JANE BRITTAN’s debut novel, The Edge of Me, was shortlisted for The Bath Children’s Novel Award in 2015 and is nominated for the 2016 Carnegie Medal. The Edge of Me is the first title published by Blowfish Books, a London-based independent press for YA & crossover fiction which Jane co-founded with fellow author Lisa Taylor.
Congratulations again on your shortlisting for our first Children’s Novel Award. How was the experience of seeing how far your novel would progress?
I was unbelievably excited to be shortlisted! Stuff of dreams! I entered on a whim. I really liked the sound of the competition and the ethos behind it. The Edge of Me is the first title of Blowfish Books: a truly teeny weeny indie publisher and to imagine it would make it to even the longlist, let alone the final five was just fabulous! It meant so much – real validation from people who don’t have to say they liked it because they’re friends and relations!
The Edge of Me is the story of a girl whose family’s lives are forever changed by The Bosnian War. What sparked the story for you?
Conflict is always a fascinating backdrop for a story but while so many books have use the Second World War as a setting, very few seem to have tackled something that was so brutal, so terrible and so desperately close both in terms of geography and time. I started with my girl, Sanda – with her voice in my head and I wanted to anchor her story – that of a seemingly ordinary London girl – to something huge and terrifying that was lurking unknown in her past. My sons were born in 1991 and 1992 around the time the war started and horrifying images from BBC and CNN must have lodged themselves firmly in my brain, because when I started to write, I knew I needed to unpack those a little and use them.
Young adults often know little about this period of recent history. Why do you think so few novelists have tackled this subject?
That’s an interesting question. I’d have to say I don’t know! I don’t think it’s talked about much in schools – I don’t think many young people have an awareness of it and what it did to those involved on all sides: ordinary families and communities who are still mourning those who ‘disappeared’. There are over 9,000 still missing today and evidence of execution sites and mass graves still being uncovered.
You’ve said your YA stories are all about that moment of finding yourself. At one point did you feel you’d found yourself as a writer of YA?
I think it’s something that just happened! I did an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck back in 2009, and the very first stories I wrote and wanted to write came from young voices. It feels like a very natural place for me because although I’m 50, I still feel like I’m fifteen in my head. Someone once said that to write for young people, you must remember what it was to be a young person. All writers want their voices to be authentic, to feel truthful, and this feels right for me.
Why do you think so many great YA novels are written by women in the middle of their lives?
Possibly because they’ve spent a long time looking, and listening and leaning in. Flan O’Connor says the basis of all the arts is that we learn to see. Maybe we just get good at it. I have two sons, three stepsons and a daughter. The youngest is now 16. I’ve watched them all grow up and their voices are all jostling and banging about in my head. All those smelly socks and dirty dishes are all in there!
The Edge of Me is set up by Blowfish Books, a small indie press you set up with fellow author Lisa Taylor in order to write and publish under your own imprint. Did you ever explore more traditional routes to publication?
I had interest from agents and publishers, big and small, but I got tired of waiting, making changes, then waiting some more! Deciding to take ownership of the process has been AMAZING. I don’t know why more good writers out there don’t do it. It’s been a steep learning curve but we’ve enjoyed every step of the way. We’ve had complete autonomy and control over what we do and how we do it.
You’ve said you want to publish books which don’t have to pass ‘the supermarket test’ or fit on someone’s marketing list. Is part of your mission a desire for specialism in edgy and diverse YA titles?
That’s the plan. We have two books in the pipeline for this year, after which time, we want to open up to new writers who are working on good stuff. We’ll be looking for different, edgy, challenging stories with strong voices.
What have been the best and toughest parts of setting up your own imprint?
The toughest part, as I said before, has been understanding the process: what comes first, what typesetting actually means, about paper weights and spine widths … the best part has been the big decision making: cover artwork, the look and feel of the book, the editing process – all that has been completely within our control and it’s been wonderful!
How have you approached the more specialist aspects such as pricing, marketing, web and cover design?
Pricing is fairly standard for a YA paperback book. Marketing has been harder: finding who to send copies to, how to approach journalists – VERY hard if you’re not connected! Getting reviews – often those came through the most unexpected and lateral routes: The Director of the International Commission for Missing Persons in Sarajevo, for example, gave us a brilliant review. The web and cover design came from brainstormy days with our designer, Mike.
Any tips for other indie authors on how to get a book noticed without a big PR budget?
You have to think laterally. The main print media journalists are VERY difficult to get to if you’re not connected or if you, personally, don’t have a story to bring to the table. Send out copies, of course. It’s not hard to get a list of who’s who. Don’t waste your energy sending copies out indiscriminately. Be choosy. Many magazines and papers just don’t review books, period. Do your research!
Kirkus will read and review your book: they’re not cheap (£500/£600) but they’re respected and it’s always good to get a review on the cover. Librarians, other authors who are working in a similar field are also worth approaching. Twitter has been an absolute revelation! It’s a brilliant way to connect with the rest of the world and find out what’s new and what’s happening.
You and Lisa intensively line edit each other’s novels before publication. Do you also work with outside editors?
We do. We used a copy editor on The Edge, and will do so again with our next books. I think it’s an extremely important part of the process of making the book the best it can be. I wouldn’t submit a book ever without it’s having been tooth-combed for errors both structural and grammatical.
Blowfish is currently closed to submissions. When do you envisage re-opening, what’s in the pipeline and what kind of novels would be on your wishlist?
As above, we are going to be looking for punchy, edgy writing and strong YA voices. We want to open for submissions towards the end of the year, so watch this space!
The Edge of Me is nominated for a 2016 Carnegie Medal without an agent, traditional publisher or big PR budget. As the only truly teeny indie publishers on the list, that must have been an especially proud moment?
Oh! Big style! It came out of the blue and we were absolutely pumped! As with The Bath Children’s Novel Award, it means real validation and is a sign that through all the madness and despair of early years of writing, I was right to believe in Sanda and her story!
You’ve met up with our judge, literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney, since being shortlisted. Any plans to stay in touch and is agent representation something you might consider going forward?
I have met with Sallyanne and we had a very productive and wide-ranging talk. I know she has authors that she wants to introduce to Blowfish. We also discussed ways in which we could work together: she’s looking at foreign rights for The Edge of Me, she’s reading my next book, Bad Blood and I’m just waiting for her to get back to me. I think that agents and publishers need to look at working with people like us in new ways: in creative partnerships that can be fruitful and exciting for all involved.
You’re working on your fifth novel. Talk us through your list and tell us about your current work-in-progress…
My fifth novel is going to be one of two, possibly three. It’s dystopian, also YA and set in future, post-apocalyptic London on and around the Isle of Dogs. A dark, cruel autocracy is in place and the old underground tunnels have become prisons where the inmates trawl for scraps on giant underground waste heaps. It’s the story of two young people: Castor: a prisoner who’s been born and lived his whole life underground, and Laney, a high born girl who is escaping a forced marriage.
My next book, Bad Blood, is one of two, and it’s coming out in the spring. It’s a coming-of-age told in the voice of Ben. It’s about germ warfare, big pharma and a dark secret that he uncovers that is to take him half way across the world and back again. Lisa’s book, the first of a trilogy, is called: Summer at the Methane Lakes: it’s a sci-fi whodunit with plenty of twists.
This was our first experience of a shortlist with a majority of writers who had studied Creative Writing at MA level. What were the most important things you learned while studying for yours at Birkbeck?
Mostly that I could maybe give writing a shot! That it wasn’t just some crazy idea, and that me as a writer might actually be something that could happen!
Which YA novelists inspire you?
Patrick Ness: he once said that YA writers have to earn every word, and for me, he totally nails it. I like Moira Young, John Green, Rainbow Rowell. As I child, I loved Ian Serraillier – in fact I think The Silver Sword was in my head as I wrote The Edge of Me; William Golding, Arthur Ransome … I could go on!
You work with student filmmakers, helping them to develop their storytelling. What are your favourite storytelling techniques?
Stephen King once said that irrespective of plot and character, people really go to fiction for the voice. I like to help to students to focus on their ways of seeing and telling. We work in different ways to bring out their particular voices. I think if a story has a good voice at the start then it will have traction.
Did your students help create the trailer for The Edge of Me? Do you feel making a trailer is an important consideration for indie authors?
The students I work with are animators, so, no. It was a friend of a friend who made the trailer, and we were very pleased with the results. I think because so much happens for young people on screen, then it’s always good to access a variety of different media to create traffic and interest in your title.
Your author bio says you were once the prime suspect in a Chelsea jewel heist…?
Ha! Yes! I was! Back in the 80’s I was working for an upholsterer at the time and we were doing a job in a very posh house on Chelsea Embankment. The following day I had a visit from the C.I.D. who searched my flat looking for the loot. They told me that the prime suspects were me and the family butler!
Lastly, any advice for anyone considering entering The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2016?
Cut. Tighten. Edit again. Take deep breath. Press send!
Interview by Caroline Ambrose
Read the first few pages of The Edge of Me in our compilation of shortlisted children’s and YA novels.
Buy The Edge of Me at Amazon
The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2016 opens to entries until 20 November 2016