On my 40th birthday, my partner and boys bought me a laptop so that I could finally make a serious attempt at writing a book. I wrote (at length) about my journey here, https://tinyurl.com/he4pzrs but long story short – six years and three and a half books later, I was lucky enough to sign with top literary agent Sue Armstrong. Fast forward to the present – nearly nine years after I first opened that laptop – and INFERNUS (a YA Dan Brown novel) will be published by Oetinger in Germany on August 20th.
That short paragraph masks so many twists and turns on my path to publication, so this post is about how it happened, but also why I have kept quiet about this fantastic book deal until now.
Those first couple of years writing were spent making mistakes on a MG timeslip novel that was quickly (and quite rightly) rejected by agents. By the time I had learnt enough to turn my MS into a competent historical YA novel, I was fizzing with ideas for another book. I had always been fascinated by ancient myths and legends concerning the origins of mankind, and as 2012 approached, my teenage interest in apocrypha and prophecies was reawakened. My brain began to make those magical, creative connections between ideas, facts and fictions to create a story with a complexity and ambition that both terrified and excited me.
I began writing INFERNUS in 2012 and it went through many, many incarnations as I honed the story of 17-year-old Maria who uses all her code-cracking skills to follow a 13, 000-year-old trail of clues from Glastonbury Tor to the pyramids of Egypt, to reveal the secret knowledge that will prevent the rise of the Antichrist. As Maria discovers the shocking truth about her own identity and the secret history of mankind, she is forced to make a devastating choice: whether to follow her heart and the boy that she loves, or her destiny, which is to destroy him.
For a long time, I called this novel ‘the bonkers one’, working on it mostly for myself as I worried away at the knots that had remained at the bottom of my brain’s drawer for thirty odd years, delving deep into ancient Egypt, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Pythagorean puzzles. But when it was longlisted for Mslexia in the autumn of 2015, it gave me the confidence to submit it to agents, and I was delighted to sign with Sue Armstrong from C+W Agency. Sue and her assistant Emma Finn gave me wise and insightful edits that helped me improve it even more. But just as I was hoping we might be close to submitting to publishers, we received personal and devastating news.
In September 2016, my partner was diagnosed with lung cancer. I wrote about that terrible day here https://tinyurl.com/yabpddlm and have documented the exhausting but thankful journey we have since made between hope and fear. Publication was no longer a priority as I changed jobs and focussed on keeping things as normal as possible for our two boys as we supported my partner through his gruelling chemotherapy regime. I did, however, continue writing. In fact, I discovered that I didn’t just want to write – I needed to write. In the day time I was busy juggling looking after the boys and my partner with work, but in the blank spaces of night and stretched hours of dawn, fear of the future overwhelmed me, so I pushed back with my pen. Instead of worrying about ‘what if the chemo doesn’t work,’ I worried about plots, characters, pacing and tension. Writing kept me busy. It kept me going. It kept me sane.
By spring 2017, we had fantastic, knee-wobbling news: against all odds, the chemotherapy had pushed back the cancer and my partner regained most of his mobility. Feeling hopeful, I polished off INFERNUS (which was then called HIS DARK SOUL) and just before the children’s book fair in Bologna, we finally submitted it to publishers.
Everything you have read about how awful it is to go on submission is true. All that work and then the waiting. And more waiting. Long and painful story short – I got some great feedback, but I didn’t get a UK deal. One publisher came very close, but ultimately didn’t like the sci-fi element at the very end.
Then out of the blue at the end of May, I got a call from Jake Smith-Bosanquet in the International Rights team at C+W Agency. A German editor had enquired about my novel, and even though there was no UK deal, they were so keen they were willing to consider translating it and publishing it themselves – as long as I made their proposed editorial changes. Was I willing to consider this rather unusual approach? To be honest, it didn’t seem real. I was mentally focussed on a completely different book that had just been long-listed for the Bath Novel Award, so I said yes, depending on what their editorial letter said, not at all convinced that this was actually going to happen.
A few days later, I received what I can only describe as a love letter to my book. The two editors – Carina Mathern and Lilly Raible – had taken great care to set out over eight pages of beautifully written English what they loved most about my story and characters and how – if I agreed – they would like to help me make it better. Their proposed changes to the ending were bold but simple, removing the sci-fi elements that had put a couple of UK editors off and locating it firmly within the Dan Brown genre. Their letter was written with such passion and respect as well as wise editorial insight, that I knew immediately I wanted to work with them.
So here was a major German publishing company (responsible for Inkheart and the German edition of Hunger Games) offering a very good deal for both books in my duology. It should have been a moment to celebrate. Ordinarily, I would have written a post about it and shared my good news with the twitter writing community who have given me so much support over the years. But on the same day I received their editorial letter, we also received the results of my partner’s scan. After just three months without chemo, the lung cancer had grown back terrifyingly fast. That summer is a bit of blur, but as my partner endured a second cycle of chemotherapy, we couldn’t go on holiday – in fact, we couldn’t really go anywhere – I managed to complete the edits to book 1.
Once again, the cancer was pushed back, yet once again it returned. Our hopes were raised when he was accepted on a clinical trial and in the wee small hours I began work on book 2 in the duology – only to have all my research and an early draft stolen from my laptop in a burglary. I was gutted. The last thing we needed was more trauma and stress, and apart from six months solid research, we lost irreplaceable anniversary gifts we had given each other. Unable to face redoing the work for book 2, I threw myself into a work project and revised another novel. After several months sulking, I forced myself to rewrite all those stolen words. I told myself that if it mattered, my brain would retain it, and that without the crutch of research, the story would be liberated. In the day time I buried myself in work, at night I lost myself in my book, which because I knew the characters, the plot and the research, almost seemed to write itself. Book 1 took five years, but the second book was written in just five months. I sent off the final draft of INFERNUS 2 to my editors a few days ago, and so the duology that has held my brain hostage for over six years is now finally complete.
It feels very strange to be having a book coming out in another country in just two weeks’ time. I am told that Germany is the largest market after the UK and America for sales of books in English, that they are big readers and love British writers. My publishers seem confident that INFERNUS will do well and are investing in a major marketing campaign involving social media, videos, quizzes, posters and pamphlets (although interestingly and in contrast to the UK, the promotion mostly begins after rather than before publication).
I am incredibly grateful to my German publishers (or ‘the lovely Germans’ as we call them in our house) and my agents for their passionate support of my book and the special effort they have made to publish it even without a UK deal. I can’t wait to hear what German readers make of it and hope that despite my inability to speak their language, we can somehow find a way to exchange views on the ideas and issues it raises.
I also owe a big thank you to all the lovely people on twitter who have kept me going in recent years and encouraged and supported me to carry on writing. Because of price protection, most books are still sold through physical shops in Germany, but INFERNUS is also available in hardback on the German Amazon website https://tinyurl.com/y76mzgnn (cover below) or on kindle on Amazon UK https://tinyurl.com/ybk8zqt3 – although only in German, so if you happen to know of any German speaking YA readers who love Dan Brown type thrillers, then please do let them know!
But most of all I have my brilliant, resilient and remarkable partner to thank, who has not just put up with me muttering ‘it is all connected’, for more years than I care to remember, but actively supported me with characteristic grace, despite his terrible illness. He is now undergoing his third round of chemotherapy and although I’m glad my story will finally find some readers, my dearest hope is that by the time my book is published on August 20th, we will truly have something to celebrate.