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  • Helen Lederer

Writing to get out of a sandpit mindset? Read on...

Helen Lederer here – Love the fact Faye writes to get into better mood – also, her love of spying with quality gadgets has transported me - pass me a Kenwood with microchip ….

Faye Brann, on the 2020 Unpublished Novel Shortlist with Tinker, Tailor, Schoolmum, Spy

When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize and was your entry specifically written for it or were you working on it already?

I first discovered CWIP Prize entirely by accident while scrolling Twitter (most likely instead of writing). I entered the 2019 competition with a manuscript that bears very little resemblance to the one that’s currently on the shortlist but didn’t get any further than the front door. Then last summer, I signed with Andlyn Literary Agency and my agent Davinia encouraged me to rework Tinker, Tailor, Schoolmum, Spy to get it ready for submission. When the CWIP Prize invited me to resubmit a significantly reworked manuscript, I decided to go for it a second time. And here I am!

Improvising the relaxed expat look in Dubai

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

I’m 45 and live near Hampton Court with my husband and son. We lived in Dubai for nearly a decade and I took up writing to stop myself going crazy in the sandpit. I published a blog about life as an expat wife for a few years and its success inspired me to apply for a distance learning MA in Writing at Falmouth University. I graduated in 2015 and moved back to London the same year and I’ve been writing ever since.

Have you ever started a novel and then abandoned it?

Oh yes. There’s one I have tucked away that’s almost a full first draft. It’s a middle grade fantasy ghost story and all rather dark, I told my son I’d write a book that was a bit more PG than Tinker Tailor but it wasn’t really what I’d intended it to be and I’m not sure I like it. I’ll have to give it a good edit at some point so at least he can read it even if it never sees the light of day.

Did you write poetry as an angsty teenager?

No, but I have written quite a lot of it as an angsty adult. The last one was called A Mother’s Mental Load. Actually, I lie. The last poem I wrote was for my son’s school poetry recital competition. He couldn’t find a funny poem about space that he liked, so I wrote one called When Luke Skywalker Came for Tea.

Can you describe what your novel’s about in two sentences?

Vicky is a middle-aged mother of three who is recalled to her former job, working for the top-secret Special Operations Executive. Her target: a parent at her daughter’s school, suspected of illegal arms trading.

What made you write your book? Where did the idea or impulse behind it come from?

The irony is not lost on me that I used to tell anyone who’d listen that I thought I’d make a great spy. That’s really where the idea came from. And I knew I wanted to write about middle-aged women so I just sort of combined the two, really. We’re the perfect cover, if you think about it, literally no one notices we exist most of the time.

I remember sitting in a coffee shop when I first returned to London and two youngish blokes were talking about a hugely confidential business deal, completely oblivious to me listening to every word. I recorded it to see if I could get away with it, took photos of them. They didn’t notice at all. I went home and started writing. I’m proud of how it turned out. I always wanted to write a spy story, but more than that, I wanted to write about women having fun, kicking ass and being occasionally crap at life. Basically, women like me. But with better gadgets.

Did you set out to write a funny book? Where does the humour come from in your book?

I did a lot of improv comedy when I lived in Dubai – I studied it, performed and later taught and directed shows too. I learned from doing improv, that the best humour is usually found in the truth of a situation. Anyone can make a cheap gag, but as soon as you do, the scene – the story – is over. It’s when you get the audience anticipating and seeing the truth of things that you know you have them and you can tell the story and they will ooo and ahh and laugh and cry and that’s so much more satisfying for player and audience. I like to celebrate that truth when I’m writing, too.

I wouldn’t say my book set out to be funny per se, but I would say I always intended my characters to entertain the reader with their truth. I only ever put them in situations I could genuinely see myself getting into. Which is only disturbing if you’re married to me.

Can you read funny books when you’re writing your own? Who do you enjoy reading?

I do read mainly women’s commercial fiction, although I like a good sci fi/fantasy novel as well. Before I start a project, I’ll read things that are closer to what I’m aiming to write. I read a lot of Janet Evanovich before I started Tinker Tailor – she’s a master of witty crime. I’ve just finished a large portion of Liane Moriarty’s back catalogue as prep for my next novel. I’m reading a lot of middle grade books at the moment to check for age-appropriateness, because my son is 10 and a tester of boundaries as well as a voracious reader. We’re currently at war over The Hunger Games.

Have you ever read anyone else’s bad review and felt slightly chuffed? (Lying is permissible in this answer.) Well seeing as I just banged on about being truthful... erm, yes.

Can you tell us about your writing routine – are you a planner or a pantster?

Totally seat of the pants. My current manuscript I’m working on started as a single sentence I pitched to my agent. I’m nearly halfway through writing it now and I still have no idea where I’m headed. I might plan a chapter or two ahead if I’m absolutely sure where I’m going with it, but most of the time I’ll just tack a note to the end of my writing saying, ‘put a chapter in later where she meets Auntie May’ or ‘you need to write about the teacup that appeared in chapter three’ or ‘research how to hack a phone.’

I edit and backtrack all the time to make things link together once I’ve had an idea of how to use something to push the story on. I think it’s back to that improviser training: including a lot of detail upfront I can use later and trusting that some sort of resolution will find me eventually. It’s total chaos. I wish I was a more organised writer but if I try to plan it never really works for me. It’s probably why I like writing comedy – the genre lends itself to a bit of chaos.

Faye's basement writing cave © Faye Brann

Where do you write?

We just moved to a new house, so I have a brand-new writing cave in the basement. That’s why it looks so tidy. That and I’m writing at the moment. When I start editing you won’t be able to find the floor.

You can’t find the right words to make a sentence chime: do you (a) swear? (b) cry? or (c) eat? - if (c), what item of food?

Oh definitely C. Thanks to lockdown it’s currently whatever I can forage that my son or husband hasn’t eaten already. I have a secret stash of KitKats in my writing cave that no one knows about.

What difference has being shortlisted for the CWIP prize made to you? What would you say to anyone thinking of entering next year?

Go for it! And if you don’t get anywhere, edit, edit, edit and go for it again! My manuscript has been through so much, but it’s starting to pay off, finally. Two amazing things have happened to me in the past 12 months: getting an agent and being shortlisted for the CWIP Prize.

Right now I feel like I’m part of an amazing team, which is such an odd sensation for an unpublished writer. It can be a lonely business and it's lovely to suddenly have a bunch of people on the journey with you who are all as excited as you are. On top of that, it’s a huge boost to my self-belief and self-confidence that I’m not just sweating this out in a room on my own anymore thinking everything I write is rubbish. It’s a validation that you just can’t get from your mum.

Me again: the bravery of a good self-editor is one to admire. Thank you for inspiring the crossings out as well as the new bits!

Faye Brann is a forty-five-year-old writer/performer.

She lived in Dubai, giving up any semblance of corporate life in favour of being part of an improv comedy troupe and blogging about being an expat.

This led her to a career in writing, and an MA in Professional Writing from Falmouth University.

Faye runs her own copywriting company, but her real passion is for writing novels about (and for) kick-ass middle-aged women. 

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