Our chat with Alison…
I was lucky enough to win a mentorship through Chicken House’s Open Coop 24-hour submission window and, consequently, an offer to publish THE SECRETS ACT. It was definitely a non-traditional path to publishing, as I had my deal before I got an agent. But I knew I wanted an agent on my side to help support and steer my career as a writer, so I began querying. I actually had two other offers of representation when my now-agent, Lucy Irvine at PFD sent me an email from her holiday, saying she was interested and would read my manuscript ASAP. When she asked for a phone call, I was very casual about it, feeling comfortable about having two other offers in the bag. I remember walking away from our call thinking, “Dang, why does she have to make my decision so difficult?” I’d instantly felt a connection with Lucy, her approach to the agent/author relationship, and was blown away by how she seemed to clearly understand my main characters, Ellen and Pearl, and the story I was trying to tell. She loved my book in a way no one else had before and I knew I wanted her on my side. Since we’ve started working together, I’ve left every conversation with Lucy even more thrilled she’s my agent.
THE SECRETS ACT is actually my second agented YA mystery. I had a US agent in the US for a previous YA mystery which actually went out for submission before it fell through the cracks. After my first agent and I eventually broke up, other NYC agents told me the book was essentially dead, that no other agent would rep another’s “sloppy seconds.” I was devastated, being so close to publication and having to start over again.
Shortly after, I visited Bletchley Park with my young daughters. As I walked through the fabulous exhibits, I was blown away to discover that 75% of Bletchley workers were women, and young ones at that. I knew I had to write their stories so that my daughters’ generation knew the history of the strong young women who had worked long shifts, crazy hours, and cracked difficult ciphers during WW2. Even though I was so disappointed about the first book, the accounts of the women who cracked the codes, delivered the messages, and kept the secrets for decades without recognition propelled me forward and kept me motivated. I’m so glad it did!
My favourite book growing up was HARRIET THE SPY and I keep the tattered copy on my bookshelf in a place of prominence. While it’s not one I recommend to others (my own daughters snubbed it), it taught me so much about writing and taking creative leaps. The characters are so rich and as a child, I could envision each character more vividly each time I read it. I remember wanting to BE Harriet as a kid, taking notebooks with me to jot down secrets that were, frankly, not that interesting. I don’t think the book has aged particularly well, but there are still sections of it that transport me and make me want to be a sneaky, clever spy. Any book that transports a child (or adult) is a success, as that’s what we’re all trying to do as writers – reach one (or more) children and transport them to some other place.
Find your people. They’ll support you, hold you up, let you cry on their shoulders, and celebrate your wins. One of the most important things to me is my writer community. I had a rich community of children’s writers in Seattle and am discovering a fabulous bunch of writers, illustrators, booksellers, and teachers in the UK/Ireland. I’ve been a part of a critique group for 12 years now and still meet with them, getting up at 5am every other week to discuss our WIPs. It’s incredibly valuable to get that second (or third) set of eyes on things and I value their feedback immensely. I think all writers need to find their tribe of writers and readers to help support them through the ups and downs of publishing (because there are many). It really takes a village to write a book, and even though writing is a solitary endeavour, I’ve found so much help and encouragement from my writing community. They help me keep going when I’m down and tell me if a chapter is ready for the bin (but not in those words). Honestly, one of the greatest, unexpected gifts of the publication of THE SECRETS ACT is the writers, teachers, booksellers, and illustrators I’ve met along the way.
I’ve thought about this one a lot! And thankfully, because I have two main characters, I’ve had twice the fun mentally casting them for the blockbuster movie version of THE SECRETS ACT. I’d first approach Emma Corrin (from The Crown) for the role of Ellen. I’d tell her that her quiet, thoughtful approach to roles would be perfect for the analytic Ellen. Ellen needs someone who can bring depth to the role, to really understand what it means to be neurodivergent in a time when that wasn’t defined or acknowledged. Next, I’d ask the great actress from my home country, Ireland, Nicola Coughlan to play Pearl. I’d tell her she was the first actress to come to mind for THE SECRETS ACT because I know she can play a girl who is both clever and clumsy (as proven in Derry Girls), as well as be understated yet confident. Plus, I’m pretty sure the two actresses would play well off each other, really bringing the awkward, but tender friendship alive.