I was lucky enough to be invited to the distinctly upmarket Charlotte Street Hotel in London’s Fitzrovia, as a guest of Transworld for their evening showcasing what they hope will be their best-sellers for 2018. Managing Director Larry Finlay (left) took the stage first, and showed his perfectly justifiable pride in how the group’s editors had managed to pick some astonishingly successful novels over the last few years. Judging what readers might want to read months – if not years – ahead, taking a punt on the talent of someone as yet unknown to book fans, and then backing your judgment with publicity and marketing; these are the skills by which publishers stand or fall, and Larry and his team at Transworld seem to be getting the hard bits right.
Journalist, editor and host of The Vintage podcast, Alex Clark, then invited the featured authors to join her on-stage. Ruth Jones is no stranger to the world of entertainment. Television viewers will know her as writer and co-star of Gavin and Stacey, and her compelling portrayal of Hattie Jacques in Hattie. Her debut novel, Never Greener is all about the dangers of taking second chances in life. Referring to the grass implied by the title, she says,”It’s still grass. Just a different patch of it, that’s all.” As to her writing, she says that she falls in love with her characters, and relishes the fact that this work doesn’t require the make-up trolley. Her tip? Always make a note of every experience, no matter how inconsequential – you never know when it will come in handy.
Karen Cleveland had the furthest to travel for the event – a little matter of 4,000 miles or so – from her home in Virginia. Avid readers of espionage thrillers will be well aware of the principle employers in the town of Langley, Virginia – none other than the staple ingredient of most international conspiracy novels, The Central Intelligence Agency. Karen actually spent years behind The Agency’s high security gates, working as an analyst and specialising in identifying potential foul play from Russia. It’s no surprise then, that her debut novel Need To Know describes a young mother and CIA analyst digitally searching files in hopes of unmasking a Russian sleeper cell in the US, but then making a shocking discovery that threatens her job, her family and her life. Karen’s tip for tyro authors – fit in your writing in any time you can, no matter what other balls you have in the air at the same time.
Anne Youngson is one of my generation – she has reached her biblical allowance of three score and ten – but she is living proof that it is never to late to write a debut novel. Unsurprisingly, Meet Me at the Museum features two people with more of their lives behind them than ahead. Anne has a formidable CV away from her writing; she worked for Land Rover, as Chief Engineer, Defender replacement and, finally, MD of the Special Vehicle Operations. Her two fictional protagonists make an unexpected connection through a love of ancient history, personal treasures, and nature. Anne’s writing tip is simple, but powerful – the more you write, the better you get.
There is nothing more intriguing than other people’s houses. A bourgeois obsession, maybe, but one to which many of us, given the thumbscrew treatment, would reluctantly admit. Rebecca Fleet’s debut novel makes the most of the darker side of the swap. A failing marriage, a mutual loss of faith, no future except one in which personal conflicts guarantee to destroy love; Caroline and Francis hope that new surroundings will provide a jump start to their stalled relationship. Marrying domestic noir with the psychological drama, The House Swap is guaranteed to chill and thrill in equal measure. Rebecca was happy to quote Samuel Johnson as her writing tip.
“A man may write at any time if he will set himself doggedly to it.”
Simon Mayo is a widely respected radio presenter. His weekly good-natured sparring with Mark Kermode on Friday afternoons on BBC Radio Five Live are not to be missed. But Mayo the writer? I have to put my hand up and say that I was unaware of his popular young adult fiction. My excuse is that I am certainly not young, and my detractors will query my being described as adult. However, Simon Mayo’s forthcoming debut in adult fiction sounds fascinating. The Anglo-American conflict of 1812 is one of history’s forgotten episodes, but as well as The White House being torched by British troops, many Americans were taken prisoner and shipped back to Britain, where they were incarcerated within the iconically grim granite walls of Dartmoor Prison. The Shakespearean title of Mayo’s novel is Mad Blood Stirring (Romeo and Juliet) and it tells the story of the violent consequences that followed the segregation of black and white prisoners in Dartmoor. Mayo offers this advice to aspiring novelists. (1) Write to find out, (2) Never be intimidated – if you have an idea that you believe in, stick with it, hold on to it, and to hell with the detractors.