Interview: CASSIE POWNEY winner of the Bath Children’s Novel Award

Photo credit: E Seal

Congratulations again on your win. Can you put into words how you felt when you heard LOOPS had won?

Thank you! I felt honoured just to be there as a shortlistee – the other extracts were so strong. When Hilary announced my book as the winner I sat there for a long time just gawping before finally joining her on stage.

You brought your newborn son along, what a moment to have shared…

That’s a nice way of looking at it. It was actually unavoidable and a bit stressful to be honest, especially when he started crying during the readings! I live in Kent and he’s so new I couldn’t leave him overnight. But now of course he’s my lucky mascot and will be coming everywhere with me.

Cassie Powney
Photo credit: E Seal

What was the reaction like from the rest of your family and friends?

They were over the moon as they know how hard I’ve worked and what a tough industry this can be for unpublished authors. Unfortunately, none of them could make the event (for very big and important reasons, they’re usually very supportive!) so my husband stalked Twitter for the announcement and they were all having a WhatsApp conversation with lots of celebratory emojis by the time I got back to my phone.

How was it meeting your fellow shortlistees?

L:R Becca Heddle, Hana Tooke, Cassie Powney, Hilary Delamere, Lucy Cuthew, Elizabeth Shapiro, Caroline Ambrose. Photo credit: E Seal

So nice! We’d all read each other’s extracts beforehand so it was great to put faces to the writing. I don’t doubt I’ll be seeing their names in bookshops one day – they’re a very talented bunch.

Tell us about LOOPS and how you came to write it…

It’s a dark young adult novel about first love, loss, betrayal and state of mind. My husband is a police detective so watches a lot of true crime documentaries and, without giving too much away, there was one in particular that got into my head. I’d just shelved another manuscript after a round of rejections and found out I was pregnant with my daughter, so decided to bash out the first draft of my new idea by her due date. I’m a journalist – we do deadlines!

The title is so clever, can you say a little about that without spoilers?

There’s a big escape at the beginning of the book following the unpicking of a metal loop fence. My protagonist’s state of mind is brought into question early on in the story so it’s a play on the word’s colloquial use. Plus the narrative of the story goes round and round as Lenora tries to unpick her past as the memories return.

From the first rounds readers described LOOPS as a book with pages which turned themselves. Any writing tips on intrigue and forward pull?

I think I write how I read, which is fairly impatiently! I work full time and my commute into London is the only chance I get to read, so I find I can only stick with books that pick up the pace quickly and work hard to keep my attention. This has definitely influenced my own writing. I guess my advice is all the obvious stuff; make sure every chapter has a function and reveals something new to the reader, write conversations between characters that are packed with subtext and tension and don’t give the reader a chance to put the book down at the end of a chapter.

Because Lenora, your main character, has no recollection of details we can never be sure of everything we are told. Information fluctuated and changed as she discovered more so the reader can’t guess what’s coming next. How did you map it all out?

I didn’t do as much mapping out as I should have done for such a complex narrative, and I paid for it in the editing stages! I had a very clear idea of where the story was going, though, as the book hinges off a very dramatic reveal at the end.

Cassie Powney and Hilary Delamere with shortlistees Elizabeth Shapiro, Lucy Cuthew, Hana Tooke and Becca Heddle. Photo credit: E Seal

“The winner of the 2018 Bath Children’s Novel Award is an enthralling, surprising and ultimately chilling psychological drama. I was hooked from the outset and wanted to know what direction it would take me – all the while gradually, carefully and effectively there is an unravelling – to spell out any more would be a major spoiler alert. The writer confidently holds the reader throughout whilst dealing with issues of truth, first love, loss, betrayal and most importantly state of mind.  Loops scoops the prize.”

2018 judge, literary agent Hilary Delamere of The Agency

What’s your writing routine (pre and post baby!) ?

Pre-babies I used to spend entire solitary weekends writing. Post babies? Whenever and wherever! I mostly write away from the house, something I never thought I could do before. The buzz of a café seems to focus me – that and the strong coffee! LOOPS wouldn’t exist without a husband and mother in law who let me leave them with the kids so I can run off to Costa with my laptop under my arm.

How many drafts did you do and how long did it take to write?

Five drafts so far – I’ve been working on it on and off for nearly three years. I edit better with feedback and my sister plays a big part in that as she’s very honest and I trust her opinion. I hope to pick up the pace for future books as LOOPS felt more like a hobby I could drop and revisit in between having children and holding down my job at Cosmopolitan Magazine. This award has definitely given me the confidence to take my book writing more seriously going forward.

Photo credit: E Seal

You’ve had some close runs with earlier manuscripts, can you tell us about your writing journey to date?

I first submitted to an agent when I was nineteen years old. I cringe at how awful that manuscript must have been, but got a lovely letter back telling me I “had something” and to keep going. My acting career took off after that so I went on to write the opening chapters of many books that never got finished – let’s blame long filming days and too much partying! Then, when I turned 30, I finally decided to take my book writing ambition seriously and secured a place on the Curtis Brown Creative course. It opened my mind to the technical side of writing and taught me how to process feedback and edit ruthlessly. I eventually submitted the book to agents and got some very encouraging rejections (you know it’s a lovely industry when a rejection makes you smile), but in the end it got shelved. I like to think of it as the book I cut my teeth on – no regrets.

What led you to enter and what was in your mind when you pressed send?

I’d submitted LOOPS to a handful of agents to test the water, and although the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, there seemed to be a lot of nerves surrounding the YA market. I knew the awards relied heavily on junior judges so was intrigued to see how it was received by the intended reader with no market bias. At that point, I didn’t even entertain the idea of being longlisted, let alone shortlisted and going on to win!

Any plans for the £2,500 prize money?

My final few months of maternity leave suddenly feel a lot less daunting! Oh, and a spa weekend wouldn’t go amiss.

You’ve sponsored 4 entries for writers on low incomes to enter the 2019 Bath Children’s Novel Award. Can you say a bit about why this was important to you?

It’s important to pay it forward. There’s a real sense of community among writers and I feel very lucky to be a part of that.

Photo credit: E Seal

You’ve had a lot of interest from literary agents. How was that for you?

Bizarre! Being approached by multiple agents isn’t something you ever expect to experience as a writer. I don’t think I quite realised how much power these awards held.

What’s your favourite thing Hilary has said?

She told me about a text exchange she’d had late one night with her assistant, Jessica, because both of them couldn’t put LOOPS down. It’s all you can hope to hear as a writer.

Photo credit: E Seal

There was a lovely moment when you gave Grace, one of the teenage Junior Judges who championed your manuscript, your bouquet. Can you say a bit about what you talked about?

It was a real pinch-me moment to have teenage judges approaching me and talking so excitedly about my book. I could have kissed Grace when she spoke with so much passion for LOOPS – giving her my bouquet felt more appropriate, though!

All our winning books have stayed in our readers’ hearts long afterwards. Which books and writers do that for you?

I lean towards darker YA books, so the likes of We Were Liars, How I Live Now, Blood Red Road, Delirium, The Hunger Games, The Lie Tree, Noughts and Crosses. I like books with twists that make your jaw drop and leave you feeling a bit weepy by the end. Adult books that have stayed with me include Never let Me Go, One Day and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Can you sum up what winning has meant to you?

Writing is a lonely business plagued with self-doubt, so winning over so many entrants gave me a much-needed confidence boost. It’s also landed me my dream agent as I’m delighted to say I’ve just signed with Hilary! The future of LOOPS is in her hands now, but I’m already busy plotting the next book – there’s no stopping me now!

Photo credit: E Seal

Interview by Caroline Ambrose

Cassie Powney lives in Kent with her husband, daughter and newborn son. She has been writing for young womens’ magazines for the past ten years and is in her eighth year at Cosmopolitan. Before her career in journalism she was a film and TV actress, best known for a three-year stint in Hollyoaks. Her first YA novel was longlisted for The Times & Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2015 and she is currently writing her third (between play groups and nappy changes).

The book was born from Cassie’s love of dark thrillers featuring determined female protagonists and twists that stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Fittingly, the girls’ escape was inspired by Bath’s Skyline Walk and a tour of the Bath Abbey clock tower.

In Loops, seventeen-year-old Lenora doesn’t know why she’s being kept prisoner in the house on the hill; her memory’s not been right since she was forced to start taking the pills. But when she escapes, her murky memories begin to seep back, casting doubt over who she can really trust, including the mysterious girl she’s travelling with…

The Junior Judges said: Loops is chilling, vivid and full of hooks which keep you guessing to the last page. Lenora escapes from The Home where girls are given pills to block their memories. The further away she gets the more her memories return and she pieces together fragments about her boyfriend, family and rebellious friendships to get to the truth about why she was in The Home.

Read the full winners’ announcement here