Bare-chested Poldark and... er... why his nipples had to be level
- Credit: Archant
Dreams CAN come true. Suffolk mum-of-four Jenni Keer clinched a two-book deal with a major publisher. She tells us how it happened
Much as we adore our children, 100mph-parenthood can be a tough gig. Which is why Jenni Keer’s postman was once collared to help with a feed. “I knew him quite well,” she grins.
At one time Jenni had a three-year-old, a one-and-a-half-year-old and then twins to care for. All boys. “Joy. But there are bits of the early years I don’t remember. It was a blur.
“Now it’s wonderful. They’re like my minions! ‘Could you get some wood in? Could you cook the dinner?’ And they do!” (The boys are today 17, 15 and – about now – 14.)
She’s about to become a published author, and admits writing was a mental survival tactic during those head-spinning days of early motherhood.
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“When I’d got four children in nappies, and I was in a house with a lot of blue and a lot of testosterone, and a lot of ‘boy things’, it (writing) was ‘my world’. At least if I had to physically be here, mentally I could sometimes be ‘somewhere else’.
“Writing became a way to escape into a fantasy world: one where I didn’t have to sing endless nursery rhymes and wipe wriggling bottoms!”
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Few of us will forget this year’s Beast from the East, but for wannabe romantic novelist Jenni the pesky snow and ice offered a silver lining.
She’d decided to seek something approaching full-time work, to swell the household coffers. Jenni set off for a job interview with Suffolk County Council but was forced to turn back to her home near Eye after encountering big drifts on the A140. (A photograph from the time, of a police officer up to his knees in snow, sums it up nicely.)
Bang went Jenni’s interview slot.
But as the Beast ambled away, it took her bad luck with it.
A few days later, she came home after a “mum’s taxi” trip for her brood. One son said: “You missed a phone call. Avon. Not the make-up people. They seem really keen to speak to you…” Jenni didn’t have time to take off her boots. “I stood there with my coat still on and the phone rang again and they offered me a two-book digital-first deal.”
She’d sent off a manuscript round about Christmas, in hope. Now someone wanted it. Avon Books UK is part of HarperCollins. One of publishing’s Big Five. This was, then, A Big Thing.
“After I put the phone down I literally did sit at my desk for two hours, staring at the walls. ‘What just happened there?!’”
Her debut offering – The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker – is out in electronic form in January. (A paperback edition should follow in March.)
There is a romance within the story, but the heartwarming book is also about the friendship between Lucy and elderly neighbour Brenda, a kind but eccentric soul. The tale looks at how the pair cope – very differently – with Brenda’s emerging dementia.
“Lucy Baker (in her mid-20s) is quite a quiet and shy woman; not particularly confident. I think that’s why she has the friendship with her neighbour. They’re both displaced. People think Brenda’s odd, that she’s a bit white-witchy, but she’s not.”
Jenni, who herself has friends 30 or so years older than she, is passionate about the value of older people to society, envies their wisdom and patience, and is frustrated if they are shunted to the sidelines.
One of her older neighbours is a friend who’ll come over. They’ll watch films and have a giggle. “Your friend doesn’t have to be a clone of you.
“I don’t like the way old people are dismissed. They’ve gone through the teenage years, too; they’ve had their first job interview, they’ve done all the things we’ve done, and, actually, shouldn’t we be listening to them and learning from them?”
Jenni’s writing is marketed as “commercial women’s fiction”. When she was getting going, she saw it as romantic comedy, “because my books are funny as well”. Whatever the label, one might think it wouldn’t hold much appeal to a teenage male. One would be guilty of dealing in stereotypes – and wrong.
Leo, one of her 13-year-old twins, wanted to read The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker, polished it off in two days and really enjoyed it.
His mum says: “Teenagers usually don’t like anything about you, because everything you do is stooopid. I was actually moved to tears that I’d written a book and my son had enjoyed it – and he’s a boy, and a teenager, and not my target market. That meant a lot.”
Matters of the heart
Jenni says: “I’m a fan of the happy-ever-after and my books follow what I call the ‘Four Weddings’ formula: laughs, tears and a girl who always gets her man.”
“It’s the biggest thing in life. Let’s face it: relationships are key to the human race. If we don’t have a romance, we don’t have babies.
“If you watch a sci-fi or horror film, or cowboy film, there’s always a romance in there. It’s a thread to a lot of stories. It’s what most of us strive for in life: from the day your hormones kick in to the day you die, you want to be loved by somebody.
“But I’ll always have a bigger story going on, too. I like my twists and turns. But it’s going to be heart-warming: a nice read.”
Jenni’s stories also have a bit of “magic” (the best word she can decide on, after a bit of mulling) to them. “They all have a little bit of the inexplicable in them. The first story features a little-bit-magical locket.”
There’s an appetite for this kind of tale, she reckons. “It’s one of the biggest genres. Who’s out there reading? It’s middle-aged women – and they want to read romance.
“It can be knocked by ‘literary people’, or mislabelled. But I don’t mind. If you want to stick my book in a pink cover, do. People want happier-ever-after in a world that doesn’t have much.”
The Kindle edition of The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker can be ordered from Amazon for £2.99. (Free app available.)
Nipples and abs
I’ve noticed that lots of Jenni’s photos online feature a little knitted Ross Poldark – often held by fellow members of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. What’s all that about?
“Lucy’s hobby (in the book) is knitting. She knits celebrity figures. The sofa is covered with Wolverine and Poldark figures. The hero teases her about it.”
Jenni well remembers the scene in the BBC’s Poldark series where well-toned and bare-chested actor Aidan Turner scythes a meadow “and lots of women got a bit flappy about it”. So she asked her skilled sister-in-law to make a little woollen Poldark as a bit of fun and as a marketing tool.
“She did an amazing job. In the book, I talk about getting his nipples level, ‘so it would be quite nice to have nipples’. Three days later, in the post, comes this Poldark. She’s done it without a pattern, with bits of odd wool she had.
“Look! He’s got abs! And a scythe. And nipples – which were important to the story.”
How it began
When Jenni’s sons were little, she and a friend who also had four youngsters would get together and read, “because it was a life-saver with four children under the age of five. We used to read and swap books”.
They got talking about romantic scenes and how sometimes they weren’t written brilliantly or were embarrassing, and pal Lauren Moore suggested they have a go themselves.
“It was like one of those light-bulb moments: ‘Oh my god; this is what I should be doing’,” says Jenni. Writing, she realised, gave her such a buzz.
So in about 2010 or 2011 she began penning short stories; and it evolved – up to the point, about last Christmas, when she sent off that manuscript and hooked Avon. (She’d finished three 100,000-word novels by then.)
Jenni reckons she couldn’t have done it without the help of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. She’s been on its new writers’ scheme, which offers a useful critique each year by experienced authors, along with other assistance.
Sister Linda Taylor – herself a published writer, with six Random House titles to her credit – has also been a source of excellent constructive criticism. “She is the most brutal beta reader. I’m more scared of her than I am my agent! She’s very good at what she does, and she doesn’t hold back. ‘Cut that out. That’s repetition!’”
From flooring to fiction
Jenni’s early working life was spent in… the contract flooring industry. “Which sounds dull – ‘floor screeds… (she fakes a yawn)… lino’ (there’s another) – but it wasn’t. When you know how stair nosings work, it’s actually quite interesting!”
Later, having had four sons in a relatively short span, a return to full-time work was never very practicable. Not that Jenni put her feet up. She helped with her husband’s business, helped care for her parents (is still helping her mum), and has had a range of part-time jobs.
As with many authors, writing was done in the gaps: when the boys were at school; when they’d gone to bed; when she had no other pressing tasks.
She often wonders if the chance to write full-time might not prove as helpful as it sounds.
“If I was doing this full-time I’d only know about the log-burner,” she smiles, nodding at it. “You need the input of outside life.”
As she points out, “Writers tend to be middle-aged – because we’ve got something to write about. Life experience… it’s one of the areas in which we score!”
The ‘beginning’ beginning
Jenni hails from Kent.
Read as a youngster – finished all the volumes in her bookcase (“white chipboard, with stickers on the side”) at home.
Liked Daphne du Maurier and Anne of Green Gables, among others.
Did well at English, and enjoyed creative writing, but did a degree in history.
Met Suffolk-born-and-bred husband-to-be, Anthony, at Newquay. “He was a surfy dude; I was down there camping, with a friend, and he was in the next tent.”
They decided to live in Suffolk. Anthony has his own business, restoring antique furniture. So she came to the county in 1998.
“In this house 20 years. Room down, room above, and tiny lean-to bathroom. We were going to be here two years… 20 years and four children later…”
Mind you, they have extended it.
It’s a lovely village, with a sense of community, says Jenni. A little path runs up to nearby houses. “It’s like a time-warp.” And there’s priceless good-neighbourliness. Jenni says she’s often nipping out to borrow a little bit of milk – as she does this morning.
Favourite contemporary authors include Lee Child and Harlan Coben.
She acknowledges most writers don’t make mega-bucks. “I’m realistic. I’m not materialistic – we’re not a money-driven family. You can tell from my car on the drive!”
Her second novel, due in 2019, is set in a fictional Suffolk auction house. The central character has a growing tea-set. As she acquires a new piece, members of her disjointed family come back into her life.
“TW Gaze in Diss” – the auction house whose sales she’s attended over the past two decades – “have been fantastic with research help and inspiration,” says Jenni, who stresses her story is about a very-much fictional business.
The writer intends setting further tales in a region she’s taken to her heart. “I love this part of the world and, having lived in Suffolk for 20 years, I champion East Anglia in all my work.”