Jennifer Bell is the author of 'The Uncommoners' series. The first book, THE CROOKED SIXPENCE, is a top-seller in the UK and was a Waterstone's Book of the Month - a rarity for a debut author. The second book, THE SMOKING HOURGLASS, will be published in the UK in June 2017 and in the States in January 2018.
Jennifer Bell began working in children’s books as a specialist bookseller at Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road in London – one of the world’s most famous bookshops. There, she looked after the shop’s not-so-deadly piranha fish as well as recommending children’s books to celebrities, royalty and even astronauts. After enjoying the privilege of listening to children talk about their favourite books for many years, she started writing one of her own. Jennifer came up with the idea for THE CROOKED SIXPENCE while packing for a holiday, wishing she could just disappear inside her suitcase and be there already. The world of Lundinor is inspired by sayings from traditional English nursery rhymes as well as the stories Jennifer grew up with about the Cockney markets her grandparents used to visit. THE CROOKED SIXPENCE was published in the UK in June 2016 and in the US in January 2017. Book 2, THE SMOKING HOURGLASS, will be published in the UK in June 2017, followed a year later in the US.
When and how did you start writing?
After I left university, I had a few jobs which gave me no opportunity to be creative, so I started writing in the evenings when I’d get home. It was so freeing and addictive. It used to be the only part of my day that made me happy. I haven’t stopped since.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
I had to read a heap of war literature for my English A-levels. I remember reading a particularly emotional section of BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks, sitting in the middle of the common room, with loads of noise around me – everyone chatting or listening to music, or on their laptops. But it was as if nothing could reach me whilst I was in that book. That was probably the first time I felt the power of a novel.
I guess the only writing hero I had during childhood was J. M. Barrie. I was obsessed (and still am) with PETER PAN – it’s my favourite story of all time. Dark, magical, adventurous and the language is just beautiful. For me, nothing will ever come close to the incredible magic of that story.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
I had this idea for a short-story about a little girl who met Death’s childhood assistant, a character I named the Grimling. As I was developing this character I started imagining a world where dead characters met and interacted with each other – that’s where the seeds of Lundinor came from. I knew exactly how I wanted the book to feel – like you could easily imagine it being real, so I worked on the details of the story world first before building a plot around it. The key moment, I guess, was finishing the first draft. I sent it out to a few friends and then worked really hard on the second draft, using all their feedback.
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
It is super hard to get an agent and what happened to me was incredibly lucky. I started out the same way everyone does – with a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and a big highlighter. I had planned to send the manuscript out to a handful of agents, based on their client list and what they said they were looking for. The lucky part came when two of my friends - who had been through the experience before - recommended two agents to me. I sent my manuscript to both of them and was utterly stunned when they both got back offering me representation.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do your organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
I work full-time in a really busy bookshop, so there isn’t a great deal of time for writing. I cram an hour in on my lunch break in the staffroom and then I write on the commute to and from work. There is no strategy; it’s just fit it in when I can. It’s not difficult, because I love writing.
It isn’t hard to find inspiration when you work in a children's bookshop. I am very fortunate to meet interesting people every day, to work with hugely inspirational booksellers who are also themselves writers, artists and designers, and to spend my time in one of the most amazing cities in the world.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
When you know the age group that you want to write for, and genre you want to write, go and read. Read everything you can get your hands on that’s written for a similar age group and genre. If you don’t know what that is, then go down to your local bookshop, talk to a bookseller and get them to recommend some titles for you – I’ve done this many a time for aspiring children’s writers. You need to know what’s out there and what you’re up against. I meet a lot of self-published authors who are looking to get their books stocked and I can always tell straight away when they haven’t bothered to read any children’s books. The difference in their writing always shows.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
I write exactly the kind of stories that I enjoy reading, so if I’m not enjoying writing them, there’s a problem. That’s what I learned during the first draft. If I was struggling with a chapter, finding it difficult to write, or boring, then I’d scrap it and rethink where the story was going. I spent a lot of time trying to make the story as fun and exciting as possible and part of that was learning to cut whole sections that I’d spent ages trying to get right.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? Which fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
I’ve been very lucky to have met many of my writing heroes through my job – Rebecca Stead, Frances Hardinge, David Almond (I could go on) - but I have yet to meet Rick Riordan. It would be a dream to meet him. His books are so much fun, so easy to get lost inside and I speak to children every day who tell me how much they love them. I’d love to tell him that.
The fictional character I wish I’d invented?
Peter Pan, of course - the boy who never grows up, to whom even death is an adventure.