25 October 2019

Penny Chrimes: ‘I just kept writing, and trying out different stories’

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Penny Chrimes studied with award winning author Catherine Johnson on our online Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course in 2016. Now she’s represented by Curtis Brown agent Lisa Babalis and has an exciting two-book deal with Hachette Children’s Group for two middle grade novels.

We found out more about her journey to publication …

You were a student on our online Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course in 2016. How did your time studying with us impact your approach to writing?

I found the very structured and practical process of working through the course really useful – and the wisdom and advice from Catherine Johnson was inspiring. I learned so much from the other students on the course – everyone was very supportive of each other, and the variety of imaginative worlds that people had created was amazing. The other students were so good at pointing out problems that I was trying to ignore and hide under the carpet.

I was returning to writing after quite a long break – I’d taken a big gamble and given up the day job as an Executive Producer at Sky News because I was longing to write full-time. But I felt, although I had had picture books and early middle-grade books published in the past, that I really wanted to get to grips with plotting and characterisation in order to write a full-length novel for children. I realised whilst doing the course that I had a lot to learn, and in fact I had a bit of a crisis of confidence half-way along, which Anna helped me to get through. The Curtis Brown Creative team were really hands on and helpful.

Many of our students find their writing community on our courses, are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Some of us who could get to London met up at the end of the course at a great café at the top of Waterstone’s huge bookshop in Piccadilly – it was great to meet them and link them to the worlds they had created.

You’re represented by Curtis Brown’s Lisa Babalis, what was the process of getting an agent like for you?

There was an opportunity to chat to various agents online towards the end of the course, and that was really useful in terms of getting an idea about what they were looking for, and the best way to go about finding someone who really loves your work. It can be such a slow and discouraging process sending your work off to agents and not hearing back for ages because they are so busy – doing the course and having a chance to chat to agents directly was helpful. Lisa contacted me after the course after reading the book I was working on at the time, and we met up for a chat at the Haymarket office and got on really well. We both seemed to love the same children’s books, which is always a good start, and we had a great chat about the writers old and new we both like; it seemed like it was going to be an easy, fun relationship from that first meeting.

Your debut middle grade novel Tiger Heart will be published by Hachette Children’s Group in January 2020. What was it like working with Lisa to get your novel ready to send to publishers?

Lisa had been very supportive since we started working together after I did the course. The book I wrote whilst on the course sadly didn’t find a home – or hasn’t so far! – but I just kept writing, and trying out different stories and writing for different age groups. Lisa is great at spotting flaws in my plots, and helping me to make the manuscript the best it can possibly be before sending it off. And she was always encouraging when it felt like nothing was ever going to work. I think she also spotted that I needed to stop being a journalist, after many years in newsrooms, and worrying about facts too much – which kind of freed me up to have fun with my writing.  And just make stuff up!

Your debut is full of magic and adventure. At its heart is the relationship between a tiger and protagonist Fly. Can you tell us a bit more about Tiger Heart and what inspired you to write this story?

Tiger Heart is the story of a chimney sweep who falls into a tiger’s cage. Fly is the grubby leader of a gang of gutterlings – but with one lick of her scuffed knees the tiger recognises her royal blood. Though Fly doesn’t believe for one minute that she’s a princess, she vows to free him and return him to his homeland; the pair set off on an adventure that involves a hypnotic ruby and mystical land across the ocean, and escaping from the dark forces that stand in their way.

The story had been lurking in a drawer in the back of my brain for years. I was doing some research in an East End local archive for a television documentary on war-time London, and got distracted by looking at Victorian photographs, which wasn’t at all relevant to the task in hand. Amongst them I found a newspaper story about Jamrach’s menagerie which was a huge warehouse where animals were brought from all over the world and sold to rich collectors. The thought of those sad animals caged in the gloom of that place stuck with me ever since– as well as a newspaper story about the day a tiger escaped and ran down Ratcliffe Highway, and seized a small boy in its jaws. Jamrach beat the tiger over the head until it dropped the child, who survived. Nothing is recorded about what happened to the poor tiger. I always wanted to free that tiger, and the rest of the animals, and in Tiger Heart Fly does the job for me.

It’s also been a process of teaching myself 18th and 19th century slang; I have a book as thick as a tree trunk on my desk which has become my Bible for gutterling-speak. As well as making up a few words of my own. The book has a glossary at the end, so readers can become as fluent as Fly.

Can you share any hints as to what book two will be about?

The second book follows the same gang of gutterlings, who improbably enough come across another magical beast that they discover lurking beneath London’s streets.

If you’re working on a YA or middle grade novel apply now to study on our spring 2020 Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course.

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