A Look Behind The Book With Susanna Bavin.

S Bavin 2Batman might have featured in Susanna Bavin’s childhood stories but she has turned her attention towards more everyday heroes for her family sagas – the first of which, The Deserter’s Daughter, is published next month.

With a deadline of just six months to complete her second, I’m even more grateful to Susanna, who lives in North Wales, for taking time out to answer my questions for Behind The Book.

It’s amazing to be able to tap into all her experience – and she offers some great insight into getting a book (or two) published (as well as some top tips for along the way).

Before we get to the Q&A, here’s the blurb for The Deserter’s Daughter:

1920, Chorlton, Manchester.

As her wedding day approaches, Carrie Jenkins is trying on her dress and eagerly anticipating becoming Mrs Billy Shipton. But all too soon she is reeling from the news that her beloved pa was shot for desertion during the Great War. When Carrie is jilted and the close-knit community turns its back on her, her half-sister Evadne and their mother, the plans Carrie nurtured are destroyed.

Desperate to overcome her private troubles as well as the public humiliation, Carrie accepts the unsettling advances of the well-to-do antiques dealer, Ralph Armstrong. Through Ralph, Evadne meets the aristocratic Alex Larter, who seems to be the answer to her matrimonial ambitions.

But the sisters have chosen men who are not to be trusted and they must face physical danger and personal heartache before they can find the happiness they deserve.

When did you start writing? Is it now your full-time job? If not, what do you do?

I was a child writer. My first story was about Batman (!) but my great love was writing boarding school stories, because that was what I adored reading. Is writing now my full-time job? I wish! My first career was as a librarian specialising in work with schools and children; then I became a teacher. After we came to Wales I moved into the care sector, firstly as a carer and now I have a part-time job as a cook in sheltered accommodation.

Have you always been a saga fan? What do you enjoy about them? 

When we were 14, my best friend discovered Victoria Holt’s books and she got me reading them – and I was hooked. Throughout my teens I wrote gothic stories and this soon morphed into writing sagas – not because I was reading them at that point, but simply because that was the way my story-telling naturally developed.

I enjoy reading thrillers, psychological suspense and US cosy crime, but my favourite fiction is the saga. I especially love books by Anna Jacobs and Carol Rivers. In a saga, there is so much material to become immersed in, both as a reader and as a writer. The traditional format of the saga is to follow the heroine as she faces and bit by bit overcomes her troubles, with various sub-plots adding further depth and intrigue to the story. I love the exploration of the characters’ lives – their relationships, ambitions, successes and failures, all the things that make them tick. The tiny details of a life can take on such significance. Sagas are about relationships of all kinds – family ties and divisions, friendships, enmity and love.

Sagas have an historical setting too, which has always appealed to me, again both as a reader and as a writer. For me, the delight of the saga is seeing the heroine having to deal with challenging situations within the social and legal context of the day.

deserter's daughterYour debut novel is set in 1920. Were you already a fan of that era?

Thanks to a wonderful teacher called Miss Smith, history was my favourite subject at school; and I went on a do a degree in history. My particular interest is social history – specifically women’s lives; and domestic history – costume, food, furniture etc.

The first few novels I wrote had a Victorian setting and I built up a lot of knowledge. Then I looked at the market and saw that, while Victorian-based novels were still being published, there was far more concentration on the 20th Century, so I made the decision to move my next book into the 1900s… but not too far in. Hence 1920. It was a bit of a wrench at the time, but now, having immersed myself in the history of the day, it feels right and comfortable.

How did you learn your publisher was interested in a (two-book) deal? What was that moment like?

It wasn’t so much a moment as a prolonged series of moments. First of all, the offer from Allison & Busby was to publish The Deserter’s Daughter and to have first refusal on my next book. Then I received an email saying that A&B wanted to see a synopsis for book two. Fortunately for me, my agent, Laura Longrigg at MBA, had already got me to write a synopsis for a second 1920s saga and had advised me to ditch an enormous sub-plot and concentrate on the main plot so that the reader could become immersed in the story of Nell, the heroine. It was at that point that A&B wanted to see the synopsis. I had to drop everything and work on a revised version.

On the strength of that synopsis, I was offered a two-book deal. This happened a few days before Christmas. The best Christmas present ever!

Telling everyone and receiving all those congratulations and good wishes was very special. If you’re a not-yet-published writer reading this, I hope it happens to you one day.

How far into book two are you? Is it going well? 

A mere six months to complete a saga – wow! The Deserter’s Daughter is just under 126,000 words and the follow-up will be the same sort of length. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, so I need to get a move on.

For me, the pressure is associated with all the other things I have to do, rather than the writing itself. Moreover, I am not a writer who writes straight onto the screen. I use pen and paper. I don’t write in perfect copperplate – I scrawl my own shorthand. But unlike a writer who composes on-screen, the typing is a separate part of the process for me and has to be factored into the deadline.

As for the story itself, I’m very happy with it. Laura was absolutely right to tell me to ditch the big sub-plot and make it Nell’s story. This has enabled me to delve deeply into her life and the lives of the people most important to her. As a reader, I appreciate depth in a novel and I hope this what I provide as a writer.

How invested do you get in your characters? Do you think about them even when you’re not writing?

Deeply. And yes.

Most characters arrive in my head fully formed, right down to the last detail of their back-story. This was what happened with Carrie and Evadne, the sisters in The Deserter’s Daughter, and also with Ralph, the villain. Other characters might take a little longer to develop inside my mind, but I end up knowing so much about these people that I can’t help getting drawn into their lives. Writing about them in such a way as to make the reader understand exactly why they do or think or want a particular thing is hugely satisfying. As a reader, you don’t have to like a character in order to understand them, but you do have to understand them thoroughly for the story to be successful.

Are you nervous about publication? What will you do on the big day?

I don’t think ‘nervous’ is the right word, but I am very aware that my book is going to be a hardback and therefore expensive. Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled to be published in hardback before the paperback comes out. That doesn’t happen to everyone these days, and especially not to a first-time author. I feel privileged.

I hope lots of people will be interested enough to request The Deserter’s Daughter at their local public libraries. Coming from a family of lifelong library-users, and speaking as a former librarian, it makes me feel proud to think of my book – my book! – being on public library shelves.

As for publication day, there will be an afternoon tea with friends at one of the hotels on Llandudno’s promenade. My husband and I did some rather delicious market research before we chose the afternoon tea we liked best. It’s going to be a lovely occasion.

Any advice for writers working on their own novels and maybe in need of some encouragement?

In blogs and interviews I have read, writers often give general advice on the importance of perseverance, which of course is important, but I am going to give some practical tips that I hope will be useful.

writingtips.pngThank you so much to Susanna for her time and effort. It’s been so nice to connect with her and I loved reading her answers, which I found so interesting and inspiring. I’ve already written tip number two on the whiteboard next to my desk.

Please check out Susanna’s website, which also has a brilliant (and very useful) section on writing. You can also follow her on Twitter and, of course, please request The Deserter’s Daughter, which is published in hardback on June 22, from your local library.

Lastly, a big thank you to Catherine at Cultural Wednesdays for introducing us.



A Look Behind The Book With H J Moat.

PortraitPicWhile 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.

CoverCan 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.