Robin Falvey’s FULMAR – a gritty surfing YA set in Cornwall – was The Bath Novel Award’s Runner-up in 2015. Falvey, lifelong surfer and artist, tells us what happened next…
After Mildred re-read my manuscript and suggested a few small changes, we waited until the autumn before pitching to publishers. I’m still at that stage of the process. One of the things I’m learning is that nothing in the publishing industry happens very fast. But that’s fine. The more time it takes, the more time I have to work on new ideas and the more I’ll have to offer a potential publisher.
What kind of changes did you make?
I just strengthened the story a little bit here and there. Subtle changes really, but changes that cumulatively make quite a difference I think.
We love your elevator pitch: “If Billy Elliot had lived in Cornwall he’d have been a surfer.”
Yes, I like that pitch as well, it sums up the feel of the book. Fulmar is a classic coming of age story about a Cornish boy called Jacob Penhallow. His life is pretty messed up. His dad’s dead, mum’s a bit of a wreck and he’s deeply affected by what’s happened. But then a random stranger gives him a beat up old surfboard and for the first time, he begins to see a way out through learning to surf and training to be a lifeguard. What I love about my story is that it’s proper Cornish. Very authentic – when I wrote the first draft I was living by the side of the road in an old van and going swimming and surfing everyday. I think that my love of (and deep respect for) the sea really comes through and it’s one of the things I’m most pleased about.
Your book made us all laugh and one of the reasons we first fell in love with Fulmar was Jacob’s humour. He may be down on his luck, but he’s whip-smart funny too…
Writing Fulmar made me laugh actually and that’s one of the things that kept me going. Fulmar has some pretty gritty scenes and there’s nothing funny about the domestic abuse and violence both Jacob and his mum have been through. But I think there’s always room for humour – it’s what makes us human and it’s what makes life worth living no matter how hard it might be sometimes.
In Fulmar, you show the rundown poverty of Jacob’s small hometown, as well as the breathtaking natural beauty of the coast. Favourite Cornish coastal spot?
Now you’re asking! Jacob’s hometown, Porth Enys, is fictitious but it’s based on a combination of Porthtowan and Portreath. I go surfing at Porthtowan quite a bit, and it was there that the idea for Fulmar first came to me. I was sitting in my van eating my after-surf chips when I looked over and saw a bunch of kids coming out of the lifesaving club. I was a beach lifeguard for a long time and the sight of them got me thinking… I love pretty much all of the Devon and Cornwall coast. In fact I love any bit of coast anywhere! The walk from Porthtowan to St Agnes is pretty special though.
You once became ship storyteller on an old square rigger you worked on as a deckhand as it sailed across the South Pacific. What did you learn about writing from doing that?
Ha! We didn’t have any entertainment on board so we had to entertain ourselves. We’d perform skits, have fancy dress parties and yes, I used to make up stories. When you read something out, you get immediate feedback. It’s really obvious when people zone out and stopping listening, and after a while you can hear it yourself – the boring bits or the clumsy sentences. Now when I’m redrafting, I read my stuff into a Dictaphone and play it back. I can hear where I’m going wrong.
You’ve surfed the Atlantic Coast of France, Spain and Portugal. Highlights?
Well there are plenty of bits I missed and need to go back and check. But highlights…Surfing in Peniche in December wasn’t for the faint hearted. I remember there were freighters moored out in the bay and the waves were so big you could see the entire propellers coming out of the water as they rode the swell. I surfed a more sheltered flat rock reef nearby but it was still pretty scary. I once snapped my leash and had to swim in from about a quarter of a mile out.
South West France is my favourite though. So much sandy beach to choose from and in the summer, warm water, world class waves, loads of fellow surfers to hang out with, beers in the evenings. It doesn’t get much better than that.
How did you find the process of publishing Fulmar independently? [Robin published Fulmar as an ebook on Amazon in January 2015]. Did you do everything yourself?
Yes I got fed up with trying to find an agent. It’s a pain to be honest but you learn a lot. How do you design a cover that works? How do you get anyone to find your book amid the zillions of others? How to you get people to buy it? Of course these are the same challenges that publishers face. Self-publishing gives you a better understanding of what the issues are, but it’s not easy and it wouldn’t be my first option.
Was it an issue for Mildred that you’d self-published?
Not really. The version of Fulmar she’s pitching now is revised and renewed and the book is no longer available as an ebook.
How did it feel to be the runner-up but still receive an offer of representation from the competition judge?
It was great. I’ve been in touch with Clarissa (N Goenawan, 2015 winner) quite often since she won and I’m chuffed to bits for her that she’s now signed with an agent. I just think Mildred felt that my book was a better fit for her in terms of the writers and genres she already works with. It’s been great working with her.
How did you hear about our competition and what made you enter?
A friend told me about it and I thought, why not give it a go? Best thing I ever did. Just to be in the long list was a real boost to my confidence. It makes you think – oh, so I am OK at this… It helps defeat those negative thoughts that creep in sometimes and the support from the organisers and other entrants has been incredible.
You work as a copywriter and journalist. What do you write most about?
I guess I have what might be called a “portfolio career”. In terms of writing, it’s mostly copy for commercial clients. I treat it all as writing practice. Working to a brief, using active language, working to length and to deadlines all feeds into my creative work.
I also work as a student enabler at Falmouth University. It’s a great gig – I love working with young people, and being at the uni – there’s a great learning vibe there. I take notes in lectures which is great because not only am I providing a valuable service for someone who really needs it, I’m also getting an incredible education!
You’re also an artist. Tell us about that… I paint seascapes and sell greetings cards taken from my original oil paintings. It’s just one of the things I do really. A bit like breathing – and writing. I’m in my workshop / studio right now. In the middle there’s my writing table and at the other end, my easel. Unless I’m working up at the uni, I just sort of hop from one thing to another all day. It’s great, it really works for me.
FULMAR is currently out on submission to publishers. How does it feel to know that publishing’s top editors are reading your work?
Good – but I won’t get too excited until I sign a contract!
Lastly, any advice for writers currently in the querying trenches?
Keep trying, keep revising, keep submitting. Every time you submit your work to a publisher you’ve got 100% more chance of success than all the people who didn’t have the confidence to go for it. But having said that, I think it’s important to stand back from your work so that if you get some feedback you can give it due consideration. Your work could always be better.
The Bath Novel Award 2016 is open to entries until 10th April 2016.
First prize: £2,000 | Judge: Susan Armstrong of Conville & Walsh