Stephanie’s first children’s novel, Dandy the Highway Lion, was shortlisted for the Times/Chicken House Competition in 2020, and will be published by Chicken House on the 2nd March. After studying English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, she stumbled, semi-intentionally, into life aboard a boat, where she now lives with her husband, two spoilt cats (rescued while sailing in Spain), and several visiting swans.
Tell me what inspired you to write your debut novel?
The original idea came from a very obvious pun – Dandy-lion. My husband and I were tossing around ideas and came up with the name Dandy Paws. I immediately thought that had to be a lion, and that such a lion should be a highwayman, thanks to the Adam and the Ants Song Stand and Deliver (‘I’m the dandy highwayman who you’re too scared to mention’). Once I had that concept, I knew I had to write it – the idea was too much fun to resist!
What came first the characters or the world?
Definitely the character of Dandy! Everything else formed around him. I did make the conscious choice to set his story in 1920s London, though, largely because I wanted to write in the world of P. G. Wodehouse, and to share its warmth, nostalgia and plain old fun with a younger audience.
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
I think I was actually very lucky! I entered Dandy in the Times/Chicken House Competition before I’d got very far with looking for agents (and then promptly forgot I’d done so). I was shortlisted for that competition, but before I could be too disappointed about not winning, Chicken House got in touch to ask if I’d like to work on a rewrite with them – naturally I jumped at the chance! Having completed that rewrite, Chicken House then made me an offer.
How long did it take to write?
The first draft took precisely one month – I can be sure because I completed it during National Novel Writing Month. After that it gets very hazy, between the rewrite and subsequent edits. But from originally having the idea to the book being published has taken almost five years – although that is partly due to delays thanks to Covid.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
Yes – my writing playlist is about as incoherent as a playlist can be, but I’m very happy to share it!
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
I think my favourite is what Barry Cunningham (who founded Chicken House) first said to me, when he called to tell me I’d been shortlisted for the Times/Chicken House prize – he described it as ‘a breath of fresh air’. I hadn’t quite realised at the time that my book was so different to most other children’s books being published at the moment, and it was especially wonderful to get such encouraging feedback so early on.
What can you tell us about your next book?
Well, I’ve got a few ideas I’m working on developing, one of them being a Dandy sequel – I’d love to see him in another book, and I think there’s abundant scope for him to get himself into lots more adventures!
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
Absolutely! I ended up writing for children mostly accidentally, because I knew a book about a highway lion had to be a children’s book. I tend to be drawn to writing historical fiction, but one of my current projects is contemporary, though still somewhat fantastical. I also have an adult historical novel that I’m working on between children’s projects, and I’m very much hoping to eventually find it a home with an adult publisher.
Which author(s) inspire you?
P.G. Wodehouse probably has to be first on this list! Susanna Clarke, Jane Austen and Agatha Christie have been very influential too. In children’s books I loved Joan Aitken, and in particular Arabel’s Raven, as a child, and I can see that relationship between children and extraordinary animal characters mirrored in Dandy.
Which genres do you read yourself?
I will try almost anything! But I tend to gravitate towards historical fiction, detective fiction, some fantasy, literary fiction, and of course children’s books!
What is your biggest motivator?
I think the feeling of accomplishment – of having started from nothing but the kernel of an idea and taken that to a fully fleshed out story that has now become a real book. The fact that this is even possible seems like a small miracle.
What will always distract you?
Myself, usually! I have to work hard to be disciplined, and I’m not always very good at it. An exciting email is always going to send me squirrelling away from whatever I’m supposed to be doing.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
I love The Petersfield Bookshop, which is the most wonderful labyrinth. Every time you think you’ve run out of shop you find another unexpected section – I could spend hours in there.
What books can you not resist buying?
Books with an impossibly rich, gorgeous cover, or occasionally even a particularly good font. I’ve bought several books on the strength of the cover alone, and discovered my favourite novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, because I loved the font on the cover.
What is your current or latest read?
I just finished The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, and in children’s books I read Wildoak by C.C. Harrington most recently. I really loved both, so it’s been a very good couple of reading weeks!
Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
I’m really looking forward to Over My Dead Body by Maz Evans! I’ve also heard very good things about Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang, and my mum just recommended Still Life by Sarah Winman, which has gone straight into my TBR list.