“Winning has turned everything upside down. I’ve ended up with five agent offers – honestly, I never thought that would happen.”
Congratulations on winning The Bath Novel Award 2017 with The Pear Drum!
I think I’m in denial, I don’t normally win competitions. Winning has turned everything upside down. I’ve been “outed” as a writer and the prospect of getting an agent, maybe even a publishing deal is a little overwhelming. But amazing too! There’s no turning back. I’ve got to write the best way I can – people have expectations of me now! Even writing an email sends me in a spin…
What was it like hearing Laura Williams announce you’d won?
I was hugging a fan surrounded by gilt framed dying ladies in the splendour of the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath. Cleopatra frowned behind me with an asp to her throat and I was slowly melting in the heat. I’d had 3 weeks of convincing myself I wasn’t going to win (hope is a terrible thing) and finally the X Factor moment came – the words had gone slowmo, my husband was looking way too optimistic and I was thinking I need to handle not winning with nobility, it’s fab just to have been shortlisted (and it was). Then Laura said the words “The Pear Drum”. I could have slipped between the cracks of those highly polished Georgian floorboards.
The reception was gorgeous – so glamorous with floaty summer dresses, champagne flutes, stunning artwork all set off to perfection by turquoise painted walls and a huge glass dome lit up by the evening sun. Travelling to Bath with its beautiful architecture was all part of the treat. Reading my own pages was more nerve-wracking than it should have been but fun too, though I have to read without my glasses so couldn’t see a thing beyond the paper and missed watching the reaction – probably just as well! I loved the dinner afterwards too, when I got to speak to the BNA team and other shortlistees in a more relaxed state of mind, writers chatting away like newly born butterflies emerging from their desks.
You met earlier winners too – including Joanna Barnard who was on our panel of longlist judges this year and backed your book right from the extract stage…
Oh, they were so inspiring! I’ve been given a copy of Catherine Barter’s latest book, “Troublemakers” (shortlistee 2014) and barely 2 pages in I’m hooked. And the book cover for Clarissa Goenawan’s “Rainbirds” (winner 2015) has just been revealed, it’s to die for.
Everyone I met on the night was so kind and generous. Not least Laura Williams, the judge, who had driven from London against all odds, defying broken down trains, the stifling heat and a very painful wisdom tooth (she was in A & E two days later) to get there. Afterwards, on Twitter the next day, loads of previous BNA participants were tweeting congrats and my phone didn’t stop buzzing all weekend.
When I learnt that Joanna Barnard had given my book a “golden ticket” (meaning that it got on the long list automatically) I was really touched. All I have ever wanted was for someone to read The Pear Drum and enjoy it. That meant so very much to me.
Tell us about your book…
It’s a psychological thriller, about Caro, a children’s illustrator who receives an unexpected commission to illustrate a book of fairy tales. Returning to her old family home in the wilds of Derbyshire, the dark stories appear to come to life, triggering buried memories. As the stories escalate in gothic terror, Caro, consumed by guilt, finds the pear drum, a strange box-like object that can only be opened “if you’ve been bad enough”. Like Pandora’s box – opening it releases a whole can of worms!
Explain what a Pear Drum is…
Aka an “organistrum,” it’s a mediaeval musical instrument – an oversized hurdy gurdy. It was played by two people, one turning the handle, the other clacking away on the keys hidden in the “box”. The sound is bit like a weird violin crossed with a bagpipe. Eerily beautiful! It’s also the subject of a bizarre Victorian morality tale about 2 sisters who are tormented into doing increasingly bad things to get hold of one… you’ll need to read my own version to find out what they do!
Would you like to own one?
Oh God yes! But I suspect they are rare and very expensive!
The Pear Drum had us reading into the night and then getting spooked out. Did you get spooked writing it?
Just a bit! I’d been reading Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black” before I started writing it, that didn’t help! We’d recently moved into a farmhouse up on a hill in rural Derbyshire. I felt alienated by the move to a new home and it was autumn, each morning the valley beneath us a sea of white mist floating up against the windows. It wasn’t hard to imagine Caro isolated, displaced and beset by her terrifying tales.
Funnily enough, as I was reading my extract at the BNA event, there was a painting of a woman in black looking down over my shoulder. Check out the photos – I kid you not!
— Joanna Barnard (@JoannaBarnard76) July 7, 2017
You finished writing The Pear Drum just before our deadline, tell us about your writing process and what that week before turning in the full was like….
I had a very clear idea of the beginning and end of the book right from the start. I’m not a detailed plotter but having that framework really helped. I do a lot of mind maps, splurging out ideas, even the rubbish ones, till I get to a point where I just can’t resist writing any more. Then I see what happens. I had a strong urge to write this book every day till it was done.
I think I’m very visual, it’s part of my training as an oral storyteller (the day job) and the opening scene was very clear in my head. One thing leads to another, the characters grow, consequences yield to plot and it starts to come together. I keep a summary as I write. That changes, with a few stops and starts to reassess the whole thing and re-group my thoughts. You end up with a first draft like a lump of clay, then comes the hard work shaping it further.
That week I was asked to submit the full manuscript after being long-listed, was so full of excitement. Just the thought of the book being read in full was intoxicating. I had to re-read the whole thing and worked like mad getting it as perfect as I could before hitting “send”. But what a motivator! If nothing else, entering a competition really makes you work!
You’ve had lots of agent offers, how are you deciding who to choose?
It happened very fast. I heard about the shortlisting 2 days before Winchester. Then on the first day of my 121’s, one agent emailed me at 6 in the morning to say how much she loved the book – that was pretty amazing.
I’ve ended up with five agent offers – honestly, I never thought that would happen. Having met each the decision has been horrendous, they’re all so lovely, impressive, articulate, inspiring, enthusiastic, brilliant – as I write I’m facing one of the hardest decisions. I’ve had a week of trips to London and drawn up what seems a pretty rational table of attributes and agency features, but at the end of the day I think you just have to go with your heart. That’s tough because I really liked them all!
You’ve also been approached by some big name publishers too – what’s it like to be such hot property?
Hah! I’m not there yet! There’s some hard work ahead editing and polishing over what I suspect will be an intense summer, but it’s amazing that any publisher should want to read my manuscript. I’m just hoping that when they do read the whole thing they still really like it!
How will you be spending your £2,000 prize money?
Top of my list has been a new pc and some software – my old laptop is worn thin and the USB connections have all gone – imagine trying to edit without a mouse? I did buy myself a new £40 handbag, big enough for a laptop and a pack lunch. The prize has been really useful for train fares and all that stuff. The rest is earmarked for replacing our bathroom and…. errr… I did spend £65 on a new kitten. She’s called Joy (she is a joy!) and is cat no 6 in a household of 3 teenage boys and 5 fields full of mice, voles and voracious rabbits.
Tell us more about oral storytelling…
I work as a traditional oral storyteller. I tell stories to all ages, fairy tales, folk tales, myths and legends, adapted and reimagined but based on traditional material. Nothing is scripted or “read” and the performances use an age-old technique of visualising the story and finding the words. It’s scary, exhilarating and immensely satisfying, entertaining others like that. I tell stories in all sorts of spaces, libraries, galleries, historic houses, festivals, private gigs, even a prison and I do a lot of schools work and some training. It’s a bit hand to mouth financially, but you quickly learn what works or fails as a story. And the audiences are wonderful, full of empathy and the wonder of a good tale. I love it.
This is your second novel, what did you learn from writing novel number one?
The Raven Stones is a YA fantasy adventure – not the dragons and monsters type but a sort of twisted alternate period tale about a world formed like the two chambers of a heart, divided and driven by the Rift Machine. My main character, Grip, is the victim of the curse of the “raven stones”, the calcified remains of human eyeballs from a hanged criminal. Definitely hints of gothic there – a kind of Maze Runner meets Neil Gaiman or The Lie Tree.
I loved the characters, I loved the baddies! I loved writing it in a passionate, can’t put it down kind of way. It taught me self-discipline, persistence and how to control the plot. Key learning points? Show not tell, simplify your points of view, know your market, and get that structure right. I worked on it over two years, then spent months reading books on structure and script-writing. That break was so helpful, giving me perspective. I’d love to have another full re-write to see what I make of the story now. But I have an idea bubbling away for the next book – another dark adult thriller, so we’ll see.
Have you studied creative writing?
I almost did – I got offered a place at UEA to study English and Creative Writing but I worried about making a living as a writer and opted for Mediaeval History at St Andrews instead (not entirely rational). But once I got writing seriously I’ve been on several courses, and attended both the York and Winchester Writers Festivals which gave me an amazing insight into the publishing world. I’ve read a lot too. I can recommend Robert McKee, Alexandra Sokoloff, Matt Bird and Karl Iglesias. Writers groups are brilliant ways of sharing and learning and just keeping motivated. And the skills of oral storytelling teach you about language, visualising, brevity, pace and focussing on your audience.
Tell us about your fantastic writing groups
There are two and I love them both for their endless support and patience. One group I met through a writing course. We just hit it off and have such an eclectic range of styles and subject matter. We read extracts, make suggestions, blitz ideas and celebrate our successes with prosecco, chocolate brownies and the odd trip to see Disney films. The other group is a small collective of brilliant writers, 3 already with deals hard won over the last 2 years. I’ve learned from watching their journey to publishing, sat and cheered at their first book festival panels and critiqued and read early drafts and chapters. And they’ve done the same for me, bolstering my confidence, gee’ing me along and pushing me to work harder and not lose faith. I can’t wait to see their first books coming out in 2018!
What made you enter?
I haven’t done many competitions but this one stood out as having a track record of supporting debut authors and helping winners / listees secure an agent. The deadline so soon after my first edits gave me a very real target. It made me think hard about my submission package. Writing a synopsis may be torture, but it makes you think what your book is about.
Did you like Bath as a place when you came to stay?
Bath is stunning, every vista a treat for the eye, each building and curve a sumptuous reminder of a rich and cultured past. As we were walking back after the BNA event, bathed in silver moonlight and the warmth of a steamy summer’s night, we were a small, slightly tipsy group looking for taxis. Then a barn owl swooped low right in front of us turning down one of those elegant regency streets. We were all ridiculously excited! It was a bit of a Harry Potter moment, one I will remember for a very long time.
Favourite writers and books?
I fell in love with Tolkien at 17. I adored the stories within stories, the heroism and mystique, the contrast of honest, unassuming hobbits scaling the grand mythology of mountains and elves. Later, I fell in love with “Wuthering Heights” and “Thérèse Raquin”, discovered Stephen King and terrified myself witless reading “The Omen”. As a mum, we’ve shared Roald Dahl, such a brilliant storyteller (and what’s not to love with Tom Hardy re-inventing Jackanory?). More recently, I’ve devoured Clare Mackintosh’s “I Let You Go”. My all-time favourite is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” – not a lot happens, it’s true, but it’s all about the relationship between father and son and every word is like poetry.
What’s next for you?
Writing – I can’t wait to get my teeth into editing, this time with someone to guide me. And the next book is hovering in my mind – with trepidation since the pressure is on to produce a better book that the last. But I look forward to a blank page, new characters and a setting worthy of the drama playing out in my head.
Lastly, any advice for anyone thinking of entering 2018’s award?
Go for it – your book doesn’t have to be perfect. If you’re serious about your writing, it will show. Have faith and enjoy the process.
Use the competition to spur you on, and if the housework is piling up or the day job nagging at your brain, find a corner, snatch a moment, and immerse yourself in story, and then don’t forget to let the outside world see the finished product!
Read the opening pages of The Pear Drum and all the shortlisted novels here
Visit Sophie Snell’s website at www.sophiesnell.co.uk
The Bath Novel Award 2017 full winner’s, shortlist and longlist announcements here
Interview by Caroline Ambrose, July 2017