Hazel Barkworth’s deliciously intense and beautifully written novel Heatstroke has been sold to Headline by Lucy Morris at Curtis Brown. Hazel took our six-month novel-writing course in London back in the Spring of 2016, and it’s been brilliant to follow her progress since then. Here we talk to Hazel and Lucy about the journey they’re on together …
Hazel, I remember the beginnings of your beguiling novel very clearly from when you were studying with us: A teenage girl, Lily, goes missing, having run off with her teacher … The story unfolds through the perspective of Rachel, the mother of Lily’s best friend – and we quickly realise that Rachel is herself hiding secrets … I vividly remember our tutorial at the end of your course – we discussed some issues with plotting out your story, and particularly with the motivations of your central character, Rachel. Can you tell us a bit about your experience on the CBC course, and about your struggles with plotting out your story and creating Rachel as flawed, troubled but also engaging?
Hazel: My tutor on the CBC course was the incredible Erin Kelly. I took the course because I knew she’d be teaching, and I’d always adored her writing. She pushed me to understand what I wanted to do with my novel, and gave me the confidence to develop that vision. I loved how the course was a potent mix of the pragmatic and the imaginative.
I think plotting is always a challenge. Despite a timeframe of only three weeks, this novel was tricksy. I had to weave in moments of both memory and conjecture, and hide some elements in the shadows, whilst always keeping the pace of the main story swift. It was a juggle, and has changed significantly several times, but with the help of a wall covered in post-it notes, I think I’ve found the right balance.
Rachel has been such fun to write. The image I had in mind when I first thought of the book was a mother watching her daughter sunbathe. This is now the opening page of the novel, and Rachel’s character emerged from that complex and slightly troublesome scene. She is frequently at fault and makes some disastrous decisions, but whilst people might not like her, I hope they will recognise her and feel for her. And I hope I’m not the only one who has aspects of Rachel in me.
What happened after the course finished? How long did it take you to finish a draft of your novel, and why did you decide to approach Lucy?
Hazel: I wrote as much as possible! There were so many weekends lost in the words, and it took me nearly eighteen months after the course, alongside a full-time job, to get to a somewhat polished draft.
Lucy was my ideal agent, as I’d always hoped to be represented by a woman near the beginning of her career, so our journeys could grow together. I loved the books Lucy mentioned as her favourites, and when we met I knew within moments that she was the person I wanted to work with on this book, and hopefully many more. She understood instantly what I was trying to write.
Lucy, when you first read Hazel’s novel, what attracted you to it? Tell us a bit about your first meeting with Hazel, and how you decided you want to work with her.
Lucy: At the end of the CBC London-based courses, the opening chapters of the students’ novels are circulated to all of the Curtis Brown and C&W agents so that we can read them before we meet the students for a drinks party. My first glimpse of Hazel’s novel was the chapter that I read in the CBC anthology for her course. I was immediately intrigued by what it said about women and ageing – how strongly we identify with our younger selves, and it made me question what it really even means to ‘come of age.’ All set against a deliciously dark story.
Hazel and I first met during the summer heatwave, appropriately enough for the novel, and bonded over our shared misery about having to even exist in that weather. There’s a brilliant line in Heatstroke that brings me right back to that time: ‘In the heat, just having a human body was a chore.’ As well as finding a kindred winter spirit, I knew from that first meeting that Hazel was a brilliant, dedicated writer, and someone with bags of ideas. And needless to say, it was a very speedy offer of representation.
Did the two of you do much editorial work together before you send it out to publishers? Can you tell us a bit about the editorial process the two of you went through together? And has there been further rewriting for the publisher?
Lucy: We did one big structural edit and then a flurry of two or three smaller sets of changes in the week before we submitted the novel. Lots of emailing at antisocial hours! Hazel has since done some more structural work and then a couple of rounds of line edits for Headline.
Hazel: Editing has been an unexpected joy. When I first spoke with Lucy she had a clear vision of how I could make the book stronger – more shadowy and intriguing – which involved quite a big restructure. I was excited by the idea, but it was only when it came to life I realised how it pushed the book closer to my original image. When Frankie from Headline suggested changes, they made the book deeper and more complex – again making it more like the novel I’d set out to write. It has been such a privilege to work with brilliant women who understand the novel, and have the insight to know what it needs.
I remember that the novel started out as Honeysuckle. How and why did it become Heatstroke? And how important are titles?
Lucy: We went on a real journey with titles for Heatstroke, both spending hours and hours combing through Lana del Rey lyrics (Hazel had originally pitched the book to me as ‘Lana del Rey in Epsom’!); endless synonyms for sticky, sweet, heat – wanting that cloying haziness that Hazel portrays from the very first paragraph in the novel. Looking at the original and final titles side-by-side, they are structurally very similar, in both having a darker side and a double meaning. The ‘suckle’ of Honeysuckle is kind of icky, as is the ‘stroke’ of Heatstroke, but the latter felt like a stronger, more commercial title.
Hazel: I think titles are incredibly important. They’re your promise to the reader of what they’ll experience. I loved the suburban sickliness of Honeysuckle, but Heatstroke feels more muscular and resonant and, let’s face it, sexier.
Lucy, when you sent the novel out, Headline “pre-empted” for it. Can you explain what a ‘pre-empt’ is, and how an agent and author would go about deciding whether to accept one?
Lucy: A pre-empt is when a publisher makes an offer of an advance (on account of royalties) contingent on the agent taking a book that is out with other publishers on submission ‘off the table,’ and so closing down any other competing offers. It’s a lovely thing to happen in terms of demonstrating an editor’s huge enthusiasm for a book – they’ll have read the manuscript very quickly and rallied their teams to put together an offer at warp-speed – but pre-empts tend to come attached to very tight timelines for acceptance or decline, so it’s a case of speed-dialling the author and sending up a swift prayer that they’re able to speak! Hazel and I had both been blown away by Frankie’s pitch. She immediately understood what Heatstroke was setting out to achieve and had developed a fantastic publishing vision to compliment it. Whether a pre-emptive offer or not, that shared vision really informs the decision about whether to go with the offering publisher.
So what’s next for you, Hazel ? Have you started writing your next novel?
Hazel: I’m at the researching and scribbling stage at the moment. The novel I’m working on now is set in a very different moment in time, but has the same key themes and preoccupations as Heatstroke – coming of age, the complexity of suburbia, power struggles between women and men, and the shadowy nature of truth.
And are you still in touch with other students from your CBC course? What was the most important lesson you learned with us?
Hazel: Yes, very much so. Throughout the writing of my first draft, a group of us met once a month in London, and I gained invaluable feedback on each new chunk of words. I am immeasurably grateful for their time, support and insight, and it has been wonderful to see their books grow and bloom too.
I learned so much on the course. I think the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received was two words: be subversive. The CBC course helped me to understand how to apply that sense of disruption and opinion to every page, every scene, every line of dialogue.