green was hosting a panel of the latest crop of published MA writers, and I was struck by how Julia beamed at Gill Lewis like a proud mother hen. And I remember thinking I want to be part of that tribe, and made a very last minute application to get on the course. Now it’s our turn to get published, and my mate Chris Vick is the first to go, publishing his beautiful story about a rookie surfer, KOOK, with Harper Collins in March.
Yes. It came out of Steve Voake’s excellent tutorial on showing a character though their actions.
Not really, but the course is structured to keep you writing. Every other week you workshop 1,500 words, and each term you get marked on 5,000 words, and a reflective commentary, which makes you think about what you are writing, and why. To keep you on track there a 10,000 word milestone, and the manuscript module is 40,000 words.
I wrote the ending almost immediately, as it mirrors the opening, so the whole story is told through dramatic irony, it builds dread and compassion for Ellie and the baby. Then my little brother died, very suddenly, and I was in a daze and couldn’t concentrate for months. I had a first draft, but not in the shape I wanted, but I submitted the first 40,000 words, and luckily still got a Distinction.
I lie in bed figuring out how the one major change, that Sallyanne suggested, has consequences for my character and the book, then I make coffee and turn the WiFi off. Ideally I climb back into bed, or go to a café, and do the edits. I can write on buses, on the floor, anywhere, and I read every day.
I’m editing this book, and I dug out INVISIBLE BY DAY, a 10+ thriller about a 14-year-old boy, Dan, who believes in honour, but his father is arrested for fraud, and Dan wants to prove his innocence. His sidekicks are Fingers a Goth girl thief, and Imran a debonair, disabled hacker, and the antagonist mirrors Satan from Paradise Lost, wanting revenge on mankind, and not caring if it backfires. The opening won a SCWBI competition, but I never sent it out, and started something new for the MA.
My first tutor, Sophie McKenzie, inspired me to believe I could write, she sat on her desk on the first day of a City Lit class, and said she was living proof that writing courses work. I started INVISIBLE BY DAY in her workshops. I’ve always been a bookworm, and have eclectic tastes from Siobhan Dowd to Kevin Brooks, Meg Rosoff to John Green, and I love the raft of newer writers, like Clare Furness, Francis Hardinge, and Chris Vick.
This year it’s WOLF WINTER by Swedish writer, Cecelia Ekbäck. Last year I loved THE EARTH HUMS TO B FLAT by Mari Strachan. Archie’s and my all-time favourite book is WOLF BROTHER by Michelle Paver, and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak. I’m into wolf books at the moment, like WOLF WILDER by Katherine Rendell. As a child I was addicted to Mary Renault and Enid Blyton. I read WUTHERING HEIGHTS at Christmas, as someone said my antagonist was like Heathcliff, and I was staggered how vengeful Heathcliff is as a character, yet is still beloved by us, as readers.
I entered the competition to test whether I’d got the story right; I knew it would help my pitch letter to stand out, if I got shortlisted. Bath is a hotbed for children’s books, with the Writing For Young People MA, Bath’s Children’s Literature Festival, and now it has the Bath Children’s Novel Award, as well as the Bath Novel Award.
I brought Christmas presents, a cashmere bobble hat, and saved the rest for a writing retreat.
Yes. Go for it. Winning is great, but the competition gave me a much-needed deadline to finish the manuscript, everything after that was a bonus.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose, 13 January 2016