Interview: KATE SIMANTS, winner of the Bath Novel Award 2019

Bath Novel Award 2019 winner Kate Simants (Photo credit: Emma Seal)

Congratulations again, how did it feel to hear A RUINED GIRL had won?

Thank you! In all honesty, I was floored. I’d read the extracts from the other shortlisted novels that had been posted on the site earlier in the day, and they were all so incredibly strong. I’d kind of always assumed that my style wasn’t literary enough to win a prize as prestigious as the Bath Novel Award so when I heard my name I was genuinely surprised. I didn’t have anything prepared to say if I won because I really wasn’t expecting to – I think this was probably obvious from my reaction unfortunately! Goodness knows what I did actually say when I went up to receive the award, it’s a complete blur.

I wrote A RUINED GIRL when I was doing an MA at the University of East Anglia – I was in the very first intake of their Crime Fiction course. My first priority was to write something entertaining – I wanted it to be pacy and thrilling with characters you really cared about, but also with an underlying theme that carried some weight.

So the book was informed by an investigation I’d worked on for Channel 4 some years ago, about the care industry and the children living in children’s homes. I worked undercover in several homes, looking at things like neglect, issues with safeguarding, and the risk and reality of abuse.

What struck me most was the financial side of it: that care is an industry, and organisations and the individuals in charge of them can make huge amounts of money, while the actual care staff are on minimum wage and the kids themselves can end up being processed by a system that doesn’t really care about their futures.

A lot of the young people I met were challenging – happy, stable children simply don’t often end up in state care – and by creating the characters of teenagers Luke and Paige I wanted to explore what might be going on behind the angry, uncooperative, often violent exteriors of young people who felt abandoned. I also wanted to contrast that with a sense of family, of hope and love and redemption.

My favourite books are the ones with characters I can remember long after the plot has faded (I have a terrible memory for plots!) because it’s the humans that make the stories really alive, after all – so I’m hoping that with Luke, Paige, Wren and Suzy, that’s something that comes across.

Kate Simants (Photo credit: Emma Seal)

What plans for the £2,500?

I’d promised my kids that I’d take them for a big book splurge at our favourite bookshop if I won! They’re both big readers (and my daughter is a budding crime writer too!) so an afternoon browsing at Mr B’s bookshop in Bath was the first stop. As for the rest of it: I’ve made quite a few sacrifices in order to concentrate on writing so the bulk will be for boring everyday things like bills I’m afraid. The awards night was very glamorous but my daily life is not!

Why did you enter?

I almost didn’t enter – I had huge reservations about the book and knew it had a lot of problems that I couldn’t work out how to solve. I’d been plotting and planning for a new book (which involves two of my great loves: psychological thrillers and Shakespeare!) and A RUINED GIRL was really just sitting in a folder on my computer. A writer friend texted me a few days before the deadline telling me she’d entered and I just thought, OK, why not?

Kate Simants with Kate Longman of Janklow & Nesbit (Photo credit: Emma Seal)

How was waiting between the long and short listing stages of the prize?

I am terrible at waiting – really bad. If there’s a result or an email or anything that I’m waiting for, I find it very hard to just get on with my life and see what happens – I’m guilty of a lot of Twitter stalking and overthinking of these things. I absolutely *loved* the way you tweeted snippets from the judges as the longlisting was happening – my heart practically stopped when I recognised A RUINED GIRL in one of those ‘yes’ votes.

But longlisting meant I had to submit the whole book within about a month, so any ambivalence I had about it up to that point had to be put aside. I got up at 5.30am pretty much every day to try to beat it into shape. It was the deadline I needed! I was on holiday when I discovered I’d made the shortlist, and my children made me cards and we had a little party.

Describe meeting your fellow shortlistees…

It was a really special evening – I’d read the extracts of the other books that morning and I could see how much love and effort had been put into them all and the shortlistees were all obviously very strong, accomplished writers. It felt a bit unfair that I had come five miles down the road (I live just between Bristol and Bath) when the others had come from miles and miles away! I said it at the time but I really do wish all four of them the very best of luck with their books – they were lovely people and all of their writing deserves great things.

What’s the reaction been like from family and friends?

I’ve been writing for quite a while so I have quite a lot of writer friends who knew I was shortlisted and knew what a big deal it was. People have been lovely about it – my 6-year-old son wants to take the trophy in for show and tell, he’s very proud!

This is your third manuscript…

My first novel, which I finished about seven years ago, was called The Blanks: it was a thriller set in near-future world a total-saturation surveillance – think Black Mirror meets The Bodyguard, kind of. It got me my first agent, but it failed to sell. I was heartbroken at the time but I’m actually grateful for that now: it wasn’t my best work (way too serious, definitely not fun enough!) and I think as a writer these days you need your debut to be as close to your best as possible. This is no longer an industry of grace periods and second chances!

My second book, LOCK ME IN, is coming out ‘digital-first’ very shortly: this is a newer kind of publishing deal which is royalty-based and gives you a digital release followed by a paperback a few months later.

LOCK ME IN is part-psychological thriller, part-police procedural, and follows a young woman with a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who believes that her ‘alter’ personality has killed her boyfriend. It’s been through so many edits and changes but I’m now really proud of this book, and I can’t wait to hear what readers make of it.

How important was shortlisting for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2015?

The CWA shortlisting was a huge moment in my writing career. I attended a talk with the crime writer Denise Mina once who said ‘there isn’t enough validation in the world, so you have to make the most of whatever you get,’ and that’s true, especially before you’re published. Having your work recognised by prizes like the Bath Novel Award, the CWA, or any other prize or publication, can make all the difference to a writer – you just have to take the plunge and press send! 

Your main character in A RUINED GIRL, Wren Reynolds, is a probation officer in Bristol investigating the disappearance of a girl in care. Can you say a bit about your own experience investigating children’s homes?

It was pretty heartbreaking to be honest. We were investigating a broad spectrum of issues within the children’s home sector for a Dispatches documentary, and I worked undercover at homes across the country to unearth the kind of bad practise that has blighted the industry. At the heart of it was the profiteering – it costs more to keep a child in a children’s home than it does to send them to Eton, and people can make huge amounts of money from exploiting that.

Children’s homes are pretty much the last resort for kids who, for whatever reason, can’t be brought up by their families, and that’s inevitably going to take its toll on their self-worth, which will go on to affect their choices in life, and their futures. Children with these disrupted backgrounds aren’t going to be the confident, well-mannered kids who get the breaks or the benefit of the doubt in life, and I wanted to explore their stories and  go behind the scenes and illuminate some of the personal challenges they can face.

You spent ten years working in factual TV then jacked it all in to pursue your love of writing. Was there a particular moment which made you take the plunge?

I loved much of my time in TV but I also wanted to start a family, and the reality was that it’s a hugely competitive world with incredibly long hours. Because I worked in investigations a lot of the time, this would involve several months away at a time to carry out undercover work. My partner and I have always worked hard to balance the domestic stuff between us but there was no way that carrying on in the career I had would allow me to have children and spend a lot of time with them in the way that I wanted to. That said, the moment when I thought, ‘right, that’s enough,’ was when I was standing in a field filming Oldham police officers cutting a man down from a tree where he’d hanged himself. I just thought – this is just sensationalist, what am I doing here?

You lived on boats for 16 years. What was the best and worst thing about life afloat?

I loved the boats – I miss them so much. We talk about communities a lot in the media but the boat community is like nothing else – it’s so close knit, partly because it’s actually quite a hard way of life. We continually had to contend with floods (not being able to access your boat because the towpath is under several feet of water rendered us all temporarily homeless many times), eviction battles, all sorts. But the friends I made  – and the parties – will never be forgotten. In the end the damp environment was making my husband so ill that we had no choice but to move onto dry land, and he’s much better now so it was a no-brainer really. But I do miss it enormously.

Kate Simants (Photo credit: Emma Seal)

You’re now represented by Veronique Baxter at David Higham Associates. How did that come about and can you say what’s happening next with A RUINED GIRL?

I’d just finished my MA and Veronique got in touch via my friend the crime-writer Harriet Tyce, whom she also represents. She loved A RUINED GIRL and made a few suggestions on improving it, but then I gave her LOCK ME IN to read as well. I’d parked that book while I did my MA, but after Veronique read it we both decided that this was the one that could be ready to submit soonest. Thanks to the Bath Novel Award I finished the edits (well, this round of edits, anyway) of A RUINED GIRL over the summer, and it went out on submission to publishers a few weeks ago. Wish me luck…

All our winning books have stayed in our readers’ hearts long afterwards. Which books and writers do that for you?

For me it’s about the characters – somehow I can forget a plot, however brilliant or original, quite easily, but the characters knock around in my mind like friends. Writers who play with female ‘badness’ and sexuality always get my vote: people like Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott. I obviously read a lot of crime and even though we still get a ridiculous amount of snobbery, I believe that this is where social and political issues find their first response in literature: the work that Kate Atkinson, Sarah Hilary, Eva Dolan and G. D. Abson do for example is always incredible. My first great loves though are Dostoyevsky and Vonnegut – very different writers but who both get right to the nub of what it is to be a human being. Vonnegut would get the dinner-party invite every time, though.

Our readers and judge all tore through A RUINED GIRL. Any tips on how you make your writing so unputdownable?

I’m brutal with myself these days! My early writing was all about thoughts and feelings, and even though I thought I was being dead clever, it made for dry, kind of boring reading. The majority of people don’t read for your philosophical commentary: they want to be entertained. So I make sure that each scene has a clear trajectory, and that motives are clear and characters are active. Vonnegut says every word has to advance the plot, and I try to remember that advice – everything you do has to develop the story or deepen character, and if it doesn’t, it’s likely to make it drag.

You have a complex plot and multiple POV. How did you construct the book?

I often ask myself the same thing! I’m always fairly surprised when it all comes together at the end. That said, I do use spreadsheets – who knows what and when, what happens in each scene, who it’s told by etc. Works for me, and it’s satisfying to colour the blocks in green when they’re done!

Can you sum up what winning has meant to you?

The validation has been everything, to be honest. That a team of expert readers and judges chose my book out of all those hundreds is just the best vote of confidence I could have asked for. I’m one of those writers who continually doubt their abilities (there are a lot of us!) so I’m keeping my trophy on my desk to remind me that maybe I’m better than I sometimes think. Thank you so much!

Interview: Caroline Ambrose

Kate Simants (Photo credit: Emma Seal)

Kate Simants lives in Bristol and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Brunel University (2007) and another in Crime Fiction from the University of East Anglia (2018), where she was the recipient of the UEA Literary Festival Scholarship.  

A RUINED GIRL was informed by her experiences  working undercover in children’s homes in London and the South East while making a documentary about corruption and abuse in the care industry. 

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Read an extract from A RUINED GIRL and all the shortlisted books here

Read the full winner’s announcement here

BOOK DEAL UPDATE: In December 2019 Serpent’s Tail’s new crime imprint Viper snapped up A RUINED GIRL in a two-book deal from literary agent Veronique Baxter at David Higham Associates.

Miranda Jewess, Viper’s senior commissioning editor told The Bookseller: “Kate’s book is something special, a thriller that takes the reader into the underbelly of a children’s home, explores life after prison, and asks questions about how much one can really repair the damage you do to, and as, a young person. It’s also a great mystery with some killer twists, and characters that you will both hate and root for. We’re so excited to have Kate on the new Viper list for 2020. She’s a wonderful talent.”

A RUINED GIRL is to be published in August 2020 and you can pre-order your copy here


Collage of covers of Bath Novel Awards listed novels