Interview with Caroline Ambrose
The Bath Novel Award & The Bath Children's Novel Award
Congratulations for the upcoming launch of The Sign of One. You signed a three-book deal in the summer of 2014, so it’s been quite a wait for publication. Was this partly a strategic decision to enable the next two books to be published in relatively quick succession?
Thanks, Caroline! And yes, it has been quite a long wait between securing the deal with Egmont and first publication. It was a strategic decision, but more to do with editor and marketing resource availability. I suspect they had bigger fish to fry at the time! Also, I believe they prefer to release debut authors in the Spring, so they don’t get crushed underfoot by mainstream authors releasing their next bestselling tome in time for Christmas. To be honest, although waiting for a lifetime ambition to be fulfilled is never easy, it’s worked in my favour. I’m not the speediest writer, so it’s given me time to write book two (In The No-Zone, coming 2017!) and taken some of the stress out my writing life. So, can’t complain …
What have you got lined up for the launch?
I am having a little book launch on the 9th April at Forbidden Planet in Bristol and will soon be tweeting and facebook-ing the hell out of it. I’m hoping my ‘evil’ twin, Martin, will be able to attend so that readers can see for themselves where I get my inspiration!
Tell us about your writing process and writing cabin…
Like many writers, procrastination is at the heart of my writing process! No, at the risk of a cliché, it’s all about being determined and disciplined. I can’t wait for inspiration to strike, I just have to spend as many hours as possible at the laptop tapping away. I feel sometimes that I have swapped my engineering career to become a kind of archaeologist, where I keep scraping away at blank pages until eventually the plot, characters, setting, etc., of a story start to emerge under my laptop trowel. I yearn to be more of a planner, but that just doesn’t seem to work like that for me. Sigh. In more practical terms, at least my commute is shorter now. After breakfast, I deal with as much admin as I can take, then grab my Mac and retreat to my writing cabin at the bottom of my garden. After a major insulation project over the summer, this is now my year-round writing abode and even has a wood-burning stove. It helps having a dedicated work place, where I can write undisturbed.
How did you find your agent, Ben Illis?
Funnily enough, I didn’t - Ben found me. I was doing the brilliant MA in Writing For Young People at Bath Spa University and working on the manuscript that would become The Sign of One. I decided to enter it in the 2013 A. M. Heath Irish Children’s Prize (which almost sounds as if the winner is awarded a grubby street urchin from Dublin) and was delighted to be shortlisted. Ben got in touch, requested the full manuscript and shortly thereafter offered representation. Now the only slight fly in the ointment was this all happened a few months before the looming anthology event that marks the end of the MA, which many of the UK’s leading literary agents attend. Cue, decision crisis. Do I go with indy Ben’s offer or wait, hoping for a choice of other offers, perhaps from bigger agency names? Well, in the end I met up with Ben and was blown away with his evident knowledge of the industry and enthusiasm for my book. I was also impressed by his intelligent and pro-active approach. So, deep breath, I signed on the dotted. And then manned the door at the MA anthology event, glass of wine in hand, relaxed in the knowledge that I already had an excellent agent…
How long had you been querying and how did you handle the inevitable rejection element of seeking representation
Well - and I hope this isn’t too annoying – I hadn’t been querying. As in the previous question, the MA programme culminates in the anthology launch and we are (rightly so) encouraged to wait for that, to maximise our chance of securing an agent. I just sent my extract out to the AM Heath competition for a bit of a laugh, a ‘hey, what harm can it do?’ spur-of-the-moment thing. But, that said, I do have a novel in a drawer that did see it’s fair share of rejection prior to my enrolling at Bath Spa and starting work on The Sign of One. This – a glance at my nerdy spreadsheet reveals – was rejected by nine agencies, but did secure me my place on the MA.
In terms of handling rejection, I just think you have to force yourself to remain positive. I think maybe I’m naturally an optimist, which helps. But I always clung to the knowledge that even the most successful authors are often dragging a trunk-full of rejections behind them. My favourite example: the wonderful J. K. Rowling.
You've said you think your shortlisting helped when Ben was pitching you to publishers, tell us about that (sorr, I know, I'm blatantly fishing here)
Yes indeed. Encouraged by my AM Heath shortlisting, and having Ben as my agent, I submitted The Sign of One to the 2014 Bath Novel Award. Again I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted. This was further validation and encouragement for me, and Ben could also go into publishers’ offices waving these shortlistings. I firmly believe that, alongside my MA from Bath Spa, my BNA shortlisting played a vital part in securing my book deal. It raises my author profile that bit higher and will have got my manuscript read in a more positive light. In my opinion, a longlisting or shortlisting significantly increases an author’s chance of securing an agent and/or a deal. The results speak for themselves - several other BNA shortlistees have gone on to secure agents and/or publication deals. It also happens to be particularly well run competition and great fun. So, if I may be so bold, my advice to any unpublished writers out there reading this, would be to send your manuscript in, either to the Bath Novel Award or the Bath Children’s Novel Award. There’s nothing to lose and potentially much to gain.
Tell us about The Sign of One and what inspired you to tell this story…
The Sign of One is a science-fiction thriller for Young Adults (of all ages!) set on a dump-world called Wrath, where the galaxy’s unwashed and unwanted are shut away in permanent exile. Think early Australia in space! On Wrath, one in three births result in identical twins (idents). Unfortunately, only one is pureblood human, the other an evil monster with ‘twisted’ blood. And the thing is, they’re impossible to tell apart …
Or, as the tagline puts it: On any other world, twins are a blessing. On Wrath, they are a curse.
I have two main protagonists: Kyle, a teenage boy who’s a tough loner scraping a living out in the harsh Barrenlands; and Sky, a fierce ident rebel, set an avenging her dead sister. Thrown together, they must set aside their differences if they are to survive. It won’t be easy though – Wrath’s secrets run deep and nasty!
As for inspiration, that’s easy – I am myself an identical twin. My (and I insist on pointing this out) younger brother is called Martin, and a very handsome man he is. Anyway, for a birthday I got the two of us a joke t-shirt saying something like ‘I can’t remember if I’m the evil twin or not?’ And that made me think – what if there was a world where one twin was evil. The rest is history …
The atmosphere in The Sign of One has been compared to Mad Max and Firefly. What were your inspirations for the world of Wrath?
I’ve always been an SF fan, ever since I can remember. For the younger me, Star Wars, Alien, Mad Max, Terminator and Bladerunner were all massive. For example, I remember us (Martin and I) walking to the bus-stop on our way to our A-levels humming the theme tune to Star Wars. Anyway, I always preferred their downbeat and battered versions of the future, the so-called ‘Used Future’ trope (tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/UsedFuture) which is the gritty end of the Sliding Scale of Shiny versus Gritty. They felt way more real than (say) Star Trek, with their shiny spaceship and clingy uniforms. Firefly was a more recent inspiration, but in the same deliciously shabby vein. I also love the whole steampunk vibe. So, should Mr. Whedon read this and come calling, that’s how I would like it filmed. Okay? Please.
How far are you along with the trilogy? How long will you have spent writing it from first draft to third The End.
I’m currently close to wrapping up the first draft of book two, Into The No-Zone. I’ve also come up with the title for book three, but have yet to secure sign-off from my editor, the lovely Stella Paskins at Egmont. In terms of overall time taken for all three, I’d estimate about five years by the time I’m done. Told you I'm slow!!!
Identical twins are feared in Wrath. Do you think people feared you and your identical twin?
We were more annoying than fearsome! But, seriously, my experience is that people are generally fascinated by identical twins. Spending all our time together, we were always being gawped at and asked what it’s like to be a twin. I think maybe it challenges many non-twins too, perhaps because it contradicts their perceptions of identity and uniqueness. For sure, a lot of people were definitely annoyed not being to tell us apart, which is silly. Amusingly, when Martin and I look back at pictures of ourselves from school, even we can’t tell who is who. Weird, huh? And there must have been something in the water back in Wolverhampton, because we were only one of three sets of identical twins in the same class!
Did you and your twin play any identity tricks?
But of course. My favourite is the time I accidentally stabbed my brother in the back with a compass (long story, but seriously, it was an accident) only for him to get caned for stabbing me. Woops, this
perhaps undermines my claim to be the good twin. But then again, there was the time Martin walked my first girlfriend, Jackie, home with her thinking he was me. What goes around comes around …
How are you different to each other?
I am good, he is evil. Just kidding … no, we really are extremely similar in our looks, outlooks, likes, dislikes, etc. You can’t fight DNA. After all these years, the main difference is he was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award whereas I was shortlisted. Hah hah hah.
Do either of you have sixth sense feelings about each other?
I wish I could say we do, but not to date. Sorry.
Did you have your own language as kids?
Not as such, but what we had (and still do, to some extent) is a kind of shorthand way of speaking to each other that takes advantage of our nature-plus-nurture identical twin thing. We don’t have to be very explicit, because we both notice the same things. Also, we both have the habit of one thought leaping to another and thus skipping about conversationally. We’re never confused, because we make the same connections and leaps, but it has been pointed out by others (often through gritted teeth) that this can be frustrating.
What was your inspiration for the missing fingertip aspect of the plot?
I wish I could answer this with a gory childhood example involving a chainsaw, but I’m afraid this was just pure extrapolation. If twins are considered evil on Wrath, I thought desperate parents might try and hide them by splitting them up, maybe sending one away to a distant aunt to raise. Okay, so how could the ‘authorities’ stop that? By marking them at birth in some way, so that even apart they could easily be identified as idents. A tattoo? No. Too easily covered or removed. But a chopped-off little finger, there’s no hiding that! And I know that’s pretty grim, but one is a monster. Or so we’re told …