In this interview, Julie talks about the real-life female pirates that inspired her book, how she tackled research and her time studying with us.
You studied on our three-month Writing Your Novel course in London back in 2012. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?
I loved the fact that for the first time I was with a group of like-minded people, and was working alongside some fantastic tutors who were actually part of the industry. Getting a place on the CBC course at all let me take my writing seriously for the first time – and that was invaluable.
Many of our students form writing support groups. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?
I certainly am. Sarah Sykes (who writes as SD Sykes) and Laurinda Luffman were kind enough to give feedback on the later drafts of Bonny & Read, and helped make the book match-fit to submit to the Bath Novel Award in 2020 where I was longlisted for the prize. That really helped my submissions stand out to agents. I also caught up with Alice Fowler recently too who is having some very well-deserved success with her writing.
Your debut historical novel Bonny & Read is out now from Hodder & Stoughton. The story is a reimagining of the lives of two infamous female pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Where did you first come across the stories of the real-life Bonny and Read? Can you tell us a bit about your novel and the inspiration behind it?
I have always been a fan of Adam Ant, and on the album Prince Charming there’s a song called ‘5 Guns West’. He sang about Anne and Mary in the song, and I was blown away by the fact that these women had been pirates in what was very much a man’s world. I became fascinated by them, not least the fact they had accidentally met on a ship in the middle of the Caribbean, and the novel emerged from that.
The novel is set in 1720, how did you tackle your historical research?
There are some great first-hand accounts available from the time – Captain Johnson’s History of the Pirates was published in 1724 and featured Anne, Mary and Jack Rackham (the ship’s captain and Anne’s lover) not only in essay form, but as etchings too. Also invaluable were accounts of two women who had joined the army and navy respectively dressed as men around the same time: Christian Davies and Hannah Snell. I learned a huge amount about the practicalities of day-to-day life in the armed services, and the way these women spoke found its way into Bonny & Read. All of these women were remarkable in their own way.
What books have you enjoyed reading recently?
I absolutely loved Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – another CBC alumni. The Aerialists by Katie Munnick was stunning too, and I am currently halfway through Jess Kidd’s The Night Ship. I’m having to pinch myself that I’ll be doing some events with Jess who is one of my favourite authors – not least aboard The Golden Hinde in London on 1 September.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I always start by writing longhand in spiral bound notebooks – that way I can pull out and discard pages (they have to feel throwaway). Once I’ve got the sense of a chapter or so I’ll type up on my laptop and keep iterating. Annoyingly I’ve never seemed to have got the knack of writing anything from start to finish, so I always end up with something that looks like an elaborate jigsaw that I have to piece together retrospectively. The positive side of that is that I’m often pleasantly surprised at what comes out of the chaos I create. In between there’s lots of tea, listening to 6 Music and playing with the cat.
Do you have any top tips for the aspiring authors reading this?
Keep going. Rejection is a key part of the publishing journey – it’s never nice, but it is going to happen. Take feedback on board where it’s valid, take time to lick your wounds, and come back stronger. Get a network of two or three trusted readers – people who can be constructive in their feedback, firm but fair. If you lose your mojo, take time to read other books – it will remind you why you’re doing this in the first place. And just as importantly – be as kind to yourself as you would to someone else. You’re doing something extraordinary – remind yourself of that from time to time.
Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?
I am putting the final polish on my second novel and that will be going across to my agent in the next few days. It’s another historical novel, this time set in 1900s New York, and features another uncompromising female character at its heart. Watch this space…
Get your hands on a copy of Bonny & Read.
If you’re interested in developing your own historical fiction novel, join us for our six-week online Writing Historical Fiction course with teaching videos and notes from bestselling author S J Parris.