When I picked up Zoë Marriott’s first book, THE SWAN KINGDON I was dazzled by the author’s ability to write rich fairytale imagery as well as a likeable and approachable main character that young adults (and not so young adults) can relate to. Recently I had the pleasure to interview Zoë about her life, her writing and the importance of being an avid reader.
When did you decide to become a writer?
Round about the same time that I read my very first book (which was The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton). I don’t mean that I thought, at six or seven years old ‘Right, I’d better get an agent’ but I definitely knew that I wanted to tell stories; and that was something that I clung to, no matter what else changed in my life. I can remember getting out all my books and writing out the names and addresses of the publishers in my painstaking first attempts at joined-up writing because it made me feel official and important. I can remember my joy when my father bought me my own typewriter so that I could type out my stories ‘properly’. Like most little girls I wanted to be a singer, a princess and a ballerina, but I always wanted to be a ballerina or princess who also wrote stories.
I realised that I wanted to write books for young adults when I was eighteen, and I re-read Tamora Pierce’s ‘The Song of the Lioness’ Quartet. Because I was a precocious reader I started reading young adult novels when I was about eight and I moved onto adult books when I was eleven. So then I spent my teens trying to write romances and horror and poetry for adults. When I re-discovered young adult fiction everything fell into place and I knew that was my genre. So thanks, Tamora!
Describe your road to publication. Was it full of potholes or a smooth easy
For me, it felt full of potholes. A lot of people have made the assumption that because I was very young when I wrote my first published novel (twenty-one) that I must have been ‘lucky’, but in actual fact it was a hard slog. I wrote two romance novels in my teens and had them soundly rejected. I finished my first YA novel when I was twenty and was rejected by every publisher in the UK and two in Australia for good measure. Not to mention dozens of agents.
However, that first YA novel did catch the eye of a young editor at Walker Books. Although they didn’t want to publish it, that editor contacted me personally to tell me how much he had liked my ideas and ‘voice’ and asked me to let him see anything else I came up with. He kept in touch me with over the next year as I wrote The Swan Kingdom, just emailing me to ask how it was going and encouraging me to keep on. When I finished the novel I sent it to him via email and within the day he emailed me back telling me ‘This is good. Very good’. He invited me down to London to meet him and his boss and discuss my prospects; but he also warned me that his boss, who was the head editor, was not really sure if The Swan Kingdom was right for them to publish, since a fantasy aimed at girls wasn’t something that had been very popular in the UK up until then.
So because he had warned me about this, I did a lot of research and went prepared. When the head editor started talking to me about maybe writing some short books for younger readers, I said ‘That’s definitely something I’ll consider. However, first let me tell you about this book’s potential market…’ and I pulled out all my facts and figures about Meg Cabot and Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley and how those authors were huge bestsellers in the US with fantasy novels aimed at girls. After about forty minutes of this the editor held up her hands and said, ‘Okay, okay – I’m convinced. But we’ll need you to do some revisions’. And I said, ‘Absolutely, although I will need a development fee. Let’s negotiate’. I walked out an hour later with a check in my hand, and an agreement to publish The Swan Kingdom subject to certain revisions.
I sometimes wonder if that poor lady had any idea what she was letting herself in for. But we get on very well to this day, so I don’t think she’s holding it against me too much.
What is a normal "writing" workday like for you?
Well, I have two kinds of working days, because I have a part-time job in an office which pays the majority of my bills. So on an office day, I scribble in a notebook in my tea-breaks, lunch-breaks and while on the bus, and then type everything up on my laptop when I get home.
On a writing day (which is what I call my days not at the office) I get up as early as I can, take my dog for a long walk, drink a very large cup of coffee, and then shut myself up in my study (which is the fancy name for my spare room). In there I turn on my story soundtrack, which is the playlist of songs that I put together for each novel, to get me in the right mood. Then I get out a notepad and pencil and sit down and look at them. Usually the first half an hour is spent like that, staring at the paper and feeling frustrated, but so long as I stay there with the pencil and paper and don’t give up, eventually the words start to come and before long I’ll be scribbling frantically. I generally try and keep this up until lunchtime, or until my hand cramps up so much I can’t write anymore. Then I get up, find something to eat, drink another cup of coffee, take my dog for another long walk.
After that I grab my laptop and it’s back into the study to type up what I’ve written. If things have gone well, I’ll probably carry on typing well into the evening, and even going on ahead of my handwritten notes, which is lovely. Some of my favourite scenes have come from times really late at night when I was in a bit of a daze of exhaustion and I just carried on writing.
Who are your favorite authors and why?
I have soooo many! All the classic YA authors, like Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip – they write strong heroines and just have boundless imagination and superb writing skills. Terry Pratchett, because he makes me laugh and cry at the same time. Garth Nix, because the scope of his invention awes me. Megan Whalen Turner, because I feel as if just reading her work makes me a better writer. Diana Wynne Jones because she understands people like no other writer I know. Lois McMaster Bujold, who just cannot be faulted, ever. Georgette Heyer because she teaches you everything you need to know about historical dialogue. And Jane Austen, just because she’s Jane Austen.
What advice would you give aspiring authors?
Read, read, read, read, read. There are NO authors who are not avid readers. And while you’re reading fiction and learning from that, read non-fiction too – like ‘Getting Published for Dummies’ and ‘The Writer’s and Artists’ Yearbook’ – which will teach you how professionals format their manuscripts, how to write a submission letter, and how to find agents or publishers who might be interested in your work.
What project are you working on now?
I’m currently working on revisions for my third novel, which is tentatively entitled ‘Shadows on the Moon’. I pitched it to my publisher as Cinderella meets the Count of Monte Cristo meets Memoir of a Geisha – basically I take Cinderella and turn it on its head, and set it in a fairytale Japanese world. It’s due to be published next year. I’m incredibly proud of it, because for the first time I managed to do everything I set out to do in a story, without chickening out on any of the hard or emotionally draining bits. I think it’s going to knock people’s socks off.
Check-out more about Zoë Marriott and her wonderful books at www.zoemarriott.com.