“I was thrilled to be shortlisted. Knowing that the Junior Judges had read and enjoyed it was a huge boost, but I never imagined I would win.” Truly Johnston, winner of The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2022.
Congratulations again! Has the win sunk in and what does it mean to you?
Thank you! It’s been a dream of a week.This novel is so important to me and it has touched me deeply to know that readers have enjoyed it. So much of the writing process is in your head or on your own in a room. It feels like such a leap to put work out to people and it is a joy and a relief to have it accepted and validated.
Where were you when you heard?
I was playing with my baby when I heard. There was nobody else in the house so she got big hugs and the brunt of my excited screeches and looked at me confused trying to figure out what was going on! I called my mum and my husband for a good cheer about it and then treated myself to a fancy coffee and took the baby to the library.
What’s the reaction been like from friends and family?
Everyone has been very excited and supportive. My mum was in tears. It was the first time she had read an extract from the novel and she was moved by the prominence of the Sri-Lankan connection. Family have known that I am working on something for a while but it is the first time many of them have read any of Corrine and the Democonch. It has been special for me to feel their excitement and goodwill.
Why did you enter?
I wanted to have the novel read and to see how it stands up and to have an inkling of how it is perceived by readers. It was also an excuse to make sure I had it in a shape that I was happy to enter which was very motivating. I was thrilled to be shortlisted. Knowing that the Junior Judges had read and enjoyed it was a huge boost, but I never imagined I would win.
Judge Amber Caraveo described Corrine and the Democonch as a “pitch-perfect story with truly top-notch writing”. How did it feel to read those comments?
Fantastic. I’ve been working on Corrine and the Democonch for four years. I’ve learnt about children’s literature, particularly middle grade, and my own writing on the journey. The novel has been through a number of drafts and crafting (and has a little further to go!) so Amber’s comments meant a lot in showing me that my work is paying off and heading in the right direction. It is so hard to know if you’re on the right track when you start out so comments like this are to be treasured.
Your prize included a compilation of comments from The Junior Judges who chose the shortlist – any favourite responses?
It was wonderful to read the Junior Judges’ comments. They were all well considered, thoughtful and balanced. There were some very touching comments about what they enjoyed, as well as some great insights about what they felt could make the novel better. I will certainly be returning to their comments in my next edit! One of my favourites were, ‘All in all, I think this is a really imaginative and inspiring story […] I will be thinking about the Democonch next time I go to the beach and will look extra closely at any shells.’ I love the memory of being a young reader and having books stay with me so this comment resonated.
You’re newly represented by Lauren Gardner of Bell Lomax Moreton, who represents quite a few BCNA alumni, including Matthew Fox, Emma Read, Jenny Ireland and Tasha Harrison. How did that come about and how did you know she was the agent for you?
The WriteMentor programme I was on in 2021 ended with an agent showcase. Lauren was the only agent at that time to express an interest in my work. I sent her a full MS but she went on maternity leave very soon afterwards and so we didn’t speak further. A year later I was working with the editor I have been paired with at Puffin as a part of the Penguin WriteNow programme and she suggested that Lauren could be a good match for me. Lauren had just returned to work so I sent her my now updated manuscript and things progressed quite quickly from there. Lauren was enthusiastic about my story, easy to talk to and had some astute editorial suggestions. I felt from our conversations that she had a good sympathetic eye for the story and strong ideas about how we could pitch it. I feel very fortunate to have found Lauren and it is exciting to be working with her.
Where, when and how do you write?
My writing habits have had to adapt in the last year as my daughter was born in spring 2022. Previously I had one day a week to write so it has been a challenge to adapt to new circumstances, but also reassuring to see that I have been able to; even it it means accepting being less productive for the timebeing. I am currently writing in the evenings and when I can during her naps. There is a particular room at home that I write in and I feel like I’ve got a good little corner set up there, next to a window but with not too many distractions, that I can get lost in. I have various notes on my phone and laptop with ideas that I want to get to at some point. I’m currently consumed by this novel but have also written short stories for adults and children and poetry. I feel like I will always be learning and developing my writing and I love that.
You’ve been mentored by the author Joan Haig. Can you say a bit about how this helped you to develop your novel?
Until I got onto the Write Mentor Summer Programme in 2021 my MS had been read by three family members. They were incredibly insightful and encouraging and gave me the motivation to continue, but I had not been connected to the children’s literature world in any way. Working with Joan was such a privilege and a brilliant learning process for me. Joan was reading from a position of having navigated publishing a book herself, having been immersed in children’s literature and, crucially, not knowing me at all; this all meant that she coud help steer me into deeper waters with my story. It was inspiring to have her love the story and it was lots of fun to have long conversations with her about the characters and the plot and help me to dig down and improve it. She was so generous in sharing her time and experience and it helped me think of the novel and my writing more seriously. #WriteMentor is a fantastic resource for emerging childrens’ authors. It says a lot about the community that authors give their time for free to mentor others. I’ve also found the #WriteMentor conferences really insightful as well, which are brilliantly organised by the founder, Stuart White, and the team.
In 2022 you were selected to join Penguin’s #WriteNow programme. What did this involve and how did this help you?
Penguin’s #WriteNow programme in 2021 was focused on working with children’s authors from underrepresented backgrounds. As part of the shortlisting process for WriteNow I had a preliminary conversation with Natalie Doherty, an editor at Puffin, where she shared her first thoughts on the novel. This in itself was incredibly helpful and I got working on some edits straight away. Then when I was selected to be on the programme I continued working with Natalie.It has been such a great experience to work with an editor. I have a better understanding of the roles of editors in publishing, and the immense value of a knowledgeable and critical eye on my work. Natalie has been encouraging and thoughtful in her reading of Corrine and the Democonch. There are eight of us on the programme with a range of picture books, middle grade and YA, and it is nice to have contact with a great peer group. The WriteNow team also arranged talks for us to give insights into the publishing world. The process has helped me to refine my novel, to understand more about the world of children’s publishing and to think more deeply about how I want to develop my career as an author. I couldn’t have imagined that I would get onto the programme when I applied and it has been such a great experience – It’s always worth putting your hat in the ring!
What’s next for you?
I’m really committed to getting Corrine and the Democonch as strong as it can be. I’m working on edits on it at the moment and speaking to Lauren about next steps. So hopefully we can get the novel out to a readership at some point! I will be finishing my maternity leave soon, and will then be navigating a new schedule again of writing, working and looking after the babe. I want to keep developing my craft and I look forward to putting into practice what I have learned into my next novel. I also love writing poetry and short stories so will keep those fires burning. The biggest challenge, as it is for so many people, is time! But there will always be a way to squeeze the stories in.
Truly Johnston was born and grew up in London and is mixed heritage Sri Lankan / English. She has a degree in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and has worked with charities in London over the last sixteen years.
Corrine and the Democonch is Truly’s first novel and it is aimed at a middle-grade readership. When Corrine discovers tiny shell-dwelling people on the beach (the Democonch) it opens the door to a new world but also shines a light on the precarious relationship between humans and other species. The story is inspired by Truly’s trips from London to visit family at the seaside as a child and the joy of playing with her niece and nephew.
It emerged from the mud gleaming and glorious. Corrine’s heart stopped. Could this be the treasure Siya had promised?
‘Siya, I’ve found something!’ She called to her grandfather across the sheltered Thames foreshore.
He looked up with interest. ‘Not another plastic spoon? All these things that people throw away.’ He frowned and picked his way across the grey muddy ground, carefully side-stepping chunks of red brick and flint.
Corrine held the coin out to him. ‘Is this it? Have we found treasure?’
Siya tutted and shook his head with a smile. ‘Treasure isn’t just gold Corrine. It’s all the things we love.’
Corrine rolled her eyes. She had heard this from him before. ‘I know, I know. But gold is nice too.’ She grinned.
He took the gold coin from her palm and examined it silently. He turned and rotated it, holding it far then close and exploring the picture under his fingers.
Corrine was jiggling with excitement, but when she looked to his old watery eyes, she stopped moving. ‘What’s wrong?’ Siya lowered himself to the ground as if he couldn’t hold the weight of his body. Corrine gasped. ‘You’re going to get all muddy!’ She sat down next to him and took the coin. She had never seen him cry before; he was always so bright and solid.
On the coin was a picture of a shell. A large hand cradled it below and a small hand sheltered it from above. She squinted to try and read the tiny words around the edge. The letters were strange and hard to make out.
‘Demo…c…c… I don’t know what that ‘o’ is.’
‘Democonch.’ Siya said quietly.
She glanced at him and carried on. ‘And layn…’
‘Oh. This last word is weird.’ She frowned, the coin almost touching her nose as she strained to read the word.
‘It’s an Old English word that means fellowship, geferraeden. It says Democonch and Landward in Fellowship.’ He had never lost the soft lilt of his accent from Sri Lanka. Even after more than fifty years the long vowels of his birthplace remained. His eyes sparkled at the words. ‘I’ve been looking for something like this for a long time. I promised we would find treasure but I didn’t think it would be this.’
The coin glistened, even though it was a dull grey day. ‘What does it mean?’
Siya drew a deep breath. ‘It means there were once different types of people here, many years ago.’
‘Like the people who smoked the pipes?’ Corrine had found five stems of old clay pipes in the mud that morning. Siya had said they were more than a hundred years old.
‘No, even more different.’ He smiled and Corrine noticed the fine lines in his brown skin.
Corrine couldn’t bear the suspense. ‘Please Siya, tell me,’ she pleaded.
He raised his silver eyebrow in a high arc and ruffled her hair. ‘ No, my Corrie Kela. You’ll know one day.’
Corrine jutted out her lip in protest but she didn’t argue. She marvelled at the shiny coin. ‘I can’t wait to show Anthony this. He doesn’t think there’s anything interesting about London.’ ‘Oh yes. I think he’ll find this very interesting for sure.’ Siya winked.