INTERVIEW: Tracy Darnton’s debut YA manuscript The Truth About Lies – about a girl who remembers everything and forgives nothing – has been acquired by Stripes for publication in 2018. A lawyer before taking a break to raise her family, Darnton says volunteering at her children’s school library was the catalyst which made her realise she wanted to write.
“I did eight years as a volunteer school librarian so I became really aware of the kind of thing kids like to read. I was able to do things like book displays and help out during book weeks. I got to see authors who came in to do events at the school and see how they presented to kids.”
Her first step was to take a beginners’ writing class at the city library: “It included prompts which got me writing again. Then I went to a flash fiction evening with Tania Herschman who encouraged me to enter a piece into the Words with Jam competition. It got third place. It was only 90 words, written in ten minutes, but I did get a £50 prize – I’ll never earn that kind of hourly rate again!”
“What was really important was meeting Zoe Fairbairns the writer who judged the prize. She was so encouraging about my little piece. She won’t even remember now, but it came along at just the right time and her words gave me the confidence to apply for an MA.”
Darnton chose Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing for Young People, graduating with distinction in 2016. “I did a part-time course over two years which worked well for me. I probably ended up writing more than if I’d done the more intensive course.” Particular highlights included being tutored by novelist Steve Voake in her first term: “He was really good about the importance of finishing and how, in your head you can be a really good writer, but if you never actually finish something off you’re still nowhere. That’s why I value competitions – for deadlines to work to and the chance to see how your writing stacks up. For me it was a way of checking I was right to write, to be able to think ‘okay, I’m really not deluded’.”
For Darnton, going the MA route was also a way to signal to her friends how serious she was about writing as a career: “The MA gave me permission to have time to write, polish and finesse a book to a definite timescale. And that was important not just for me but for everyone around me. Everyone knew that I had deadlines and work which needed to be handed in and marked. And then once I started getting decent marks it was a validation for everybody.”
Another MA highlight was being taught by Bath Festivals’ John McLay: “He not only taught us the publishing process, but took a real interest in us as writers and has already emailed me to say well done on the book deal. He gave really good advice about thinking long-term about your career and how that when you finish one project you need to start another straight away. He also talked us through the economics and logistics of publication and book distribution. Just very straight, realistic talk about what it’s actually like. So your eyes are completely wide open as to how hard it is to make it as an author, how hard you’ll need to work.”
It was during one of novelist and tutor Julia Green’s workshops on the MA that Darnton began to experiment with writing for teens and began the manuscript which became The Truth About Lies.
“You’re meant to experiment and try things out across the age range, because you might go in thinking you’re a picture book or middle grade writer then it turns out, like it did for me, that you’ve got a darker side and a YA voice.”
The story behind her publishing deal begins with a short story she wrote called The Letter. Back in 2016 it won a competition Stripes ran in association with The Bookseller YA Prize. As part of the prize Stripes published The Letter in an anthology alongside works by established YA authors such as Melvin Burgess, Juno Dawson, Julie Mayhew and Non Pratt.
“It was fantastic, because as well as publication there were lots of other lovely opportunities which felt like author work experience. Firstly I got to work with an editor which meant lots of useful feedback.”
“Then there was the chance to see the physical book come to fruition. Stripes involved me from start to finish, so I got to see the book proofs and took part in all kinds of marketing activities, from appearing at YALC to being on a panel at a YA salon at Waterstones Gower Street. It was all really useful, a brilliant insight into being a published author.”
Darnton was also shortlisted for the 2016 Times Chicken House for a “wacky, humorous, slapstick” middle grade manuscript. Milo and Operation Stepdad follows a boy’s funny and heart-warming quest to find a partner for his single mum.
Darnton was surprised by the shortlisting: “I didn’t expect it. I used their closing date as a deadline to get my book finished ready for the MA anthology and to get some feedback. I find competitions fun. I’d definitely have entered the Bath Children’s Novel too, if I hadn’t been signed by then.”
“It’s hard to write funny books, I really admire writers who can do it. My favourite funny kids book would be Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s very funny and has exactly what I like, loads of layers with plot threads all tied up beautifully. It’s a book which might appear to be about space but it’s actually about boys and their dads. I must have given that book to every child I know.”
May 2016 proved to be a hectic month. On top of the shortlisting, Darnton heard she’d won the Stripes YA prize and took part in her MA anthology launch. “For the anthology launch we took a floor at Waterstones Piccadilly and invited loads of literary agents. I had lots of interest in my extract and met various agents on the night, or spoke on the phone, but I really clicked with Jo [Williamson of Anthony Harwood Literary Agency]. I had a lot in common with her, and I felt that she’d not only read Milo thoroughly but was also happy to wait until I was ready to send her everything. Luckily she liked both my MG and YA manuscripts.”
Darnton had returned to The Truth About Lies and, having got to know her well during the YA short story anthology process, Stripes were keen to see her novel manuscript: “They were under no obligation, but they liked my YA voice and decided to take on The Truth About Lies, which is a thriller on the edgy side. As it’s about a girl who remembers everything, I’ve been able to explore memory: how we remember things and how memory makes us who we are.
“It’s set on Dartmoor, which I’m very familiar with and it’s going to be published in 2018. I’ve got a lot to do on it still, it’s quite a complex book.”
Darnton’s two middle grade books are also out on submission, an experience she’s sanguine about: “I just expect bad things to happen. Creatively you’ve got to put yourself out there and rejections are just part of it. I went to the last SCWBI conference and they showed a hilarious video of members’ rejection quotes. The way I look at it, if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not getting close to finding your book a home.”
Jess has an incredible memory. She can remember every single day since she was eleven. But Jess would rather not be remarkable and, after years of testing at the hands of a ruthless research team, she has finally managed to escape.