Emily Hughes: ‘Don’t be afraid to take risks in your writing.’

What did shortlisting mean to you?

This time last year I was at my laptop, tearing my hair out with this book, not knowing what direction to go in, when I happened to watch an interview with Kim Sherwood, who won the Bath Novel Award in 2016. It was so inspiring and I thought: Right, I’m going to get this book finished and enter that award! Kim and I exchanged messages on twitter and she was thrilled for me when I told her about the shortlisting. It was such a boost, the whole thing. I remember, I kept refreshing the page on the website because I didn’t actually believe it was my book up there.

How long had you been writing Ghost Boy and how many drafts had it been through when you submitted it to us?

I had been writing the book on and off for around 18 months when I submitted it and during that time it probably went through three major re-drafts (and countless smaller ones!).

How was meeting your fellow shortlistees on the announcement night?

It was so lovely to meet them all; I was really intrigued about all of their novels, having read the extracts online. It was also really great to meet past winners, Abi Daré, Joanna Barnard and Kim Sherwood and such a privilege to chat to the readers about my book. It was just a really fun and friendly evening — it felt like being welcomed into a big Bath Novel family! I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone gets up to next.

Ghost Boy has been described as Curious Incident meets Grief is the Thing with Feathers, but from a female perspective. How do you describe your book?

Ghost Boy is about a family, the Valentines, and when we meet them they are in crisis. It switches between the points of view of each family member, but it’s twelve-year-old, autistic Rex who is the linchpin, the focus of the story. Rex is special. He is funny and endearing, but also infuriating and volatile, happiest when immersed in his fantasy world. His father, Mike, is often absent; his ten-year-old sister, Cherry, suffers with nightmares. His mother, Suzy, is unraveling, barely holding herself and the family together. Then one day tragedy strikes and shatters their fragile existence. From these stray fragments, they begin the process of piecing themselves back together, attempting to heal broken hearts, old wounds, and find a way to recover.

Ghost Boy was a book I didn’t know I needed to write until I sat down and started writing it. It just spilled out. I was actually trying to write another book at the time and had written about 30,000 words and stalled, so decided to try something else; something I knew I could write about because it was my own experience. When my own son, who is autistic, was eight, he came to me and told me he could see ghosts. He described one sitting in the corner of his room to me. Like Suzy, I panicked, took him straight to the doctors, and that’s really how the idea for the story emerged.

“A lot of writing is overcoming the fear of putting the words down on the page.”

Emily Hughes

Ghost Boy began as a novel for young adults. At what point did you decide to shift it to adult fiction?

When I started writing Ghost Boy I was working with young people, teaching secondary English, reading a lot of YA literature, and so I assumed that if I ever wrote a book it would be a book for young people. Originally, the story was told entirely from the perspective of the two siblings, Rex and Cherry. After receiving feedback on an early draft from agents, I realised that it would be a tough sell as a YA book because my protagonists were so young, and re-writing it as an MG book meant making too many compromises with the story. It was actually a phone conversation with an agent that sparked the idea of adding the adult characters. I had already played around with writing some poems from Suzy’s perspective, so her voice came quite naturally. I also realised that my writing style is quite literary. In the end, it just wanted to be an adult book, I think. It was how it evolved and sometimes you just have to listen to your story and let it go where it needs to go.

Emily and fellow shortlistees (from left) Robin Falvey, Louise Tucker, Kate Simants, Leigh Chambers, Emily Hughes. (Photo credit: Emma Seal)

What’s next for you and Ghost Boy?

I’ve just started working on something new which I’m really excited about, so I’m busy writing again. I’ve also been doing some creative writing workshops with young people and I plan to do more teaching, and writing, of course, next year.

Lastly any tips for entrants for 2020’s Bath Novel Award?

Don’t be afraid to take risks in your writing. A lot of writing is overcoming the fear of putting the words down on the page. Try out different approaches if something isn’t working, and get feedback if you can. I was lucky, I got some incredibly generous and thoughtful feedback from agents and editors and writers in the early stages of writing this book and it helped me challenge myself and grow as a writer.

There is still plenty of time, so use it wisely, and if you can afford it go on a residential creative writing course. I did an Arvon course and that really kickstarted things for me. It gave me permission to take myself seriously as a writer.

Nearer to the time, work on polishing those first 5,000 words. Print it out, change the font, read it out loud — all these things help you iron out snags and come to your work with fresh eyes and ears, and when you’ve read it a million times and you’re sick of the sight of it that’s crucial!

Also, remember, the readers are reading a lot of extracts in a short space of time, so they want something to leap out at them: a strong voice, a really intriguing hook. If you make it to the longlist that’s such a great achievement in itself, and you will have some time to polish the rest before the shortlist submission. Good luck!

Emily Hughes was born in Switzerland, grew up on the Wirral and now lives in Berkshire with her family. She studied English and German Literature at Warwick University and has an MA in Photography and Urban Cultures from Goldsmith’s College, University of London. Emily came to writing through photography and blogging; writing short pieces of flash fiction, poems and short stories to accompany her pictures. Ghost Boy was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2019, the Peggy Chapman Award for a First Novel and won the Adventures in Fiction Spotlight First Novel Award.  Read an extract from Ghost Boy and all Bath Novel Award 2019 shortlisted books here