INTERVIEWED BY CESCA MARTIN
Tell us about your novel 'Miracle on Regent Street'.
Well, I like to think it’s a real cuddle-up-with-a-cashmere-blanket-and-a-hot chocolate kind of a read, the kind of book that will remind you of classic old movies and bygone days when Christmas was about magic, not money. It’s a story about a sweet, unassuming stockroom girl called Evie Taylor who works in the basement of Hardy's; a faded, forgotten old department store that has seen better days. For the past two years she's lived an invisible life in London, sorting endless boxes of old-fashioned stock by day and looking after her sister’s two young children at night. Her neighbours think she's the hired help, her self-obsessed shop floor colleagues mistake her for her stockroom predecessor and even her manager doesn't know her actual name. But despite all this she loves working at the store. So when she overhears that Hardy's is at risk of being sold unless it seriously increases its profits by December 26th – just three weeks time - she hatches a secret plan to save it. Evie and Hardy's are both looking for a Christmas miracle to turn their fortunes around, but will it take the shape of the handsome American who has swept in to town and shaken things up like a snow globe?
Was this your first novel?
Ohhho no! I have three completed manuscripts (and a couple of abandoned attempts) lurking in a box somewhere. Although my first attempt (a book called Strawberries and Dreams which I wrote in 1999!) is lost forever on an ex boyfriend’s probably no longer functioning PC. Better off that way, to be honest!
How many years have you been writing?
I’ve written stories since I was little – but I’ve been seriously dreaming of it as a career since I was 22 (aka a long time ago!) I had just left University after studying a degree in Performing Arts and was working as a waitress in a theme restaurant. The chick lit genre had just been born and reading Bridget Jones was a real light bulb moment for me. I began writing my own novel during the day (about a frustrated waitress, of course!) I read every book in the genre, bought the Writer’s and Artists Year Book, studied every acknowledgment page to see who my favourite authors were represented by and bought every book about writing fiction I could. When I’d written three chapters of my novel I sent it to ten agents. I got rejected by nine but when I hadn’t heard from the tenth I decided to take the initiative and ring them. I somehow (don’t ask me how) managed to get through to one of the biggest, most successful literary agents in London and he told me he had my manuscript in front of him and that he thought it had ‘something’ but that he had been about to send me a rejection letter. I begged him to read more and incredibly, he agreed. I went home and wrote four chapters in as many days and sent it to him. When his rejection letter eventually came through I was devastated. At that point I decided that I just wanted to write for a living – so I decided to apply for work experience at some of my favourite women’s magazines. I wasn’t giving up – just taking a sideways step. I wanted to learn skills that I could transfer to writing fiction but in an exciting, stimulating environment. It was the best decision I ever made. After a year of unpaid work, I got my dream job at Company magazine. I spent the next three years writing features – including my own column, working with incredible people, meeting celebrities – and the best part? I got to meet my favourite authors and grill them about how to get a book deal. I was still writing fiction, but in my spare time. I even sent a manuscript off to a couple of publishers –at one point I had lunch with an editor from Harper Collins which I was so excited about, but nothing ever came of it. I was getting closer, but not close enough!
How did you manage to secure an agent/publisher in the end?
One of the authors I interviewed whilst I was at Company magazine was the unutterably lovely Rowan Coleman. I ended up telling her about my dreams of getting published, she kindly offered to read my work and then told her agent about me. I still remember receiving a letter from her agent, Lizzy Kremer (in fact, I still have it!) saying that she’d heard I was writing a novel and would love to read it when I was ready. I was so freaked out it took me three years to send her anything! I finally emailed her in 2008 when I was working at Glamour magazine to ask if she remembered me. Thankfully she did so I sent her the novel I was working on. She read it, liked it and we started working together on it. But I didn’t officially sign with her till the following year when I’d finished it and edited it to her standards. In December 2009 she sent the completed manuscript out to eight publishers – along with a synopsis for a second book called Unforgettable (which was to become Miracle on Regent Street). But in January 2010 the rejections started trickling in (I remember this because I still have every single one of them on email!) The editors were universal in their reasons for not buying, but also in their encouragement; it was a tough market, they needed to fall in love with the book, they liked my writing, but it wasn’t a strong enough debut novel etc. It was devastating and when the last rejection came through I cried for the entire day. My poor husband didn’t know what to do with me. I remember telling him to let me cry it out because the next day I was going to start writing again. And that’s what I did. I’d come too close and wanted it too much to give up. It helped that one editor, Maxine Hitchcock from Simon & Schuster, had thrown me an olive branch. She wasn’t going to buy my first novel but she wanted to meet me as she’d really loved the synopsis of my second book (Miracle on Regent Street). We had a meeting in February, got on incredibly well and three months later, in June 2010, Lizzy sent Maxine the first fifteen chapters of that novel – and a synopsis for another book idea I’d come up with called The First Last Kiss. The very next morning I got a phone call from Lizzy telling me that Maxine wanted to offer me a two-book deal. It was the most incredible moment; like my very own X Factor win! I’m embarrassed to say I fell to my knees and bawled like a baby!
What experiences in your life have helped with your writing?
God, so many. My first job out of University was at Selfridges and that experience gave me the idea for Miracle on Regent Street as there actually was a stockroom girl there who was my inspiration for Evie! I also think the fact that I spent the first half of my twenties flailing around, doing a job I hated and trying desperately to find my dream career has definitely helped me write characters who are struggling to make their own way in life. But, equally, working in the magazine industry has been incredibly inspiring too as I met so many amazing people; not just celebrities but members of the public who had done something brave or were going through something wonderfully romantic or tragic. Listening to their stories made me realize just how much people carry around that we don’t necessarily see.
I also have to say that I think meeting and marrying my husband gave me the best tools to produce the kind of novels I wanted to write: ones that completely celebrate falling in love and that make women believe that there is a happy ever after out there waiting for all of us. You just have to believe that you deserve it.
How do you manage your writing day?
With difficulty at the moment! I have two young children aged 2 and a half and seven months, so everything revolves around them, rather than around my writing, which is difficult with an impending book deadline! I am literally squeezing in the time to write between nursery drop offs and the baby’s naps. In fact, I’ve just started to get up earlier than them (which as any parent will tell you is close madness when you spend so long trying to get them to sleep till a reasonable hour of the morning!). I do my best writing in the morning and this way I can get an hour or two in before the milk/breakfast/nappy/nursery madness begins! That way I feel I’ve achieved something at the start of the day. I then do another couple of hours during my daughter’s lunchtime nap. Then it’s time to pick up my son and I’m in mum-mode for the rest of the afternoon. Thursdays and Fridays I have a nanny to help me so they’re the days I can switch into full writer mode and really get stuck in! I occasionally write in the evenings but to be honest I’m usually too knackered and too tempted by one awful reality TV programme or another to do much more than open a bottle of wine and crash out!
Do you read when you write, and if so, who?
I always have a book on the go, my life feels empty without one - but I do find it harder to read when I’m writing my own, especially now I’ve got kids as my ‘me time’ is my work so every spare second I have I feel I should my writing, not reading. But generally whenever I read, I don’t veer far from my own genre. In the last five years I have read one biography (Bossypants by Tina Fey), one historical novel (The Other Boleyn Girl) one non-fiction (I Remember Nothing and other collections by Nora Ephron) and about 777 contemporary women’s fiction novels! I am an unashamed chick lit fan and they are always the books I choose to read over anything else. I’m currently reading I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson. It passed me by when it was first released ten years ago, probably because I was 25 and as far away as you could possibly be from being either a mum or a career woman (I was still single and serving tables back then!) But now it is totally speaking to me on all levels and I’m loving it! (I am very much preparing to bash-up, not bake my own mince pies this Christmas!)
Do you read manuals on how to write novels?
I don’t think there’s an instruction manual out there that will successfully teach you how to write a book. The truth is there isn’t a magic formula, you just have to read a lot and write until you find your own voice. Oh and come up with a great idea, of course! Having said that I do think Stephen King’s On Writing has some of the best tips I’ve ever read. It’s more about his life and journey as a writer than a manual but I can understand why so many writers cite it as their ‘bible’ as there are so many great tips woven in. It’s definitely worth buying.
Did you always believe you would be published?
I’d be lying if I said I always believed it was going to happen – I’m not sure anyone has that amount of self-confidence! Of course I had my bad days but I am also an incredibly determined (read: pig-headed) person and I knew I couldn’t - wouldn’t give up. Writing is probably the only thing I have ever been sure that I could do so failure just wasn’t an option. In fact, each rejection just made me even more determined. I also believe that Miracle on Regent Street was absolutely the book I was meant to get published - the others were my fiction-writing apprenticeship! Miracle sums up who I am and the books I want to write; that is, unashamedly romantic, optimistic, heart-warming stories that (I hope) will warm your heart and lift your spirits.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
The main one from me is to never EVER give up! But if you want more detailed writing advice, you can find it on my facebook page http://www.facebook.com/AliHarrisWriter
What have you enjoyed most since being published?
I have to pinch myself when I think that people out there are actually reading a story that began in my head. It’s a very strange, but very, very wonderful feeling.
Are you nervous or excited about your second novel?
Both! Excited because I love the idea, the characters and the whole writing process but also incredibly nervous because I am feeling much more pressure with this one than the last – it’s the ‘tricky second novel’! I just hope I can deliver something that won’t disappoint my readers (oh my GOD I have readers! YAY!)
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