Roald Dahl is Woodbridge library assistant manager’s inspiration as she pursues novel-writing dream
By Steven Russell, Monday, April 4, 2011, 5.10 PM
Hundreds of hopefuls each year dream of getting their novels published. One, Sophie Green, has just come agonisingly – and publicly – close. The library assistant manager tells Steven Russell how she turned from zoology to books, when the writing bug bit, and why she’s not giving up.
LET’S credit Roald Dahl for lighting the blue touch-paper of Sophie Green’s imagination. She was raised on his yarns: rollicking tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and The BFG that turned the normal world on its head. “I think he shows you what fantasy can be – going off on strange tangents where children are always the heroes,” she says. “He must be my biggest influence. I re-read all his books until they fell apart. I don’t think he worried about what people would think about what he was saying; he just told a good story. Children got to take matters into their own hands and had the responsibility to take decisions. Also, at the end of The Witches, the boy stays as a mouse, rather than turning back to a boy. He wasn’t afraid of a not-so-happy ending.
Perhaps there are Dahl-ish echoes in her yet-to-be-published tale The Last Giant – a fantasy adventure about a shy, awkward boy who discovers he’s actually the last in a line of bloodthirsty giants. It made the five-strong shortlist of this year’s children’s fiction competition run by publisher Chicken House and a national newspaper. (One of the judges was Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo.)
The prize – the transformation of his manuscript into published book, and a £10,000 royalty advance – has just been nabbed by Kieran Larwood’s Plumpscuttle’s Peculiars story of a gang of freak-show curiosities taking on the London underworld. But Sophie’s far from downhearted. “I’m disappointed, of course, but it was fantastic to have got this far. It’s only made me more determined."
The competition drew more than 2,000 entries last year, and she believes there were even more this time, so she’s chuffed to bits to be in the top handful.
“Even getting shortlisted – that Chicken House even read it and thought it could possibly have won, and had the potential to be published, to make some money and be successful – just knowing that means a lot. Even though I didn’t win this competition, I’ll redouble my efforts to get it out there and hope someone notices it!
“I’ll try to get letters out there to agents and say ‘I didn’t win, but I did get this far.’ It’s certainly given me a huge boost and made it feel that all those years writing away on my own, in a little cold room, have been worth it!”
Indeed – like many of those nursing a literary dream – writing has to be fitted in around the day-job.
Sophie joined Suffolk’s library service in 2000 – part-time at Halesworth before moving on to Ipswich and then Woodbridge in 2002.
“It’s no coincidence that I started writing when I started working for the library service. I hadn’t really thought about doing it before then, but I loved reading and I think it was being around so many books, and people talking about books, that I thought it might be something I wanted to do.
“I’ve always loved reading and I don’t think I’ve ever in my life been without a book: a book in my bag; a huge pile waiting to get through. I liked making up stories, but I don’t think I ever thought about writing them down (as a girl). It seemed quite a lot of hard work – which it is! I got to the point where I did really want to do it.”
So she began a story for adults. But it didn’t really work out. Sophie booked herself on some creative-writing courses at Suffolk College, “which gave me a bit of experience and got me in touch with other people. While I was there I had the idea for this children’s book and started writing that in earnest about four years ago – writing the first few chapters over and over again!”
Then, two or three years ago, she joined a writing group in Felixstowe, “and that was the turning point for me”. One of the people with whom it put her in touch was local writer Ruth Dugdall, a former social worker who knows what it’s like to battle away before finally landing a publishing deal and had lots of good advice.
“From that, it was full steam ahead. I was doing a chapter a month and getting really good feedback, and got it finished in two years."
Why is it so helpful to join a writing group?
“When you’re just looking at it yourself, you can’t see what’s working and what isn’t. You need someone to challenge you and say ‘That bit’s a bit boring’, or ‘That character’s not working.’ It makes you really think."
The group was four-strong; now five. “Basically, each month we email each other a piece of work – a chapter or an extract – we all have a look at it before the meeting and then spend about half an hour to an hour discussing each other’s pieces and giving feedback. It’s fantastic."
“When you first go, you feel like you’re being kicked in the head! Then you realise, actually, everyone’s got your best interests at heart and wants you to write the best story you can. I would recommend writing groups to anyone; it’s a lonely activity otherwise. It gets you out of your shell and gets you to stand behind your work."
The fiction competition provided impetus, too. Sophie took a month off work last September to write every day and get things finished before the end-of-October deadline.
Her tale is set in the modern day. Her shy and awkward boy has to come to terms with that realisation he’s the last in a line of bloodthirsty giants; he is also responsible for protecting a weapon he didn’t know anything about beforehand. He has to link up, too, with a group of warmongering gargoyles who have been charged with the same task.
So from where did the story spring?
“The gargoyles came first. I’ve always been interested in that sort of thing. People don’t know what the origins of gargoyles are. There are all sorts of theories. I thought ‘What if they’d been real creatures, with their own laws, and that the gargoyles on the outside of buildings were statues of real creatures?'"
“I worked from there. I had my character – a child, Howard – but I hadn’t worked out what his story was. I’d got halfway through the book and realised I didn’t know who my main character was, really. I’d concentrated so much on the gargoyles, but he was supposed to hold the whole thing together.
“I had a bit of a crisis and then decided Howard would be a giant! That came with a whole load of issues for him, and potential. That was my Epiphany about how it could work."
Sophie says she reads a lot of folklore and mythology. “I think probably it was stewing away there for a while.”
The story probably falls into the “young teenager” category, she says, though it’s hard to pigeonhole. There is a bit of violence, but, then, much of “children’s” literature does have shadowy corners.
“The best children’s books – like Harry Potter and Philip Pullman; Patrick Ness – have a lot of dark ‘adult’ themes that I think kids are fine with."
“I do do other kinds of writing, but children’s writing is such a great world because you’re lost in these fantastic places and so it’s a thrilling place to escape to."
Funny to think that Sophie’s life with books could easily have been limited simply to reading them for pleasure.
Born in Halesworth, she went to university at Liverpool to study . . . zoology. Interesting choice for a bookie . . .
“I think I felt I’d been missing out by not doing science. I’d always been looking much more towards the arts, before then. I did English at A-level, and art and history, and always thought I’d go on to do English. But then thought ‘There’s probably a whole world of knowledge I know nothing about’, so decided to do a foundation year in science and then studied zoology for three years."
A foundation year would be quite enough to test my scientific aptitude . . .
“I was muddling through the basics, but the general concepts I think I’ve still got!”
Sophie loved her time studying on Merseyside. “I think it opened my eyes to some of the miraculous things in the world, so I’m really pleased I did it."
She loves Suffolk and has no intention of leaving, “but I think it’s great to have some time in your life when you experience a different rhythm."
After university she thought of pursuing the zoological thread, but jobs were thinnish on the ground. “You could do voluntary work, but I had such a huge amount of debt after leaving university."
One of those computer-based careers programmes – where you key in your skills and preferences – suggested a future in museums and libraries. “I hadn’t even thought about libraries before then, but now I think it’s absolutely the perfect job for me. That was a sea-change."
Sophie finds the clientele lovely and relishes the opportunity to be enthusiastic about reading and give advice about good books to try.
“At Halesworth an elderly lady once came up and had just taken out the second Harry Potter. She said she hadn’t taken out a book for 30 years and she’d just started reading Harry Potter."
“I think that’s probably the moment I thought ‘This says a lot for children’s writing; capturing people across the generations, can it really be just for kids?’ At least half the books I read for pleasure are ‘children’s’. I think there are some great stories."
In fact, she agrees we’ve probably never had it so good. Picture-books have long been wonderful, but the standard of writing for older children has really come on strongly.
“I think that’s the great change in children’s writing; they’re not dumbing down, and they deal with some quite difficult concepts, and children do understand them. They’re not patronising."
“There are parents who want their children only to read the classics, but children get really excited about things like Horrid Henry and the Fairies series. Some of the theories don’t matter as long as children are reading and love picking up books. These books have obviously got something that pulls them in."
Sophie’s working week at the library is concertinaed, freeing up a day or so a fortnight that can be devoted to writing. “I did try to do it after work, but I get home so late and get up so early that, having sat down to do it, you weren’t really achieving anything."
Some of her library days run from 9am to 7.45pm and others 8.30am-6pm. It does allow time when she can see friends and family, and have something of a social life, while also devoting time to writing.
Much of the creative stuff is now done in “a little box room" with a desk – and a dog’s bed. That’s for Alf, an oldish white lurcher who dozes while Sophie weaves her words.
On the odd occasion, he might poke his nose in as if to plead “Can you stop writing for a moment?"
Actually, she says, taking him for a walk is great, because it often boosts mental focus and can help solve story-related puzzle with which she’s been struggling for hours.
Trying to fit writing around other commitments is a squeeze, Sophie concedes. “I think that’s one of the things when you look back: you really hope you can be successful, because otherwise you’ve spent quite a lot of your life doing something that might not take you anywhere! You just have to take that risk."
That said, she enjoys it no end.
“You have to make a choice: that that’s ‘where you’re going to put your eggs’ – and I suppose nine times out of 10 it doesn’t pay off! But that’s life, isn’t it? You have to take some risks."
“I think you have to believe in yourself and say ‘I’m going to invest my time and give it my best shot.’ The people who do get somewhere tend to be not just the people who got a lucky break; they’re the ones who have really grafted."
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