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Anna Bailey: 'I like to go to places in real life so I can experience them authentically'

BY Katie Smart
11th Dec 2019

Anna Bailey finished our six-month online Writing Your Novel course this summer. She quickly gained representation from Curtis Brown's Alice Lutyens, and now has a major two book deal with Doubleday, who fought off stiff competition to publish her debut novel, Tall Bones.

A literary crime novel set in a small-town in Colorado, Tall Bones is about a community devastated by the disappearance of a teenage girl. But the townspeople are keeping secrets and not all is as it seems...

Read on to find out more about Tall Bones and Anna's journey to publication.

You worked on your debut novel Tall Bones during our six-month online novel-writing course which you completed earlier in 2019. What initially led you the apply to a Curtis Brown Creative course?

It was my mum actually! I was in a really weird place in my life and I desperately needed some direction; she’d heard a lot of good things about CBC and really rated the novel-writing course, so she encouraged me to enrol. She’s always been my biggest supporter when it comes to writing, and I think if she hadn’t been so enthusiastic about it, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to apply at all.

Can you tell us a little bit about how the novel changed during the course? Did tutor Lisa O’Donnell help unlock any of those ‘ah ha!’ lightbulb moments where things click into place?

My first submission to the course was pretty much an entirely different novel. It was all set years after a crime had taken place and focused on characters returning home and reflecting on how their lives had changed since it happened. It was cathartic for me to write at the time, but not especially interesting to read, and I needed someone to point that out to me, which Lisa did. She was always honest with me about my writing – if a plot point wasn’t working or a character arc felt boring, she wasn’t afraid to tell me, and that’s the kind of teaching I appreciate. Except for the small-town setting and a couple of character names, I scrapped the entire thing, which felt like a huge deal at the time because I’d written about 60k words, but Lisa really supported me with the second version and convinced me I was on the right track. Et voila!

Shortly after the course ended you gained representation from Curtis Brown agent Alice Lutyens, and now you have a major book deal with Doubleday for Tall Bones. Can you tell us a bit about what this journey to publication has been like for you?

It’s been bonkers! Two weeks ago I was working a cash register and now I have a book deal, I still can’t really believe it. I think I actually screamed when I heard that Alice was interested in my manuscript – I knew her as the agent behind Jane Harper so it was incredible to think she might want to represent me too. Obviously she had editorial suggestions, but I knew as soon as we started talking that we were on the same page about the kind of story I was trying to tell, and any edits she asked for only served to make the story clearer. It was a similar experience with my editor, Kirsty Dunseath; I’m thrilled to be working with women who share the same energy for the book as I do. It’s still completely surreal when anyone talks to me about my novel though––I’ve only ever called it ‘the novel’ because it felt a bit pretentious to refer to my own unpublished work by name, but now suddenly people are like ‘Oh yeah, Tall Bones’ or ‘So-and-so was my favourite character’ and I’m like, 'Wait, how do you know about that?' It blows my mind that other people have read something I wrote.

Tall Bones is set in small-town Colorado. You write so vividly about the remote town and its community; how important is setting to you and do you have any tips for establishing a convincing sense of place?

Setting is probably the most important thing to me initially. I can’t start writing unless I’ve got a proper sense of where I’m going to be, and generally I like to go to places in real life so I can experience them authentically. I think you have to really open yourself up to a place when you’re there. What does your instinct tell you about this location? What’s the first thing you notice? How does it affect your senses? Then try and write it down as accurately as you can. But this goes for anywhere – the Colorado wilderness had a huge effect on me, but setting-wise this novel is just as much about trailer parks and chintzy diners as it is about forests and mountains. It’s worth taking note of how a place makes you feel whether you’re hiking in the Rockies or queueing at a fast-food drive thru.

What are some of your literary inspirations and influences?

I’m a huge fan of Andrew Michael Hurley (who was actually a guest tutor on the course one week and he was really encouraging, so Mr Hurley if you’re reading this…). His imagery is so luscious and grotesque, and I love the way he uses setting to create tension. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You was also a big influence, the way she presented us with a mystery but in fact the real story was the family and how they reacted to their daughter’s death. I really admire Susan Fletcher’s first novel Eve Green as well, which also focused on people left in the wake of tragedy. That’s a concept that really appeals to me as a writer: how grief manifests in different people and how they cope with it – or don’t.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I’m really chaotic when it comes to writing. I live with my sister who’s an artist, and she loves to have her music on while she’s painting, but I don’t like to work in a separate room because she’s so much fun to be around and I love bouncing ideas off her. I wouldn’t change it now, I’m so used to it, but it’s not really a situation that lends itself to routine. The only thing I do consistently is always sleep with my hairbrush under my bed, because once I left it there by accident and then wrote 5000 words in one sitting the next day, so now I’m really superstitious about it.

Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?

I’m working on my second novel now, which is an incredible sentence to be able to say! I’ll be travelling a lot around the UK for research, which I’m really looking forward to. But I also write for a few local magazines as well, and I definitely want to keep that up as much as possible. I’m a country girl at heart so being able to explore and write about the Cotswolds, where I live, is a real joy for me.

Get your hands on a copy of Tall Bones.