In early 2016, I left my job at a London publishing house to take up a place on the Faber Academy’s six-month Write a Novel course. I remember explaining this in our first class when asked to introduce ourselves. I also remember – clearly – everyone’s reaction: mostly their disbelief. The truth was I adored writing, and was doing it whenever I could – early mornings, late nights, on the bus, on my phone as I walked down the street – but I had worked determinedly for years to get that job and there I was, throwing it away for a place on a course that gave no guarantee that I’d actually complete a novel, let alone get it published. So why on earth had I just thrown myself off a cliff?
I hear all the time from other writers that the publishing industry can feel like a fortress, where editors are fierce gatekeepers. Yet, I had already worked behind those supposed iron gates, which gave me a different perspective. Over the years, I have worked with editors who care deeply about the books they publish, and fight tooth and nail to give authors the platform and reach they needed to get to readers. I remember one brilliant editor locked herself in a bathroom to cry when one of the books she worked on hit the Sunday Times bestseller list. She had worked relentlessly for and with that author – and, God, she loved that book. This made an impression on me – above all, I felt hopeful. I saw first-hand new books bought, new authors’ careers launched. I worked with many magnificent, talented authors. They worked tirelessly, they wrote tirelessly – but they showed me publication could happen, it did happen all the time. It would require hard work, of course, and dedication. A lot of writing, rewriting, editing, deleting would need to be done. But, at the end of it all, why couldn’t I be one of the lucky few? These are two words I think about a lot: why not?
The Faber course is, above all, a space to learn and write – it’s for people who take writing seriously. I am in that camp. To me, writing is a wonderful thing – something I do most of all because I love it – but it is also a massive commitment. I started working part time, I moved back in with my family, and I wrote whenever I could. My day in the Faber offices in Bloomsbury Square became my favourite day of the week. My tutor, Shelley Weiner, and my coursemates gave me the confidence to talk about my novel as though it was something more than just words and fictitious scenarios spinning around my head. It’s no exaggeration to say those days changed the course of my life.
My novel The Year After You, is about a seventeen-year-old girl called Cara who has survived the same car accident that killed her best friend. Unable to move forward, Cara is sent 5,000 miles from home to a boarding school perched at the top of a mountain, in total contrast to everything she has left behind. It’s a book about guilt and grief tied up so tightly they are indistinguishable from each other. But most of all it’s about love – the love between friends, as well as romantic love. All those people who show us how to keep living when living seems impossible.
I wrote it extremely quickly; I somehow completed the first draft by the end of the six months, so buzzed up by the energy, grit and fun of the course. When it ended, I felt both a little bereft and a little terrified. The agents’ reading, where literary agents are invited in to listen to two minute readings from students’ novels, was on the horizon. I am a horrible public speaker, so this, for me, was a nightmare. I don’t remember standing up – I sometimes wonder how my legs got me to that podium. I think I put so much importance on the reading, because my book had become so important to me. I had been living in it for six months, and thinking about it for many years before that. I am not a performer, but I reasoned that if this was the best opportunity to showcase it, it was my duty to give it its best shot.
Miraculously, after the reading, I was approached by my now agent, Laura Williams from Greene and Heaton, who requested the full manuscript. A weekend went by at a snail’s pace. Did I sleep? I must have done, but I honestly can’t remember. She emailed me the following Monday: I think your novel has huge amounts of potential, and I was wondering whether you’d be up for chatting through some editorial thoughts? I met her a week or so later, not knowing at all what to expect. Would we get on? Would she see the book the way I saw it? The meeting itself was a bit like a first date; looking back, I suppose we were both sizing each other up. I liked her instantly, I loved all the editorial suggestions she had, and I truly felt she understood the book I had set out to write. At the end of the meeting, she offered me representation.
The agent-author relationship is a professional one, but it’s a hugely important personal one too. I feel fantastically privileged to have Laura on my side – she is a cheerleader, smart and editorially brilliant. For months, she worked with me to get my novel ready to submit, then sent the book out to editors in 2017. And so it began. I read stories daily about big pre-empts, bidding wars and books that are snapped up overnight by over-enthusiastic editors in grand auctions. These things do happen and are fantastic for the authors involved, but they are by no means a given. This was certainly not what happened to me. In fact, the whole submission process took about a year.
About halfway through the submission process, I started working full-time as an assistant at The Soho Agency, a literary and talent agency in central London. When I first started, I kept my own writing quiet; a part of me worried they’d be horrified to learn I had written a book, the other part worried they wouldn’t think I was serious about my job. Neither of these things came true; I honestly couldn’t ask for more supportive or excited colleagues, who continue to be such champions of me and this book. But at the time, my hope for this book’s chance had faded somewhat. Rejections from editors poured in throughout 2017 – some of them warm, some of them lukewarm, some of them disinterested. Working for a literary agency helped me to fully understand the subjectivity of the publishing industry. It was a reminder that finding the right home for a book comes down to personal taste, timing and luck.
I was starting to make peace with the fact that this book wasn’t a goer, then, in February 2018, Laura told me that Ink Road had offered to publish The Year After You. The news came when I was working from home because it had snowed so heavily that travel in central London was a nightmare. I remember it vividly. I was sitting at the kitchen table and there was about a foot of snow on the ledge outside. I’m quite fatalistic, and this confirmed it. It must be fate – after all, my novel is set in the snow. Nine months later, just before the Frankfurt Book Fair, Laura rang to tell me that Ink Road had an offer from Delacorte Press, a young adult imprint of Penguin Random House in the US, to publish the book in North America in Spring 2020.
When I think about it, I realise my road to publication has probably been less jagged than most, but it has taken time. I have learned about patience, about subjectivity, and I have been reminded, as the first responses come in, of the generosity of all the people in the book world who have taken the time to support me. I continue to be amazed by the kindness and encouragement of those around me – my family, friends, Faber coursemates, colleagues – and all those I have met recently, and continue to meet: bloggers, reviewers, booksellers and other authors. This whole experience has been surreal; I feel very lucky and very excited about everything to come.
By Nina de Pass
The Year After You was published in the UK by Ink Road on 14th February; Penguin Random House will publish in North America in spring 2020.