Hilary Tailor is a design consultant, and has worked with clients including adidas and Puma as a colour and trend forecaster. She was raised on the Wirral Peninsula and graduated from the Royal College of Art. The Vanishing Tide is her first novel.
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?
I won a paediatric first aid course in a raffle. When we were learning how to resuscitate children who had fallen into water, a really nasty, horrible thought entered my mind and I couldn’t shake it off. Over the next few weeks and months, it built into a story and I started to write it down.
What came first the characters or the world?
Definitely the world. I think about plot and setting way before I think about the personalities involved. I find it hard to read a book if the plot doesn’t hook me in from the get-go.
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
I’m not going to lie, it was really, really, hard. I was pregnant when I did that paediatric first aid course and now my daughter is fifteen, so it’s been a long time coming. I was a complete novice. I didn’t share my work with anyone, I didn’t tell anyone I was writing – all the things you shouldn’t do. I just squeezed it in between working and child-rearing. When I finished a decent draft, I submitted to agents and absolutely nobody was interested, although I did get some quite nice rejections that made me think I was a decent writer. I decided I needed some professional help, so I shelved Book 1 (now called The Vanishing Tide) and started another. I applied for, and got into, the Curtis Brown six month novel writing course and this really made me take my ambition seriously. I absolutely loved learning about the trade, how to submit to agents, how to structure my novel. I also learned how to use Scrivener from my fellow coursemates, and this has really helped plan my work. But guess what? When I finished the course, I submitted Book 2, the rejections began to roll in. This time, many of them were full of praise and I got several full manuscript requests, so I knew I had improved. I decided to take what I had learned and apply it to Book 1 (The Vanishing Tide). I rewrote it while I received more rejections for Book 2. Eventually, an agent (Oli Munson) at AM Heath liked Book 2 but didn’t think it was right for his list. He asked if I had anything else and I was able to submit my new, shiny version of The Vanishing Tide. He read it, realised my work DEFINITELY wasn’t right for his list, but very kindly he gave the manuscript to a colleague who loved it. I signed with AM Heath and my agent, Rebecca Ritchie, sold the book in a fortnight. Later, I looked at my huge spreadsheet of agent submissions and saw that Becky was one of the very first agents I submitted The Vanishing Tide to, four years previously.
How long did it take to write?
That’s a really difficult question to answer because there were lots of gaps, and I even re-wrote a third of it last year when it was being edited by my publisher. So, I guess, from start to finish, it took fifteen years!
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
I just can’t listen to ANYTHING when I’m writing. I heard Deborah Levy on Desert Island Discs say she listened to Philip Glass when she wrote and I love his stuff, so I tried it the next day and found myself staring at a blank screen, listening to the music. I’m a good multitasker in a practical sense but I can’t do it when I’m writing and trying to think.
How many publishers turned you down?
My agent bumped into the editor at Lake Union who said she liked the idea before she had even read the book, so she got back very quickly with an offer when it was subbed out. There were three other editors who were still reading/thinking when the offer came through, but I figured they would have made an offer sooner if they had loved it as much as Victoria Oundjian did. I had waited long enough, and I wanted to work with someone enthusiastic and quick off the mark.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
Obviously, my editor and publisher love it and so do I, but we are biased. My mum, who is incredibly well-read, told me she when she read the very first daft, she thought it was ‘better than Joanna Trollope but not as good as Ian McEwan.’ Which I thought was fair enough.
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
The one from my agent when she said she wanted to sign me. You feel validated, that all the work was worth it and that you have an ounce of talent. I have an author friend who said he thought it was harder getting an agent than it was to get a book deal these days and I’m inclined to believe him. Everybody wrote a book over lockdown.
What can you tell us about your next book?
So, if you remember, Book 2 was the one I worked on during my stint with Curtis Brown Creative. It deals with similar themes: atoning for past mistakes, what it means to be a family. There’s a bit more back and forth between the past and present but I didn’t want it to be too much of a departure from The Vanishing Tide so there are elements that my readers will be familiar with.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
When the time comes, I’ll read them, for sure, and if there is a common thread among them that I need to address I will be aware of it when I’m writing my next book. Books are very subjective, though, and ultimately, you can’t please everyone, and you can’t write by opinion polls. Saying that, I often read book reviews before I buy a book or after I’ve read one and most of them are pretty helpful.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
With Book 2, I briefly considered writing it as a YA when I was doing the course, but it didn’t sit well with me. I don’t read YA, so it seemed a bit weird to write a YA book. My writing is a cross between commercial and literary fiction and I read both, so I could see myself crossing more into literary fiction at some point.
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I still work as a colour and trend forecaster. I used to live in Germany and I worked for adidas and Puma before I set up my own company, HST Creative. Now I freelance with clients in the sportswear and outerwear arena. I also work with Pantone on their colour bible that comes out twice a year. There is a connection between designing and writing. As a designer, I am constantly editing my work and creating stories for my clients. Douglas Stuart (Shuggie Bain), has said the same thing. He studied menswear at the Royal College of Art and I studied Textiles there a few years before him. Stories are very important in many different creative industries.
Which author(s) inspire you?
Maggie O’Farrell, Celeste Ng and Anne Patchett can do no wrong.
Which genres do you read yourself?
Literary fiction, for sure, some commercial women’s fiction and I also really like biographies, autobiographies and factual exposés such as Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe which was jaw-dropping to read.
What is your biggest motivator?
The writing. It has to be. I don’t know any authors who are in it just for the money! I like creating my own worlds and being in charge of my own creative direction. I also love the collaborative process when I’ve finished a book and editors come in to shape it into something even better.
What will always distract you?
My dog. She is hideously entitled and whines at me if she hasn’t had enough attention and wants her belly scratching or something to eat. If I ignore her, she gets out of bed and nudges my knees with her nose. I can’t resist her.
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
Well, I was under the impression I had a lot of say in my book cover design until I realised I was probably being politely managed by my publisher, who knows more than I do about what is going to work for readers of my genre, which is reading group. The book is going into several different countries and the biggest markets have a say in what they need from a product. The USA has a different take on cover design to the UK, for example, and I am a difficult author to please because of my design background. I had a fixed idea in my head at the beginning of the process, but ultimately, I had to bow to the expertise of Lake Union, who have a raft of research about what their customers expect to see. Luckily, the cover designer, a very talented and patient Emma Rogers, was able to please both me and my editors and we ended up with a cover everyone thought worked well. I love the upside-down child reflected in the water. I’m going to get it printed and framed.
Where you a big reader as a child?
Yes, my whole family are big readers. I was very lucky. It was just assumed we would want to read for pleasure and my parents were always willing to bring home books if I wanted something special. I still swap and discuss books with my mum. We are both members of book groups and often end up reading the same book at the same time.
What were your favourite childhood books?
I actually loved reading poetry as a child and remember being given A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson that I read a lot. Danny The Champion of the World sticks in my mind because a teacher at school read a few pages to us every day and then, for some reason, didn’t get to finish it, so I asked my parents for a copy so I could find out what happened in the end. My earliest reading memory comes from the school library where there was a slim set of books that concerned a ghost bus and a boy who could see and talk to ghosts on it. I cannot for the life me remember the title but I still think of it. That and Tom’s Midnight Garden which was a genius plot. I like a few ghosties here and there and incorporate a bit of the supernatural into my own work.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
Any book shop will do, really, as long as the staff are friendly. Lingham’s on the Wirral was the first bookshop I regularly frequented. Now I live in London I am spoiled but actually prefer the smaller bookshops as they don’t seem so overwhelming and it’s easier to talk to someone. The Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill and Pickled Pepper books in Crouch End were godsends when my kids were smaller as I wasn’t familiar with the stock and the staff in both shops are really well versed in what to recommend. Oxfam is great for unexpected gems you never thought you wanted.
What books can you not resist buying?
Anne Patchett could write something on the back of an envelope and I would buy it. Sometimes I’m seduced by the cover and I will end up buying a book because the cover is so nice. I recently saw a book cover on Twitter by Zoe Somerville called The Marsh House and I love the cover so much I’m going to buy it when it’s out. But generally, I read the first page and if the writing sucks me in, I’ll buy it. I had that experience with Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson. It’s written in the second person for a start, which is unusual, but his writing has a poetic quality that is brimming with atmosphere. And it’s a debut. I like reading debuts.
Do you have any rituals when writing?
Tea and quiet. I drink a lot of tea. I also sometimes need to stop writing and think about things so I will take the dog out for a long walk through the woods to figure out a problem. I am a great believer in letting things settle for a while and not writing blindly through a problem.
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
Too many to count. I don’t have an English degree so I am painfully aware I haven’t read many classics that are often referred to, so I have a pile of classics I ‘should’ read and a pile of books for pleasure.
What is your current or latest read?
I just finished The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir by Andre Leon Talley. Despite the odds being stacked against him, he was a giant in the fashion world and sadly died recently. I already had it on my TBR pile, but when his death was announced, I was drawn to read it. This happens a lot – if someone interesting to me is in the media, I want to know more about them. The same happened when Joan Didion died. I wasn’t familiar with her work and read The Year of Magical Thinking over Christmas to get some insight into a woman whose death provoked an outpouring of grief in the media. To counter those choices, I plan to read Rachel’s Holiday by Marion Keyes soon, as her much anticipated follow up is published this year and I never got round to reading the original.
Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
Of course! There is apparently a new Celeste Ng in the pipeline. I cannot wait for that. Nonfiction: A Novel by Julie Myerson, another author I love and who hasn’t had a book out for a while, is due out in June. Jessie Burton has a sequel to the brilliant Miniaturist coming in July called The House of Fortune. Edward Enninful has written an autobiography that I would like to read called A Visible Man and Alan Rickman’s diaries should very interesting. I met him once and he was very gracious. He told me he used to be a graphic designer.
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
I am writing a third book right now, also book club fiction, that is gradually taking shape. My second novel, title TBC is due out in 2023. My website www.hilarytailor.com should be up and running soon with news and snippets about what inspires me and how I work.
Any events in the near future?
The launch of my debut novel The Vanishing Tide in June this year of course! You can pre order it here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/59979640-the-vanishing-tide
and finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision, it just happened. I write in the same genre I read in. It’s what I understand and am familiar with. Book club fiction is great because the text should throw up ambivalence and questions that can be discussed afterwards. I like a book that stays with you after you have put it down.