30 September 2020

Anna Davis: ‘Make sure you’re working on a novel that you really want to write all the way to the end’

Anna Davis, author and Discoveries Prize Judge
by Discoveries Author Interviews, Discoveries, Writing Tips

CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and NatWest to create Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme that offers aspiring female authors of all ages and backgrounds encouragement and support at the beginning of their creative journeys.

This week the Discoveries team talk books and writing advice with CBC’s very own Founder and Managing Director Anna Davis. Anna is also on the Discoveries judging panel – she will be joining author and founder of the Women’s Prize Kate Mosse, acclaimed author Abi Daré, literary agent Lucy Morris and Director for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Sandeep Mahal.

Before setting up Curtis Brown Creative in 2011 – the first and only UK creative writing school led by literary agents – you worked as an agent and you are also the author of five novels. When did you know that you wanted to work in the literary world?

While I was studying for my MA in Novel-Writing at Manchester University, in my early twenties, I met various agents and editors, and found I was really interested in learning more about what they did. Books were already my world – the writing and the reading – and I was excited by the idea of moving to London and trying to get a job in the publishing industry, while also writing. There followed a lot of working without pay at places like Jonathan Cape’s publicity department and the PFD agency. This wasn’t particularly easy for me – I didn’t have anywhere to live in London and there weren’t any paid internships back then, so I couldn’t afford rent and had to sleep on a lot of couches … The world of publishing was very different from what I was used to. It seemed very posh and I found it quite intimidating, though fascinating. I remember being struck by all the women in gold ballet shoes (this was the nineties so the detail may not translate – but they were very refined women). And I was bewildered by all the subtleties of communication and negotiation. Even the way you signed yourself off at the end of letters carried so much hidden meaning. Ultimately I did get a job as the assistant to a literary agent at the David Higham agency, and that got my foot properly in the door. Three years on I moved to Curtis Brown – but part-time, as I was already a published author by then. And so began my slightly nutty attempt to have a career in both writing and agenting. Over twenty years later I’m still at Curtis Brown, but in a rather transformed role as managing director of Curtis Brown Creative.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication and what inspired your debut novel The Dinner?

I wrote the first draft of The Dinner for my MA in Novel-Writing. We had a year of workshops and teaching at the university – and then an extra year to finish off the novel before we had to submit it (the whole novel). As I made my way through the ‘finishing off’ year, focused primarily on my attempts to get a job in publishing rather than on the novel I was allegedly writing, I had a growing awareness that my work-in-progress was the novelistic equivalent of a building constructed without proper foundations, and probably out of all the wrong materials … This was becoming a bit of a problem until one day, when I was in the shower, I looked down and saw an octopus on the bathroom floor. An octopus? In fact it was just my towel, but there was a split-second, before my brain intervened, when it was definitely an octopus – a kind of ‘corner of the eye’ hallucination. And then I started asking myself, what if this just kept happening to you all the time? And for longer? What if it became really difficult to keep track of what was real and what was hallucinated? This was where my novel The Dinner began – with the idea of a traumatised, wildly-hallucinating girl turning up unexpectedly at her brother-in-law’s house and having to be included in a dinner party that was taking place. The story was set across one evening, and divided up into sections by the courses of the meal. The whole novel came to me in a matter of minutes, pretty much, after I got out of the shower. And it was more complete in concept and plot than the one I’d been slaving over for 18 months. So, yep, I then wrote the whole thing in six months while working full-time!

I allowed myself rather longer to work on rewriting and editing – about a year – and was quite nervous at the possibility that it could get turned down by agents all over London, and that word would get out and I’d be a laughing stock (as I was working at the David Higham agency by this time). I knew also that I didn’t want to submit it to my employers – I felt strongly that I wanted to keep my life as a writer separate to my agenting life. Eventually I took the plunge and sent it to the Late Great Carole Blake (fabulous agent), and miraculously (or so it felt) she took me on as a client and sold the book to Sceptre in the UK, and to many other publishers around the world. It was an amazing moment in my life.

What inspired you to start Curtis Brown Creative?

I taught on a university creative writing MA programme for a couple of years after my second novel came out (while also working part time at Curtis Brown), and although it was a terrific experience, I began to think we could teach novel-writing much more effectively at the literary agency. I felt quite excited at the prospect of being able to teach in an entirely practical way – free from the constraints and requirements of academia. I loved the idea of running real-world courses which would respond to the aims of the writer, and would value genre novels as highly as literary fiction. I was convinced we could attract many applicants to our courses and select only the most talented writers to take part. All our tutors would be published authors with teaching experience; and we would bring the agents in with their clients and top editors – to talk to the students and open up the closed world of publishing to them. And so it came to pass! I pitched the idea to Jonny Geller, who said let’s give it a go. Nine years later we are a thriving creative writing school with courses online and in our London offices (in non-Covid times, that is), and over 100 of our students now have publishing deals. I love running Curtis Brown Creative – it’s completely taken over my life!

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Jean Brodie. She is the most amazing, charismatic monster. Muriel Spark was a client of my first boss at David Higham, so I got to work with her for several years. She was a very exacting client – with no tolerance for people who mess up. I did my best but made mistakes sometimes, and I didn’t know if she had any regard for me at all until my last day in the job –  at which point I had the loveliest letter from her. I still have it.

Which book do you always recommend to others?

Gosh, it changes all the time. Depends entirely on the person and the circumstances. At the moment I’m recommending The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel, which was a beautiful and beguiling read. I love books that are relatable but also strange.

What’s your favourite debut novel of 2020 so far?

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. The title nearly put me off because I thought it sounded trite – but the novel is absolutely compelling, and has many more layers to it than it first appears. It has so much to say about class, privilege, race, the power of money and so much more. And it features a beautiful relationship between a toddler and her babysitter. Very touching – and actually it’s very hard to write toddlers well. Reid does it brilliantly.

If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t worry so much – it’s all going to be OK.

Do you have any writing rituals – and can you tell us what they are?

I’m not really writing at the moment, except for course material for Curtis Brown Creative. But when I am writing, I’m very much a morning person. I like to sit down at my laptop while still in my pyjamas and get writing straight away – and I’ll carry on until hunger drives me down to the kitchen for breakfast. Then I’ll shower and go back to write some more. Usually I’m running dry by lunchtime but I try to get to 1,000 words. If I’m stuck I’ll go out for a walk or go to a café and scribble in my notebook. It’s best to get away from the screen and that blinking cursor. On those days, there may be no new words or I may end up deciding to make cuts. That’s kind of frustrating but these are valuable steps in the process too. Sometimes you can push forwards but at other times you need to stop and let your ‘back brain’ catch up.

As well as CBC being a partner involved in setting up the Discoveries Prize you are also on the judging panel – do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to the prize?

I have loads of advice for this, and I’ve written a whole blog about it, so I’m going to link to that – do take a look: How to Prepare Your Application to Discoveries. Additionally I’d say take your time over this. It’s not a race to get applications in quickly. Make sure you’re happy with the idea you’re working on and that it feels like a novel that you really want to write all the way to the end. And then work on your material until you’ve made it as good as you can. ‘Brush it till it shines’, as Raymond Chandler once said. (I think it was Chandler, anyway).  

Find out more about Discoveries and how to enter the prize.

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