Interview: debut children’s novelist SUSIE BOWER

SUSIE BOWER lives in Bristol and has been a teacher, a tour guide, a typist, a workshop facilitator, a PA and a painter. She formerly wrote and directed TV programmes for children at the BBC and Channel 4, for which she won a BAFTA Award. In 2018 Susie was longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award with her manuscript School for Nobodies set in a boarding school for misfits and about the beauty of not fitting in. With School for Nobodies out in July with Pushkin Children’s Press, we catch up with Susie’s literary agent representation news and journey to publication.

School for Nobodies shone out from our submissions pile. Was the listing a boost?

A ‘boost’ barely describes it! I was at my brother’s having an early Christmas lunch, and had not dared, at midday, to check my phone for the longlist results. Eventually that afternoon, I did – and simply couldn’t believe the sight of School for Nobodies on the list. For the first time, I began to hope that perhaps, just perhaps, it had a spark of something that worked.

Since longlisting you accepted literary agent representation with Silvia Molteni of Peters, Fraser and Dunlop. Can you share your “how I found my agent” story?

It’s a bit unusual. When I finished my final (hah!) draft, I made a list of favourite agents and Silvia was at the top. I’d loved the voice of Onjali Q Rauf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class and Silvia was her agent. But before I submitted to her, Louise Dean offered to introduce my work to several agents. Amazingly, Silvia was one of the them! She read School for Nobodies in a couple of days and asked to speak with me. What I particularly loved was that she offered to represent me even though there were revisions to be done. I really valued that she trusted my writing enough to sign me before I did the revisions. Later, two more agents asked for the full manuscript but by then I’d signed with Silvia. I’ve never regretted it. She’s such a passionate advocate for School for Nobodies, as well as giving great notes and excellent advice.

How has School for Nobodies evolved editorially since signing with Silvia?

A lot. I knew there were flaws, particularly plot holes, but I couldn’t work out how to solve them. After signing with Silvia, I embarked on revisions which really helped draw it together. Then, when she sold it to Pushkin Children’s, I was lucky enough to work with editor-at-large Sarah Odedina. She said the manuscript was in good shape, but really helped me to see what was needed to take it another level. It’s been so exciting to work with her.

Any tips for fellow authors who are querying?

Revise, revise, revise. Get your manuscript to the point where you can’t improve it by yourself any further. Research the agents who may be a good fit for your novel. Show that you’ve read plenty of novels in your genre. Be very patient! Above all, begin something else. When I finished School for Nobodies I worked out that if I sent off submissions in batches of five, I could have written the first draft of my next novel by the time I got through them all…luckily, I didn’t have to.

What sparked the storyline for School for Nobodies?

I’d joined an amazing online writing community called The Novelry, run by Louise Dean. Up until then, I’d only written full-length fiction for adults but had got to the point where I’d lost momentum and couldn’t finish anything. I wailed to Louise that I had no ideas and she assured me that after the first week of The Novelry’s Classic course – which was based around children’s literature – I’d have something. She was right. I keep a moleskine notebook for ideas, and my early notes included: ‘The story begins when a child, rejected and abandoned, who has always felt as if something is missing, discovers a secret: they are half of a pair of twins.’ I think the idea of a school for nobodies came from my own childhood: we moved a lot, so I was always the ‘newbie’ at school, the odd one out, the ‘nobody’. Someone described School for Nobodies as being about ‘the beauty of not fitting in’ – and that says it all.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I write in the mornings and have a routine: meditate for 20 minutes, exercises, ablutions and breakfast, then write. This might just be an hour or it might continue all day. I always try to walk afterwards, especially if I have a plot problem. Somehow the acting of walking lets things ‘percolate’ and sometimes the answer arrives. How much I write also depends on the stage of the novel: as a plotter, I tend to write a ‘Zero Draft’ first (an anything-goes, rough as rough, ‘shitty’ draft in which the form of the novel is slapped down and craft doesn’t get a look-in) which may be up to 12,000 words. Then I write the first draft, which is my least favourite part of the process. The carrot-on-the-stick part is the editing – I love it!

Pushkin have commissioned a second middle-grade novel and also bought a picture text. What can you tell us about these books?

SHOOO!!! is a picture book text I wrote during another course (Curtis Brown’s Writing A Children’s Picture Book) as light relief from the first draft of my next middle-grade (I hate first drafts). It’s a story about a grumpy woman whose home is invaded by Zoo animals. It won’t come out until 2022 but Pushkin have just shown me early sketches from a great illustrator. I was thrilled that Pushkin decided to buy it as their first ‘in-house’ picture book.

Outsiders (working title) is my second middle-grade novel and is a mash-up of Pygmalion and The Red Shoes. It’s due out next year.

Where and how have you been spending lockdown?

Lockdown hasn’t been so different to my normal life. I’ve always been fond of solitude and live alone – indeed, the aspect of keeping other people at a six-foot distance is positively appealing! It’s hard to reconcile the personal experience with the terrible things happening in the country and in the world. For me, lockdown has shown me the beauty of simplicity. The future is out of bounds, and so one is kept firmly in the present moment. I’ve been very grateful to have a project – Outsiders must be delivered by the end of the July. And then there’s the challenge of thinking about publicity for School for Nobodies, which will be published on July 2nd. I’m so grateful that bookshops will be reopening in mid-June and that Amazon are delivering books again. But any publicity will need to be done virtually.

Lastly, any advice for aspiring children’s novelists?

Read widely in your genre. Keep the stakes high – then raise them higher. Accept that in writing a children’s novel you are embarking on a challenging and ultimately hugely satisfying journey during which you’ll feel periods of shame and despair and periods of ecstatic superiority. Believe neither.

And above all, don’t give up. I was 66 when I signed with my agent…

Thoroughly charming and endlessly intriguing, Bower’s accomplished debut combines a magical mystery with a heartfelt account of adoption and trying to fit in. Written with grace and flair, School for Nobodies exerts a luminous hold on the imagination from start to finish.

Order your copy of School for Nobodies by Susie Bower here