Publication day interview with Harriet Goodwin

September 7, 2009

Publication days – especially for debut authors –should be savoured to the full! And none more so than today, which marks publication of Harriet Goodwin’s first novel, THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43, in the UK and Commonwealth. The publisher is Stripes, the fast-growing, two-year-old fiction imprint of Magi, a UK market leader in full-colour publishing.
Harriet was the second author to be signed by Greenhouse, back in the days when the agency hadn’t even launched – a huge leap of faith on Harriet’s part, which makes it even more exciting to see EXIT 43 out in the stores.

Every author’s journey to publication is long and arduous, so publication is that first great moment in the sun. Over to Harriet as she shares her big day with us.

Hi, Harriet, wonderful to welcome you to the Greenhouse blog – and also to the ranks of our published authors! Firstly, can you give us a quick outline of the story of THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43?

Thanks, Sarah! It’s great to be here. The book is about a boy, Finn Oliver, who is plunged into an Underworld populated by the Woken Dead. As he falls, he collides with a Victorian spirit-girl, Jessie Sherratt, who is on her way up to the surface to visit the local graveyard.

Together, Finn and Jessie must save the Underworld from destruction by releasing the ancient Firepearl from its elemental enchantments at the centre of the Earth. But can they reach it before their evil adversary gets there first – and is the Firepearl quite what it seems?

I know you trained as a singer, and that’s really been your principle career. So how and when did the writing bug first bite you? Was it always something you loved to do?

I think I always knew that I could write – but up until several years ago I had never had a really great premise with which to work. Then, a few weeks after the birth of my fourth baby, I had a vivid dream about a boy crashing through the surface of the Earth into a magical Underworld.

I remembered the dream in the morning and decided I had to turn it into a story. It was just too exciting to ignore! And so began eight months (nearly the same length as a pregnancy – funny, that!) of short, furtive bursts of writing. I told absolutely no one what I was doing: finding the time to do it with four young children to look after wasn’t too easy, and I knew that if I blabbed about my secret little pastime it would lose its magic, and that would be that.

Was it difficult to find an agent and get a book deal? Can you tell us about the journey you made and the stages and processes you went through?

My journey to becoming a singer was long and arduous. Comparatively speaking, my journey to becoming a writer was ridiculously quick. I wrote my first draft (in longhand, as I didn’t have a clue how to use a computer back then!) and then sent it off to the [British] literary consultancy, Cornerstones, for a report. This I found enormously helpful: I learnt very quickly how to ‘show not tell’ and sharpened up my dialogue. After rewriting the book I entered it into the inaugural SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition and was flabbergasted to discover that I had been chosen as one of the twelve winners. Sarah, who was on the judging panel, met up with me in London and took me on – and there then followed a period of intensive rewriting, followed by submission. I got the two-book deal with Stripes in April 2008.

You have four young children. (A moment’s respect as I can’t imagine how you get any writing done at all!). Did they inspire the story of EXIT 43 and have you found it helps to be a parent when you’re writing for kids? Also, how and where do you write and is it a problem juggling so many different parts to your life?

Usually it’s not too much of a problem juggling the areas of my life. My singing is wonderfully physical and a great antidote to sitting up in my writing shed with my head down. But right now, with the launch of EXIT 43 going on, the editing process for the second book starting up, and ideas for future books coming thick and fast, I am getting to feel a little unhinged. As I write this, my third child is tipping a Peppa Pig beanie character off his dumper truck into a puddle of spilt Ribena – and I am doing absolutely nothing to stop him…

On the positive side, writing is far more conducive to domestic bliss than singing. I stopped opera work some time ago, as I hated being away from the children. Now I just do concert work, which usually involves rehearsing on the afternoon of a concert and performing that evening. I am almost always back that night to plant a kiss on each of their slumbering cheeks before reaching for a glass or two of Chardonnay. Writing is relatively easy to work around family life: I write in a summerhouse at the top of the garden. There is a lovely view of our cottage from it, and an even lovelier lock on the door!

I don’t keep to a rigid daily word count. I am a bit of a perfectionist and know that if I forced myself to reach a specific target each day I would probably self-combust. But I write something every day and keep a notebook with me at all times. Sometimes it takes me a while to lose myself in my story at the beginning of a writing session, but once I get sucked back in everything is usually fine. Certainly writing is not easy, but I am getting better at knowing instinctively when something sounds right in my head.

I wouldn’t say my four children inspired the story of EXIT 43, but they certainly help me keep my feet on the ground – and they always come first. All this writing excitement is great for them too: my two eldest (11 and 9) are coming to both my local and my London launch parties – and they are soooo excited. The two little ones are getting involved too: they each have their own signed copies of EXIT 43 (with seriously weird things written inside involving – guess what – Peppa Pig) which they keep proudly in their bookcases along with their Mr Men books and Curious George.

As to how I find the time, I do no ironing (yes, really, no ironing) and watch no TV. OK, so we all go around in crumpled clothes, but so what?

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are seeking to get published? Anything you wish you had known two years ago?

Write a little every day, so that you don’t lose your thread.

Get your backstory right (this is something I’m still learning about – but wow, does it make a difference!)

Trust your instincts. When something feels right, then it probably is.

Authors often feel that not enough is done to market and promote their books once they actually get on to the shelf. What publicity and marketing will you (and your publisher, Stripes) be doing for EXIT 43?

Stripes has been fantastic in helping me to fix up two launches (one local, one in London), a number of school visits and several website interviews. They have also hosted an EXIT 43 dinner for key booksellers and librarians, at which I spoke. But I am also being very proactive myself: I have set up my own website (, done a number of newspaper interviews, spoken on local radio and circulated information around the many choirs with whom I have sung as a soloist. I can think of absolutely no one who hasn’t wanted to help.

You have a two-book deal, and I know you’re already hard at work on your second novel. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It’s called THE EXTRAORDINARY LEGACY OF ELVIRA PHOENIX and I’ve just finished the first draft. It’s not a sequel to EXIT43, though it is for the same age-group (8-12).

At the start of the story, Phoenix Wainwright is handed a letter from his dead mother, instructing him to return to her childhood home and dig into the peculiar mound across the river. But little does he know that he is on the brink of re-triggering an ancient and malevolent curse: Gravenhunger Manor is a dark and mysterious place, poisoned by its own terrible history. Together with Rose, the daughter of his father’s new girlfriend, Phoenix embarks upon an extraordinary adventure, uncovering a stash of fabulous treasure inside the earth…and a whole lot more besides.

Can you describe three aspects of writing ‘craft’ that you feel have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?

1. Learning how to show not tell. (easily the most important)

2. Knowing your backstory inside-out.

3. Not being afraid to scrap sections of work that aren’t quite right/ don’t fit.

Finally, how has this past year been for you, and how does it feel to be published?

The past year has been a steady build-up of work and excitement. Working with Jane Harris, my editor at Stripes, has been an enormous pleasure – she is fantastic, and has a great sense of humour. All the while I have felt wonderfully supported by Sarah, too. And it was great to hear the news of Danish rights to EXIT 43 being sold just a few months ago.

As to how it feels to be published…well, I remember a wonderful Easter concert I sang in a few years back, a St Matthew Passion in Lincoln Cathedral, in which I was one of the soloists. Everything was perfectly right that night: the venue, the music, the occasion. I stood up to sing Erbarme dich, the big mezzo solo, and I felt an incredible sense of warmth the whole way through the aria. I feel exactly the same now. Unbelievably lucky and happy to be where I am.

Congratulations, Harriet – we’re all wishing you the very best of success for the launch of THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43. And we’re raising a glass to your future writing career!