ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lucy van Smit is an award-winning author, a screenwriter, and an artist who regrets selling off most of her paintings to pay the rent (Jeremy Clarkson owns two).
After boy trouble, Lucy dropped out of Art School for a year, ran away to New York and dared herself to sell encyclopedias door-to-door in America. She got her BA Hons in Fine Art, landed a job in TV, travelled worldwide for NBC News, flew on Air Force One with President Reagan, got surrounded by tanks at Manila airport during a coup, before she chilled and made documentaries for Canadian TV on writers like John Le Carre and Ian McEwan. Lucy is dyslexic with a Distinction in MA Creative Writing. The Hurting won the inaugural Bath Children’s Novel Award. One of six siblings, Lucy lives in London with her hubby, teenage son and their mad cat, known locally as Sid Vicious.
PRESS AND INTERVIEWS
Earlier this week, Barry Cunningham of Chicken House books announced the acquisition of Van Smit’s 2015 Bath-winning YA thriller THE HURTING from for publication in 2018. On the eve of the announcement of the winner of our second Children’s Novel Award, inaugural winner Lucy Van Smit tells us about her book deal joy.
Congratulations again, Lucy, on your brilliant book deal news…
Thank you! I’m in a daze after Barry Cunningham’s announcement on Friday at the swanky London Savile Club. It was quite a moment. Full of the lovely Golden Egg Academy folk, great writers, and lots of fizz. Chicken House novelist James Nicol immediately welcomed me into the coop. I couldn’t believe my luck, I never expected Chicken House to love my book. I can’t wait to work with them.
You already know how much and why we loved THE HURTING, but what did Chicken House say were the reasons they were so determined to acquire your manuscript?
My ears are still blushing. They kept saying THE HURTING was extraordinary. And how much they loved the voice, my writing, and the layering to the book. Barry commented on the humour. I was stunned. I think editor Rachel Leyshon could hear my disbelief and gently assured me I was a hugely talented writer. It was heady stuff.
The first round of edits was done by February 2016. Then Sallyanne came back about six weeks later, and I think we had our first face-to-face editorial meeting in early May. That was for a major structure edit, and I worked on the final changes until mid July.
Were any of the editorial changes tough to make?
Yes, some. But publication is a collaboration, so I listened. Mostly! Then just before it was sent out, Sallyanne thought we didn’t need the opening chapter, as the voice was strong enough. I experimented, and could see how it could work, but it felt like going to a party with no make up. And no clothes. Very scary.
The reports from the Bath judges was really useful too. I could see common threads, and took out one plot twist, which Sallyanne thought was overcomplicated.
It’s been brilliant, and tough. Writing is one thing; the road to publication is more complex. Painful. Confusing. So much is out of your control. I found I started to worry about getting published, which I hadn’t before. It sounds mad, but I always felt confident that would happen, and my job was to be a good enough writer when it did. I’ve learned to trust my judgment, and not seek approval. In between edits, I researched another book, learned how to write a film script.
When did THE HURTING go out on submission?
Sallyanne sent it out to a select group of editors, shortly after the Frankfurt Book Festival. A few publishers expressed strong interest, but I knew as soon as we spoke to Chicken House it was a fit, spookily like love at first sight!!
Can you share the pitch Sallyanne used for your book?
Yes. … “A contemporary Wuthering Heights, THE HURTING is a young adult psychological thriller about twisted love, obsession and sacrifice, set against the stunning backdrop of remote Norwegian fjords and an abandoned wolf reservation.”
Chicken House obviously have a great name in the industry, but what made you sure they were the right publishers for you?
No one can sell a book like the legendary Barry Cunningham. Just ask JK Rowling. To have not one, but two editors, the calibre of Barry and Rachel Leyshon to work on my book? I’ll learn tons from them. And I love their warmth.
On a sales note, Scholastic USA owns CH, and accesses the largest English speaking markets, yet CH retains complete editorial control. Chicken House won three Waterstones Books of the month with their 2016 debuts. Did I mention their blockbusters, like James Dashner’s Maze Runner? And Cathryn Constable’s Wolf Princess sold over a 100,000 copies worldwide. That is fantastic, by any standard. Sallyanne says other houses look to Chicken House to see what they are buying as they have great judgement.
You mentioned the Golden Egg Academy, how did they help you?
Mentoring. After my MA anthology launch, twelve agents came after my unfinished manuscript, I sent it out to a few, and got feedback that they didn’t like the bad boy, Lukas. I rewrote, and made Lukas and Ellie’s character more compelling, but not nicer. And I wanted to run my manuscript past an editor before sending it out to the remaining agents. I rang Imogen at Golden Egg and she calmed me down and gave me a mentor. Maurice Lyon then read THE HURTING and said it was in the vein of a Girl On A Train/Gone Girl noir thriller. Then I sent it into the Bath Children’s Novel Award to test it out.
Barry Cunningham of Chicken House with Imogen Cooper of the Golden Egg Academy
What’s next? Have you started on edits with Chicken House?
They asked to see the edited out scenes, and asked me NOT to rewrite anything until we spoke in person. Barry said THE HURTING needs a delicate, precise edit, and doesn’t want to lose any of the brilliant bonkers bits!
Have you started on your next book?
One story that came out of my research on Norway might not be suitable for YA, but it keeps circling in my head. I told Andrew Wille, a former Little Brown editor, and he said to me if I didn’t write it, he would. Then I was at the London Screenwriter’s festival, and chatted to the actor Assad Raja, who was cast as a terrorist in Homeland 5, and how frustrated he feels always portrayed as the bad guy. We talked about my first book, Invisible by Day, which inverts the tendency to cast Muslims as terrorists. It’s more of a fast-paced teen thriller, so might not be a natural follow on to a YA Noir romance, but we’ve not discussed book two yet with Chicken House.
We’re about to announce this year’s winner of the Children’s Novel Award. How does it feel to know another writer is about to take your ‘crown’?
It feels wonderful. Timely. I’ll be rooting for whomever Julia Churchill picks, and hope they get as lucky as me. I can’t thank you and the judges enough. And anyway, I’ll always be the Bath Children’s Novel Award inaugural winner!
Interview by Caroline Ambrose
Interview with LUCY VAN SMIT, Bath Children’s Novel Award 2015 Winner
LUCY VAN SMIT ON WINNING THE BATH CHILDREN’S NOVEL AWARD 2015 WITH HER NORDIC YA THRILLER, THE HURTING:
Thanks, it feels ridiculously wonderful, I’m still fizzling with a childlike delight, I didn’t expect it to be so exciting.
How was it, waiting to see how your novel progressed?
A little nerve wracking, I danced around my bedroom when I made the shortlist, but I never, ever expected to win. I was on longlists for the Mslexia Novel and The Caledonia Novel Award, and assumed THE HURTING was too YA to progress any further. To win The Bath Children’s Novel Award, and get my agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, in time for Christmas was brilliant. I was so flabbergasted, my 14-year-old son Archie had to read the announcement for me to confirm I’d won.
What reactions have you had from friends, family, writing colleagues?
Respect! Love it. The best reaction was from my husband, Nick. It’s a long game, writing, it takes years to learn the craft, and no one in your family knows if you’re any good. Nick’s always been supportive, and he was so proud of me, kept smiling to himself at work, and emailed all our friends. When Sallyanne Sweeney offered to represent me, I was touched how happy it made my ninety-year-old mum. Even my nephew gave me a bottle of champagne to say well done. My MA mates were thrilled. It was quite humbling. Archie kept giving me advice how to negotiate Hollywood deals!
What can you tell us about Sallyanne’s direction, vision and timescales for preparing THE HURTING for sending out to publishers?
Sallyanne likes the emotional abuse aspect to THE HURTING. We’re working on the structural edit, to simplify the major reveal, and include more on the Catholic family at the end. She’s sounded out a few publishers, and someone I know at a major publishing house is keen to see it, but Sallyanne says to wait until I’ve done the edits. I hope it’s ready in time for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.
We were thrilled to discover your connection with Bath. [Van Smit lives in London, but studied Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, graduating with Distinction in 2015.] What were the most valuable things you learned during your MA?
I think I learned the importance of being gentle with my writing, and myself. Julia Green, the MA Director, always says you can only know something when you are ready to learn it. Ironically, the Publishing Module helped me the most, and I really didn’t want to do it. I wanted to concentrate on writing, and not worry about getting published, but Janine Amos helped me to up my game, understand where HSG might fit in the market, and how good something has to be to stand out. John Mclay, the international scout, teaches on the course too, and I ran the idea of Norway past him, and asked if I should change THE HURTING to something more thrillerish, like Dead Girl Talking, but John liked the original title. We are very spoilt on the MA for contacts and advice; every tutor is a published author. I’ll never forget the privilege of having a one-to-one with
David Almond. He’d inspired me to draw on my Catholic background, and I was thinking, Oh My God, Oh My God, it’s David Almond, while he critiqued my scene saying lovely things about the imagery. He and Julia taught me to think about rhythm in writing. And I found my tribe, my writing buddies, Chris Vick, Eden Endfield, Sarah Henderson, Jak Harrison, Rowena House, and Philippa Forester. They are super talented.
Tell us about THE HURTING…
Originally, I started with the baby’s abduction scene, which came from an exercise on the Bath Spa MA, to show character through action and dialogue. I thought about the worst thing my protagonist could do, and to steal someone’s baby is right up there for me. We’ve lost years in the IVF wilderness trying to have children, had multiple miscarriages and lost one son in stillbirth. But as my story evolved, I realised I wanted to write about a love that could never be, not an unrequited love, but a great love, with a dilemma. What if this love meant you couldn’t live with yourself?
Why Norway and why wolves?
I love Nordic Noir, and thought the fjords would be a perfect setting for YA. I didn’t want snow, and tonally the setting is like a Vlaminck painting, wild vibrant colours, bold lines, and dark shadows. A Fauve Norway that looks too bright, and has deadly undertones. As for wolves, Ellie is scared of dogs, and has to overcome her fears to save the baby from a wolf. I was interested in myths of feral children and needed to find a way to make it more plausible, hence the abandoned wolf reservation. Norwegians hunted wolves almost to extinction, and the recent reintroduction of wolves, near the Swedish border, is hotly debated, the farmers hate them. My antagonist is their champion in the book, who believes the predator, at the top of the food chain, saves his world by killing prey. It’s a twist on Cascade Theory in ecology.
Why do you think your novel won?
I think THE HURTING was very lucky to have champions amongst the teenage and adult judges in the earlier rounds, but ultimately it won because competition judge Sallyanne Sweeney and The Bath Children’s Novel Award team were brave enough to run with a YA novel that was a bit controversial.
At the extract reading stage, our panel each have a golden pass to give to one manuscript they absolutely love and want to see on the longlist. THE HURTING is the first book to win two golden passes, and also sparked some of the liveliest plot debates we’ve ever known. Have you had similar strong reactions from other readers, either during your MA or whilst out on submission to agents?
Yes, I was told this story of a boy manipulating a girl to steal a baby couldn’t work for children. But my tutors, Steve Voake, Julia Green, and Lucy Christopher, my second marker, were very encouraging, although Julia did say my story kept her awake at night thinking about the baby on the mountain. When the opening chapter was published in our MA Anthology, twelve agents contacted me, requesting the full manuscript, but I’d just ripped it apart to turn a granny into a dying sister. At the Foyle’s launch, several agents came up to me to asking to see it, and a couple who’d read it said how much they admired it, and thought it was a daring story, but not for their list. One agent told me outright that my antagonist was too horrible. So after three rejections, from agents who’d been super keen, I knew I had a problem, and realised if you change one character it changes everything, and Ellie now seemed selfish to want to be a songwriter when her sister was dying, so I sat down and rewrote it, made Ellie more empathetic, and the antagonist more dangerous.
Despite our judges all reading ‘blind’, you told us you were convinced you wouldn’t win, because you’d submitted to Sallyanne in the past…
I was completely convinced I wouldn’t win, and thought Sallyanne Sweeney would go for a Middle Grade funny novel. Also, two of the books on the shortlist had been independently published, and one long-listed for the Carnegie Prize, so I thought they’d be more polished, and at best I’d be the runner up. I’d won a SCWBI one-to-one with Sallyanne, and she’d given me feedback on my short story about a girl desperate to fight alongside her brother in WWI, written in second person through letters. Sallyanne liked it, but short stories were tough to sell, she gave me her card to keep in touch.
You’ve previously worked as a TV producer, making documentaries about writers. How did that come about?
That was a dream job after Art School; I worked for Canadian Broadcasting and pitched my first art documentary on John Le Carré. My boss said if I get him, I could produce it, expecting Le Carré to say no as usual. He’d not given an interview for ten years, ever since Melvin Bragg’s The South Bank Show. I worked out why, wrote to him, and told him what I wanted to do. When Le Carré rang to say yes, I fell off my chair in the Journal office. I’ve produced/directed docs on writers like Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, P.D. James, Kingsley Amis, Nadine Gordimer, and even Jeffrey Archer. I always wanted to film them in such a way the audience could get a real feel of the authors and their books. I hadn’t studied literature, I’m dyslexic, but I always thought I was a writer. It took years to admit to anyone that’s what I was doing, my non-writing friends and family still think of me as a painter.
As a SCWBI member, what would you say are the main benefits for aspiring children’s writers?
SCWBI is tremendously supportive of children’s writers and it’s well worth being a member. They run workshops, conferences, master classes and agent parties, and socials.
You applied for your MA after winning a SCWBI Slushpile Contest with an MG book. Would you say winning that first contest validated your application to the Bath MA course?
It definitely helped give me confidence. I came up to see the Bath Children’s Festival, and Julia Green was hosting a panel of the latest crop of published MA writers, and I was struck by how Julia beamed at Gill Lewis like a proud mother hen. And I remember thinking I want to be part of that tribe, and made a very last minute application to get on the course. Now it’s our turn to get published, and my mate Chris Vick is the first to go, publishing his beautiful story about a rookie surfer, KOOK, with Harper Collins in March.
Did you write THE HURTING from scratch during your MA?
Yes. It came out of Steve Voake’s excellent tutorial on showing a character though their actions.
Did you have set word count targets by the term?
Not really, but the course is structured to keep you writing. Every other week you workshop 1,500 words, and each term you get marked on 5,000 words, and a reflective commentary, which makes you think about what you are writing, and why. To keep you on track there a 10,000 word milestone, and the manuscript module is 40,000 words.
How long in total did it take to write the winning draft?
I wrote the ending almost immediately, as it mirrors the opening, so the whole story is told through dramatic irony, it builds dread and compassion for Ellie and the baby. Then my little brother died, very suddenly, and I was in a daze and couldn’t concentrate for months. I had a first draft, but not in the shape I wanted, but I submitted the first 40,000 words, and luckily still got a Distinction.
What’s your post-MA writing routine?
I lie in bed figuring out how the one major change, that Sallyanne suggested, has consequences for my character and the book, then I make coffee and turn the WiFi off. Ideally I climb back into bed, or go to a café, and do the edits. I can write on buses, on the floor, anywhere, and I read every day.
What are you writing now and any plans for the book you wrote before THE HURTING?
I’m editing this book, and I dug out INVISIBLE BY DAY, a 10+ thriller about a 14-year-old boy, Dan, who believes in honour, but his father is arrested for fraud, and Dan wants to prove his innocence. His sidekicks are Fingers a Goth girl thief, and Imran a debonair, disabled hacker, and the antagonist mirrors Satan from Paradise Lost, wanting revenge on mankind, and not caring if it backfires. The opening won a SCWBI competition, but I never sent it out, and started something new for the MA.
Which writers inspire you?
My first tutor, Sophie McKenzie, inspired me to believe I could write, she sat on her desk on the first day of a City Lit class, and said she was living proof that writing courses work. I started INVISIBLE BY DAY in her workshops. I’ve always been a bookworm, and have eclectic tastes from Siobhan Dowd to Kevin Brooks, Meg Rosoff to John Green, and I love the raft of newer writers, like Clare Furness, Francis Hardinge, and Chris Vick.
This year it’s WOLF WINTER by Swedish writer, Cecelia Ekbäck. Last year I loved THE EARTH HUMS TO B FLAT by Mari Strachan. Archie’s and my all-time favourite book is WOLF BROTHER by Michelle Paver, and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak. I’m into wolf books at the moment, like WOLF WILDER by Katherine Rendell. As a child I was addicted to Mary Renault and Enid Blyton. I read WUTHERING HEIGHTS at Christmas, as someone said my antagonist was like Heathcliff, and I was staggered how vengeful Heathcliff is as a character, yet is still beloved by us, as readers.
Favourite ‘how to’ write books?
What prompted you to enter The Bath Children’s Novel Award?
I entered the competition to test whether I’d got the story right; I knew it would help my pitch letter to stand out, if I got shortlisted. Bath is a hotbed for children’s books, with the Writing For Young People MA, Bath’s Children’s Literature Festival, and now it has the Bath Children’s Novel Award, as well as the Bath Novel Award.
Splashing or saving the prize money?
I brought Christmas presents, a cashmere bobble hat, and saved the rest for a writing retreat.
Lastly, any advice for anyone thinking of entering our next award?
Yes. Go for it. Winning is great, but the competition gave me a much-needed deadline to finish the manuscript, everything after that was a bonus.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose, 13 January 2016
LUCY VAN SMIT for THE HURTING (YA Psychological Thriller)
“With an incredibly strong voice and sustained suspense, THE HURTING is a YA thriller that had me at the edge of my seat from its arresting opening to the epic finale. Norwegian fjords, an abandoned wolf reservation, and dealing sensitively and powerfully with the darker side to religion and relationships – what’s not to love?” – 2015 Judge, Sallyanne Sweeney.
Lucy Van Smit: “I’ve always loved thrillers and wanted to write about a girl who must choose between the love of her life, and being able to live with herself. Entering the Bath Children’s Novel Award fired me up to finish my manuscript. I was in Kilarney, on the Robert McKee’s Story seminar, when I got long-listed, and had a week to send in the full manuscript. Each day, I studied ten hours with McKee, and edited through the night, finishing at 05.30 on the final Sunday, only to find the WiFi wouldn’t send the file! The shortlist knocked me out, especially as young, and adult, judges read your work. They characterised my story as ‘a daring, wolfish Nordic Noir.”
Lucy lives in London with her husband and teenage son. As a TV producer, she has made documentaries about writers including Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, but always had the feeling she was a writer too. After her 10+ novel, INVISIBLE BY DAY, won the first SCWBI Slushpile Competition, Lucy took an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where she began writing THE HURTING. Lucy is now represented by 2015 judge, literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney and THE HURTING has been acquired by Barry Cunningham at Chicken House books for publication in 2018