While she might have steered away from an early childhood ambition to own a petrol station, when it comes to her new book, H J Moat definitely went the distance.
Even though a publisher had taken an interest in Other People’s Business, the London-based author opted to self-publish so she could stay true to her story.
In her modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which happens to be one of my favourite plays (and not just because Keanu Reeves appeared in a film version), she explores whether “we’re ever really in control of our own romantic destiny and if true love really can conquer all”.
I can’t think of anyone better to kick off my new series, Behind The Book, where I interview authors about their writing lives and route into print.
Where do you live? Islington. Team North London.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? The first ambition I remember having was to own my own petrol station…that’s perfectly normal, right? I did start a novel when I was 16 and sent it to an agent on a whim. Unbelievably, they actually asked to see more, but – and lord knows I regret this – I lost interest and never followed up. Teenagers…
Is fiction writing your day job (if not, what do you do, and when do you find the time to write)? Not fiction, although I have made a career out of writing. I’ve spent a decade as a fashion and entertainment journalist and I’m now the editor of Farfetch, which is a luxury fashion website. I mainly edit and commission my team’s features there, but I do write some of the bigger stories – celebrity and designer interviews and in-depth style pieces. I write whenever I can: before work, after work, free lunch times, and I try and get in at least four hours in on whatever day of the weekend Spurs aren’t playing. I also have three notebooks of differing sizes for different handbags – I’m always having ideas in the most random places.
Can you explain a bit about your book? Were you intimidated to take on such a well-known and popular play? Other People’s Business is my first book, though it started out with a different, wildly pretentious name. I began writing it in 2013, during a very long, very bleak winter and from then to publication it probably went through six or seven revisions. I should point out it’s not like I was sat there for four years obsessively tinkering with it, thinking it was my Magnum Opus or something – there has been other projects in between.
So, why did I take on Much Ado About Nothing? Well the truth is though I had story ideas of my own, I’m madly in love with Shakespeare’s work, but most people I know dismiss reading him because they think it’s too hard to understand. It made me sad, so I thought if I could modernise my very favourite of his comedies, anyone who read it would have a far better chance of being able to understand and follow the play. Also, nobody can craft a story that blends romance and joy and sorrow and laughter quite like Shakespeare can, so, no, I wasn’t intimidated taking it on at all – in fact I was less scared than if I was writing something original, because I knew I could learn so much from it.
Who are your favourite authors (obviously you’re a Shakespeare fan)? I do love Shakespeare quite an embarrassing amount, although I draw the line at Titus Andronicus (so gory). But Jane Austen is my absolute writing idol, and so ahead of her time. P.G Wodehouse is another favourite, and as for modern authors, I like to mix it up – Curtis Sittenfeld, Nick Hornby and Jackie Collins.
Are you a planner or more of a wing it and see? I like to have structure to a certain extent – I think it’s important if you want to drive the plot forward and not allow your reader to get bored. So when I sit down to write a chapter I will know what story beats I need to hit, but I like to experiment with different ways of getting there and seeing what works best. Sometimes a character will sort of decide for themselves and surprise even me!
Can you talk about your route to publication? After my very first draft I sent off chapter samples to several agents. I received some very positive feedback but none of them actually took me on. I’m not surprised, it wasn’t ready – honestly that professionals liked it remains a shock because that first version is so, so embarrassing and I’m still mortified I sent it off. A few redrafts down the line it attracted some interest from a publisher I was in touch with, and whose director gave me an initial round of detailed notes which were extremely helpful and I think really improved the book. She then passed it to some colleagues for a second round of notes and their advice was to strip out all of the Shakespeare elements of the story (the crossed-wires…can’t say too much without spoiling) and turn it into something more formulaic. Which may have been good advice – I’ll never know, it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. So I decided to go it alone.
Where do you hope your fiction writing takes you in the future? I feel very lucky to have my career in fashion (and to quote another great book, The Devil Wears Prada, to have a job that a million girls would kill for) but the more fiction I write the more I know that in a perfect world I’d spend my life telling stories.
Are you already working on your next book? I’m about to start the 4th draft of my 2nd book, which is of a genre I don’t think there’s enough of about: a rom-com detective story. I love mysteries and heists but I hate that they’re all so humorless and grim. This one is about two estranged sisters who mend their relationship as they team up to investigate a blackmail and kidnapping.
Is there one piece of advice you could give to writers (or would-be writers)? Yes, the most important thing is if you have a great story idea – just get it down. Write it. Even if you think what you are writing is a pile of crap, you need to start with something. Editing is magical and it’s literally my (day) job to improve copy by moving it around, and cutting out the unnecessary bits and changing words so that it reads better. But you can only do that once you have something to edit.
Thank you so much to H J for agreeing to be featured. I found her answers not only helpful but also really inspiring, which is exactly what I hoped for when starting this series. If you’d like to connect with her you can follow her on twitter @hjmoat or on Goodreads here.
Please also give Other People’s Business some love. It was released last month and you can buy it here, priced £1.99. It’s on my TBR pile.
If you are an author and you’d like to appear in Behind The Book please get in touch.