1. What got you into writing? I’ve always written since I was a little girl. I used to win the school poetry competitions and read my poems up on the stage at school assembly. I had a very inspiring English teacher at school as well as having parents who taught English and loved books, so books have always been my pleasure and escapism. I never thought I would end up writing children’s books, but my passion for good Young Adult literature has spilled over into another career and I now help new writers get their novels into shape by working as a literary consultant (www.curtisliterary.co.uk)
2. What is a usual writing day like for you? I don’t really have one. I divide my time between working on my own children’s novels and writing editorial reports/mentoring new novelists. So I work on whichever has the closest deadline. If I am writing my own novels I try for 1,000 words a day but often put in more than that.
3. Do you get writers block? If so, how do you overcome it? I’m not sure it’s writer’s block or more a fear of starting a novel that I tend to suffer from occasionally. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve got published – there’s always that fear that the next one won’t be good enough. I can spend ages avoiding my computer, dreading that look of The Blank Page, worrying that the research I’ve done hasn’t covered enough. But once I’ve pushed myself through writing the first two chapters, then the flow usually comes. Virginia Woolf once said that writing fiction was like heaving heavy bricks over a high garden wall, and I can see exactly what she meant by that.
4. Are you a plotter/planner when it comes to writing a story? With my historical novels I have to be – for example, the YA fiction I have coming out next year (‘The Earth is Singing’, Usborne) is very closely based around the true events of the tragic fate of the Jews of Riga, Latvia, in 1941. Not only did I have to plot out the timeline of events but I also had charts and lists hanging over my desk detailing Latvian street names, lists of Jewish festivals, Jewish food that would have been eaten at the time and a 1941 calendar.
5. What was the publishing process like for you,& any advice to aspiring authors? I used to publish a lot of freelance journalism in newspapers and magazines when I was younger. Then I published two non-fiction books about Virginia Woolf about twelve years ago and I got those deals by writing directly to publishers. With fiction however it’s become more and more difficult to get read without an agent, so when I wrote ‘Zelah Green’ (Egmont), my first children’s book, I submitted it to six carefully-chosen agents and one of them signed me up. Since then I’ve published five novels for children and have another three due to be published next year. But despite all that, for every novel I publish there will usually be another one which never sees the light of day – either my agent doesn’t like it enough to send out, or publishers are too cautious to commit. So don’t expect being published to mean the end of rejection, because in my experience it never does! I would suggest reading the websites of prospective agents very carefully to ensure that they are interested in your sort of genre – no point sending a historical novel to somebody who only represents Sci-Fi, etc! I’d suggest also making your cover letter brief, to the point and well-written. Some agents will not read past the letter if it’s not to their liking! The most important advice I could give any aspiring novelist is to keep working, keep learning, keep improving and realise that this is a lifelong process that never lets up.
6. What has been your highlight since becoming a published author? Winning the Manchester Children’s Book Awards with my first novel ‘Zelah Green’ was exciting, as was being short-listed for the Waterstones Award for that novel too. I also got seven short-listings for my fifth novel, ‘The Haunting of Tabitha Grey’ (Egmont). It’s nice to get that recognition.
7. Can you share a little of your most recent book with us? ‘The Earth is Singing’ is to be published on International Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 and tells the story of the Jews of Latvia 1941 through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Hanna Michelson, a schoolgirl from Riga. It’s a tragic story, but I believe that these events should be kept in the public eye and taught to today’s schoolchildren. I also am currently awaiting news of a two-book deal which will feature some books that are very different to the one I just described and which may just possibly involve rather a lot of – cake! Watch this space!
8. What do you enjoy doing besides writing? I love the research stage of writing historical novels – love it. It’s a chance to learn about stuff I might never have heard of. I also write ghost stories and enjoy watching films and reading books on the paranormal as part of the research for that. Elsewhere in life I play/teach piano and enjoy living in the countryside with my husband and cat.
9. What is your all time favourite book(s)? Hmm. I’ve got so many. I’m a big fan of the five diaries of Virginia Woolf. If ever the ups, downs, insecurities and pleasures of being a novelist were described in painful honesty, then it’s in those diaries. I used to love ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ by Joan Lindsay when I was younger – that’s supposedly based upon a true mystery about some schoolgirls who went missing on a school outing. And I liked those semi-autobiographical sorts of novels for teenagers, such as ‘Frost in May’ by Antonia White which was based in part upon her own life. I love a good ghost story, so anything by M R James or a new novel by Susan Hill who of course wrote ‘The Woman in Black.’ Michelle Paver wrote a cracking ghost novel called ‘Dark Matter’ a few years ago. I know from experience that it’s very hard to relay the feeling of a haunting on the page so I admire writers who can really pull this off.
10. If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not famous, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be & why? I’ve often quite fancied the idea of experiencing a brief moment of time-travelling back to the Victorian era. We live in a house built in 1896 and I’d love to see what it looked like when it was first built – to see the coal fires lit, watch what went on in the old scullery and see the attic which is now my husband’s scullery, as a maidservant’s bedroom. But other than that, I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. I have a pretty good life.
I would be pleased to offer 10% off my literary consultancy services to anybody who discovers it via Sophia’s website.