DEBUT JOURNEYS Camilla Chester



Welcome to this virtual landscape where debut authors get to take us along ancient streets, deserted beaches and dark forests, showing us what inspired them, pointing out the crossroads and obstacles and describing the next steps for their writing careers. This month Helen Victoria steps out with author Camilla Chester whose debut Call Me Lion was out on 16 June with Firefly Press.


Let’s begin our journey.


There’s nothing like a good walk to fuel creative ideas and give us inspiration in our writing. Where are you taking us on our walk today?


I’m taking you out with my Tuesday dogs, (I’m a dog walker). We’re with a lively Boston Terrier, called Seymour, my dog Stanley, a Wheaten Terrier who loves to roll called Ruby and Dudley, a painfully slow but loveable Tibetan Terrier. We’re in Sauncey Wood, a private space that the generous owner has made open to the public. It runs as a square boarder around a hay meadow and changes with the seasons. My favourite time is April when the bluebells are in full bloom. Today we’re avoiding the summer sun in the cool of the woods and patiently waiting for Dudley to sniff whilst we daydream about characters and plot lines.


What about the landscape you have created in your novel? How important is the setting to your plot and themes?


In contrast to our walk Call Me Lion has a very urban setting, (although it does feature a very important dog called Patch). It’s set during a heatwave in Luton, the neighbouring town to mine. The heat is important, creating added tension and pressure on the characters and influencing mood and decisions. I’ve fictionalised some of the setting, such as the name of the school and the estate on which they all live, but The Mall and The Library Theatre are genuine Luton locations. Luton is a diverse, densely populated town with lots of nationalities and cultures living alongside one another. The central character, Leo, has selective mutism (SM) and the intensity of the noise, smells, sights and heat in Luton makes coping with his SM more challenging.


As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand steps starts with one. Tell us about your inspiration for your novel.


The character of Leo came to me during a dog walk. He was a very real, fully formed boy who made me laugh when he told me all about himself. I tried to feature him within a story I’d been thinking about but when I wrote scenes at his school I realised he was only talking to me. It was very strange and not easy to explain but that’s when I researched into SM. When I was looking for sensitivity readers I met Donna, whose son, James, had struggled with SM and sadly died of sudden onset leukaemia in his early twenties. The book is dedicated to his memory and, from the moment of involving families affected by this condition, the story became something much bigger than me. It’s a powerful book that has been, and continues to do, good work.


Now we have got into our stride, can you tell us what you loved most about writing this book?


The best thing is being involved in something so meaningful and worthwhile. The families affected by SM have helped me understand their daily battles but also, because we got to know one another through email, I could hear the children’s hidden voices. When the book was picked up for publication being able to share the joy with the families was incredible. They, just like all silent children, are desperate to be heard and understood. I’ll let Sam, explain:


When I was most affected by my selective mutism, my classmates had no idea what it was and just thought I didn’t want to be friends with them, but I did. I’m sure that your book will help greatly with awareness and empathy for others.


We seem to be lost in the woods now. Can you describe your most difficult moments when you were writing Call Me Lion and how you got back onto the right path?


There has been much heartbreak with this book. At first I was trying to write two complicated stories and it wasn’t working. I then had a crisis of confidence, feeling unqualified to write about a condition that I was not personally affected by. When it finally went on submission, despite a lot of publisher interest, it got no offers. I felt obligated to the families who had helped me and when nobody seemed to want to take a chance on the book I felt I was letting them down.


The lowest point was when the first publisher, who was initially very keen, suddenly pulled out and then shortly afterwards my agent, Laura West, announced she was leaving the industry. There were a lot of tears! However, there’s always been this calm reassuring presence telling me that the book would make it. I believed in Call Me Lion because it was important and I knew it was powerful and bigger than me. It had to find the right home. Before Laura, my agent, left she passed me onto Veronique Baxter within DHA and sent the book out on another round of submissions. I know now that Call Me Lion was always destined to be with Firefly Press because it is exactly the right publisher for such an important book. I can honestly say that since the moment Firefly said they wanted the book the journey forwards has been incredible.



As we reach the summit, can you tell us how it feels to be a first time author?


I self-published three books before Call Me Lion but I am a debut for a traditionally published book and there’s a big difference. This time I have a whole team of people who care about the book and work tirelessly to get it into the right hands. The cover, illustrated by Irina Avgustinovich, is totally stunning and I’m so grateful to everyone who has been involved in the production of such a beautiful book.


The launch, like the book, was all about the people involved in making Call Me Lion happen. This is not just me, it’s the families, the children and the community. It’s people like Susmita Roy who made the same Indian sweets mentioned in the book to share, it’s Donna who told me how proud her son James would’ve been of everything we’ve achieved, it’s Molly Patel who has SM and danced her heart out as the finale to the launch.


It is impossible to tell you just how amazing it is to be the author of Call Me Lion. It picks up five-star reviews from every one who reads it and has been selected as one of fifty titles to go into every primary school in Wales. But most of all this book will raise awareness and understanding about SM and that’s why my acknowledgements are all about the families who helped shaped Call Me Lion into the book it is.


We’ve finished our walk now and so I think we deserve to celebrate with a nice cool drink. As we tinkle the ice in our glasses can you tell me where you think your writing will take you in the future?


I’m currently writing another middle-grade novel with a young carer and talented artist at the centre of the story. The idea came from working with the Young Carers Crew in Stevenage. I’ve been playing around with outlines and drafts with my agent for some time and I’m battling at the moment with a structural rewrite. I’ll be honest - it’s a tough point - but I know from experience that perseverance, self-belief and determination will bring me out the other side.


Finally, I have really enjoyed walking and talking with you today. Can you give us one take away tip for yet-to-be-published writers?


Reading is breathing in, writing is breathing out.


I don’t know where this originally came from but I love it, along with “Read like a writer, write like a reader.” In short, do it for the craft NOT for the goal of being published. That is the only way to get published with something you are totally proud of.




Camilla Chester
is a dog walking, hybrid Children’s Author, with three self-published and one traditionally published novel, entitled Call Me Lion. She has been shortlisted twice in national competitions, writes on commission for the popular online school resource, Serial Mash, is an active SCBWI volunteer and is represented by Veronique Baxter at DHA.




Imogen Foxell is an illustrator with a particular interest in creating intricate imaginary worlds. She illustrates English literature revision cards for, and interesting words for Her website is Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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