The novel I am currently developing is a change of direction for me. There is no rural setting; the action takes place around a suburban housing estate and a secondary school. It is set no further back in the past than the 1990s, which does not count as a historical setting. And my main characters are teenagers, not adults. Does this mean (voice drops to a whisper) I am writing Young Adult fiction?
The Young Adult market is a massive phenomenon that I know little about. Some on-line research suggests that it started to become a serious genre in the first decade after the millennium. This means I missed it as a reader because I was too old, and also as a bookseller because I had left before it made it big on the shelves. Neither have my own children been particularly into it. Looking through bestseller lists and suggested reading recommendations, there is a wealth of high quality and thought-provoking fiction, with lots of publications that are considered “classics” of the genre. Young Adult is now a respected and lucrative element of fiction. As a passionate reader, I am, of course, delighted that so much is being done to encourage young people to read, and glad that the publishing industry has recognised that teenagers deserve high quality literature just as much as anyone else. It’s certainly something I feel I missed out on at that age.
I was a vociferous reader all through my teens, and yet when I look back on what I was reading, it makes my toes curl with shame. Between re-reading my favourite children’s books, I read some absolute rubbish. But the mediocrity of my literature choices reflects on the lack of options there were back then. Young Adult wasn’t a thing, only “teen fiction”, which tended to be mass-market produced romance. I read a few of the “Sweet Dreams” series, with the classic formula of Girl meets Boy, Girl hates Boy, Girl changes mind about Boy, Girls ends up with Boy, all sealed with a kiss on the last page. I read them willingly enough but with an awareness that they weren’t really any good. I liked something a bit spicier, like Virginia Andrews. Back then, novels like Flowers in the Attic and Heaven were published as Adult Fiction, probably because of the sexual content – that’s probably why so many teenagers like me read them. I also liked a bit of Aga Saga, picked up from my mum, and historical fiction, such as Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons. Then I discovered Fantasy and devoted myself to authors such as Tad Williams, David Eddings and R A Salvatore. Looking back on this now, I see that it was all pretty formulaic and rather disappointing as literature. Nor does any of it reflect my own experiences, as ordinary teen living an ordinary life.
So it is great that teens have such an amazing choice these days. And yet, I still feel a bit reluctant to label my new novel as Young Adult. Yes, it has teenaged protagonists, and yes, it is a “coming of age” story. But to me, that’s not what it is about. In all my fiction, I want to write stories about people, and it just so happens that this time, the people are young and living in a time period that I lived through myself. That isn’t meant to make it more accessible to just one group of readers, or exclude others. In the same way that I will ignore labels and read anything, I want my writing to work in the same way. If I do the job right, there isn’t anyone who shouldn’t enjoy reading my new story. So I’m not sure I would want it published as a Young Adult novel, even if that meant opening my work to a whole new market – not so great if that put off other readers. Why shouldn’t adults read books about young people – after all, we have all lived through our own ‘coming of age’, and even if it was a long time ago, we can still relate.
However, while this is definitely not an attempt to get a foot in a new market, I will admit that there is another agenda behind my choice of characters and subject matter. When I wrote my children’s book No Such Cold Thing, it was out of a desire to write something my own children could read. Now my children are older, maybe I am writing something that will continue to appeal to them. And not just my own off-spring. I work in a school with children aged between ten and eighteen. They don’t know that I write novels, and I suspect if they found out, they wouldn’t want to read them anyway – there’s way too much boring history, and the characters are practically middle-aged! But it would be different if I had a novel about teenagers. That would be relevant to them, and maybe even a tiny bit tempting to read. It’s not that I’m trying to be cool or impress them, but it would be nice to engage with them in a subject that I love. After all, I like working with young people, and the more I get to know them, the more interesting they become. They might even inspire more novels!
I must stop now, before I go off on flights of fancy about being discovered as the TA who wrote the bestseller that all the kids are talking about, and my novel making it onto school reading lists. I haven’t even written the novel yet.
It was one year ago that I blogged about beginning the process of submitting to literary agents in the hope of moving beyond self-publishing. I had a spreadsheet of agents to approach, a meticulously crafted begging letter with the all-important elevator-pitch, a carefully thought-out synopsis and highly-edited first three chapters of my novel. And begin I did, just a few days after writing that blog.
Since then, I have made approximately twenty-five submissions. I have found and corrected some sneaky mistakes in the first three chapters, and redrafted my synopsis in various attempts to make my novel sound more enticing. I have read many advice columns and blogs, prompting me to rewrite my introductory letter countless times. I have carefully filed into my records each individual submission, and logged any responses – my spreadsheet is colour coded, with each agency highlighted in a different colour according to the month I contacted them, with the colour being changed to grey if they reply with a rejection. Inevitably, there are a lot of greys. And I think the time has come to update the outstanding colours to grey too, especially those from the first half of the year. Well, all I can say is, they missed their chance!
I still have faith in the quality of my work. However, by the autumn, I was beginning to wonder if I was submitting the wrong novel; I had thought that After the Rain was the easiest to sell, but what if that also made it seem too clichéd? I don’t think it is, but to agents with five minutes to glance at a synopsis, it might just seem like another First World War love story. So I made a complete U-turn, and took a chance on submitting The Most Beloved Boy, hoping that its more unusual story would stand out more. This meant a brand new synopsis, another rewrite of the opening chapters (in which I decided to delete a whole chapter!) and yet another begging letter with a new elevator-pitch. I’m hoping that the unique and intriguing plot will be tempting enough to smooth over the fact that it is a very long novel, or maybe even convince them that the length is another selling point – after all, what’s wrong with a good, lengthy read with lots of complexity and depth. That’s the kind of novel I like.
The months of November and December were completely taken up with promoting the Advent Calendar stories, so I have taken a break from the submission process for a while. But now that it is January, it is time to start the ball rolling again. However, I have almost exhausted my first list of potential agents, so will need to return to Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook before I can go any further. It’s time for another list, and a new set of colours. Am I down-hearted? Well, yes, of course I bloody am. But I’m not beaten yet. I will keep going, and I will believe that each of those agents that rejected me will one day look back with regret that they missed their opportunity to sign me up. I’m sorry if that seems hubristic, but what kind of writer would I be if I couldn’t imagine that? Besides, I am a writer, with other projects to work on. It’s been eighteen months since I completed The Hawthorn Bride, and so far I have resisted the urge to start editing it. I think the time is now ripe to start turning the first draft into something more polished, and maybe aim to publishing it on KDP by the end of the year. I also have a new novel niggling away in my head. Shortly before Christmas, I was invigilating for mock GCSEs, and in that lovely empty time, I found myself fleshing out the bare bones of a story that I have been loosely plotting for a few years now, and suddenly I have an almost complete chapter plan. If I were to apply some Nano-Wrimo motivation and my newly discovered technique of “don’t think, just write” to it, I could probably get a first draft written pretty quickly. Both of these projects are really exciting, the things that make writing fun and worth-while. I don’t write to be rejected by agents – I write to create fiction. If no agent has discovered that yet, they only have themselves to blame.
So Christmas Eve has come around again. The cake is decorated, the presents are wrapped, and I am watching The Fiddler on the Roof with a nice drink. Later, we will finish the story that my daughter wrote and get ready for the big day. Christmas Day will be lovely, with the food and music, spending time with family and seeing gifts opened, and yet there is something special about Christmas Eve with its sense of anticipation. It’s all part of a feeling that there is something magical going on, a feeling that can’t be recreated at any other time of year, powerful and intense and yet slippery and ethereal, disappearing without notice. I have always felt this magic was strongest on Christmas Eve – even as a child, I always felt it slipping away once that mad dash to see what Father Christmas had brought was over. Maybe it is the fragility of the feeling that makes it so special – only the most rare magic can be so overwhelming and yet so intangible. It’s what we’re all reaching for – but how many of us find it?
Christmas stories are an attempt to capture the feeling. It isn’t an easy thing to achieve – Christmas means different things to different people. But I hope that my Advent Stories have done that. If you are one of the growing number of people who downloaded a story this year, I hope that it has added a little more magic to your Christmas. Maybe you can make the magic last a little bit longer by taking out all the episodes and rereading it in one go, recreating the old tradition of Christmas story-telling. But whatever your Christmas plans, whether you find the magic or not, I wish you peace and contentment, and the best fortune for the New Year.
In just a few hours, we will be entering the final month of 2021 – where did the year go? As the inexorable march of time brings us to the end of another year, it is lucky for us that we have Advent and the Christmas Season to distract us from any gloom we may have that twelve months have been and gone in the wink of an eye. Surely, it is not just the darkness and cold that makes it so important to have Christmas to look forward to, but also a need to celebrate the passing of the year rather than let it slip by with a sense of regret.
There are no regrets here. I have now been running my Advent Story offer for five years, and it has slowly but surely been gathering strength each year. 2021 has been a record year for downloads. I am absolutely amazed by the figures this November, and I am proud and happy to think that so many families will be waking up to their story tomorrow morning, and every day of Advent until the happy ending on Christmas Eve. And there has been a change in the rankings. The top five are now…
Dropping to Number 5, but still beating its total for last year, The Shepherd’s Tale.
Holding strong at Number 4, Disaster at the Christmas Pudding Factory.
Proving that traditional is still popular is The Very Special Christmas Star at Number 3.
At Number 2, the story I was worried was too miserable, Mrs Christmas – after all, it does have a very happy ending.
But at Number 1, and personal favourite of my children, Bunny and Pup’s Big Christmas Adventure, just going to prove that mischievous toys and an appearance from the big man in red will always be a winner at Christmas.
Whichever one of my stories you may have chosen – and there’s still time, just click here– I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I love all my stories, and think every one of them offers a perfect touch for Advent. And you don’t even need an Advent Calendar, because I will be publishing one of the stories on Facebook, one episode each day. This year, I give you my tribute to Thomas Hardy – The Shepherd’s Tale, the story of young Joe Turnicock and his experience of watching the sheep in the fields on Christmas Eve. If you want to be sure of getting every episode, click here to Follow my page.
But now, with Advent rapidly approaching, I had better say goodnight. Happy Advent.
When I was young, writing was something that came naturally to me, but was also something weird and freaky – I didn’t know anyone else that wrote for pleasure. I had friends who were good at writing, who wrote amazing stories for English lessons, but as far as I knew, they didn’t go so far as writing their own stories outside of the classroom. (To be fair, my friends were much cleverer than me and got top marks in their GCSEs, so clearly they were using their time more productively rather than writing novels when they should have been revising!) I’m sure I can’t have been the only one, and certainly I won’t have been the only one having ideas, but I was the only one showing off about doing it.
This was back in the eighties and early nineties. Writing as a hobby felt isolated and obscure. Everything was hand-written or typed, and passed around as a single hard-copy. I didn’t even have a computer until 1999. I studied English Lit for my degree and took a job in a bookshop because it felt like the only way to get closer to my ambition of being a published writer, and even then it still felt like a dream rather than a career choice. There was only one way to get published – write a novel, send it to publishers and hope that someone liked it. Until then, keep working and write in your free time.
Things are pretty different today. There are many universities offering BAs and MAs in creative writing – how I would have jumped at the chance to do that when I was eighteen. KDP has opened up the whole of Amazon to self-published novel writers without the stigma of ‘vanity publishing’. And as for writing and presenting work on the internet – well, it is a massive world that I know nothing about. But my kids do. They read all kinds of work on the internet: fan fiction, web-comics, Tumblr posts. At times, I get frustrated that they are wasting their time on writing of dubious quality instead of reading real books. But at the same time, I have to admit that I am just jealous. Being honest to myself, I know that if I were eighteen now, I would be writing bad fan fiction and posting it for everyone to read. Actually, when I was eighteen, I did write bad fan fiction, which thankfully is still in a notebook and will never see the light of day, so maybe that is something to be thankful for. But there are so many more opportunities for writers to get their work “out there” that I would have embraced whole-heartedly, and who knows where that would have taken me.
Maybe with a bit of effort, I could still take advantage of those opportunities. After all, I have published my novels on KDP, and I set up this blog to promote myself. But I feel too old to go further than that; not incapable, but too old to jump on a bandwagon that belongs to another generation. It isn’t my fault that I was born when I was, but that doesn’t mean I can crash someone else’s opportunities. Maybe my sense of propriety is too sensitive, but that’s always been my way. So I will stick with my original plan – keep working, write on days off and keep sending out my submissions. Sometimes I feel bitter, but it’s the writing that really matters to me, and nothing stopped me doing that, and I guess that is the most important thing.
But for the younger generations, writing has become a hugely popular hobby, and no wonder, with so many opportunities. I see it amongst the teenagers I work with. And, joy of joys, I see it with my own kids, as all three of them write. I have watched them start stories and get excited about projects just like I did when I was their age. When my son was eight, he had me print off his “novel” – a sci-fi adventure, with one chapter per page. My daughters publish art and web-comics and fan fiction on the internet and receive thousands of likes – more than I ever get with this blog! I am so proud of them, and more than a little thrilled that they share this passion with me – and dare I say, ‘inherited’ from me. Of course, I will be proud of them and encourage them with whatever direction they choose to take in life, but if it happens to be writing – well, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a family of writers, like the Brontës, the Durrells or the Amis family! But no matter what, I will always encourage them to keep writing, just for the sheer pleasure of it. I’m sure they will – once a person discovers the joy of shaping words into sentences and paragraphs, creating people and worlds, it can be quite addictive.
However, this blog is not just about me being the proud mother. It is nearly the end of October, the time of year when I start to think about promoting my Advent Calendar Stories. Last year, I was so busy on other writing projects that I ran out of time to write a new story for my family. They were very understanding, and didn’t mind that I could only offer a repeat. But then, to my delight, one of my daughters took it upon herself to write the story herself. It was brilliant, a perfect Christmassy story about a brother and sister helping one of Father Christmas’s reindeer get back into the sky to catch up with the sleigh. And this year, all three of them have volunteered to provide a story. Now I know that my Advent Story Calendar has well and truly become a family tradition, and I have every confidence that they will be writing stories for their own family and friends long into the future. And if they ever make it big, I’ll be happy to take some of the credit!
For everyone else out there wanting a story for an Advent Calendar – there are ten to choose from in the Index of Stories. And they do say that reading to children is a very good way to encourage them to start writing their own stories…
I have some reading for you today. Writing about the old Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon has made me nostalgic, and so, in honour of that old shop that doesn’t exist anymore, I publish this extract from Have You Got that Book..? and dedicate it to all the people I worked with. Apart from tidying up some of the grammar, it has been left exactly as it was written and last edited over twenty years ago. This is taken from chapter 3; the much-loved manager of Phoenix Books is retiring and being replaced by a relative of the shop’s owners, but not many of the staff are happy with the change.
Two weeks later, Owen came into work wondering whose idea it had been to have Rodney’s leaving party the night before the new manger’s first day. Her first real visit to the shop at all, as it turned out, and she would be met by a shop full of hung-over staff with red bleary eyes and pounding heads.
The party had been raucous, to say the least. Rodney had chosen his favourite restaurant, an Italian family business that served up huge bowls of delicious pasta and the best pizzas in Robinsworth. Rodney had added to this copious bottles of Chianti and had instructed the waiters to keep the glasses full. He had then set an example by getting stupendously drunk.
“If a man can’t have a few drinks at his own retirement party, then what is the world coming to,” he roared. “Come on Milly, drink up. Susan, down in one.”
And everyone else seemed quite happy to follow him. Spirits had been low since the news that a stranger would be taking over had become known. James, of course, had been devastated, which he turned into anger that someone who didn’t know anything books or the shop would be in charge. His reaction was understandable, and the staff seemed to have taken it to heart. Much to Owen’s disapproval, Rodney was quite open in his agreement with James, which certainly didn’t help. Owen could sense a mounting wave of hysteria, despite all his best efforts to reassure everyone that the new manager had probably wanted to work in Robinsworth because it was already successful and therefore wouldn’t want to come in and change everything overnight. He wasn’t sure if anyone was listening to him though. In fact, it seemed that they were all set on drowning their sorrows and throwing caution to the wind.
Owen had drunk a fair amount himself, but had been determined that at least one of the staff would be in a fit condition to meet the new manager, and had carefully refrained at a sensible hour, keeping his glass full so Rodney couldn’t insist on refilling it. Seeing Milly sobbing into her tiramisu, he had volunteered to open up in the morning, guessing that Milly wouldn’t be fit for her usual duty. So he arrived at the shop early, with a relatively clear head.
He turned on the computers and began running the morning set-up programmes, which loaded the shop’s computer system. Then he went to make himself a cup of coffee, and took the opportunity to browse. He liked being in the shop when it was empty and silent; he felt at home, as if all the books were his, and he went around, straightening the books here, replacing stray books there. As always, he became completely absorbed, and was surprised by Milly staggering in, who had forgotten Owen’s offer to open up. Owen quickly steered her to the admin room where he left her with a cup of sweet tea and a promise that he would give her a hand later on. Just before nine, Rob and Sophie showed up, both looking a little green. Owen had never seen the quiet Sophie drink so much. She had even been singing with Rodney. She was now trying to act as normally as possible, but when she got to the children’s section, she had to sit down on a kick stool and rest her head against the shelves. Rob muttered something about paperwork and didn’t emerge from the staffroom, leaving Owen to man the till on his own. When Susan arrived at nine-thirty, Owen was almost afraid to leave her on duty at the till, she was in such a foul mood. He went up to the back to see what Rob was up to, and found that Alex had sneaked in the back, but was collapsed over his workbench in the parcel room. And just at that moment, James appeared, looking as sick as a dog, barely even saying good morning before rushing to the toilets and shutting himself in.
Owen decided there was nothing he could do except make some very strong coffee and dole out sympathy, along with gentle reminders that their new boss would be coming in some time that morning. This did little to rally them, especially James, who just shouted at Owen to leave him alone. Owen was congratulating himself on avoiding a hangover, until Rodney phoned to say he wouldn’t be in until that afternoon.
“But the new manager is coming in this morning,” protested Owen. “What am I going to say if she gets here and you’re not even here to welcome her.”
“Tell her the truth,” said Rodney. “It’s got nothing to do with her what we all did at my retirement party. If she doesn’t like it, tough.”
“But you’re meant to be showing her round,” said Owen.
“I’m sure you can cope with that,” said Rodney, and promptly hung up before Owen could say anything else.
Now Owen was faced with a real crisis. Not only did he have to rally the staff, but he also had to look after this woman who was his new boss. He knew very little about her, other than her name, which was Sarah, and that she had been working in management for a large supermarket chain. Still, it was important to make a good impression.
He quickly organised some legitimate paperwork for Rob that he could sit and do in the staff room at his leisure. Alex agreed to start opening some boxes, even if it was slower than usual. He rescued Sophie from the children’s section and set her at the computer in the office to do some ordering. There wasn’t much he could do to improve Susan’s mood, but he could at least help her at the till, so he stood a chance of being there when Sarah Phoenix arrived. He apologised to Milly for not being able to help her after all, but told her to take as long as she needed and he would help her make up for lost time the day after. He left her bravely beginning to count out the previous day’s takings with fumbling fingers. James, he gave up on and left to his own devices, which seemed to be not much more than retching in the toilet, but at least he was out of the way.
All morning, Owen watched the door like a hawk, weighing up every woman in anticipation. By eleven, he was beginning to get hopeful that Rodney would make it in before she would, when a woman walked in that Owen knew instantly had to be Sarah Phoenix.
She was younger than he’d been expecting, perhaps a year or two younger than himself, which was his first surprise. The second was that she was a very attractive woman. She was wearing an expensive suit that fitted her slim figure perfectly, which was both smart and feminine. She had very blond hair, drawn back into a severe bun, but this only served to highlight her delicate face and long neck. She had a pale, clear complexion, and she seemed perfectly calm and in control as she walked up to the till.
“Sarah Phoenix,” she said briskly. “I’m here to meet Rodney Burgess.”
Owen was still getting over the surprise of her looks and was taken back by her abruptness. “Hello,” he said nervously. “I’m Owen. I’m afraid Rodney’s not here.”
“Not here?” she said sounding irritated. “But we arranged to meet today. I spoke to him yesterday about it.”
“He is coming in,” said Owen, “but he’s going to be late. He’s not feeling all that well this morning. He’ll be fine later.”
Sarah tutted. “What am I going to do now?” she muttered, and Owen saw now that she wasn’t as calm as she had first appeared. That made him feel better.
“Well, I can show you around,” he said. “I can’t go through all the business details, but I can at least give you a tour of the shop, and introduce you to the staff. They’re all looking forward to meeting you.”
“Yes, all right,” she said. “I’ll see my office first.”
“Yes, of course,” said Owen, glad to get her away from Susan, who was scowling at an old lady who was laboriously paying for her book with coppers. He quickly whisked her up to the office, knocking on the door first to warn Sophie, who had fallen asleep at the keyboard. She sat up quickly, but not quickly enough to stop Sarah seeing her. Owen introduced them, and Sophie barely said a word and scuttled away as quickly as she could.
“She’s a very quiet girl,” said Owen apologetically, “but she knows everything about children’s books. She does it brilliantly.”
Sarah was too busy looking around the office too pay much attention to him. Owen saw her looking hopefully towards the admin room, and guessed she was hoping to see the real office.
“That’s the admin room through there,” he said quickly. “It’s where Milly does all the cashing up, and the invoices.”
At least Milly had recovered enough to be polite, though Sarah paid her little attention. After scanning the admin room and seeing no further doors, she returned to the office and stared at the desks.
“Is this it?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Owen. “I’m afraid it’s all there is.” She was looking with pure revulsion at Rodney’s sagging old chair. “That’s Rodney’s,” he said. “I think he’ll be taking it with him when he leaves.”
“Good,” she said softly, putting her briefcase down on Rodney’s desk, or her desk, as it was soon to be. She was studying the other desk. “Isn’t the deputy manager in today?” she asked.
“He is, but he isn’t very well either,” said Owen awkwardly.
“Good god, what’s wrong with every body?” she snapped.
“Well, we had Rodney’s retirement party last night,” said Owen, “so everyone is a little worse for wear.”
“I see,” she said. “I wish Rodney had told me that when I called him yesterday. I could have postponed my coming. I’ve had to come all the way from Cambridge this morning.”
“I’m sure Rodney didn’t realise how bad things were going to get,” said Owen, shamefully wondering if Rodney had planned this all along. “He’s been more than a boss to most of us, he’s going to be missed a lot. It was an important occasion.”
Sarah sighed. “Well, I might as well get familiar with the shop. I presume you’re not too ill to show me round.”
“Not at all,” said Owen, although he was beginning to tire of her waspish attitude and did not relish spending the rest of the day with her. But once they got out onto the shop floor, Owen forgot all about this as he relaxed into his favourite subject, the books. He took her round the shop bay by bay, section by section, describing in great detail the arrangement of each, guiding her through the numerous nooks and crannies. She said little to interrupt him, but made him feel uneasy by scribbling copious notes in a notebook. It took them over an hour to get round, during which time they were avoided by all the others. Owen had been putting off taking her to the parcel room and staff room, but finally, he ran out of shelves and it could be avoided no more.
“This is the parcel room,” he said, leading her in. “I’m sorry, everything’s quite disorganised out here.”
As he said this, Alex knocked over a stack of books. With a loud curse, he set to picking them up, until he saw Owen and Sarah standing in the door. He quickly straightened up with a friendly grin.
“This is Alex,” said Owen. “He’s responsible for goods in.”
“And not usually so cack-handedly,” said Alex apologetically, holding out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
For the first time, Sarah smiled. “It’s alright, I think I know what the problem is,” she said. “Perhaps you could show me how things work in here?”
Owen left Alex to it and nipped into the staffroom, to find James and Rob sitting there, drinking coffee and eating cakes.
“Are you two still here?” he hissed at them.
“Excuse me, we’re having our break,” said James defensively.
“Break!” said Owen. “You haven’t done anything all morning.”
“Well you didn’t expect me to be there to greet her, did you?” snapped James.
“Yes, I did, and so did she,” said Owen. “How do you suppose it looks to her, if her deputy manager is too hung-over to even say hello?”
“That’s just tough,” said James. “If she wants to get on with me, then she has to realise that she’s not going to tell me what to do.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, she’s only been in the shop a couple of hours,” said Owen. “She hasn’t asked you to do anything yet. It’s me that’s asking you to at least be civil. You do have to work with her, remember.”
It had been a close call between James staying on as deputy manager, and handing in his notice in disgust. At his most angry, he had been determined not to work for an outsider who had no right to a job that should have been his. Owen had finally persuaded him that he loved the shop too much to leave. He had resorted to using Rodney’s argument that James would be needed to see that it stayed on the straight and narrow. The result was that James had decided to stay, but with such a stubborn attitude that Owen wondered if he would last the month out.
“If she wants to be civil,” said James, “then she can come to me.”
“Fine,” snapped Owen. “Rob, you’ve been in here all morning. At least go and relieve Susan from the till so she can have a break. And come and say hello to Sarah.”
Sulkily, Rob finished his cake and followed Owen out into the parcel room, where Sarah was now chatting to Alex. She looked much different when she was smiling, which she was doing now. Owen guessed that the main reason for this change was Alex, which amused him but was not a surprise. Most women who visited the parcel room ended up flirting with Alex, falling prey to his good looks, muscular figure and warm smile. Alex was friendly with everyone, and yet while he made everyone feel welcome and at ease, he was immune to any further attentions. Owen knew Alex was devoted to his girlfriend, Deb, who he had been living with three years, and in no danger of having his head turned. He wondered how long it would take Sarah to work this out. She hadn’t been very nice to him so far, but he didn’t want to see her make a fool of herself, especially not with James waiting for her to put a foot wrong.
He quickly introduced her to Rob, who became suddenly much keener to say a few words now that he had seen Sarah, but Owen hurried him down to the till. If Susan didn’t get regular breaks, she was even grouchier than usual.
“So, is there anyone else to meet, besides Rodney,” asked Sarah.
“There’s Susan, who’ll be up in a minute,” said Owen. “And there’s James.”
“The deputy manager?” she asked. Then she looked towards the staffroom. “Is he in there?”
“Yes,” said Owen. “That’s the staff room. It’s not very big, or very comfortable, but it’s all we’ve got. Rodney used to talk about an extension, but I don’t think it was ever possible.”
Owen knew he was rambling on the take the edge off the forthcoming confrontation. Sarah marched unhesitatingly into the staffroom, where James was caught in an unfortunate moment of having a mouthful of cream cake. In a flustered moment, his courteous sensibilities over-rode his rebellious streak, and he stood up politely.
“You must be James,” said Sarah curtly. “How’s your head?”
“It’s fine, thank you,” said James in surprise. He held out his hand, and they shook hands very briefly.
“I think you and I need to talk,” she said, looking around the staffroom as she talked. “Maybe if Rodney ever shows up today, you could join us. There’s a lot I need to go through with you.”
“Yes there is,” said James, his bitterness not faltering for long. “I would be quite glad to show you how things are done around here. There’s no need to wait for Rodney, I can show you everything.”
“I’d rather wait,” she said dismissively. “I think I’ll go and get some lunch.”
Owen followed her back to the office, partly ashamed at James’s behaviour, partly angry at her rudeness. At least he could get away from her now, if she was going out. But when she reached the office, she sat down at James’s desk and rested her head in her hand, and he saw once more that she was not as tough as she made out.
“Don’t mind James,” he said. “Do you know he also applied to be manager?”
“Yes, I was informed,” said Sarah, lifting her head. “I was also informed that he probably would have got the job if it wasn’t for me. But I did get this job fair and square. I was interviewed just the same as him.”
“James will appreciate that,” said Owen, surprised at her sudden openness. “He’s upset about it still, but he will get over it. And then you’ll find he’s really very good to work with.”
“We’ll see,” she said. Then she smiled at him. “You’ve been very good to me this morning. Would you maybe like to join me for lunch?”
Just a few moments before, Owen had been looking forward to a break from her. Now he found himself saying yes to joining her. Maybe it was because he had finally seen the strain behind the calm exterior she showed. He had been determined to make an effort for her, and now he thought it might not be such an effort after all.
“You’ll have to suggest somewhere,” she said. “I don’t know Robinsworth at all.”
“It won’t take long to get to know,” said Owen, and he listed a few places. Strangely enough, Sarah picked the Italian, Angelo’s, and seemed even keener to go when Owen pointed out that this was where the party had taken place. Owen didn’t usually eat out for lunch, so it was a nice change to sit in the dark restaurant with its beautiful smells of cooking and coffee. As they ordered, the waiter, recognising Owen from the previous evening, laughed and joked with him at some of the things that had gone on. Sarah listened, looking very interested, but made no comment till the waiter had gone.
“Sounds like you had quite a night,” she said.
“We did,” said Owen, then added, “but it doesn’t happen very often.”
Over lunch, Sarah quizzed him about Robinsworth.
“I see there’s also a Harrows,” she said. “It must cause some troubles.”
“Of course, but it hasn’t threatened us so far,” said Owen.
“Well, I have some ideas that might make them feel threatened,” she said enthusiastically. “There are so many things I want to do. There’s so much we can make of the shop. It’s just sitting there waiting to have its best drawn out of it.”
Owen said nothing. When they arrived back after lunch he was very relieved to find that Rodney had made it in, and was glad to hand Sarah over to him. Rodney took her into the office, where they stayed most of the afternoon, and the staff visibly relaxed. They were now full of curiosity and asked Owen many questions about what she was like and what he thought of her. James in particular demanded that Owen tell him word for word what was said. By four o’clock, they were all much more recovered and restored, but Owen felt tired and drained. Even when he sat down for a well-earned cup of coffee, James came through with a scowl that made Owen’s heart sink.
“They want coffee,” he said sulkily.
“Well take them some,” said Owen, wondering if he was going to have to do everything himself.
“I’m not taking it,” said James indignantly. “I don’t want her to think I’m just an errand-boy.”
So Owen made coffee and took it through to the office. Rodney greeted him with a big smile, which was normal, but was surprised when Sarah did too.
“Thank you Owen,” said Rodney. “Honestly Sarah, this man is a wonder. There is hardly anything he doesn’t know about books.”
“I know,” said Sarah warmly. “He showed me round earlier, and it was certainly comprehensive.”
“He knows the stock much better than I do,” said Rodney.
“But you taught me everything I know,” said Owen. “Do you take sugar Sarah?”
“No sugar, just milk,” she said. “And by the way, no-one ever calls me Sarah. Call me Sassy.”
“Sassy!” said Rodney with a grin. “Well that certainly suits you.”
She blushed slightly, but was still smiling. “It’s not the most complimentary of nick names, but it stuck some time ago,” she said. She smiled up at Owen again. “I do want everyone to feel relaxed with me.”
“And they will, they will,” said Rodney, gushing with enthusiasm, and Owen suppressed a grin to see that even he had succumbed to her attractive charms.
There was a mass of paperwork spread out over both the desks, and so Owen left them both to it. As he left the office, he bumped into James, who was lurking outside suspiciously.
“Things sound quite jolly in there,” he said, following Owen back to the staff room. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” said Owen. “They’re just going over the books. Why don’t you just go in if you’re that bothered about it. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t like to intrude,” said James bitterly. “I do think Rodney should have called me in by now.”
“James, will you stop worrying,” said Owen. “It’s her first afternoon, there’s a lot to go over. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe she feels intimidated by you.”
“Ha, I doubt it,” snapped James. “You heard the way she dismissed me.”
“She’s nervous,” continued Owen, determined to make James give her a break. “Look, if you’ll give her a chance, you’ll find out that she’s actually quite nice. She wants to get on with us all. She’s actually asked me to call her by her nickname.”
James’s eyes lit up. “What’s her nickname?” he asked eagerly.
“Apparently, it’s Sassy,” said Owen, beginning to regret he’d mentioned it, and even more so when James whooped with delight.
“Sassy!” he cried. “What a ridiculous name. If anyone called me that, I wouldn’t admit to it. Who does she think she is? Sassy indeed. I’m going to have to tell everyone this.” And off he went, leaving Owen despairing that the peaceful atmosphere that had once pervaded the shop had gone forever.
My novel Have You Got That Book..? is set in a bookshop called Phoenix Books, but I will absolutely admit that it was based on the bookshop I was working in. While Phoenix books was located in a fictional suburb on the far outskirts of London, my bookshop was Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, and I lifted nearly everything from real life to create the novel, from the lay-out of the shop and the day-to-day business of the job to the type of people who worked there – minus the drama, of course.
Rereading the novel has brought back lots of happy memories, particularly of how the place looked. Since I wrote it, Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon has changed location, to a bright, modern and much more suitable venue, which I thoroughly appreciated when I worked there and still love going in. But before then, it was in an old building that had been inadequately repurposed for a bookshop. It had once been two shops, but so many of the internal walls remained that the two parts never joined together very well. It had an eccentric lay-out, with dark corners, tight passage ways and unexpected areas, all made even more cramped by the display tables and extra shelving units that were crammed into every available space. The shelves weren’t uneven, as such, but they were all different and looked mismatched. Books frequently went missing, because there were so many places they could have been stashed. The shop was long and thin, with no natural light at the far end – in power cuts, we had to close because it was too dark to see, even during the day. There was no back entrance, so all deliveries had to go through the shop – very tricky when when the shop was full of customers, and made even more difficult by the change in floor levels accessed by a step in the middle of the shop. For many years, there was no air-conditioning or heating, so the summers were too hot and the winters too cold. There were two back rooms – one small office, where the managers, the cashier and the admin clerk worked, and another room which operated as kitchen, staff room, unpacking area and stock room. Sometimes it got so full of deliveries that we had to climb through the piles of boxes. It opened straight out on the shop floor, so customers would stick their heads in and ask us questions when we were eating our lunch. But despite all these challenges, we loved our crazy, quirky shop. What it lacked in convenience, it made up for in character. Customers liked the old-world feel of the place, tourists and locals alike. The only other place in town that sold books was WHSmith, so we prized our reputation as the ‘real bookshop’, and we certainly did beat them when it came to range and stock. We were open until eight o’clock in the evening, despite the fact that we were the only shop in town to do so. And we held the most amazing literary events, hosting authors regularly for talks and signings, drawing large audiences from a very long mailing list. Moving all the heavy furniture to fit in audiences of sometimes up to a hundred was exhausting and difficult, but somehow we managed.
I chanced upon the job by accident. I had been in Stratford studying Shakespeare (of course!) and the course was coming to an end. I didn’t want to leave, so when I saw that Waterstone’s were advertising for full-time staff, I jumped at it. That’s when I realised that I had always wanted to work in a bookshop. When I got the job, I also realised that this could be a long-term career. The other staff were people just like me – young, mostly university-educated book-lovers, dedicated and passionate about bookselling. Over the years, I worked with many different people, but we all had that in common. We read vociferously, and swapped books and recommendations all the time. I can’t remember who read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first, but by the time the second book came out a year later, we all had and were passing around the proof copy of The Chamber of Secrets that Bloomsbury had sent to me. We loved the proofs and there was some stiff competition to get your hands on the best ones, along with the posters and marketing materials that the publishers sent. We became really good friends with the publisher’s reps that came in; they, like us, loved their books and the process of subbing new publications could take hours. We would all get excited over new books and gave far too much of our wages back to the company in sales, even with the generous staff discount. We worked together to find lost books and laughed together at the most ridiculous customers – I really did once get asked if Anne Frank had written anything else besides the diary. There was so much more to the job than stacking shelves and serving at the till; we all ordered stock for our own sections, and got the chance to do window displays, promotions and planning events, as well as being trained to do the back room stuff like counting the cash, unpacking and returning the books that hadn’t sold. But best of all, there was always a great team spirit. Despite the physical challenges, or maybe because of them, we worked really well together and kept the shop running relatively smoothly and successfully. I made some very great friends during my years there, and though none of them inspired the characters for my novel, they were the first people to read it.
I ended up working for Waterstone’s for eleven years, and only left because I was about to have my second child and chose to be a stay-at-home mum instead. It’s now been fifteen years since I worked there, and the company and the book trade have been through massive changes. I’m sure some of the things we used to get up to are no longer deemed acceptable. But whenever I go into any branch of Waterstone’s, I feel at home there, and want to say the staff “I am one of you.” If I lived in a town with a branch, I am certain I’d be back working there. And of course, if I ever get published and get the opportunity to do my own author events, it goes without saying that I will always say yes to a Waterstone’s.
The photographs you see in this post were old even before I started working there. Judging by the books, they were taken around 1987/88, which I believe is when the shop first opened. We found them during a clear-up, and no-one working there at the time remembered them being taken. They seem to have been taken professionally for promotional purposes. The exterior shot shows the shop as having two doors, which had been changed by the time I got there. The interior shot shows the front of the shop, and gives a very good impression of what the whole shop was like. These days, Front of Store in any branch of Waterstone’s is a beautifully presented display space for new titles and special offers – back then, customers walked directly into this jumbled mess. But as you can see, huge amounts of stock and the chance of finding absolutely anything – a real book-lover’s paradise!
Summer is a time for reading. At least, that is what the literary types would have us believe, with their lists of best summer reads in the press and summer reading special offers in the shops. Happily, I concur – one of the best things about summer holidays is having time to read. Before we go away, I plan my summer reading meticulously – we usually camp, so with no TV and radio, and limited access to scrolling the internet on the phone, there is plenty of time to read. This year, I took two carefully chosen books. The first was Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. This was something new to me, as I’ve never read anything by this author before, but I knew I had to read it – I love Shakespeare, and having lived in Stratford-upon-Avon for years, felt like I had a personal connection to many of the places featured in the novel. It turned out to be a good choice, as I absolutely loved it; it’s beautifully written, offering a fresh perspective that felt utterly authentic and true to what Shakespeare means to me. It becomes yet another book I wish I could have written. The second book was David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream – one of his earlier novels, but I’ve been saving it, as I like knowing there are still books by my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet. I knew I was going to enjoy this because I love Mitchell’s writing, and it didn’t disappoint. If you are still looking for a good read this summer, I highly recommend both these titles.
However, my third summer read is something that definitely hasn’t been recommended in the special offers or top tens. That’s because I had a sudden urge to reread one of my own old novels. Have You Got That Book…? is a novel I wrote back in the late nineties, when I was working for Waterstone’s (in the afore-mentioned Stratford-upon-Avon, as it happens). When I last wrote about it in my blog, I said that I didn’t think there was a future for the novel; it was written as chick-lit, and while I think I put more depth into it than some examples of that genre, it was still very much of its type. I concluded that it wasn’t very well written, and as it didn’t fit with my other writing and changing it to make it fit would change it too much, it was filed away in limbo, likely to remain that way permanently.
And yet, it is still a novel, complete and substantial. When I write to literary agents, it is included in my portfolio of work as one of two novels in first draft form. People who read it enjoyed it. I spent over two years working on it, and the characters and stories are imprinted in my head. So it was with some curiosity that I returned to it this week. I only planned on reading a few sections, just to relive the emotions that I put into those key chapters. I was expecting to feel toe-curling embarrassment at the standard of writing, vindicating my previous decision. And yet, that didn’t happen. One chapter lead to another, and then back to another, and before long, I had reread the whole thing. And I didn’t hate it. In fact, I really enjoyed it. Yes, I could see mistakes, and simple things that I would change if I had the chance – there is so much drinking, coffee, tea, all kinds of alcohol, it’s literally swilling with liquids! But I didn’t want to change any of the characters, and none of the plot. It is chick-lit, but I think, and I dare to say, it is good chick-lit. The main characters are not just stereo-types but are believable and engaging. The structure is tight, with the multiple plot-lines sitting well alongside each other. It has a classic story arc, with enough twists along the way to keep the reader entertained. And it has some cracking dialogue that made me laugh out loud. For a long time, I have come to think of this novel as something to be ashamed of, a guilty past that I had to hide away. But I now think I have been unfair on myself. I haven’t read any of that genre for ages, but I think it would stand up well alongside any of the bestselling chick-lit that is currently being published. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
But where does that leave the novel? Will anyone ever read it again besides me? It only exists as a collection of files on my computer, and it would really have to be severely edited before it was fit for general consumption again. But I wouldn’t change it from what it was, and more importantly, I would not be averse to it being read again. I love the characters that I created and would be happy to share them with other people. And it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t fit with my other novels – it is what it is, my first and only chick-lit novel. Who knows, maybe someday, under some other pen-name, it might find its way back to the bookshop –perfect summer reading.
In my newspaper of choice, the literary review section includes a Q&A Interview with famous authors, asking about their favourite/worst/most moving/most influential books. It includes a question about the author’s earliest reading memories. Reading the interview this weekend made me wonder about my earliest reading memories, and I realised that I had a few that I could choose from. As far back as I can remember, I have loved books and reading, so much so that the memories have stuck with me through the years.
I remember my Ladybird storybooks, and making up my own stories to go with the pictures because I could not read the words. I’m sure I remember being disappointed that the real stories were not as exciting as my own creations.
I remember being told I could have the privilege of an extra half an hour to read in bed, and gathering up a huge pile of books to read, and being surprised that I only had enough time to read one of them.
I remember imagining a cardboard box was a typewriter so I could write my own stories. This led to me getting my first typewriter when I was six.
I remember picking up a novel that my mum was reading, being intrigued by the title, and realising that the words inside, although smaller and more abundant, were still words that I could read, and so I started reading it, to my mum’s surprise. This was definitely before I was seven.
These memories are just the start of my relationship with books. And later, when children of my own came along, they brought a whole new dimension to that. When we had our children, my husband and I filled our home with books for them. Reading with them, even when they were babies, was something that was really important to us, and I’m they benefited from that. And I benefited too, as it added to my stock of memories in so many new and wonderful ways; having to stop reading the end of Charlotte’s Web to my eldest because I was weeping too much; my youngest being too scared to finish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; a book called Kiss Goodnight Sam that my middle child had every night, to which she added her own silly voices. I wonder what their earliest reading memories will be; maybe the weekly trips to story time at the library, or the evening routines of letting them choose the reading matter while they had their bedtime drink of milk. There are so many distractions and alternatives to reading these days, but I am happy that my children already have their own relationships with books.
All these memories, old and new, make up a part of the story of my relationship with books. I can’t imagine life without books. And yet, I know this is a precious gift. Recently, as part of my job, I have been taking part in training to enable us to improve the literacy of older children – children who have got through first school and have still not mastered the skill of decoding those squiggly black shapes on the page that make up words. Basically, we have been learning how to teach these children to read. For someone like me, for whom reading is not just a skill but a passion, it is a tragedy that some people find reading a mystery and a struggle. I know that being unable to read can have long-lasting effects on a person’s whole life, and I want to do anything I can to change that while there is still that chance. But it means more to me than just that. I know that not everyone enjoys reading, but what if the barrier to enjoying reading was simply the lack of ability? What if helping children decipher those black squiggles led them to something they could enjoy, maybe even be passionate about? I would be proud to be part of their reading memories, but it would make me even happier to think that they might share this with their own children and add to the next generation of reading memories. That would be the greatest goal of all.