Thursday, 16 June 2011

Author Visit: Isabel Ashdown

Today is the release of Isabel Ashdown's second novel 'Hurry Up and Wait', so she's stopped by for a chat. Make yourselves a cup of tea. 

Isabel Ashdown was born in London in 1970 and grew up in East Wittering, a seaside village on the south coast of England. She now lives in West Sussex with her family.

After fifteen years working in marketing, Isabel gave up her career to complete an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, and in 2008 an early extract of her debut novel Glasshopper won the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition. Glasshopper was published to much critical acclaim, and was twice named as one of the best books of 2009 by the London Evening Standard and theObserver Review

Isabel! Welcome. Throw your coat on the sofa and sit yourself down. Tea/coffee/biscuits?

OK, one large iced coffee and two jammy dodgers at hand …

So. What made you give up your career to complete an MA in Creative Writing [a very bold move, if I do say so, and one that has obviously paid off – hurrah!]

Some might say it was an impetuous decision.  I know my boss at the time certainly thought it was!  It was 2003; I was 34, married with two young children, and holding down a tough job as a senior manager for The Body Shop.  Having left school at 15 with very few qualifications, I’d worked my way up through the business and was enjoying all the trappings of that success – but my life felt hollow.  I didn’t see enough of my family or friends, I was constantly exhausted, and my creative life was non-existent.  Then one weekend I returned from an overseas business trip, and as I walked on the beach, watching my family running ahead in the sand dunes, I knew things had to change.  That summer I gave up my career and started to write.

How long have you been writing?

When I began to write in earnest, seven years ago, it was almost two decades since I’d last written for pleasure as an angry teenager!  It was the most liberating and natural feeling, and I was so grateful to be writing again.

Can you pitch ‘Glasshopper’ and ‘Hurry Up and Wait’ to us?

London Evening Standard Best Books of 2009: “A disturbing, thought-provoking tale of family dysfunction, spanning the second half of the 20th century, that guarantees laughter at the uncomfortable familiarity of it all.”
Portsmouth, 1984. Thirteen-year-old Jake’s world is unravelling as his father and older brother leave home, and his mother, Mary, plunges into alcoholic freefall. 
Despite his turbulent home life, Jake is an irrepressible teenager and his troubled mother is not the only thing on his mind: there’s the hi-fi he’s saving up for, his growing passion for Greek mythology (and his pretty classics teacher), and the anticipation of brief visits to see his dad. When his parents reconcile, life finally seems to be looking up. Their first family holiday, announced over scampi and chips in the Royal Oak, promises to be the icing on the cake – until long-unspoken family secrets begin to surface.

Hurry Up and Wait:
Daily Mail: “With strong characters, a cleverly constructed story and masses of period detail, this vivid evocation of life in 1985 is a fine second book from a writer who first won The Mail On Sunday novel competition.”

It’s more than twenty years since Sarah Ribbons last set foot inside her old high school, a crumbling Victorian-built comprehensive on the south coast of England. Now, as she prepares for her school reunion, 39-year-old Sarah has to face up to the truth of what really happened back in the summer of 1986. 
It’s 1985, and as she embarks on her fifth and final year at Selton High School for Girls Sarah Ribbons’ main focus is on her erratic friendships with Tina and Kate; her closest allies one moment, her fiercest opponents the next. When her father is unexpectedly taken ill, Sarah is sent to stay with Kate’s family in nearby Amber Chalks. Kate’s youthful parents welcome her into the comfort of their liberal family home, where the girls can eat off trays and watch TV in Kate’s bedroom. They’ve never been closer – until a few days into her stay, events take a sinister turn, and Sarah knows that nothing will ever be the same again.

Do you have a favourite teaser quote from your new novel ‘Hurry Up and Wait’?

He keeps his hands on her waist, and gives her a squeeze.  “You’re a slim little thing, aren’t you?” he says, then he turns and walks back across the garden to fetch another log.  Sarah’s glad the garden is in darkness, to disguise her blushes.  She can still feel the imprint of his large hands around her ribs.

For your first novel, ‘Glasshopper’ what’s your ‘writing to publication’ story?

Alongside work and study, I had been working on my debut novel for over four years, when in 2008 I received the exciting news that an extract had won the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition.  I was overjoyed, and it spurred me on to finish the book by the end of that year. 

Over the Christmas break I polished and edited, read and reread my novel, before sending it out in search of an agent.  Of the seven I approached, three came back wanting to see more and I signed up with Adrian Weston, an independent agent based in Brighton.  Soon afterwards, Myriad Editions made me an offer for the book, and it was published in September 2009.  I always enjoy telling this story, as there are so many ‘you’ll never get published’ conversations going on out there – it can, and does, happen, so keep the faith!  My main piece of advice to aspiring authors is this: get your work in print before you approach agents and publishers – enter competitions, send off to literary magazines.  Writers with a track record stand a far better chance of avoiding the slush pile.

Which book have you enjoyed writing the most?

They were so different to write.  Glasshopper was written over a longer period.  There was the excitement of writing my first book, but at the same time the uncertainty of publication.  With Hurry Up and Wait, I was writing to a publisher’s deadline, but this time I had the pleasure of writing outside of the constraints of work and study.  I loved writing them both.

Which of your characters do you feel most connected with? [I know, I know, it’s like asking you to pick your favourite child; I’m mean]

What a horrible question!  It’s like Sophie’s Choice …  Sorry to sit on the fence, but I have to say, all of them, in different ways.  I adore Glasshopper’s Jake in a maternal way, and I feel for and understand Mary.  But in Hurry Up and Wait I relate to Sarah enormously, as she’s a girl at school in my era (1980s), so of course much of her story draws on my own experience.

What time of day/what conditions are the best for getting your writing done?

It varies, usually depending on family/work commitments.  I write at my desk, on the beach, in my campervan/on public transport.  I prefer to write early in the day, so I tend to do more planning/editing as the day draws on.  I can work in noisy places, so long as no-one is talking to me!

How do you plan?

When I start writing, I let the narrative flow whilst I get to understand my characters and their world.  But before too long, I have to stop and plan a little, to give me direction and the story purpose.  Of course, the plan often changes, but it’s good to have a skeleton of an idea, even if it alters shape halfway through!

What do you consider to be your biggest achievement to date?

Getting into print!  To be a published novelist is a dream shared by many, and I’m so happy to be a working writer with a couple of books under my belt.

On our book forum we’ve got The Book Tree, which is where members choose their favourite books and post them round to each other in a circle, writing comments in each book as they go. So, when their books is returned to them, it’s filled with feedback from everyone else. If you were to choose a book for our book tree, what would you pick?

I would choose The Devil’s Music by Jane Rusbridge.  It’s a wonderfully assured debut; a compelling story, authentic characters and a beautiful narrative.

Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?

I’m so excited about my next novel!  This one is set in the mid 1970s, on the Isle of Wight and it tells the story of 18-year-old Luke Wolff and his best friend Simon, as they share their last summer together on the island.  I’m currently spending a lot of time over on the Isle of Wight in my campervan, for research and inspiration, and the story’s really starting to take shape …

Click here to buy Glasshopper 
Click here to buy Hurry Up and Wait


  1. Thank you so much for this interview, 'Hurry Up and Wait' sounds intriguing. I was fifteen in 1985 and love reading stories set in that time frame.

  2. Thanks for the introduction. She sounds like a really good writer.