Thursday, September 1, 2011

Interview: Helen Hart

Please welcome author Helen Hart to Debbie's Book Bag today! Helen is here to talk about her book, The Black Banner. It is a YA selection that is also appropriate for Middle Grade readers, as well as young teens. 

DEB: Helen can you tell us a little about yourself?
HH: I’ve been a professional writer since 1999. I’ve written 11 novels and had 8 published - some of them have been translated into Swedish, German and Japanese. One of my YA novels written under a pseudonym (Maya Snow) was on a shortlist of 3 final titles for the Solihull Children’s Book Award 2010, which I was very excited about. The winner was Frank Cottrell Boyce, and sadly I couldn't make it to the ceremony so one of the editors at Working Partners (who hired me to write the series) went along and pretended to be me so that the children weren't disappointed! It was very weird reading about it afterwards, hearing someone else talk about my work as if she'd written it. Being a writer is a wonderful occupation, but sadly it doesn't pay the bills so I also run a publishing consultancy called SilverWood Books ( which helps other writers get their work into print. I love writing, and I love my day job too. Helping other writers is really fun, and it can give you tingles when you read something really REALLY good.

DEB: Tell us a little about your book, The Black Banner?  
HH: The Black Banner is a swashbuckling tale of adventure on the high seas set in the 17th century. My heroine, Becky Baxter, escapes a life of poverty by dressing up as a boy and taking a job as a deckhand on a ship called the Bonny Marie. However, when the Bonny Marie is taken by pirates, Becky faces a stark choice - join the pirates, or die! She chooses life, and throws her lot in with the pirates. She soon finds new friends, a makeshift family of sorts, and as much excitement and danger as she can handle.
DEB: What was your inspiration for these books? Why did you decide to write a book for young teens?  
HH: I've alway loved reading teen books. Younger characters always seem to have much more exciting adventures than the people in 'grown up' books, so it was a natural step to write a book from the heart - to dream up an adventure that I would love to have myself!
DEB: Piracy has always intrigued me, what kind of research did you do for this book? 
HH: I read lots of wonderful books, from fiction like 'Treasure Island' and 'A High Wind in Jamaica' to serious academic works like 'Life Among the Pirates' by the National Maritime Museum's David Cordingly. I pored over old maps, and plans of tall-masted ships, and learned the names of all the sails. My Dad was a great help too - he's a blue water yachtsman and knows everything there is to know about tides. One funny thing I haven't thought of before is that a bit of the research had already been done back when I was growing up... I spent part of my childhood in the Caribbean, so for the scenes where Becky and her friends are on the islands I just had to think back to what it was like when I lived there. I pulled up memories of the heat, the food, the vibrant colours, and packed it all in to The Black Banner.
DEB: What is your normal writing day like? Do you have things that have to be in place to write comfortably?
HH: When I'm writing a book I like to have silence and a clear mind. That means I have to tidy the house before I sit down, because otherwise I'm thinking about the laundry that needs doing! I type straight into my laptop, and often find it hard to get started (actually, I think that laundry is procrastination!) but when I get going, I find it hard to stop. I live and breath the story in my head and sometimes 3 or 4 hours will go by without me realizing it. Stopping is a little like coming out of a trance... I have to blink and remember that I'm in 21st century England, and not on a pirate ship, or training to be a samurai, or fighting vampires in Eastern Europe (the themes of some of my other books).
DEB: What was it like when you got the word that your first novel would be published? 
HH: It was the most exciting thing to have happened to me in a long time. You spend years writing a book, and sometimes it seems as if you're never going to get anywhere, so when you get accepted for publication it's like winning a huge prize. I jumped around the room for a bit, and was so excited I could barely breath. I had to read the acceptance letter about 5 times before I was convinced it was real! I rang the editor and she was lovely. By the end of the conversation, she was laughing because I was talking so fast about how amazed and thrilled I was!

DEB: Do have any advice for new writers? How did you find the confidence to send in your first manuscript? 
HH: My advice would be to keep writing, and to believe in yourself. Write, re-write, edit and edit again. Never send your first draft off because it almost certainly isn't ready. Polish it until it's perfect, the very best it can be, because there's a lot of competition out there and you don't want to give a literary agent or editor a reason to say 'no' to your manuscript.
DEB: When your not writing, what kinds of books do you like to read? Do you have a favorite author? 
HH: I love reading historical fiction, and also thrillers. I don't have a favourite author as such, but I'll often turn to Bernard Cornwell books because they are a guaranteed 'good read' - exciting and page-turning. In the YA field I admire Catherine Fisher, especially her fantastic novel 'Corbenic' which is a modern and utterly brilliant take on the Grail legend. Mary Hooper is another favourite of mine I couldnt put down her Great Plague novel 'At the Sign of the Sugared Plum' (which has such a gorgeous cover, too). Robert Westall ('Kingdom by the Sea') is a genius at conjuring up compelling characters and fast-paced plots. Moving up into more adult writing, I'm a big fan of Sarah Waters - I thought 'Fingersmith' and 'Affinity' were works of genius. I've also recently enjoyed Martin Davies ('The Conjuror's Bird') and William Heaney ('Memoirs of a Master Forger').
DEB:What are you working on right now? 
HH: I have a number of stories buzzing around in my head (in which pickpockets and highwaymen feature) but actually I'm taking a break from writing for a while to concentrate on promoting my company SilverWood Books. I've found that I love making books with other authors almost as much as I enjoy writing. Editing and proofreading are truly enjoyable, and I love it when one of our self-publishing authors gets a break and starts to sell books beyond their family and friends.
DEB: Tell us one thing that people may not know about you? 
HH: Not many people know that for 3 years I regularly wrote feature-length articles for the men's magazine FHM, which was funny and hard work at the same time. I met some fascinating people, and even got to go on board a Trident nuclear submarine to interview the Commander and chat to the submariners.
Look for my review of The Black Banner by Helen Hart later today! 


Helen said...

I'm envious - I would so love to go to the Caribbean! I have to make all my scenes up - or look at pictures.
I've read The Black banner - loved it!
(and ooh Highwaymen - sounds exciting!)