Julie Ma studied on our three-month online Writing Your Novel course back in 2014, since then she’s returned to take some of our other online courses including our popular ‘How to Write Your Novel’ series. We were delighted to hear the news that her debut Happy Families won this year’s Richard and Judy Search For A Bestseller competition and a publishing deal with Welbeck.
We caught up with Julie to find out more about her time studying with us and the inspiration behind Happy Families…
Your debut novel Happy Families has just won the Richard and Judy Search For A Bestseller competition. How does it feel to be a prize-winning author with a publishing deal?
It sounds so amazing when you put it like that. After spending so much time focusing on agent submissions, it feels quite surreal to be published like this, but in a good a-polar-bear-makes-you-breakfast way, not a wake-up-to-find-yourself-a-giant-cockroach way.
Happy Families follows three generations of a Chinese immigrant family living in rural Wales. Can you tell us a bit more about the story and what inspired you to write this novel?
This is where I use everything I learned about pitching on the course!
There are two secrets in the Li family. Why has Amy come back to live in the flat above the shop when she had such a glittering career in the city? And why haven’t her father and grandfather spoken to each other for the last thirty years even though they all lived together in that flat and worked in the Chinese takeaway downstairs too.
Now her grandfather’s collapsed in the street and time’s running out if Amy wants to play happy families before it’s too late.
Nikita Lalwani was the tutor on my course and in her post she talks about starting to write with something from your own life that, by the end, may be unrecognisable. And that’s how my story developed too. Folk like me and my family rarely appear in fiction so I decided to write about them. It’s important to me to read, and to write, the stories of people you see every day, but don’t always notice.
What are some of your favourite books? And who are the authors that influence your writing?
I think there’s something to be said for the depiction of writing classes in contemporary fiction and two of my favourites are in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird. They’re both written for laughs but there are nuggets of good advice in each of them.
I feel like a sponge when I’m reading, soaking up how other writers work with structure, plot, POV and then when I write, I try to squeeze myself out onto the page. When I’m editing, I can look at bits and think, ‘hmm, yes, I was channelling a certain writer on that day’, but hopefully the reader won’t see anything too clunky. I get influenced by anybody and everybody even if they don’t write in the same genre as I do.
The King and Queen of funny English writing are probably P G Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford who demonstrate to me there is nothing new under the sun. Mitford’s description of Uncle Davy’s orthorexia in The Pursuit of Love, although of course it wasn’t called that then, could just as easily apply to any Instagram food influencer of today.
More recently, I’ve learned a lot from Rachel Joyce, David Nicholls and Marian Keyes about writing with warmth and affection about ordinary folk up against less ordinary circumstances.
You studied on our three-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2014. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?
Was it that long ago? That was my first time with you and I’ve been back again since. That three-month course was a good experience in self-discipline. You have your deadlines to write and feedback and you don’t want to let anyone down by being the one who didn’t hand in their homework.
But as most of you will know, it’s the Blind Date aspect of the CBC courses that are most important where the team at CBC select talented students who all have different writing styles and genres, so you complement each other. That time spent examining each other’s writing and having your own examined can be excruciating but is invaluable.
And I much preferred studying online, I would have shrunk like a salt-covered slug in the real life equivalent.
Many of our students find their writing community whilst studying on our courses. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?
Yes, I’m still in touch with a few and we exchange notes by social media, email and in one case, we’ve actually met in the flesh!
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors currently submitting to prizes and/or agents?
Don’t underestimate the importance of the time you leave your novel in a drawer once it’s finished. Once it’s done, put it away, pretend it’s not there for at least two weeks, more if you can bear it. Then have another look with semi-fresh eyes. One of my big regrets was that even though I was told this nugget of information often, I still went on to ignore it. You can only realistically submit the same manuscript to an agent once so don’t waste that chance with something that isn’t ready yet.
Also don’t get distracted by what happened to another writer you know/studied with. It took me over a year for anyone even to request the full manuscript.
One of my online writing friends is also a competition winner and we both know that luck played such a huge part in how we got our deals. Unfortunately, you can’t always find luck, it has to find you but you can improve your chances considerably by continuing to write, edit and submit.
So, if you’re a woman, make sure you submit an entry for the Discoveries Prize.
Finally, what’s next for you – any ideas for your next writing project?
I’m hoping to continue writing about the community where Happy Families is set. I’ve noticed some of the supporting characters waving and trying to catch my attention.