This competition is now closed. Thank you to all who entered. The lucky winner was Kelly A from the UK.
Enter your details to be in with a chance of winning a special signed copy of Try Not to Breathe on CD. This is the full UK version of the book, narrated fantastically by Jot Davies, Lucy Middleweek and Katy Sobey.
Isn’t this cover from the Turkish version of Try Not to Breathe beautiful? NEFESINI TUT loosely translates as ‘Hold Your Breath’ and I really can’t wait to see what Turkish readers think of Alex and Amy.
Nefesini Tut is being released by fantastic publisher Yabancı.
You can pre-order it on Babil.com or from all good (Turkish) bookshops.
I moved to the Netherlands in summer 2015, six months before my first novel was due to be published. As excited as I was for our new lowlands adventure, one major thing I was worried about was whether I was going to damage my career in some way by being a flight away from where the action was happening. The honest answer is that it’s not caused a problem, it’s just taken a little effort and planning and is so worth it.
It’s only an hour’s flight from Amsterdam to London, about the same time it used to take by train from my old home in Kent (albeit it with a bit more waiting around beforehand and a higher cost). I have made a point of flying over regularly and am attending a few UK events this year as I’d really love to meet other authors.
But I also want to feel like an author in Amsterdam too, rather than a London author living in exile. Luckily, this place is amazing for the linguistically lazy (my Dutch is horrible) as there are many English-speaking events or multi-language events that English speakers and writers can still enjoy.
Here’s a brief round up of the literary events I’ve found in my adopted country. Do let me know if I’ve missed any!
October Read My World – Amsterdam
This is a great idea, a literary festival in Amsterdam that focuses on different regions each time and invites writers from those places to speak and read. In 2016, it’s Ukraine and Poland.
November Crossing Borders Festival – The Hague
Festival of books and music that runs in November every year. Past draws have been Salman Rushdie, Louis Theroux, Sarah Waters, Lou Reed (RIP), Jeanette Winterson, Ian McEwan, Dave Eggers and Anne Enright.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know most of you existed until I was a few months out from publication. This whole ecosystem of critique, enthusiasm and encouragement had bubbled below a surface that I’d not really scratched.
At best, I’m an occasional blogger. I flit from topic to topic as the mood takes me. But there are so many people out there writing in-depth and sensitive reviews, chatting and supporting each other in bookish corners of the internet and standing on metaphorical chairs to shout about books they love so much they just want everyone to have a chance to fall in love with them.
Experiencing this world has been one of the true delights and privileges of having a book published. But it was also something I was most scared about. I was scared that other people might be as unashamedly horrible as I had once been.
I started my writing career as a music reviewer. When I loved a single or album, I was all over it like a rash. But when I didn’t love it, when it didn’t tick quite enough boxes for me, I could be unthinkingly savage. I really wasn’t trying to be mean. I just firmly divorced the end product from the producer. But ‘death of the author’ doesn’t feel so clever now I’m, y’know, an author.
So I was nervous of these voluntary critics, these book-loving people with no obligation to be nice. Or even to read the thing.
Try Not to Breathe wasn’t for everyone because obviously there’s no such thing as blanket approval, but the majority of reviews have been wonderful. And I’m so grateful I could cry.
The level of scrutiny is eye-watering. Book bloggers read hundreds of books a year, and they really, truly read them. Despite all of them having other things to do, jobs to go to, children to wrangle, pets to run around after, all that, they devote enormous time and care to getting under the skin of the books they’re reviewing, and really probing about.
When I reviewed music I almost started to resent the CDs being pushed through my door. It never ended, and what had felt like a luxury became something bordering a chore.
The thing I loved most just became work. And who likes work? (I actually do like work now, but…) I really don’t see that happening with the book bloggers I follow on social media and whose blogs I read. Quite the opposite. Their hunger is infectious.
In the last couple of months, I’ve bought more new books than I did in the whole of 2015. Almost all on the strength of recommendations by book bloggers and enthusiasts (not mutually exclusive). And realising that makes me realise just how powerful and positive it is to have the support of these dedicated, smart, kind, book-hungry readers. And for that, I’m truly thankful.
My fourth baby was born at the start of 2015. We’d been warned early on in the pregnancy that he would likely be early, possibly very early. Potentially scarily early.
For various reasons, I was closely monitored and told to get to hospital as soon as labour started. I spent the pregnancy holding my breath. Figuratively, anyway.
Our due date was 23rd December 2014. He was eventually born on 2nd January. It was 46 minutes from established labour to holding him in my arms. In the final moments, he got seriously stuck – shoulder dystochia, it’s called – and a team of people ran in, and I mean properly legged it in to the delivery suite, to free him. I pushed and they pulled, and suddenly a chubby, squirmy 8lb 13oz baby landed on my chest. And I screamed, “My baby! My baby!”
That roller coaster birth was the most apt start to a year from which my head is still spinning.
In 2015 we have:
• Gone from a family of five to a family of six. We’re officially a crowd rather than a group.
• Gained the happiest little sunshine baby who has filled my cold heart with so much joy that I still spontaneously burst into tears when talking about him.
• Thrown away a huge skip and a skip bag’s worth of junk, given away half our stuff (I heart you Freegle) and done more tip runs than I ever dreamed possible (I love the tip).
• Switched an open plan house with a garden in Kent, England for a canal house in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, complete with four flights of the narrowest stairs imaginable.
• Sold our car and have a bunch of bikes instead. However, I still insist on walking everywhere and the only pedals I’ve pressed have been at the gym. Every Dutch person I’ve told is horrified.
• Learned that stoned people LOVE cats and our cats LOVE hanging out at the brown coffee shop on the corner of our street.
• Said goodbye to our friends and watched with nervous pride as our kids made new friends from all over the world at their international schools, and picked up Dutch like it was NBD.
• Realised that if a letter is important enough, they’ll keep sending copies of it until you give in and type it all into Google Translate.
• Fallen in love with our beautiful new city (and its cheese, restaurants, cheap wine – cheaper than the UK, anyway – and super tall people) so much that we’ve just bought an apartment here.
• I said we bought an apartment! Painting without a landlord’s permission?! Be still my beating paint chart heart.
• Realised that it really doesn’t matter where we live so long as we’re together and that for all the bickering and eye rolling, we actually ARE one of those families.
In 2015, I have:
• Flown on a plane by myself for the first time. Even after they told me cheerfully that there was a delay because they needed to “check for explosives” (there’s that famous Dutch directness for you), I still got on it.
• Got offered an upgrade from Economy to Business that was so exciting I overlooked the explosive situation and asked for champagne before I’d even buckled up. (And then discreetly – not that discreetly – took billions of photos of the loo and the flat bed and the everything).
• Went to New York to meet my amazing US editor and team at Ballantine Books/Random House.
• Tried to get used to saying things like the above but failed, because it still gives me the sillies.
• Worked really hard on my next book while preparing for my first book to be published.
• Also tried to get used to saying things like the above. Also failed.
• Hung out with my friend Ilana in New York like a couple of hip young gun slingers. I mean, she is but guys, I’m really, really not.
• Experienced a waiter saying “you do know that’s a beer?” when I gave my drink order.
• Vowed never, ever to drink tequila again after I got absolutely wasted at my husband’s work do (poor guy, he’s so patient and forgiving) and my dress got caught in my knickers and I’m the worst.
• Heard that my book, Try Not to Breathe, would also be sold in Taiwan, Poland, Russia and The Netherlands. Joining the UK and Commonwealth, United States, Canada and Germany.
(Pic by my amazing agent, Nicola Barr, at Belfast City Airport)
• Watched as real people, real readers, reviewed my book and – whisper it so it isn’t really awkwardly arrogant – enjoyed it. Oh thank goodness, they have enjoyed it. I love them all. I cried reading so many of them. What a plonker. When I hit 100 Good Reads reviews, naturally I played it down.
• Tried to get used to saying all of that stuff but didn’t. Because I don’t actually want for this to become normal, and everyday. I don’t want to take it for granted because this is everything I’ve dreamed about MY WHOLE LIFE and more. Much more.
I can say with absolute certainty that 2015 has been the best year of my life. I’m almost scared to see if 2016 can top it.
Thank you to everyone who has A) read this enormous, ramshackle list, I promise my book is better. B) Been so lovely and supportive about book stuff, and life stuff, and Amsterdam stuff. Even if you were actually rolling your eyes, you did it behind my back so that I never saw it. Absolute pros.
I’m heading back from one of the best four days of my life. I’ve been staying in New York since Sunday and in that short time I’ve been privileged to finally meet my legendary US editor Linda Marrow and the team at Ballantine Books (Penguin Random House).
When I had just turned 25 and newly arrived in London, my office was in Victoria in the south west of the city. At lunch times, I would walk around Pimlico and Vauxhall, and inevitably find my way by the Random House building on Vauxhall Bridge Road. I would gaze for a moment and then walk on, because standing on the street staring at buildings is weird and besides, I had to get back to do my job. Not my fantasy job of writing books.
While I gazed, I used to dream for a split second. I wouldn’t let the dream really take hold, it was just the slightest itch of a hope.
When I was offered a publishing contract for the United States with Ballantine Books, an incredible imprint of Penguin Random House after agreeing a deal with brilliant UK publishers Atlantic, I finally allowed that dream to take shape.
On Monday, I walked into the New York offices on Broadway, unable to control my smile. I smiled the whole way round the office, all through lunch and into every meeting. I must have looked quite mad. But I don’t care.
I loved the city, both energy-zapping and energizing. It’s like the best kind of friend. Drags you out when you’re feeling tired, forces you to have fun and then takes you for coffee the next day. And I could say the same for my friend Ilana, who literally did the same thing. She is the New York of my friends, and I was so lucky to be able to spend time with her out there.
And now I’m waiting for the plane home to see my heroic husband and the four kids he’s been single-handedly looking after. And I still can’t stop smiling.
When I was a kid, I was weird. And not in that floppy-haired, no-one understands me but I’m still really cool and actually, if I just took off my glasses everyone would hoist me on their shoulders and carry me around ‘weird’, but plain weird. One time, I rescued a bee – a dead bee, mark you – from the school playground so I could take it home and give it a proper burial.
Another time, I took it upon myself to deliver a ‘Just Say No!’ anti-drug workshop for my peers, complete with ‘chasing the dragon’ tin foil handouts so they knew what to look for. On the eve of my big presentation, my mum swerved me away from this (apparently doomed) course of action and I had to cobble together a presentation on fashion instead. Considering that from the age of nine to twelve, I had one standard outfit (dungarees and school shoes), this was a horror show.
So I was weird. And a lot of times I was quite lonely. Sometimes, and I never knew why at the time but probably due to all of the above and more, no-one wanted to talk to me, or play with me. And this is where all the libraries came in, like knights in paper mache armour.
The school library was a lunchtime haven, where I researched witchcraft and the occult for the ghost stories I was writing (entirely inspired by the Ghost of Thomas Kempe) and where I had my first fist fight with a dimwit called Edward over the spelling of psychic. Blood was shed.
I’ll always love the local library in town where I used to spend hours after school doing my drug research (I know…) and reading autobiographies like Moonwalk by Michael Jackson (which I now feel left considerable chunks of information out).
I checked out as many books as I was allowed, honestly I don’t really think I ever bought a book back then. I got 60p pocket money each Saturday, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have afforded to buy a book even at 1980s prices. I made a special trip just to visit this library once more before I left the country recently, and I was taken aback by how tiny it was because, as a kid, it contained EVERYTHING as far as I was concerned.
I carried on checking out piles of books from libraries throughout my childhood and teens. I always had a book on the go, often more than one, and while my teen years were way happier and less lonely than some previous years, books were still a sanctuary. I am absolutely certain that I could only have read a fraction of those books if I had needed to buy them. And there wasn’t exactly an embarrassment of bookshops where I lived either, so it was basically whatever had been donated to the charity shops.
It’s not just about books though. The college library was where I first got an email address and used the computers to do my A level work and search for jobs in London to daydream about. I’ll call that era ‘the Netscape Years’.
When I was a very young and very skint mum, libraries were a haven. A free (and warm) source of entertainment for my tiny kids.
Libraries are not just about books, especially in adulthood. Especially when you’re vulnerable or even just a bit lost. For a long time, for me, the library was the only way to get online. I can’t even imagine – in this time of paperless Universal Credit applications – how some people would fare without this.
I haven’t needed the library so much in recent years, but when we went to register our youngest child’s birth in January, the registrar was based in the library and it made my heart soar to see how well used it was. The buggies stacked outside the kids’ library section, the older people talking about books and a few quiet browsers of all ages in between.
I live in a new city now, in a new country. At times, I feel lonely and cut off. I’m still a bit confused about the rules and my place in this new life. My youngest son starts at nursery in a few days and I’ll finally have proper chunks of writing time back. I was out walking with the rabble the other day when I stumbled on something that instantly made me feel calmer, and more at home: the library.
Admittedly it was called Bibliotheek, but it was as familiar as any library back home. Books to the ceiling, people quietly working at desks and computers, that smell that you can’t quite describe but is instantly recognisable. I immediately knew where I would head to spend my writing time, alone but surrounded by people. Just like I’ve always needed, just like libraries have always given me.
Libraries are so much more than books. They are still relevant, they are still vital. They will help the next generation of readers and writers to find their feet, the next generation of young and skint parents to give their kids a love of reading that costs nothing, the next generation of job seekers a route to apply for employment if they don’t have online access of their own.
To lose any libraries is to lose a part of ourselves, our history and our future. I’m so glad that authors like SJ Watson are standing up for libraries, and I hope everyone that ever lost themselves in a good book, and found themselves in a great library, will stand up too.
I know. Weird. But this is where I was standing when I casually checked my email inbox while reaching for a couple of bottles of red top, back in January 2014. And so this is is where I was standing when I got the email from my (now) agent who said she’d read my full manuscript over the weekend and would like to meet.
So this is where I was standing when everything changed.
As I’m leaving Kent and leaving the UK next weekend, I had to go back and surreptitiously take a picture of this very personal, very public spot. You’ve no idea how long I had to wait until there were no other shoppers watching. Worth it.