Interview: Rachel Darwin, winner of The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2021


RACHEL DARWIN: ‘I think a large part of writing this book was a way for me to try to process the grief of losing [my grandparents] in such a difficult and alien way.’ 

Congratulations again, has the win sunk in?
Thank you so much. I think it has sunk in… just! When I saw the announcement on the Curtis Brown homepage, with my name and face alongside the names and faces of other actual writers, I think I realised it had happened. Given how many years I have been writing it truly feels life-affirming to be acknowledged by this award, and even more special to me because Bath is actually my hometown. I studied performing arts at City of Bath College, grew up doing shows in The Egg Theatre and spent many years wandering up Milsom Street towards Waterstones and Topping & Co (in its old spot) to find new books.
I know just how creative and innovative the people of Bath are, so to win this award really helps me believe that all the years I’ve spent tap-tap-tapping away at my keyboard- with three jobs on the go to pay the bills while everyone around me got promotions and pay rises- might just have been the right idea for me. 

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

Simply incredible. One of my closest friends, his boyfriend, my husband and I went out for dinner after it was announced and we ended up ordering extra desserts to celebrate!
My parents are so proud, which means an awful lot to me. They have been so supportive throughout all my years of pursuing a creative career. I know that this book means so much to my whole family.
It’s brimming with fictionalised versions of stories from my grandparents’ life together. There’s also a chapter that includes an adaptation of how my parents met, when my dad dialled a wrong number and my mum picked up the phone!
My friends and family know how much of my heart is in this book and I hope that comes across to all who read it. I’m so lucky to have such wonderful, supportive people in my life.

What prompted you to enter The Doll’s House Mouse for 2021’s children’s prize?

I have known about the Bath Novel Award for years and, being from Bath, I knew it was something I wanted to achieve one day. Though I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, I really started pursuing it as a career in 2017 when I started my MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s University.
The Doll’s House Mouse may be the first children’s book I’ve written, but I wrote two adult novels before it, neither of which were picked up by publishers. As heartbreaking as those rejections were at the time, I’m so thankful for them now. Unlike with the adult books, I enjoyed every second of writing The Doll’s House Mouse and after one chapter I realised I had finally found the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In late October, halfway through the first big edit, I promised myself I would enter the manuscript for the Bath Children’s Novel Award if I tidied it up enough before the deadline in late November.
On the morning of the deadline, having finished my final edit just three days before, I wrote a one-page synopsis and entered before I allowed myself to back out. I never, ever thought anything would come of it. I had entered one of my novels to the adult prize in 2019, but didn’t make the longlist. I don’t know what compelled me to enter this time, other than I felt I had written something that might just stand a chance. I’m so pleased I entered. To me, it is a prime example of why it’s always worth shooting your shot. You never, ever know. 

Award judge Sam Copeland said “The Doll’s House Mouse feels like a classic; sweet, funny, tender, moving and brilliantly written – I really fell for this gorgeous story.” How did it feel to read his comments?

Reading this was extraordinary. The words “feels like a classic” from an author and agent like Sam Copeland were beyond validating.
I set out to write a family fairy tale that could have been written when I was a child, ten years ago, last year or maybe even next year, to make it as accessible to readers (both children and adults) as possible. The wonderful words Sam Copeland has used to describe the book are all the things I hoped it would be. And the review from the Junior Judges too, showed me I had achieved what I wanted to do, because not only is it a book about loss, it is ultimately a “story of hope, repairing things”. I think the Junior Judges are an amazing part of this award; an incredible way to involve the target audience.
You’re represented by Lisa Babalis at Curtis Brown. How did that come about and what’s next for your manuscript?
During the second year of my MA, in early 2019, the students each published some of their work on the annual online anthology, Goldfish. At the time, I was working on a novel about the music industry. I included a chapter called “The Audition”, from the protagonist’s childhood. The character and her mother sit and wait, amidst all the other hopeful little girls and their mothers, before finally she is called in to her audition for Annie in Annie, and gets the role. After the anthology went live, I received two emails, one from Lisa and one from another lovely agent, both telling me they were interested in meeting with me.
When I discovered Lisa’s and my shared love for musical theatre, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, and her keen eye for editing, I knew we would make a fabulous team. Lisa’s list is children’s-oriented, so it feels even more correct to me that I have realised I want to write for children. We are submitting The Doll’s House Mouse to publishers now, looking for the perfect home for the Mouse, both with our fingers firmly crossed! 

The Doll’s House Mouse was inspired by your own grandparents who sadly died during the pandemic. What kind of grandparents were they?

I think the only word that will do them justice is, inspiring. He was the sort of grandpa who hand-built all of his grandchildren a doll’s house, or a farm, or a garage. She was the sort of grandma who made particularly delicious dishes that no one else can recreate. He would travel for hours on a train to see me in a musical when I was a teenager. She would tell stories you couldn’t believe were true, and yet they were! My grandma, for example, is the woman for whom a tiger really did come to tea!
The pandemic disrupted the way we grieve terribly. We hadn’t been able to see Grandpa for months before he died. And we were unable to be with Grandma in the last three months of her life, after Grandpa died. When she passed away, we weren’t allowed to have a wake. We didn’t hug at either of the funerals. We wore masks and followed the rules, as they would have wanted us to do.
I think a large part of writing this book was a way for me to try to process the grief of losing them in such a difficult and alien way. They lived long, adventurous, wonderful lives. And they were loving, warm, kind grandparents to the end. I have dedicated the book to them; my Grandma and Grandpa, who are no longer with us, but who will always be with me. 

What would they have thought of your win?

I thought about this on Thursday after the announcement was made. I associate robins with my grandpa and when the word on Wordle was ROBIN on the Sunday night before, I knew he was there, looking out for me for the week. They would be so proud. I can hear the happy “Oh!” and picture my grandma raising her arms in delight, twinkling her fingers and sitting in her chair. They were always so proud when their grandchildren succeeded at the thing they loved. To know that they had inspired something I created would bring them such joy. Grandma would be telling everyone. It would become one of her stories. And the fact that Grandpa built the doll’s house that inspired the whole story… well, he’d think that was magic.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on two ideas, both for a middle grade series. I’d love to get a writing group together, for children’s writers, because I’ve missed being a part of one since graduating from my MA. And I have hopes of doing a creative PhD in Children’s Literature, maybe back at University of Roehampton where I did my undergraduate degree, because their children’s literature department is amazing. But, right now, I just want to get my head down, with a newly-filled box of confidence thanks to this award, and write. So, that’s what I’m going to do. And hopefully, one day, children in Bath will be able to head up Milsom Street to Waterstones, or to the amazing new Topping and Co shop, to buy one of my books!
RACHEL DARWIN grew up in the Wiltshire and Somerset countryside. At eighteen, she moved to London, where she became a professional singer, performing for ten years. Nowadays, as well as being a writer, Rachel is a singing teacher and writes a column for Rock n Roll Bride Magazine. Her manuscript The Doll's House Mouse is the joint winner of 2021's Bath Children's Novel Award with Dreamdogs by AE Daly.

Bath Children’s Novel Award 2021 winners’ announcement