All budding authors, surely, dream of a bidding war as rival publishers vie with one another to secure the rights to a precious manuscript? For Chloe Daykin, who writes in a caravan and swims in a river, the dream came true.
A deal was confirmed in April at the Bologna Book Fair, where publishers traditionally seek out the next big thing in children’s literature, with Faber and Faber (Faber for short) securing the worldwide English language rights to Chloe’s novel, Fish Boy.
It will be published next year after Chloe has sat down with her Faber-assigned editor. Then there will be a second book because the publishers liked the first enough to want another.
These are heady times for the mother-of-two... not that she appears to be letting it go to her head. She is far too busy for that, with a play to finish before she can properly embark on the second novel and with boys aged eight and 10 to care for.
But there’s no hiding the excitement over the deal. “I am totally thrilled to be signing to Faber,” she says. “It’s an absolute dream come true.”
It all happened really fast, she recalls. In less than a week, in fact.
“Faber said they loved it but there were various other publishers, too. One of them even commissioned illustrations for the book which are gorgeous.”
Faber, reveals Chloe, wooed her with a pair of shoes appropriate to her novel.
It wasn’t footwear, though, that clinched the deal... nor was it the money since Faber’s bid, in purely financial terms, didn’t blow the others out of the water.
In the end it came down to their enthusiasm and Chloe’s gut feeling. Faber is a distinguished name in publishing.
Without naming figures, Chloe affirms that the deal does enable her to get on with her writing for a very useful period... buying her time, as they say.
Fish Boy is a strange, beguiling tale but so much, of course, is in the telling.
“People call me Fish Boy,” it goes. “My skin goes up and down like the waves. My mind goes in and out like the sea. They say I’ve always got my mouth open, that I ask too many questions.”
Chloe’s tale tells of Billy Shiel, a lonely boy who trusts in the wisdom of David Attenborough and the power of the earth to get him through the trials of life.
Billy’s dad has to put in extra hours to make ends meet, his mum is unable to work due to a mysterious illness and he is bullied at school because of his seeming ‘otherness’. To escape, he swims obsessively in the sea, submerging both himself and his problems.
And if the name rings a bell, Chloe says she chose it in honour of the Billy Shiel who ran boat trips to the Farne Islands from Seahouses for some 60 years.
Billy, a man of the sea, died in 2011 at the age of 83.
Chloe was born in the County Durham village of Frosterley. The family moved to Sheffield when she was 10 but she returned eventually to the North East to do a fine art degree at Northumbria University.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff since then but I used to make artist’s books and I started using text in them... then I started writing books. I suppose I was always doing bits and bobs of writing but I didn’t start seriously until both my boys were at school, four years ago.”
Look at the CV and you wouldn’t exactly say Chloe has pinged out of nowhere.
In 2011 she had a book of short stories, Digestible Reads, published by Northumberland-based Red Squirrel Press.
Then she branched off into writing for the theatre... with a significant degree of success. Her plays have been performed at Live Theatre and Northern Stage in Newcastle and also at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.
The Edinburgh play, chosen from a pile of submissions, was called Ruth & Doug’s Enormous Turnip. The one performed at Northern Stage, Eat Your Heart Out, introduced us to Anna who believes she can communicate with food after encountering an angry onion in Waitrose.
For Live Theatre’s Short Cuts festival of mini-dramas she came up with Dog’s Dinner, a man who ‘comes out’ as Patch, his canine alter ego.
Chloe, you will be thinking, is a woman blessed with a vivid imagination. Writing for theatre, she says, “was exciting and completely different. It was difficult, too, but great”.
And she certainly hasn’t given up. She has been working on a new project for Unfolding Theatre and The Cultural Spring called Putting the Band Back Together. It’s a collaboration with Ross Millard of The Futureheads and Frankie & The Heartstrings.
She seems pretty prolific, I suggest.
“Keep it rolling,” Chloe chortles. “Once you’ve started you’d better keep it going, I reckon.”
But after the short stories and plays, it was an an MA in creative writing at Newcastle University which helped her turn novelist.
Having set her mind on the course, a scholarship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council made it possible and opened up further stimulating possibilities.
She attended sessions with Ann Coburn (Writing for Children) and David Almond (Practical Magic), two of the region’s most successful and distinguished children’s writers.
Of the latter, she says: “He’s such a hero of mine. Just to be there was terrifying and amazing.
“Amongst loads of brilliant inspiration and advice, David told us to get a title page and a bulldog clip and, as we were working, to keep printing it out, to keep feeling it growing in our hands. So I left thinking ‘I am going to do that’ – and I did.”
But it was in Ann’s session that the story of Billy started to come to life.
“I’ve always loved water,” she says. “When I was little I’d bob about in it for hours, just watching the patterns rippling about on the seabed. So it seemd a good place to start – plus I’ve always wanted to live by the seaside. This was a great way of doing it, just in my brain.
“Then I started writing and discovered Billy and he just had so much to say, he never really stopped.
“Fish Boy is a book about struggle, survival, loneliness and the deep and mysterious. I wanted to get across a love of the sea, a quirky craziness – and trying to show it’s OK to feel weird, to be an outsider or alone or frightened.”
Chloe doesn’t live at the seaside. She lives, according to the biography on her agent’s website, “down a bumpy track by a river in Northumberland”. It’s not a million miles from Hexham.
There she shuts herself away in a caravan to do her writing. With the financial award she won for her fiction from New Writing North last year – when she also graduated from the Newcastle University course with a distinction and a prize – she bought a wood burner to warm up the caravan.
It was through New Writing North that she also met her agent, Ben Illis.
When not snuggling up against the wood burner, she ‘does a Billy’, wild swimming in a special place near where the South and North Tyne rivers converge.
“I spend a lot of time by the river so I’ve started doing that. It’s a really good metaphor for writing – do you want to sit on the edge of life or jump in and do it?”
Chloe jumped in all right and is swimming strongly with the current. Supported by artist husband Chris Morton and their boys, one of whom, she says, gave her the idea for the final chapter, it is likely she will make a splash with Fish Boy.
Last word to Ann Coburn, who lives in Berwick and has written loads of good stuff of her own: “I’m so pleased that Chloe discovered how to tell the story of the remarkable Fish Boy on the creative writing MA course here at Newcastle University.
“Our aim is to enable talented writers to find their voice by developing both the art and the craft of their chosen form, be it prose, poetry or script.
“Chloe is a wonderful writer with a strong and individual voice.
“It is hard to believe that Fish Boy is her debut novel for children; the storytelling is assured and Billy is an endearing protagonist who will capture the affections of his readers from the first page.”
The book is due out next year. Keep it in mind.