Steven Russell meets a Suffolk literary debutante whose first adventure features witches, a mysterious man and a girl who doesn’t quite fit in. It’s a world away from her former job trying to make Seafood International magazine sound thrilling . . .
IT was a pretty tough “ask” as New Year resolutions go. A self-imposed ultimatum, really. Nothing woolly or relatively inconsequential, like “Kick chocolate” or “Go for more walks”. For Melanie Welsh the target was to produce the core of a children’s novel – one good enough to catch the eye of the publishing industry. It wasn’t as if she had all the time in the world, either, what with being a young mum and holding down a pressured job in digital media. “I never make resolutions normally, but it was New Year’s Day, 2007, and I said ‘I’m going to try this. I’m going to write three chapters and a synopsis, and send it off to an agent. If I don’t get an agent, I won’t waste any more time messing around with this at weekends – and stop boring my husband about it. By that time we’d got Joe and you can’t really justify the time it takes to write a book, can you? – especially when you’re working hard, too, and you’ve got a child and a husband and should be spending that time doing something else.”
Stories had gripped Melanie’s imagination from the time she was young, and in adulthood fragments of plots and potential characters floated around her consciousness. “I used to scribble down lots of little bits, and have conversations running in my head. I was a terrible daydreamer. But I never really believed that I had what it took to be a professional writer. I’d started a couple of abortive books and they just weren’t good enough – teenagers’ books, with no magic or anything like that.”
That had gobbled up spare time at weekends and in the evenings. Now it was time for an all-or-nothing bid: pull it off, or put the dream to bed forever.
She sketched out the plot, got a notebook and allocated a page for each chapter, writing down what she thought should happen in each one. (“Which ended up being different by the end!”) Completing the three chapters and synopsis took about six months of 2007, working generally at weekends, and were dispatched with hope. Two agents passed on it, and then in the September Catherine Pellegrino, of the literary agency Rogers, Coleridge & White, said Yes please! “I couldn’t believe it.”
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Melanie finished the story in the spring of 2008 and Catherine sent it to about 15 publishers – warning her client they probably wouldn’t hear anything during the summer because of the holiday season.
“Then it got to the November and (second son) Ben was due. This was really superstitious, but I thought ‘I’m not going to tell Catherine I’m pregnant . . .’ I hadn’t got round to it before! But I thought ‘If I tell her now, she’ll tell them (the publishers), and they’ll all think ‘Oh, we’ll think about her next year, when she’s had the baby.’
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“My husband said ‘You know what will happen now . . . they’ll all ring up just as you have the baby.’ And, sure enough, they did. He was a week old and David Fickling Books (part of the Random House empire) said ‘We like it and we’d like you to come in, but not for another two or three weeks.’ I was kindly driven by my father-in-law to Oxford to see them. They said they’d definitely like to publish it; so that was my Christmas present!”
Mistress of the Storm is the first in a two-book deal – and the start of a hoped-for series of four titles.
It’s an adventure-mystery featuring a 12-year-old called Verity Gallant. Her life is normal, if a bit lonely, because she doesn’t quite fit in and she knows she’ll never be as pretty or popular as Poppy, her perfect little sister. Then, one day, a strange man hands her a red leather-bound book and everything changes. She meets new friends, learns how to sail and discovers her parents have been hiding a dark family secret that now threatens them all. There’s a powerful witch hell-bent on revenge . . .
The opening scene has a Suffolk connection, for the library in the fictional harbour town of Wellow is based on the Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room, overlooking the sea. In the story, a cliff-top path runs down to Steephill Cove, where fishing boats lie on the shore. The stranger – the most exotic man Verity had ever seen – runs down to the sand, clutching a book from the library. The girl pursues him.
“Southwold is quite a traditional place,” says Melanie, who hails from the Isle of Wight. “There’s a lot of stuff that reminds me of when I was growing up. I have that vision of Verity standing at the top of the cliff and running down the steps after him. Another thing I love is that Southwold harbour has all the fisherman’s boats lying around; just like they had when I was a child. In lots of places on the south coast everything’s been tidied up: all pristine marinas and very shiny and white. It isn’t like that here, and it makes it very atmospheric.”
Suffolk, in fact, helped plant some of the story ideas in the author’s head before she moved permanently to the county. Melanie and husband Lucien came up to see his parents and went for a walk at Walberswick – the coastal village that, with its marshes, tar-black wooden buildings, amazing light and beautiful dunes has a very Dickensian air.
“I can’t remember when it was, but we didn’t have children and I wasn’t pregnant. This idea came into my head of a little girl whose grandmother comes to stay. One of the themes of the book is this grandmother who is pretty unpleasant. I didn’t get on terribly well with my own grandmother when I was little, although she was completely different to the one in the book, I must point out!
“One of the things that’s always struck me about children and their family relationships is that people make a lot of assumptions, don’t they? So, ‘grandmother’ automatically equals good and kind and loving; and it’s not always the case.”
She was set on a happy ending, though, “because I don’t like books where everyone’s dead at the end! Life’s grim enough. And I wanted it to be sympathetic to people who felt they didn’t quite fit in at the moment, for some reason”.
Melanie was one of those children with her head forever stuck in a book, and a fixture in both the public library in Cowes and the one at school. “Neither of them had very many books. I used to finish all those they’d got and then start working my way through the grown-up books.
“For some reason, Cowes library had this big collection of Eastern European fairy-tales and things like that, and so I ploughed through those. Which is kind of where the idea for the four sisters, the witches, came from. I noticed you could read stories from one country and all the witches would be very similar to the witches from another country. Stories seemed to travel. What if they were real, and that’s why they were appearing in different places?”
Water features extensively in Mistress of the Storm – not surprisingly, considering the author grew up in a town dominated by things nautical and sailed a dinghy as a girl. “One of the things I loved about it was the sense of freedom you get when you’re sailing. It’s one of the few things you can do as a child where you’re totally in charge.
“My husband used to sail up here – he comes from Suffolk and had his own Mirror dinghy – and said it’s a bit like having your own car when you’re a kid. There’s something magical about it. I wanted to write the kind of book I’d have wanted to read when I was a child, so I knew putting sailing in it would give it that sense of adventure and independence I used to love.”
Melanie knew she wanted to write from a young age, but her world didn’t really embrace it as a feasible career choice.
“I can remember my primary school teacher asking me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to write books.” And did he encourage that? “No. He laughed! It took me a really long time to feel confident enough to do it, because it seemed such an unattainable goal; and everyone always says how difficult it is and how unlikely it is you’ll get published. It took until I was in my 30s to think ‘Actually, I’m just going to try and do this, and if it doesn’t work I’ll shut up about it.’”
For Melanie, Verity is very much a vehicle for exploring the themes of friendship, the feeling you don’t quite fit in, and having to deal with difficult people. “A lot of adults try to pretend otherwise, but in my experience these are things that most people continue having to negotiate for the rest of their lives, at work and at home!”
The author lived on the Isle of Wight until she was 18, “and then, like all good teenagers, couldn’t wait to leave – because at that age you’re convinced everything is happening somewhere else, aren’t you?” A year at art college in Portsmouth helped her realise she wasn’t quite adept enough to take it further and that she also yearned for a writing environment – hence a subsequent degree in publishing at Ealing.
When she left college, during the recession of the early 1990s, Melanie joined a London publishing company, working on the editorial side before segueing into marketing. She had to put together persuasive promotional material to “sell” subscription packages for publications such as Marketing Week and Design Week. She’d take on freelance work as well, for clients such as Seafood International magazine.
OK, it’s not exactly mainstream fiction, but it offered valuable experience in using words to great effect. “I think if you can make a conference about eastern European chemicals sound interesting, then that’s good practice!”
Melanie worked at the Financial Times, Press Gazette – a magazine for the journalism industry – News Corporation and Time Out. At the latter she worked in digital marketing, developing its web-based offering. Then came the Guardian, dealing with lots of submission documents for tenders, “and that was also a challenge to make them sound personable and interesting!”
After several years as publisher of Media Guardian Melanie moved to digital marketing agency Soup in Norwich three or so years ago. It pretty much coincided with a domestic move from East Dulwich to the Halesworth area, with art restorer husband Lucien taking over the family business created by his father.
Commuting from Suffolk to the Guardian would have been too much, she thought, what with having a young son. In the event, Soup opened a London office and Melanie’s ended up working there most of the time. The best-laid plans . . .
The agency develops electronic and interactive ways of building a kind of community around brands such as Sky, Jordans and Ryvita. Techniques could include using a moving digital poster at a bus-stop, perhaps blipping your phone against it and being rewarded with some kind of voucher or information, and communicating via sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Melanie’s role – as a planner/strategist – is to act as a kind of link between the client and the creative team. And yes, she smiles, she often does have to gently remind enthusiastic digital marketeers that lots of people don’t have iPhones or spend hours tweeting.
She’s actually due to leave work shortly, after opting to slow the pace. The work’s been interesting and fun, “but, actually, it’s been the toughest job I’ve ever had!” Melanie’s realistic about writing, recognising it’s notoriously difficult to make a living from children’s books, but news that Mistress of the Storm would be published abroad helped make the decision.
“Someone bought the German language rights and paid not a fortune but enough for me to be able to say ‘Yes, I’ll leave.’ We’ve saved up enough money to last two years. So I’m going to take two years out and enjoy being at home.” (And writing too, of course.)
“My job is very intense anyway. It’s all 10- or 12-hour days, and then you’ve got travel on top, so I quite often go days without seeing Joe and Ben – which is horrible. I hate that. So if I just get two years of being able to see them every day, that’s enough, isn’t it?”
Going to London has meant rising at 6am and leaving home 20 minutes later to drive to Ipswich for the train. Melanie’s been working four days a week. “On the fifth day, in theory, I write!” She’ll miss the work and the colleagues, but not the hours and travelling. She’s started to make good friends in Suffolk “and I’m really looking forward to saying ‘Yes, I’ll come out in the evening’, rather than ‘No, I’m too tired.’”
East Anglia she’s taken to her heart. “It’s hard to have a good quality of family life in London unless you have quite a lot of money, and we don’t. Being in Suffolk is so much nicer. You can leave your back door unlocked and nothing’s going to happen. Being in London with children is a bit of a nightmare because, if you’re trying to get them out of the car, you also have to make sure you’ve locked everything and haven’t left anything lying about, because it will get stolen!”
The second instalment of Verity Gallant’s adventures, provisionally called Heart of Stone “but likely to change, as I’m not very good at headings”, is on its second draft and should be out in the summer of 2011. Around Christmas/New Year, she’ll start working on the third story.
Not that her sons will be that bothered. At the ages of four years, and 18 months, Joe and Ben are a bit wee for the tales. “The boys would be more impressed if I made a tractor!” she laughs.
n The Mistress of the Storm is published by David Fickling Books at �10.99.
n Meet Melanie Welsh, and pick up a copy, at a book-signing session at the Bury St Edmunds branch of Waterstone’s on Saturday, July 10, from 10am to noon.