Welcome to Justin’s Debut-Dance Ball, a virtual party to celebrate SCBWI-BI members’ debut publications. This month, Justin welcomes middle grade author, Vanessa Harbour to his ball, and invites her to take a turn on the dance floor, whilst he asks the questions only a newly-published writer can answer! 

Vanessa, this is your party and you get to choose the tunes. Is there a piece of music you like to dance to, or perhaps a song that gets you in the mood for writing?

Considering what Flight is about it has to be Jackie Lee’s White Horses! Don’t you agree?
Click here to run with Vanessa's white horses!

Many congratulations on your debut novel Flight. How does it feel to be a first-time author? 

Thank you. I really do feel as if I am living the dream. In a way it feels quite surreal. Flight has been received so incredibly well with fantastic reviews. I am feeling quite overwhelmed and grateful. It was fabulous to have people, such as fellow authors and critics who you admire and care about, saying good things about it, but then also having readers stating that they are reading it three times in a row because they love it so much. It is mind blowing. There is no better feeling.

How did you celebrate landing your publishing deal? 

When I first knew I couldn’t tell anyone, so of course I told my children, as you do! We had a quiet celebration together. It was a very long time before it was actually announced, which was agonising. I confess I did tell a couple of close author friends as I needed their support and they were wonderful. Jennifer Killick had warned me that when the news is announced it would be frantic. She wasn’t joking. I spent all day on social media as everyone was wonderful sending congratulation messages and retweeting, shouting about the news. It was incredible! That is one of the best things about the children’s publishing world, they are so supportive, and they share in everyone’s good news. It is like being part of this huge bear hug.

I’ve seen photos from your book launch. It looked amazing. Tell us about it.

My book launch – what can I say. What a night that was! It was wonderful and full of emotion. I think I can safely say it was one of the best nights of my life, next to giving birth to my children, their marriages, the birth of my grandchildren and getting my PhD. (Must make sure not to upset anyone there!!) I was surrounded by a room full of joy and love. I did wonder how it would go as it was all the disparate parts of my life coming together – my family and friends, my university life, all my wonderful Golden Egg Academy people and my Scoobie friends – what an eclectic mix. There were loads of people, children, dogs and an amazing cake. An awful lot of Prosecco was consumed too, but I believe that was my daughter’s and son’s partner’s fault as they went around continually filling everyone’s glasses. But nobody complained.

Is it true there were so many people there, some had to watch from the street? 

Yes, I'm afraid so. David of P&G Wells told me that the last time they saw a book signing queue as long as mine was when Jacqueline Wilson was there!

Flight by Vanessa Harbour, published by Firefly Press 2018

Ten seconds to describe Flight. Go! 

Flight could be described as Black Beauty meets The Sound of Music. It is a thrilling adventure story set during the Second World War and aimed at middle grade. Jakob, Kizzy and Heinz need to save the Lipizzaner horses from the Nazis by taking them across the mountains to safety. But will they be safe when they get there?

World War Two remains fertile ground for fiction writers. What is it about this period in history that interests you?

I have always been fascinated by the period because both my parents served during the Second World War and I was brought up on their incredible stories. I am always intrigued by it.

Flight features the world-famous Lipizzaner Stallions, and they provide a wonderful image for your book’s cover. Was this always going to be a story in which the horses play a leading role?

They were the initial inspiration for the story, or rather, a true event that happened towards the end of the Second World War that inspired the first nugget of the story. Though the story is fictional the Spanish Riding School did perform in front of General Patton.

Vanessa, you are heavily involved with the Golden Egg Academy. Can you tell SCBWI members who are thinking of applying to the Academy what they might expect from it, and at what stage in their writing they should apply?

I love working for the Golden Egg Academy (GEA) as it’s a chance to work with some wonderful aspiring authors. GEA takes a holistic approach in that we are not just about polishing that manuscript, we like to help our writers develop structure, character etc, understand the publishing industry and enjoy a supportive community. It’s a chance for a writer to focus on a manuscript, making it the best they possibly can while collecting more tools for their craft. GEA has been described as being like a traditional, supportive editorial department that also runs workshops. It’s a great community, from Foundations through Alumni to the editors, who all support each other. Like one huge "Eggtastic" family. If you’re applying for Foundations you don’t need a complete manuscript, but you do need a good sense of where the story’s going. You also need to be prepared to work hard, putting aside time each week to work on your manuscript, be part of the online community, do the workshops and read around the subject area. It’s a commitment, showing that you take your writing seriously.

In your professional life, you are Dr Vanessa Harbour from the University of Winchester. How easy is it for you to follow the creative writing advice you offer your students, and apply it to your own writing?

I try to, but there are times when I find myself making the same editing mistakes. You can’t help it. No writer is perfect, and I’d never claim to be. When one of my editors has pointed something obvious out to me that I haven’t spotted, you’ll find me sat in the corner, all curled up, absolutely mortified. I’m sure you can all relate to that, you just can’t see it in your own work, but it will jump out in someone else’s. I now have an editing book, where I list down all the mistakes I tend to make plus common general editing mistakes, so I can try to double check my MS against it.

With so much going on Vanessa, how do you find time to write? Do you have any tips for the rest of us juggling other commitments with our writing? 

Sometimes this is a real struggle for me as I might not have the physical time or the head space. My head might be full of other people’s words where I have been editing students work, or working with Golden Egg people. One thing I have started to do is to write in any spare moment so obviously always carry a notebook and pen. However, the main issue I have is with this fractured mind full of other people’s words. The way I deal with it is like the Japanese art of Kintsugi. This is where they mend broken pots by using golden lacquer: I see my mind as a broken pot full of other people’s words. To soothe and mend those fragments I read poetry, maybe short prose poetry, anything that is away from the form that I am currently writing. I have music on quietly in the background and it just allows my mind to refocus and the fragments to connect again. The poetry being the lacquer in the Kintsugi. It takes me right away from everything, but the images in the poetry often trigger ideas for my own writing. Another idea I might use if I am struggling to get into my writing, is do a bit of free writing first. Where I literally vomit onto the page for a couple of minutes whatever is in my head. I don’t worry about punctuation, whether it makes sense or the sentence structure. It is just a jumble of words. It clears all the detritus of the day out ready for you to start afresh. I don’t panic if I can’t write every day because I know I will be thinking about it. The important thing is to be kind to yourself and remember that writing is a job and that you do need to treat it as such and not as a hobby if you want to be serious about it. What obviously does help is where I am disabled, and I have to attach myself to a pump to be fed. That does force me to stay in one place. If I am not overwhelmed with other work I make that my writing time.

And now, as the music fades, there’s just time for you to tell us what’s up next for Vanessa Harbour, the author. Are you working on a new project? 

I am currently working on a sequel to Flight hopefully. (Fingers crossed everyone!) Thank you for having me, it has been lovely to talk to you. You are a very good dancer!

Thank you Vanessa for joining me at the Debut-Dance Ball. 

Flight is out now, published by Firefly Press.

* Feature Illustration by Louisa Glancy

Vanessa Harbour

Vanessa Harbour is a writer and academic who loves words and believes in living life to the full regardless of what life throws at her. In particular, she likes to weave her words into stories for children and young adults, providing moments of hope in a difficult world. She is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. Vanessa is also Academic & Business Consultant/Editor at the Golden Egg Academy. 

Follow Vanessa

Website: www.vanessaharbour.co.uk 
Twitter: @vanessaharbour 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VanessaHarbourAuthor/ 
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nessharbour/ 
Blog: http://chaosmos-outofchaoscomesorder.blogspot.com 

Justin Nevil Davies

Justin Nevil Davies leads two distinct lives. In one, he flies around the world as cabin crew. In the other, he writes middle-grade novels with the aim to make kids laugh. Sometimes, his lives converge. Justin is co-coordinator of SCBWI South East Scotland. 

Follow Justin

Twitter: @flyingscribbler 
Instagram: flyingscribbler 
Blog: The Flying Scribbler 

Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words & Pictures

Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org
Twitter: @Louisa Glancy

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