Jennifer Harvey: ‘I’m not a confident writer and frequently fall prey to self-doubt.’

Jennifer Harvey’s haunting debut Someone Else’s Daughter is to be published by Bookouture in June 2020. She describes her writing journey and why being longlisted for an early draft helped spur her on.

Congratulations on the Bookouture deal. How did it come about?

Thank you so much. I had been following Bookouture for a while and was very interested in their approach to publishing. I like the way they develop their writers and the pace of their publishing model. They move fast and are very good at establishing a back catalogue and a readership. This seemed like a very effective approach to me, especially in the digital realm and with genre fiction, and their success definitely backs this up.

They are also a boutique publisher, which means they can provide a very tailored approach to each author and I feel very lucky to be a part of such a close-knit and supportive team. Being part of the Hachette Group also means they have big publisher support when it comes to developing their markets and that it really exciting. I can’t wait to see how they develop over the next few years.

Alongside all this, Bookouture accept manuscripts directly and as an un-agented writer this meant they were accessible to me.

The submission process is all online, so I uploaded my full manuscript via their submissions portal in November of 2019 and received an email within three weeks from their commissioning editor Cara Chimirri saying she wanted to discuss the book with me.

During the conversation I told her about further manuscripts I was working on and had completed. Not long after, I received an offer for a three-book deal. As I don’t have an agent, The Society of Authors helped me understand the terms of the contract and then Peta Nightingale, who manages all the contracts for Bookouture, finalised the details before I signed with them in early December. So it was a very efficient and quick process.

You’ve said longlisting was a confidence boost which gave you the energy and self-belief to carry on writing, editing and submitting. How would you describe your writing journey?

Before tackling a novel, I had written and published quite a few short stories and I had always wanted to write a longer work but found the idea of it very intimidating.

But I really wanted to challenge myself and had decided quite early on that I wanted to have a go at writing genre fiction, and in particular, a psychological thriller. I knew, having written a lot of short stories, that my weakness as a writer was with pace and plot, and I thought the restrictions of this genre would mean I had to get to grips with these particular aspects.

Luckily, I saw that Curtis Brown Creative had launched a set of online six week courses one of which focussed on writing the opening to a novel, so I signed up and by the end of the six weeks I had a five thousand word opening and a synopsis.

I am not a confident writer though, and frequently fall prey to self-doubt. One of the problems I found with writing a novel was that the sheer time you are alone with a manuscript, the more opportunities there are for self-doubt to kick in. Because I don’t have beta-readers to comment on drafts, I decided to enter some competitions just to see if the basic idea was sound and worth developing and editing.

When I was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award in 2017 I was overjoyed. It felt like a validation, especially as I was familiar with the quality of the novels which have won and been listed in this competition. As a result of this morale boost, I was able to keep on editing and submitting and also to start on a new novel. I think it’s important to have these moments when you are lifted because writing a novel is a long and arduous undertaking and we all need a boost now and then to keep going.

What sparked the idea for Someone Else’s Daughter?

The story deals with the aftermath of the death of seventeen-year old Isa Egberts, who drowns while on holiday in Montauk with her best friend Katie Lindeman. Isa’s death has a devastating impact on both the Egberts and the Lindemans, but as the two families try to help each other process their grief, Isa’s mother, Sarah, begins to suspect that her daughter’s death was not an accident, and that the Lindemans know more than they admit.

As Isa’s secrets are revealed, we discover that Louise Lindeman is capable of quite cold and calculated deceit, as she tries to protect her family.

The idea came to me during a walk on the beach in Castricum (a coastal town north of Amsterdam). It was a sunny winter’s day and the beach was very quiet, save for a few teenagers who were sitting in the dunes and looked like they were recovering from a party. I loved the contrast between their bedraggled energy and the power of the sea, and I remember laughing as I watched them and wondering what they had been up to. That walk turned into a little scene, as I thought about the teenagers and why they could be sitting there in the dunes. Slowly it expanded to become the story of Someone Else’s Daughter.

How has Someone Else’s Daughter evolved since the draft (then titled Complicity) which longlisted in 2017?

The biggest change has been the setting. I tried two different settings before Cara suggested we shift the story to New York and Montauk. The change in setting transformed the novel in unexpected ways. It was fascinating to see the characters become less self-aware as their wealth and privilege became more apparent and affected the decisions they made. The change in location also added an unexpected legal twist as the characters attempted to apportion blame.

I found it really interesting to see how an apparently small change can introduce a whole new dynamic into a narrative.

You’re also a reader for Carve Magazine. How does reading submissions inform your own approach to submitting work?

I have been reading for Carve for six years now and it has been a very useful experience (it still is). Reading with a critical eye allows you to develop the skills you need to edit your own work.

I’ve learned how to step back and evaluate the component parts of a story, and this has helped me a lot as I have worked on second and third drafts (the drafts I keep to myself before submitting to my editor). I’m more comfortable now with the idea that a first draft really is a hot mess but one I can tackle because I’ve learned through working with the editorial team at Carve, what to focus on.

Carve publishes literary short stories and, as a reader, I pay close attention to the way a story is crafted, particularly the language and the characters and I think this is a skill I can bring to my own work. It makes me a little more comfortable when I need to submit things to my editor.

When you work behind the scenes you also learn that sometimes a good (even a great) story is turned down for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. When editors have different opinions it can sometimes come down to a matter of personal taste, or it could be that a similar story was recently published or has just been accepted. I think this teaches you to persevere, because the process can be messy and complicated. So if you have faith in your work, then the best thing you can do is carry on submitting.

You’ve signed a three book deal with books two and three to be published at six monthly intervals. Have these deadlines changed how you write and can you say anything about your second and third books?

When I submitted Someone Else’s Daughter to Bookouture I had already completed a second novel and I had written the outline and the ten thousand word opening for a third novel. Because Bookouture aim to develop a back catalogue and a readership quite quickly, they accepted all three books. So for the most part I have been working on the edits for the first and second book and I have now completed the first draft of the third book. It’s quite a tight schedule, but I find I work best with a deadline and with back to back projects. I like to keep the momentum going and because the process with Bookouture is very clearly planned I can shift between projects easily.

The next two books are also psychological thrillers that focus on the darker aspects of family dynamics and the consequences of terrible secrets.

JENNIFER HARVEY is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam She is the author of three novels. Someone Else’s Daughter will be published by Bookouture on June 18th 2020 with two titles to follow in October 2020 and May 2021 also with Bookouture.

Her short fiction has appeared in various publications in the US and the UK, including: Carve, Folio, Bare Fiction, and The Lonely Crowd.

Alongside writing, she is a Resident Reader for Carve Magazine, and serves as a member of the Editorial Board for Ellipsis Magazine. When not writing, she can be found sauntering along the Amsterdam canals, dreaming up new stories.

You can find her online over at http://www.jenharvey.net. Someone Else’s Daughter will be published on June 18th 2020 and you can order your copy here

Collage of covers of Bath Novel Awards listed novels

The Bath Novel Award 2020 is open for submissions until 31st May 2020.