She is the winner of the Cheltenham Literary Festival’s First Novel Award for her debut novel, STILL WATER, which will be published in the UK by HarperCollins’ Borough Press on 23rd June, and in Germany by HarperCollins’ Ecco Verlag on 25th October.
Her poetry and flash fiction has appeared in Mslexia, Reflex Fiction, Cactus Heart Magazine, and Catweazle Magazine. Her non-fiction writing has featured in The Guardian and the Journal of American, British and Canadian Studies. She holds an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing from Cardiff University.
She lives in Gloucestershire with her husband Lewis, son Arthur, and dog Rosie.
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?
My pregnancy. It was a (delightful) surprise. I tend not to have many surprises in my life – I’m a meticulous planner – so it really upended me. Suddenly my life was going in a different direction to the one I’d planned, and in order to feel in some sort of control of the situation, I began researching everything to do with pregnancy and childbirth – including everything that could possibly go wrong. I wanted to be prepared for every potential catastrophe. Stillbirth, a traumatic labour, postnatal health issues… it sounds morbid, but I think it was just my way of soothing my nerves and feeling prepared. Luckily, I had an easy pregnancy, a long but uncomplicated birth, and I absolutely loved being a mum right from the start (it helps that I had a healthy, easygoing, gorgeous baby). But all the dark things that I’d read up on during my pregnancy were sort of fermenting in the back of my mind, and I needed a place to put them. Still Water is a sort of narrative exorcism I guess.
What came first the characters or the world?
The world. My parents and three older siblings lived on the Shetland Islands in the late 1970s, on Unst, the most northerly island in the UK (my Dad was in the R.A.F. and was stationed there). By the time I was born, my Dad had left the forces and my family had moved to Devon. I grew up hearing stories about Unst, this wild, remote, rugged island, where they’d lived in a croft and had peat fires and saw the midnight sun, and it totally captured my imagination. I think I was always a bit jealous that my brothers and sister got to live there and I didn’t, so setting the book on Unst was my way of joining in!
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
I had an unusually easy path to publication, in that I got my publishing contract by winning a competition – the Cheltenham Literature Festival’s First Novel Competition. To enter, I had to send off the first three chapters of my novel-in-progress. I still can’t quite believe that I won. The prize was an advance, a publishing contract with The Borough Press, and agency representation by LBA Books. So the whole package. It was a dream come true. I’m sickeningly lucky.
How long did it take to write?
A long time. Although I’d won the competition on the strength of the first three chapters and synopsis, the novel itself still needed a massive amount of work before it was ready to publish. I was trying to wade through structural edits with a newborn, and the sleep deprivation meant my brain just wasn’t functioning properly – the more I worked on the book, the more it seemed to fall apart in my hands. It was a mammoth task. In the end I submitted the completed manuscript in March 2020, over two-and-a-half years after I’d sent off those chapters to the competition! Then came line edits and copyedits… I’d say the novel itself took me about 3-4 years to write.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
I don’t, but I tend to listen to lots of nature sound playlists on Spotify to get me in the mood for scenes.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
So far, from the early reviewers who have received advance copies of the book, I’ve had great reactions. The thing I’m most proud of is that reviews have said that I’ve managed to tackle difficult subjects with sensitivity, which was my main aim. The last thing I wanted to do was exploit the subject of maternal mental illness for cheap thrills. Balancing serious subject matter with a storyline that was still gripping was difficult, and I’m glad people think I’ve managed it.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
I do. I know people say authors shouldn’t read their reviews, but I’ve got quite a thick skin with regards to my writing; it wouldn’t worry me if my book wasn’t someone’s cup of tea. I’m always looking to learn and improve, so if people have constructive criticism, I’m all ears. Also, if you didn’t read your reviews, you’d miss out on all the lovely things people say, which is a huge bolster against self-doubt and impostor syndrome!
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
I think it’s probably best to stick with what I know, although I quite fancy writing a horror screenplay at some point.
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I work at the University of Bristol as an administrator – part-time, to fit around childcare. I’ve worked in lots of other jobs: rollercoaster operator, housekeeper, telemarketer, medical secretary… most of my working life has been spent in libraries, though. A great place to work if you’re a book-lover.
Which author(s) inspire you?
Jacqueline Wilson. Although she’s a children’s author her writing has probably had the biggest impact on me – truthful, direct, honest stories about difficult social issues. She’s a brilliant writer, and although her books rarely have ‘happy’ endings, they are always positive and redemptive in some way. Other writers include Margaret Atwood for her beautiful prose and characterisation, Stephen King for pace and plotting and writing about fear, and Eimear McBride for her stunning, impressionistic imagery.
Which genres do you read yourself?
Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Horror. Occasionally a classic or two.
What is your biggest motivator?
Other people imposing deadlines on me. I’m rubbish at self-motivation.
What will always distract you?
Social Media. I’m an addict.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes, massive. I spent most of my childhood with my nose stuck in a book.
What were your favourite childhood books?
Anything by Jacqueline Wilson, of course! I also loved the Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
The Cotswold Book Room in Wotton-under-Edge. It’s run by the loveliest couple and you always get such a warm welcome. I’m having my launch party there on the 23rd June!
Do you have any rituals when writing?
Sadly not, although I like the idea of it.
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
Too many to count.
What is your current or latest read?
I’m alternating between Alison Moore’s The Pre-War House and Other Stories and Lucie McKnight Hardy’s Dead Relatives, both books of stunningly crafted and incredibly unsettling short stories. Both absolutely incredible writers.
What books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
I’m really looking forward to Sophie Jai’s Wild Fires, Joanna Cannon’s A Tidy Ending, Emma Szewczak’s The Stitch-Up, and Meera Shah’s debut novel, title as yet not revealed!
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
There are, but I can’t tell anyone about them yet – watch this space!
Any events in the near future?
My book launch was on the 23rd June at the Cotswold Book Room! I’ll also be going to the Book Nook in Ware in the summer. Hopefully some other signings and appearances too – follow me on Twitter for details!