Novelicious catches up with Helen Chandler to talk about her writing her debut novel Two for Joy, which is released on 6th June.
Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
There’s not really any such thing
as an average day when you’re a stay-at-home mum to a lively four-year-old! My
writing tends to get squeezed into odd moments whenever I can, although my
mother-in-law looks after Anna on a Thursday afternoon, so that time is
sacrosanct for writing, and now Anna has started nursery every morning things
are a bit more predictable.
I often write in a local café – I
like being out in the world, they make fabulous hot chocolate, brownies and
panini, and when I get stuck I can sit and people watch until inspiration
strikes again. That was fine when it was one afternoon a week, but now I get
some writing time most days, I’m going to have to switch to herbal tea
(requiring willpower I don’t really have) or find somewhere else to write, or
I’ll put on a stone per book!
When you are writing, do you use any famous people or people you know
Not really. Everyone says that
first novels are always autobiographical, and there are definitely elements of
Julia’s character which she shares with me, but other characters are fairly mix
and match. There are aspects which are based on people I know, or on snippets
of conversation I pick up through my compulsive eavesdropping on buses or in
cafes, but it’s all jumbled up, so I don’t think anyone will be recognising
themselves in my book!
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
Naming one is far too difficult!
If absolutely pushed I would probably say I
Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson. I love the character of Kate
Reddy, and her endless mental to-do lists really resonate with me. I love that
I both laugh out loud, and cry real tears, every time I read it, no matter how
many times I read it. And now I have a child of my own I particularly enjoy how
Allison Pearson describes motherhood, and again, I find it very resonant with
my own feelings. But, can I also say, that given almost any novel by Katie Fforde,
Jennifer Weiner, Lisa Jewell, Jane Green, Elizabeth Noble, Erica James or Adele
Parks, I’ll be a very happy girl!
What is your writing process? Do you plan first or
dive in? How many drafts do you do?
I have a rough plan of the outline
of the story and the key characters, probably a few pages worth of notes, but
then I just start at the beginning and get going. I generally write a chapter,
then re-read and tweak it, then carry on. With Two for Joy I did some re-drafting based on feedback from my agent
and a few other people, then a little more after feedback from my publisher,
but essentially it didn’t change that much.
What was your journey to being a published author?
Like a lot of avid readers I
always vaguely dreamt of writing a book of my own. As a teenager I wrote some
extremely bad poetry, and even 8 or 9 chapters of a detective novel which
starred, funnily enough, a teenage girl as the detective. Throughout my
twenties I had notebooks with scribbled plot ideas in, but they never got any
further than that. When my daughter was born in 2009 I gave up work, and became
a stay-at-home mum. By the time she was two, I was starting to crave some kind
of mental challenge, but didn’t want to go back to work. This time, when a plot
idea popped into my head I decided to act on it. I absolutely LOVED the writing
process, and because I had so little time to write I was very focussed.
After I’d written a few chapters I
gave it to my mother-in-law to read – she has worked in publishing for 35
years, and now runs her own literary agency, so I knew she would give me a
truly professional opinion. I was never expecting her to represent me, as,
apart from anything else, she deals mainly with non-fiction, but to my surprise
and delight she absolutely loved Two for
Joy and really wanted to act as my agent. We sorted out the details of the
family v. professional connection, and then I cracked on and finished the book.
A few people read it and made suggestions, and I did a bit of re-drafting, then
by Summer 2012 we felt ready to start approaching publishers. My
mother-in-law/agent started by sending it to ten of the biggest names in
publishing, and the first five or six came back almost immediately with
rejections. The comments were reasonably positive about Two for Joy, and my writing, but there was a general feeling that
the zeitgeist was for Fifty Shades
writing and that ‘straight’ women’s fiction was not very sellable. I was
starting to feel a bit discouraged, but then suddenly, in September, there was
a definite offer from Hodder and Stoughton! To say I was thrilled would be an
understatement – definitely one of the three best days of my life, up there
with my daughter’s birth and my wedding day.
I still can’t quite believe my
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That you have to have taken a
Creative Writing course. So many people ask me what course I did, and seem very
surprised when I say none at all. I am sure that courses can be incredibly
valuable, but I certainly don’t think they’re essential, and people shouldn’t
be put off putting pen to paper because they don’t feel they have the right
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of
Write what you want to write, and
the kind of thing that you would enjoy reading. When I was younger the English
graduate in me was convinced that I had to write highbrow literary fiction. It
turns out that that isn’t my voice at all, and once I accepted that, and wrote
what came naturally, the process was 100 times easier.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m about half way through my
second novel, which is provisionally called To
Have and to Hold, and follows the story of three very different couples at
various degrees of crisis in their relationships. I also write a blog called A Life More Ordinary which is on my