There are many routes to publication and Debut Journeys aims to celebrate them all. This month Mario Ambrosi talks to Jan Dunning whose novel, Mirror Me, was published in June 2023 by Scholastic.

Where are you now and where did you write your book?


Right now I’m in the little studio at the bottom of my garden in Bath. When I’m not writing, I’m an artist and a teacher and my studio is my creative space where I daydream and plan and make stuff. My debut novel Mirror Me started life on a chaotic kitchen table in a Kentish Town but, when we moved to Somerset, I finally had a ‘room of one’s own’ to work in away from the distractions of daily life. I know I’m lucky. My cat, Misty, thinks the studio is hers but she tolerates my presence most of the time.


What’s it all about?


Mirror Me is a contemporary retelling of Snow White – with shades of Dorian Gray and The Devil Wears Prada. It’s set in the London fashion world and tells the story of Freya, an insecure 16-year-old, whose quiet life is turned upside down by Belladonna Wilde, a glamorous former supermodel who’s about to marry Freya’s dad. But how does Bella look so impossibly perfect? And could she be using Freya's family for her own sinister purposes? As the hype around Bella's new label 'Nightshade' reaches fever-pitch Freya goes undercover into the intimidating world of high fashion, determined to smash Bella's ruthless plans along with her own self-doubt.


Tell us about your route to publication


I’ve always written in one form or another, but the path to publication has been long and winding with many detours! I studied English at university but, in my final year, I was spotted by a modelling agency while at Glastonbury festival and ended up working in fashion for a decade. None of it was time wasted though. I kept a diary and many of my experiences found their way into Mirror Me. 

I started to take my writing more seriously after my children were born and I became immersed in the world of children’s literature. I signed up for Lou Kuenzler’s brilliant workshop, joined SCBWI and GEA and applied successfully for the WriteMentor summer programme. The wonderful writers I met all spurred me on to finish my draft, polish it until it gleamed and, finally, send it out into the world. I was fortunate to sign with my agent Anne Clark after not too long in the painful querying trenches and we sold Mirror Me to Scholastic shortly afterwards.


What do you do when you’re not writing?


When I’m not writing I mainly read! I’m a voracious reader and if I haven’t got a book on the go it feels wrong. I get panicky on long journeys if I forget to bring a book! I also love to swim – all my plot problems get solved underwater.

Work-wise I’m an artist and a qualified teacher and I work part-time as an art specialist in a small state primary school in London. It’s a brilliant job because I get to spend my day with small, hilarious humans, inspiring them to be creative – mostly, they inspire me!


What was the biggest bump in the road when it came to getting your book out into the world and how did you overcome it?


If I’m honest the biggest hurdle was probably overcoming my fear of failure. 

Publishing a novel has been my ambition for as long as I can remember but for ages I was scared to take it seriously in case my dreams were crushed. I’d start projects and not finish them or finish them but never send them out. I’d tell myself my stories weren’t ready, that they needed one more editing pass. I think it was a way of protecting myself – if I didn’t submit I couldn’t be rejected. Eventually I had a realisation – the only thing I knew for certain was that I’d never be published if I didn’t put my work out there. I was sabotaging my own dream. Acknowledging this forced my hand and made me brave.


Any tips for budding writers hoping to follow in your footsteps?


It gets said all the time but it’s true – read. Read everything you can, especially (but not exclusively), the genre you want to write in. Absorb the language, learn the tropes and read like a writer – analyse what does and doesn’t work. And if reading isn’t your thing, surround yourself in stories generally – film, TV, radio and podcasts all count. You pick up structure, pace, tension, characterisation almost by osmosis. 

Then, when you start to write, the most useful thing I’ve learned is to get that first draft down. No editing as you go, just get it out. Every writer is different but I find it helps to follow a rough outline, just enough so that I know where I’m going but I still have those moments of discovery. I don’t always write chronologically either – when I get stuck I skip ahead to the most visual scenes. And again perfectionism is the enemy. It’s pointless fiddling endlessly with the beginning. You need to get to the end before you know how your story should start.


What’s next for you?


A lot of drafting! I can’t talk too much about my new project… but I will say that it’s another contemporary retelling with a supernatural thread! After so long at the editing coalface, I’m really enjoying being back at that lovely stage of day-dreaming, experimenting and inventing a whole world in my head!

*Header image: Shannon Ell & Tita Berredo


Jan Dunning studied English and art at university where she set her heart on a career with words and pictures. The plot took an unexpected twist however when she was scouted at Glastonbury festival and became an international fashion model instead. Jan spent the next decade striding down the runway, flying around the world on photo shoots and startling her friends and family on billboards for Gucci, Garnier and Gap. Finally realising she had more to say behind the camera, Jan trained as a photographer and art teacher and began writing fiction. She now lives with her family in Bath, dreaming up ideas in the studio at the bottom of her garden – with help from Misty, her cat!

If you would like to feature in a future Debut Journeys please email Mario Ambrosi at

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