The latest of the ‘famous five’ former students from our creative writing courses to secure a book deal, Antonia Honeywell is a shining example to harassed parents with literary ambitions everywhere. Despite being a mother to four children under the age of eight, she not only found the time to attend the inaugural Curtis Brown Creative course back in May 2011, but was also able to finish the novel she was working on and undertake a major rewrite before submitting to publishers. Her debut The Ship – which manages to be a rites-of-passage tale, a love story and a high-concept thriller all at the same time – will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson early in 2015. She tells us how it all happened here:
What stage was your novel at when you joined the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course?
I’d started with an idea and finished a rough draft, from which I’d worked out the storyline. Then I’d completely taken the draft apart, written new bits, thrown out others and stitched the whole thing back together in what I hoped was the right order. I came to the course with a patchwork quilt, all the rough edges showing, a great many holes and some lovely but irrelevant embroidery.
We talk a lot about the importance of the one-line pitch here at CBC. Can you describe your forthcoming debut novel in one sentence?
My editor called it ‘a dystopian novel with an utopian heart.’ I really like that.
In the course of workshopping your novel with your tutors and fellow students, did you change the direction of your novel?
The plot, characters and themes didn’t change, exactly, but I realised the characters had to live in their own right, rather than simply part of a good story. The ship itself, too, had to be a real ship, not just a vessel for an idea. It was no good hoping for some mystical alchemy to kick in and leaving all the work to the reader.
What was the most memorable piece of advice you took away from the course?
Don’t be precious. This essential advice was constantly implied, though never overtly stated. For example, I remember telling a guest tutor that I’d been advised by someone who hadn’t yet read my novel to call it Ship – just that, ‘Ship’, rather than ‘The Ship’ – in order to capitalise on the success of the novel Room. I’d been outraged by the suggestion and was looking for sympathy, but he just said, very calmly, that if someone bought Ship because of Room, then my novel would be out there, and the agent would have done their job. That made me think. It is so easy to dismiss advice and feedback that, for whatever excellent reason, doesn’t suit you. It’s much harder to really listen. Anyone who’s taken the time to read your work deserves be heard.
What happened when the course finished and how did you motivate yourself to finish the novel?
Well, I lost my writing night when the course ended! I still miss it. But it wasn’t hard to stay motivated. I’d gained a great deal of feedback from the other students and from the tutors, so I had plenty to work on. I also met up regularly with another student from the course whose work I’d admired, and we exchanged work and set each other deadlines.
My writing process revolves around snatched moments and Tuesdays. For a while I wondered whether The Ship should be called The Tuesday Novel, because on a Tuesday my Mum takes care of the children and I write. On a good Tuesday, I can write 10,000 words. That’s a Tuesday when I’ve managed to delegate the school run, my pre-schoolers are happy, Mum has no appointments and my husband gets home in time to help put the children to bed. Other than that, my laptop is always open on the kitchen table and I use every stolen moment I can.
You have four young children. How do you manage to juggle motherhood and writing?
Every unpublished writer – and many a published one – has another life, one that isn’t to do with writing. For me, at the moment, it’s the children. We’re on holiday now, and while I’ve been answering these questions, I’ve searched for a lost hula hoop, unwrapped a succession of ice pops and settled a potentially violent dispute over the last peach. There’s suncream to be applied to four small backs and it’s almost teatime. We need to go to the supermarket. By the time I’ve finished answering, a whole day, two days or more will have passed. But I will get there in the end.*
At home, I do a great deal of slow cooking – getting dinner together at the same time as breakfast and leaving it to cook all day. I make bargains with myself – I give the children paints and brushes, or fairy cakes and decorations, or play dough, and let them get on with it. I get half an hour, sometimes more, and for that, I accept that I’ll have a great deal more clearing up to do than if I’d supervised every moment. If you really, really want to write (and why else would you bother?), then that desire becomes a thread that creates continuity between the disjointed moments. You wind that thread around a spool of solid discipline, and then you can start.
Can you take us through how your book deal happened?
After the course, I felt like Luke Skywalker facing the Death Star. It was the best opportunity I’d ever had to present The Ship to an agent and I had to give it my best shot. I carried on working on the manuscript for more than a year, drafting and redrafting until, finally, I submitted. A week later I got an email from Jonny Geller, which I will never, ever delete from my laptop. We met – and for an hour he told me what was wrong with the novel. That, it transpired, was an offer of representation. I redrafted again, after which Jonny began submitting to editors. Two weeks later there were three offers on the table. It took just over a month. Or just over a decade, depending on how you look at it.
Who else from your CBC writing group should we be looking out for?
All of us. Really. Chris Rickaby and Bob Fear have already won awards for their projects; Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist is out next year; the other day I opened G2 to find an article by Catherine Bray. Emily de Peyer is writing a brilliantly funny novel of Cold Comfort Farm-style humour with a Victorian setting. We had it all – the apocalypse, a Russian thriller, coming of age, reluctant prophets, conspiracies, cyberlife after mortal death – it was a privilege to be part of the group and mine will certainly not be its last success story.
* For the record, answering these questions took two days in the end. I should have bought more peaches first time round. And I still haven’t found the hula hoop.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.