Just a few years after visiting the Wigtown Book Festival for the first time, Jen Mouat found herself speaking in front of an audience about her own novel, Summer At Bluebell Bank.
It was especially significant because Scotland’s National Book Town also inspired part of her debut, which follows the story of two childhood friends, Kate Vincent and Emily Cotton, who reunite to make the rundown bookshop Emily has bought a success.
I loved it (you can find my review here) and couldn’t wait to go Behind The Book to find out more.
Currently writing her second novel (as well as working full time), Jen very kindly took some time out to answer my questions.
Where did the idea for your debut come from and how did you develop it?
In 2010 my then boyfriend took me to a beautiful holiday cottage in Dumfries and Galloway and proposed, overlooking Rigg Bay – the location which really inspired Summer at Bluebell Bank. Rigg Bay becomes a special place for Kate and Emily in the book. It was on this trip that I first discovered Wigtown. Dumfries and Galloway was an important place for me, thanks to very special childhood holidays there, but I fell in love with Scotland’s National Book Town, and with the location of one bookshop in particular. I started writing some scenes featuring an unlikely book proprietor, seeking refuge in her new bookshop from everything life has thrown at her, but with no clue how to actually run a business, and also playing with the idea of a girl returning to a childhood haven to find the place and people are not as she left them. This is an important theme running through the book. There was always tension within Emily and Kate’s friendship – I loved exploring their secrets and the idea of good friends being the family you choose, but not being perfect.
Quite a few secrets come out during the story, did that require a lot of planning? How long did it take to write?
I probably should have been more thorough and organised as I ended up planning retrospectively a lot, rewriting and tying myself in knots with the plot far more than I would have liked. In total the book took me about four years to complete, but I kept taking breaks to write bits and pieces on other projects too because I had several ideas and just couldn’t decide which idea to run with. In future, I’ll definitely take the time to do more thorough planning from the outset.
How did you know it was ready to submit to publishers and what was that like? Was it an immediate hit? How did you find out it was going to be published?
I definitely knew I wanted to take the route of finding an agent – I think I needed the support of a professional on my side and wasn’t confident enough to approach publishers unsolicited; I also felt that whilst I might be able to write a bit, I knew nothing about how to turn my scribblings into a fully fledged novel and needed lots of help. I don’t know that I ever consider my work ‘ready’ and that is still a bit of a problem for me. I’d previously never shown my writing to anyone at all and I was terrified of it being read – I still am to be honest. However, I am lucky to have an incredibly supportive best friend and I let her read a few chapters of the book in 2014; she kept demanding more so I finished it, but looking back it was still extremely rough around the edges at that stage. About the same time, my friend spotted an opportunity to pitch to the agent I’d been desperate to represent me, Jenny Brown. Jenny’s list was closed at that time, but she was offering short pitch sessions at Wigtown Book Festival. I knew right away this was an amazing opportunity and I jumped at it. Although Jenny loved the premise of the book, it still took several rewrites – including cutting 50 000 words – before she signed me up and considered it ready for publishers. I had several publishers reject the manuscript before it was accepted by HQ Digital – one very lovely rejection, a few polite disappointments and one that was rather brutal! It was just a week or so before Christmas 2016 when I got the offer from HQ. Jenny had left me a message which I managed to completely miss and I received a email from her asking me to call. She told me an editor at HQ was really enthusiastic about the book and wanted to publish. She thought I was just being really cool about it by not responding, but in truth I had missed her message and was then was running about the school screaming (I’m a teacher, but thankfully the children had left for the day!)
It’s had a very positive response from readers, how did you feel when that first review came in? Were you worried beforehand?
Like I said, I was always extremely nervous about people reading my writing – my husband didn’t even get to read a word until after I’d been accepted by my agent and sent it off to publishers. It felt very personal and scary to open myself up that way, but it definitely helped having the positivity and support of a great agent and editor. When the first reviews came in I had to have various family members read them first before I could bring myself to look. It is so incredibly thrilling to get great responses from readers, I’ll ever get complacent about that, no matter how many books I write and I am so appreciative for each and every review. I knew very little about the book blogging world before I got published, but book bloggers have been so instrumental in creating a buzz around the book and giving me confidence about putting my baby out there. Several of them even reduced me to tears – in a good way! I don’t think I’ll ever top the excitement of publication day for Summer at Bluebell Bank, and seeing those five star reviews popping up on Amazon.
I know you studied illustration and printmaking and now work as a primary school teacher, where does writing fit in? Was it always a dream to publish a book?
My background is in art and I’ve always enjoyed a variety of creative pursuits. Although I still love to draw as a hobby, writing has been my dream from a very young age. The earliest I can remember imagining being an author I think I was eight. I’d discovered Anne of Green Gables and everything I wrote was essentially Anne fan fiction back then. I learned my craft by reading avidly and writing loads – inspired by whatever I was reading at the time. My agent describes it as working my apprenticeship in my bedroom, which is totally true. There came a point when I realised if I didn’t do something different nothing would change. I got serious about writing about seven years ago and started dreaming with more determination. Being a teacher is a massive privilege, but it obviously keeps me extremely busy so I have to fit writing around a full time job. I’m a deputy head teacher at the moment, so I fill my weekends and holidays with writing. I also do a lot of plotting on the commute to work and whilst walking the dog. I think having different facets to my life is important for balance as it helps me to be a better writer.
Would you like to own a bookshop like Emily?
I suspect I would be a terrible bookshop owner – like Emily I would just create my own personal library and customers would get in the way! I do like the idea of books and tea tasting, like in Summer at Bluebell Bank, although I also think beer and books would be a great combination.
What about your own reading habits? Are there any particular genres you really enjoy?
I’ve always described myself as a bookworm and that’s become quite an important part of my identity I think. However, with all the editing and writing and publicity recently, on top of a full time, full-on job I’ve found in the last year I’ve definitely had to carve out reading time for myself. I read every day, even if it’s just a few pages and my colleagues know to ignore me if I turn up in the staffroom with a book. I go through stages, but my current favourite genres are probably Crime Fiction – I grew up reading every Agatha Christie I could find in my Dad’s collection – YA – a recent obsession I can’t seem to get enough of right now, and anything about books and bookshops. As a teenager I read a lot of historical and women’s fiction – often picking up books that were a bit too grown up for me – and I’ve always loved stories that explore friendship and family.
Have you got any writing rituals? I’m assuming you write on a computer but do you need a new notebook to plan a new story? Or have you got a special pen you use?
I do the hard graft on computer because it’s fast and I can really get into a rhythm, but to get inspired I love a notebook. All my books start out with ideas and scenes in longhand. I’m utterly obsessed with stationery, so there are always several new notebooks waiting to be used. I’m quite particular about design, feel and paper quality and I consider myself something of a connoisseur. My family buy me a lot of notebooks and pens. I like the idea of a special pen – again I’m fussy about how they feel to write with – but my bag is invariably filled with about twenty different ones in every colour you can imagine, so it’s usually whatever comes to hand. I find I write best in the morning, and if I exceed a four hour stretch my husband reckons I go a bit loopy. After a stint at the computer I find a walk with the dog or a spot of yoga helps me switch off and unwind.
Wigtown is obviously a very important place for you and this year you got to speak at its festival about your book, was that a dream come true?
Speaking at the Wigtown Book Festival was an amazing experience. It was something I set out to achieve from the first time I visited the festival in 2014. My best friend and I sat in the audience listening to an author talk about her book, then she turned to me and said ‘that will be you next year.’ Of course, it wasn’t the next year, but it did happen three years later. That was definitely a turning point for me, because we stopped talking about ‘if’ I got published and spoke instead about ‘when.’ It helped me to really believe that it would happen and get serious about my writing and my intention to be an author. Wigtown has been massively important to me, not only because my book is set there, but also in terms of shaping me as a writer. Speaking there, about my debut novel, with my friends and family in the audience felt quite miraculous!
Can you talk about what you’re working on now? Is a second novel as difficult as they say?
Yes! I think for me it’s always been difficult to focus in on one thing. I always have lots of ideas for books, but one thing I’ve learned is that it’s a long road from an idea to an actual book. Since my time is so limited it’s really important that I focus on the right thing. I met with my agent recently to suggest two possible ideas for my next novel – one a sequel to Summer at Bluebell Bank – and the other a bit of a departure in that it has a younger protagonist and is inspired by my love of mysteries. My agent’s advice to me was to write what I was most excited about, and I’ve settled on the latter. I think the sequel will be written at some point, but for now I’m enjoying the change of pace and liking dipping my toe into a slightly different genre. I’m loving writing the second book and it definitely gives me confident to already have been published.
Any top tips for getting a book published?
You have to be prepared to put in the hours. Books don’t write themselves and much as you might love writing, the editing process is proper hard work for little immediate reward so you have to have that drive to write, the conviction to keep going.
For me, it’s been really crucial to develop self belief and having a friend to read my work and encourage me was really integral to that. It’s scary to tell people you’re writing a book – there’s always that scepticism, so it’s important to have someone in your corner. I’d definitely recommend finding an agent too – they really know what makes a book come together and what publishers are looking for. Find out about the agent you want, get to know the other authors on their list and what they like.
Finally, I think it’s about the small goals – I now set myself simple targets, even if I write for fifteen minutes on a work day I count that as a achievement. I don’t think in terms of the finished book, or sometimes even a chapter; a decent paragraph can be enough to make me give myself a pat on the back.
Always lovely to meet a fellow stationery addict and what fantastic answers. I love that Jen got other people to read her reviews first. If I ever get that far I would be exactly the same. Sending best wishes to Jen for her second novel – although I also can’t wait for the follow up to Summer At Bluebell Bank (let’s hope she writes fast).
I’ll be back with another Behind The Book post for you later this month.