(Manilla Press; Paperback 3 September 2020)
Interview by Anna Roins
Stacey Halls is the author of the new historical novel The Foundling (The Lost Orphan, in the US), which takes place in 18th century London. She also has written the novel The Familiars, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she now works as Deputy Chief Sub Editor. She lives in London.
AUTHORLINK: Hi Stacey, it’s so great to have you on Authorlink to discuss The Foundling (The Lost Orphan, in the US) and your writing. We understand your inspiration for stories comes from places, is that correct? For this book, you found your inspiration at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London. The custom of leaving tokens with babies lasted until 1760. Tell us about them and that room full of desperate women picking coloured balls from a bag, with red, black, and white ones deciding their child’s fate.
” I knew I had to write a story about this place.”
HALLS: Yes, the story idea came to me at The Foundling Hospital in London. It was established in 1739 by a sailor and philanthropist called Thomas Coram for babies at risk of abandonment, and it was the first place of its kind – essentially a children’s home where parents could leave their babies regardless of background or circumstance. Because places at the hospital were so highly sought, the hospital devised a lottery system where the mothers drew coloured balls from a bag, and the colour determined whether their child got a place. It was such a striking image, I ended up using it as the first scene in the book. As well, with babies being left anonymously, the hospital had to devise a system to allow parents to reclaim their children if they were able to. So they were invited to leave tokens, which acted as sort of secret deposits – only the mother or parent would know what she had left with her child. Because most women who left their children at the Foundling were poor, their tokens were ordinary things like thimbles, hairpins, playing cards and scraps of fabric cut from their clothes. Things they could afford to give away. They are heartbreaking in their simplicity, because each item represents a bond between a parent and child that were never reunited. Lottery night and the tokens were the bread and butter of The Foundling – I knew I had to write a story about this place.
AUTHORLINK: It’s very moving. We understand, when you thought about writing this story the timing wasn’t ideal because you had only just finished the first draft of your debut novel, The Familiars, so it had to go on the back burner for a while. Is that right? Do you often have one or two stories going on in your mind at the same time?
HALLS: As an author I can’t complain when ideas arrive, I’m always excited when it happens because I rely on them to make a living! I usually have two or three ideas bubbling away. Often the best thing is to let them do just that – if you look directly at them they can shrink away from you. They need time to form and gestate, so by the time I got around to writing The Foundling I’d been thinking about it for at least a year, working out what it was. When I’m writing, even though I’m consumed by the project I’m working on, there’s always room for more. If you shut everything out you’re at risk of missing something, so I try to keep an open mind and consume as much as I can in terms of books and TV.
AUTHORLINK: The Foundling is your second novel, whereas The Familiars, nominated for an HWA award, was your first and the subject of a nine-way bidding war. It was set during the Lancashire witches trials that took place in the north of England in 1612, inspired by Gawthorpe Hall in Padiham, near where you grew up. You were enthralled by the infamous Pendle witch trials that took place during the Jacobean era. Can you tell us a bit about this?
” I intended to invent the character living in the house, but my research led me to Fleetwood Shuttleworth…”
HALLS: Growing up in Lancashire, I was familiar with the Pendle witches as they’re famous in the area. There are shops in the Pendle villages selling memorabilia, and the local bus route is called the Witch Way. It’s very much part of our history. I didn’t know much about the women and men individually, or what they were accused of, but Pendle Hill is a famous hill associated with them as they all lived around it. I saw the hill from the windows at Gawthorpe Hall and the idea came to me to write a story about the witches told from the point of view of someone who lived in the house. I intended to invent the character living in the house, but my research led me to Fleetwood Shuttleworth, and because of her excellent name and age (she was 17 in 1612, and had been married for four years), I decided to just borrow her life. It was quite bold! Because there was nothing to connect her to the witches, but she would certainly have been aware of the trials and accusations flying around the area. I chose Alice because of the outcome of her trial (no spoilers), and there was very little information on her other than her name and what she was accused of, so she was more of a blank canvas for me to fill in.
AUTHORLINK: Wonderful, bravo! Have you had any offers for your book to be produced into a film or series? TV rights of The Familiars have been sold to The Bureau production company. Is that right? How exciting! Do you have any idea of when production will start?
HALLS: These things take a long time, and there’s now a writer attached but no plans to go into production yet.
AUTHORLINK: Fair enough. You had an interview with Graham Norton on his podcast on his BBC Radio 2 show with Stacey Halls, Imelda Staunton, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Anne Reid. Cosmopolitan called you ‘The New Hilary Mantel’… How does this all feel?
HALLS: That was the most surreal day of my life. I almost dissociated from it when it was happening, it was like an out-of-body experience. And it was very kind of Cosmopolitan but I don’t think Hilary Mantel needs to be worried!
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha, you never know! You have a degree in journalism and have worked for The Sun, the BBC, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and The Independent, to name a few. Have you done a creative writing course? If so, which one(s)? How did it/they help? If not, would you like to do one and if so, which one would appeal?
“I’ve never taken a writing course and only studied English as far as A-level (aged 18)…”
HALLS: I’ve never taken a writing course and only studied English as far as A-level (aged 18) here in the UK. I feel strongly that creative writing courses are unnecessary for becoming a writer – not just because they can be expensive, but I can’t think of anything worse than sharing my early drafts with anyone! They of course can be great if one-to-one or group feedback is your thing, and they provide you with a toolkit of how to write a story, but I would not be receptive to feedback so early on.
AUTHORLINK: You describe yourself on your Twitter page as a ‘Sunday Times bestselling procrastinator.’ We can’t imagine anyone who procrastinates could have reached your type of success. Why do you call yourself a procrastinator?
“It’s not until the fourth draft that I feel close to happy with the book…”
HALLS: I’ve explored this (during my procrastination sessions), and it boils down to not wanting to start because, as the TV writer Russell T Davies says, writing is an act of loss. The second you transcribe your imagination to the page, it becomes this tangible thing that you judge extremely harshly. Nothing ever comes out how you want it to, and that happens right from the first sentence. Most sentences I write are a disappointment. The way I deal with it is by never reading my work back, because I find the self-judgement so paralysing. I plod along day by day and only read the manuscript when I’ve finished a draft. It’s normally as awful as I expected, then I do it again, and around twice more until the story feels lighter and more free. It’s not until the fourth draft that I feel close to happy with the book, so when I’m working on the first three it’s like: “Well, I know this is going to be no good until the fourth draft.” For that reason I don’t exactly look forward to working on it each day, hence doing the laundry/buying furniture online/scrolling social media/doing literally anything else instead.
AUTHORLINK: This is remarkable observation, thank you for sharing it! Who edits your books? How many times do you rewrite your drafts before you show them to your first readers? Who are your first readers? We understand you are in a writing group and they’ve helped you hone your craft. Does your agent ever edit your work? Does your publisher?
HALLS: I have only shown my agent my first draft once, out of three books. Usually I write the first draft, then set it aside for at least a month, ideally two. I’d love to say I start work on something else in that time, but I don’t. I then send it to my Kindle as a PDF, and read it all the way through, just to get a general feel of it. Then I’ll go away and make notes on structure, themes, characters – the overarching stuff. That will all be tackled in draft two, and when I’ve finished I send the manuscript to my agent and editor. They come back with their own edits, and there will be at least two rounds: one big one then a smaller one of the nitty gritty. I do not understand why some people are resistant to being edited; it is completely necessary. Why wouldn’t you want feedback from someone who cares about your work? I haven’t shared my work with friends or my writing group since The Familiars; there comes a point when too many cooks spoil the broth, and when lots of different people have lots of different thoughts it can get a bit confusing.
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting. Speaking of which, we understand the lovely Juliet Mushens is your literary agent. How did that come about? Tell us about the process.
HALLS: I wrote a novel several years ago, before The Familiars, and shopped it out to agents, but with no luck. None of them wanted to represent me, including Juliet – and she was right to! It was terrible. She told me I was a good writer, though, and encouraged me to submit whatever I wrote next to her. That was The Familiars and it was a no-brainer for me to accept her offer of representation.
AUTHORLINK: How wonderful. We understand you’re a ‘plotter’ rather than a ‘pantser’. How strictly do you stick to your original plan? How long does it take to work out the plotline of your story? How long does it take to research? And how long does it take to write the book?
“I write the plot on coloured index cards and pin them to my corkboard…”
HALLS: There isn’t a finite amount of time: it’s not like I spend two months planning and two months researching and that’s it. It depends on my schedule and how involved I am in the story at that point. I can spend six months vaguely sketching it out in my head while working on something else, then I’ll nail the plot to paper in a day. Or I can spend weeks planning it only to open my laptop and find my way into the story from another angle. It’s quite intuitive; I’d hate to confine myself rigidly to a plan but at the same time I do need a plan. I write the plot on coloured index cards and pin them to my corkboard above my desk, but the cards get swapped out or thrown away. A novel is a moveable feast, and every scene has to earn its place in the story. You can’t just leave it in because it was in the plan. Structurally my novels don’t change drastically, but I rewrite them twice or three times. From beginning the research to doing copy edits for me is typically 12-18 months. And research is an ongoing process, particularly when you’re writing historical fiction. You don’t really stop until you have finished.
AUTHORLINK: That’s very insightful, thank you. You once said, “I know how hungry publishers are for new material. Every year there’s a blank schedule: they want to publish books; they want to find new writers. It’s how they make money.” (Writing.ie. 7 February 2019) We find this interesting. Surely publishers would make more money with established writers. In your experience, how does a writer secure a long-term contract in this industry?
“You have to be prolific, creativity isn’t just something that happens to people.”
HALLS: I think there is a consensus that if you’re outside the industry or don’t know anything about it it’s really hard to get published, and that’s just not true. So many agents offer representation on unsolicited manuscripts, and every publisher wants to be the one to publish the Next Big Thing. That said, there’s often a lot of hype around debuts, and with that comes huge pressure. It’s not normal to begin your career with a bang and then have nothing ever match up to it. Obviously every writer wants their book to be successful, but when the stars have aligned and it actually is, there can be a sense of: “Can I do this again?” In hindsight, I’m glad my publisher wanted to come out with the second book a year later. I might have spent years writing it otherwise, trying to create a perfect book worthy of The Familiars’ success, but as it happened, because of my deadline I handed The Foundling in before The Familiars was published. I’m not sure I know the trick to securing a long-term contract, but ultimately you have to remember publishing is a business as much as it is art, and your work is a product as much as a project. You have to show up at your desk and you have to deliver: glamourising the process, waiting around for an idea to come to you and only ever writing when it’s easy isn’t going to help you longevity-wise. You have to be prolific, creativity isn’t just something that happens to people.
AUTHORLINK: Great advice. The covers of the books are beautiful. Did you have a say in how they would be presented?
HALLS: Not really, but I’m always delighted with the covers! They’re very different in the UK and US, particularly The Lost Orphan. But being able to portray 90,000 words in a single image or book jacket is such a skill, and I’m in awe of art departments for that reason: they can make a book something you absolutely have to pick up and look at, and that’s amazing.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now? We’ve heard through the grapevine you’re working on your third novel which is set in West Yorkshire in the Edwardian period about a nanny who goes to work with a wealthy, but troubled family? Can you tell us a bit more about it (if possible)?
HALLS: My third novel is about a young and slightly naive children’s nurse (a nanny as we call them nowadays) who goes to work with a very rich family of mill owners in the north of England. She’s trying to escape her own past and history is at risk of repeating itself. I wanted to set something in the early Edwardian period, the golden age of childhood, which was almost stage-managed and which we associate with Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz. Childhood was becoming commodified, and the Victorian attitude of “seen and not heard” was a thing of the past. I also find the delegation of motherhood to nurses interesting as a writer, and of course there’s something irresistible about the Mary Poppins package: a young woman who comes in and “saves” a family, or fails to. So it’s an exploration of all these things, and the setting is the Hardcastle Crags area of Hebden Bridge, which is my favourite place in the world.
AUTHORLINK: We just googled it, looks brilliant! Bravo. And to finish off, a question just for fun, which three people, dead or alive would you like to invite to dinner and why?
HALLS: I am a reality TV junkie, so Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton and Lauren Conrad.
AUTHORLINK: Stacey, it has been so much fun chatting to you. Thank you for your time today, and we wish you all the best success for you and your books in the future!
HALLS: Thanks for having me!
About the Author: Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist.co.uk, and has also written for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she now works as Deputy Chief Sub Editor. She is the author of ‘The Familiars’ and ‘The Foundling’.
You can find out more about Stacey Halls and sign up to her readers’ club at http://www.staceyhalls.com/, https://twitter.com/stacey_halls and https://www.instagram.com/staceyhallsauthor/
About Anna Roins: Anna Roins is a Senior Lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist.
She has studied creative literature at The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors. She also tries to write novels in her spare time, reviews books and writes community pieces for reputable publications.
You can find out more about Anna Roins at https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins, and https://twitter.com/Roinsstar.