Rachel Hickman is well known within the children’s book world as the Deputy Managing Director at publisher Chicken House, responsible for launching the careers of some of the most exciting of today’s children’s authors. She has now crossed the floor to write a book herself: One Silver Summer is published by Old Barn Books in the UK. Andrea Reece talked to Rachel about her book for Books for Keeps.
Surprisingly few of those in the publishing world turn to writing themselves. What was it that made Hickman decide to take up the pen? ‘I’ve always wanted to write,’ she explains, ‘I used to write stories when I was a little girl. But I never really had the confidence to do it, so it just took me a very long time, and then this story wrote itself.’
One Silver Summer is set in Cornwall and tells the story of Sass, a young American girl who has crossed the Atlantic to live with her uncle after her mother was killed in an accident. Lonely and grieving, she comes across a beautiful horse grazing in a meadow, and is immediately entranced. Later, she meets the owner of the horse, a boy her own age, Alex, and the two of them slowly and tentatively begin to fall in love. Both are keeping secrets from the other, Sass hiding the depth of her suffering, while Alex can’t believe Sass doesn’t know who he is: in this near-fairytale, Sass has fallen for the country’s most eligible teenager.
Where did the idea for the story come from? ‘Initially I did want to write a horse story, but I’m a real sucker for those well-written romantic novels, that you don’t see so often anymore, Daphne du Maurier is a huge favourite. I suppose I thought I’d just combine my three favourite things – horses, romances, and being by the sea: the settings are so evocative in du Maurier’s novels, she almost uses setting as a character of its own, and I wanted to do something like that, that was probably a little melodramatic, but grounded in a modern reality.’
She names K. M. Peyton’s Flambards too as a big influence: ‘They were such massive books for me growing up, I even named my daughter after the main character!’ Rachel grew up in Hong Kong, where indulging her love of horses and riding was something of a challenge: ‘I used to travel by boat, taxi, ferry, train, right out to the border with China, where the army had a riding stables, to ride there – it used up all my pocket money. But we did cool things, I used to warm up the polo ponies when there were matches and once warmed up the polo pony for the Maharaja of Jaipur.’ Not many people can claim that! She still rides today and has become interested in dressage, something that she puts to great effect in her book where the descriptions of Sass’s first experiences on horseback are incredibly vivid.
Does she think her background in the publishing industry made writing the book harder, or easier? ‘I think both – I was incredibly fortunate in that two of my good friends and my closest work colleagues are Barry (Cunningham) and Rachel (Leyshon) at Chicken House. I gave Barry a look at the manuscript early on and said, “Tell me if it’s rubbish so I don’t waste my time.” I’ve worked with him long enough to know his every expression, and I was encouraged by his response. And actually the impetus for the book came from an editorial meeting: we were bemoaning the onslaught of dystopian fiction and the breathless first person YA that we were seeing over and over again, and talking about what we don’t get shown.’ That’s when the idea took hold to write the sort of feel-good, escapist romance that she herself enjoyed so much. ‘I used to read to dream and escape, and of course I think there’s a place for really realistic stuff but sometimes you do just want to daydream, and that’s sort of what my book is.’ She names Jilly Cooper as another influence: ‘I love the way she hooked you in with an enormous cast of characters, the way that you could laugh at them as well as find them exciting. It’s all about balance but I felt that lately there hasn’t been enough that’s just feel-good, and it is important.’ The villain of Rachel’s story is a thoroughly unpleasant tabloid journalist, who does everything she can to spoil Alex’s chance of happiness with Sass: ‘I wanted my villain to be truly unpleasant, and I didn’t mind if I strayed into caricature a little bit because again Jilly Cooper did that really well; the villain always needs to be the entertainer of the piece!’
Finally, after struggles, misunderstandings, and even a brush with real danger, Sass and Alex get their happy ending, and this reader put the book down with a heartfelt, and very contented sigh of pleasure. The ending is definitely left open for further adventures too, will Rachel be tempted to pick up the pen again? ‘I would love to write more, and in fact have a sequel all planned out. But I have to take my own advice – when authors ask us “Should I write a sequel?” that’s a really hard question; you have to do really well with the first book to take a risk on a sequel, but if a first book does take off you’re within a world you know and love, making a sequel easier to write. The advice I always give is have a different idea up your sleeve – so in fact I’ve got two half written second ideas. Plus the major thing I have learned from this, is that writing is very solitary, and takes you away from lots of other things, particularly if you’ve got a full on job like I have. There’s a bit of me that thinks when I was writing I was quite selfish, I wanted to write the book maybe to prove something to myself, and now I need to find a way of balancing the writing, which I love, with every day and family life, looking after my husband, my dog, my horse and kids, and still do a good job for Chicken House!’
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
One Silver Summer is published by Old Barn Books, 978-1-9106-4629-8, £6.99 pbk