‘Let the back of your head do the work.’ Interview with YA author Nikki Sheehan.

My first guest author to be interviewed here is Nikki Sheehan, whose debut novel for 11-14 year olds, Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is out this week.

Here’s what it’s about: ‘Joseph is an ordinary boy in a world that’s losing the plot. Paranoia about the dangers of imaginary people have reached fever pitch and now Joseph’s association with Klaris has put him in the firing line. To save himself, Joseph turns detective, delving into the heart of family life and uncovering some painful home truths.’

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? by Nikki Sheehan OUP paperback

J:  Sorry, I know you will be asked this a lot, but I am really interested – where did the idea for this story spring from?

N: The idea came, as ideas often do for me, from a misheard fragment of conversation. In this case I had wandered into the kitchen, probably in search of coffee or marmite on toast, and someone on the radio appeared to say, ‘They killed his imaginary friend.’ Actually I had got it completely wrong, it was a conversation about football of fossils or something, but by then I was already thinking what if…

J:  Klaris gets into people’s heads and they don’t have much control over her. In my experience, imaginary friends are more often ‘friends of convenience’ – they were the one who scribbled on the bath, or who required their own helping of ice cream (“Oh, look, now it’s melted. I’ll just have to eat it, then.”) Have you had personal experience of imaginary friends? If so, what were they like?

N: Ha! Yes, they are particularly useful for such circumstances. I did have imaginary friends, three of them. Twins called Henny and Toddy (who only existed to bump me, as the youngest, up the family food chain) and a very alpha female older girl, Alfreece, who was big beautiful and very bossy, and an object of adulation for me while my own big sister was at school.

J: Alfreece is such a great name. You’ll have to use it in another book!

Can you tell me what the route was from – ‘ping!’ – first idea to actually getting published?

N: I wrote the book over about a year while working as a journalist and doing all the washing and cooking and arguing that having three kids entails. Then I printed it out and put it, literally, in a drawer. A few months later a good friend asked me to go with her to an event at the Brighton Festival where an agent and a publisher were doing a ‘publishing bootcamp.’ I really liked the agent, Julia Churchill, and so I took the plunge and sent her my first three chapters as soon as I got home. As we all know it’s impossible, if not harder, to get an agent, so I was stunned when she emailed me the next day asking for the whole book. She read it while she was on holiday, then asked to meet. After some revisions and polishing Julia sent Klaris out into the world where it was picked up by Clare Whitston at OUP and the rest is history.

J:  Did your own children read the book as it was being written? If so, did they make any contribution to how it turned out?

N: My elder two children both read the book, and my son Eddie who was about 12 at the time was particularly helpful, rereading various drafts and telling me when I’d got it wrong and showing me, from the expression on his face, when I’d got it right.

J:  Hmm, what’s his percentage??

I know this is your debut children’s novel. What does it feel like to see your story turned into a real book? And appearing in real bookshops??

N: The book started to appear about a month before the official publication date, but the moment it felt real was when I went into a Waterstones last week and found it on the shelf next to Darren Shan. I thought, play it cool, and walk past, but obviously I didn’t. Instead I stroked it a bit, then asked the sales person if I could sign it (fortunately I think they’re used to this sort of behaviour from over-excited authors). Then I took a photo and posted it on Twitter.

J: Oh, I’ve done much the same. The bookseller was very kind, but I had to wait until there was no one else at the counter in case I sounded a complete twit!

Next, are you in the Love Editing or the Hate Editing camp?

N: A bit of both. I’ve just had some edit notes on my next top secret project and I find it daunting at first. But once I start and it begins to fall into place and look nice and shiny I find it very satisfying.

J:  You’re in the Love Editing camp, then, really. I recognise that cold sweat feeling as you read your editor’s notes, so like getting your school report and then quickly adjusting to the horror of it!

Have you done other sorts of writing, and if so, is writing for children a different process in any way?

N: I’ve always written for a living. My first job was as a subtitler, then as a copywriter, journalist and editor. But children’s fiction is a completely different process. In fact I feel like I’m using a different, unconscious part of my brain. Hilary Mantel likened it to being a medium, and I definitely experience it in the same way. If it feels too conscious it usually means it’s not working and I should go off and do something else instead.

J:  I wonder if you’ve read Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost ? There are lots of comments about writing in it which felt very true.

Do you know lots of other writers or is this a totally new world for you?

N: I was in a local writing group, then, about the time I got my agent I joined Twitter and met a lot of other people going through the same things. It’s been invaluable, both in terms of practical support and friendship, but also as a semi-valid way of wasting time when I should be writing.

J:  Ha! We met on Twitter. It’s a great writers’ resource for therapy and jokes, isn’t it? And daft picture of kittens, of course.

Moving on – what do you write in, on, and over? e.g. jimjams, i-pad, kitchen table…

N: It depends. The last book I wrote was written completely from my bed on a little netbook. Yes, often in my jimjams.

J:  Now I’m envisaging Barbara Cartland… I hope that’s jimjams and full pancake makeup, mascara and false lashes.

Next question – tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing? (I know it’s there.)

N: Lots of coffee in the morning, then I have to switch to redbush tea in the afternoons or I start shaking.

J: Writerly snack of choice?

N: Grapes, Wotsits and Marmite or stilton on toast.

J: You are definitely a savoury person! 

What is your typical displacement activity when you ought to be writing? Or are you going to say you are totally disciplined and never indulge this way?

N: Twitter is my displacement activity of choice. I prefer to write on my netbook because the internet connection is a bit dodgy so I don’t get too tempted. Also Hoovering, particularly when I get cold from sitting still too long.

J: Frozen Arse Syndrome –  know it well.  I have written in scarf, hat and fingerless gloves. Indoors. 

Next, if/when you get stuck in your writing, is there any one thing you do to get the imagination going again?

N: I have two big dogs, and walking them is vital in my process. In fact a very important element of Klaris came to me as a real eureka moment while walking my dogs. The other thing that often works is taking a long bath, or having a nap. I often get ideas in that space just before I wake up. They’re usually rubbish ideas, but not always. When I was very stuck on my Klaris edits my agent told me to let the back of my head do the work, which was great advice. For me, at least, trying not to force something always works better.

J: I felt that Annie and Henry, the dogs in Who Framed KLaris Cliff?, were really authentic dog characters. Now I see where this come from. And that’s a brilliant phrase of your agent’s. I am going to have to steal it. 

So – were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?

N: Yes, always. I spent all my pocket money on books. I still do.

J:  Were there any books that had a deep effect on you as child? And which writers particularly inspire you?

N: As a child I really loved the slightly creepy period books with extraordinary, but not fantasy events, such as A Little Princess and Tom’s Midnight Garden. So many authors inspire me, but at the moment I’m particularly into Sally Gardner.

J: How much of your reading is children’s fiction?

N: Over half of my reading matter is YA or MG.

J:  What are you reading right now?

N: I usually have a few books on the go, so at the moment I’m reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher, and a wonderful debut MG by Emma Carroll, Frost Hollow Hall. Funnily enough it reminds me of all the spooky stuff I loved as a kid.

J:  What next? And how long do we have to wait?

N: Well, as well as all the launch madness I’m doing edits on the next project. I can’t say too much but I LOVE it, and I hope everyone else will too.

J:  Looking forward to it. Thank you for revealing the dark secrets of your writing process!

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is published on 6th February 2014 by OUP.

nikki sheehan author

Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist. She went to a convent school in   Cambridge where she was taught by nuns. Her writing was first published when she was seven and   her teacher submitted a poem she had written to a magazine. She always loved English, but has a degree in linguistics. After university Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then studied psychology, retrained as a journalist, and wrote features for parenting magazines and the national press. She now writes mainly about property and is co-founder of an award-winning, slightly subversive, property blog. She is married and lives in Brighton with her husband, three children, two dogs, a cat, and an ever-fluctuating numbers of hamsters.

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