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26 March 2014

Author Q&A: Stephanie Wahlstrom

by Rufus Purdy Author Interviews

Last week, we posted about former Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing student Jake Woodhouse – and how his crime thriller After The Silence (published on 24 April) would be the first novel by one of our alumni to be published. Well, as it turns out, that’s not quite true. Stephanie Wahlstrom’s The Accidental Socialite, published by Piatkus Entice, will actually be released a few days earlier on 15 April. Stephanie’s novel is the hilarious tale of a twentysomething woman who is accidentally catapulted into the hedonistic world of celebrity, and is certain to appeal to anyone who loves a stylish and quirky romantic comedy. But it’s been quite a journey from studying with CBC to seeing the book in print, as Stephanie tells us here.

Had you done much writing before signing up to your Curtis Brown Creative writing course?
Before the course I had ‘completed’ my first novel; and I say that in quotation marks because once I took the course I realised that, although it was 80,000 words, it was nowhere near finished. My day job is in TV, so I’ve also written a few TV shows.

What convinced you to take the course?
I worked in children’s TV and I felt the next natural challenge for me would be to write children’s books – especially as the New Adult novel I’d already written didn’t feel as though it was going anywhere. I’d researched loads of writing courses and most of them concentrated on the writing or coming up with ideas, and not at all on the business aspect. Curtis Brown was my absolute dream agency and the course I applied for had Tony Bradman as a teacher and speakers of the calibre of children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, as well as real editors from real publishers. For me, Curtis Brown Creative offered the right mix of what I needed to take my writing from good to great and start making it my career.

What stage was your novel at when you joined the CBC novel-writing course?
I actually started the course with a brand-new piece of 6,000 words. My adult novel was complete but hadn’t been edited.

We talk a lot about the importance of the one-line pitch here at Curtis Brown Creative. Can you sum up your forthcoming debut The Accidental Socialite in one sentence?
It’s a romantic comedy about a 22-year-old smalltown girl from Canada who moves to London and accidentally becomes famous.

Did the sessions with your tutors and fellow students make you doubt the direction you were taking with it?
With the novel I’d started for the course, yes. I scrapped it halfway through the course and started yet another one, which will be the next series I work on. The course really made me think about what I wanted to write and where the story was actually going. A story isn’t just a bunch of words you think are great in a row, it needs to have a point and plot, which is something I applied to the new adult novel I’d already written.

What was the most memorable piece of advice you took away from the course?
What is the point? Where is this going? I ask myself those questions regularly as I write now and so far it has saved me from a lot of deleting in my second book.

Can you take us through how your book deal happened?
I had been entering competitions on Twitter and blogs (in fact, it was exactly one year ago today that I entered the first competition) and doing well. I had requests for fulls and partials from agents, but it was never a ‘yes’. I hadn’t submitted to Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown yet because she was at the top of my list and I figured if she said no it would be too depressing. It was kind of like keeping your ace for a rainy day. Don’t do that. It’s a terrible idea.
Anyway, I was ready to give up and self-publish in the summer but decided to enter one last competition. This time the requests came from publishers and those requests turned into offers. I had no idea what to do, so I panicked and emailed Stephanie. It was totally inappropriate to email someone like that who isn’t your agent, but she said to ask if we had any questions and I was too scared to negotiate on my own. She was more than happy to hear from me and I signed with Curtis Brown. Stephanie found me a co-agent at ICM in New York and they worked out a great deal for my book in the US and Canada. Then, Stephanie went to work on a UK deal and a few weeks later I was sitting with her in the Little, Brown offices talking to Piatkus Entice. It was crazy!

And how are things going with that second novel?
It’s done! Well, almost. I’ve had feedback from a few readers and I’m just going through making a few final edits. I’m handing it in to the publishers on 15 April – the same day as my first book comes out.

What is your writing process?
I don’t really have a set process. I usually start by writing a ‘treatment’, which is a general outline of what should happen with key plot points (something I use a lot in TV). Then I tend to forget about it, start writing and go back every once in a while to see if it’s changed and – if it has – where it’s going now. I write around my day job so it’s mostly evenings and weekends. This second book basically killed my social life for the last six months. It’s been worth it though.

Do you find it easy to write – or is it something you have to work hard at?
It’s up and down. There are some days where I am my own cheerleader and think everything I do is great and easy, and there are other days where writing a single sentence makes me feel like gouging out my own eyes. The second novel was easier in that, now I know how to do it, I can avoid my earlier mistakes. But at the same time that’s what makes it way harder because my mistakes used to be an easy way to push out another 1,000 words. Now I have to stop and think.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give aspiring novelists?
The only way to become a novelist is to write a novel and finish it. There are no shortcuts and the road is usually paved in thorns, not gold. I thought about my novel for years before I actually opened a Word document and wrote it down. And it wasn’t easy. I wanted to give up every week, but I didn’t and it’s incredibly rewarding to see that perseverance pay off. I cried when I saw my book in print for the first time because I was immediately taken back to sitting in my room alone at 2.00am convinced I didn’t have any more words in my brain and knowing I had to get up to go to work in a few hours. I never thought I’d get to this point and, when I did, I felt overwhelming joy.

Do you think it’s still possible for a novelist to be someone who simply creates good stories?
I definitely do. It’s great that authors have social media to interact with fans but at the end of the day, I don’t read their Twitter feed, I read their book. Being great on social media does not equal a great storyteller. It does help to make a connection, though, because I think people invest a lot of time and emotion into books, and feel like they know the author personally. It’s an intimate thing.

The Accidental Socialite by Stephanie Wahlstrom is published by Piatkus Entice on 15 April. Pre-order the Kindle edition for £2.99 from here.

The next Curtis Brown Creative Novel-Writing Course, tutored by author Erin Kelly, closes for applications at midnight on Sunday. For more information or to apply, please click here.


Stephanie Wahlstrom


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