INTERVIEW:”I can tell you about the mistakes, because I’ve made every single one of them! Don’t trust that people will be able to see the wonderful, hidden potential of your manuscript that you know is there. Make sure you’ve done the work to bring it out.” GARETH OSBORNE on winning the Bath Children’s Novel Award; accepting representation with literary agent Julia Churchill of AM Heath; and the story behind MG historical adventure COGS OF CASTILE.
Congratulations on winning the Bath Children’s Novel Award. Has it sunk in yet?
Just about. I think a lot of people who send their writing out into the world grow a hard shell to protect themselves from all the rejection you inevitably have to face along the way. The problem is that when something does go the other way for you it takes just as long to register!
Congratulations also on becoming agented…
Thank you. I couldn’t have hoped for a better agent than Julia Churchill at A. M. Heath.
Tell us about meeting Julia, what you asked and how you knew she was the right agent for COGS OF CASTILE / you…
We had a great talk about the work that needs to be done on COGS OF CASTILE before hopefully sending it out to publishers. Julia has a clear eye for how a story can be improved, and her ideas rang true for me both about things that worked and things that needed to be brought out more. I came away energised and raring to get to work again, which I took as a good sign for a writer-agent relationship. It also helped that her favourite scene was one of those that was very close to my own heart, one which I remember making my fingers shake with adrenaline whilst writing. That helped me trust that at heart she got what I was striving for.
Tell us about the inspiration for your book…
One of the biggest inspirations for COGS OF CASTILE was Madrid itself. I’ve lived in this incredible city for thirteen years now, successfully courted one of its daughters (although she would probably beg to differ) and now we have two little Madrileñas of our own. My wife is blessed with a huge family – she has 41 cousins! The stories I have been privileged enough to listen into about all the fascinating characters in the family’s history – from her great grandparents who lost everything backing the wrong side in the Carlist wars to her grandparents who met the Lumiere brothers and opened one of Spain’s first cinemas – have been amazingly rich inspiration. In many ways they are the reason why Nieve and Sebastian’s story in COGS is as much about finding their place in their family as it is about escaping mechanical monsters.
How long did it take you to write?
The actual writing took about a year and a half, but I had researched for another two before that. I probably didn’t have to do quite as much research as I did, but I loved doing it so much that I would go on these long meanders down dubiously relevant 19th century investigative avenues and have to remind myself what I was actually meant to be doing.
Any favourite writing haunts?
I live a couple of blocks away from the National Library of Spain. Its immense, high-ceilinged reading room has been a research and writing sanctuary for me these past years and one of the places I lose myself in my stories the most. Amazingly, in 1899 it was the Natural Sciences Museum, which is actually a setting in COGS OF CASTILE, so when I was writing there I would be frantically typing away with the action of the story playing out around me. On more than one occasion I let loose a throat-ripping exclamation as a clockwork beast flew past, then realised where I was and looked up from my screen to see lots of annoyed shushing faces glaring at me.
How was it meeting the 11 year old junior judge who championed your book?
Betsi is a wonderful, amazingly confident young woman. She seemed to take being a judge of a literary award at one of the oldest agencies in the country completely in her stride. I told her if I had tried to get a day off school using the same excuse, I would probably have ended up in detention. When she is older she would like a job that allows her to read books all day, which just shows how intelligent she is and should give us all hope for a bright, bookish future.
What were the most valuable things you learned during your MA?
I’m still working my way through the MA at Roehampton. One of the best things about joining a postgrad programme is the sense of community you get while you engage with knowledgeable tutors and motivated fellow students. It made me realise that I was not alone and that there were people out there just as passionate about stories as I am, which was a breath of fresh air after having worked on my writing alone for so long. That time wasn’t wasted though. Discovering writing techniques for yourself through trial and error might take longer, but can be even more valuable I feel than being explained them up front and then learning how to use them.
Favourite writers, novels?
When I was the age of my target readership I had just come out of a sustained period of Enid Blyton and Willard Price adventures, which I probably read and reread for a little longer than was healthy! Then I found the Sherlock Holmes books, Henri Charrière’s PAPILLON, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SUPERTRAMP by W. H. Davies, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s KIDNAPPED, all of which I remember reading with eyes wide open, thinking, “Am I really allowed to be reading these?”. That thrilling sense of danger is definitely something that I strive for in my own writing, of suddenly seeing behind the curtain and the rich spectrum of life revealed.
Where are you going to keep your trophy?
Negotiations with my wife are ongoing. I say on a stool in the middle of the living room. While appreciating my excitement about having won an award, she continues to politely highlight the impracticalities of the idea.
Saving or splashing the £2,000 prize money?
It all goes into the ‘pushing-back-the-moment-I-have-to-get-a-real-job’ fund.
What prompted you to enter The Bath Children’s Novel Award?
You have a strong track record for turning shortlisted and winning writers into agented and published authors! And I love how much of the initial judging is done by young readers. It really gives the competition a sense of authenticity.
Any advice for anyone thinking of entering our next award?
I can tell you about the mistakes, because I’ve made every single one of them! Don’t trust that people will be able to see the wonderful, hidden potential of your manuscript that you know is there. Make sure you’ve done the work to bring it out. Be brave in your editing. Think outside the box and accept even big changes if they’re necessary. Those little inkling doubts that you keep ignoring are probably what you will end up having to face if you’re to make your story as good as it can be. One of the easiest things to skip, especially if you’re up against a submission deadline, is leaving your writing for a time and then coming back to it with fresh eyes. It’s so crucial, but you can pass over it due to wanting to work hard at your story, which is easy to justify to yourself.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose, February 2017