A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Helen Grant: Finding your People

Once upon a time, I worked in a big, busy office on the outskirts of London. Back then, I was a marketing assistant, so I didn’t have a room of my own with a door I could shut against the rest of the world. I sat in the open-plan area, unflatteringly known as “the pig pen” (I forgot to mention that this was back in the days before mutually respectful language was used in the workplace, cough). The Marketing department was jammed between Market Research and Sales Order Processing, so one way and another, it wasn’t a very peaceful environment. There were phones ringing and keyboards clacking and people bellowing at each other across the office all day long.

In those days, when I often worked a 50 or 60 hour week, I didn’t get very much writing done. What I did produce were mostly travel diaries written during my holidays. I knew I wanted to write a whole book one day, but I reckoned I’d need a lot more time, and a lot more peace and quiet. If you’d asked me to describe the novelist’s ideal writing environment, I’d probably have come up with a rough-walled circular chamber at the top of a tall tower, either a castle turret or perhaps a lighthouse. There would be about 300 steps leading up to it, so I would never be bothered by anyone wanting anything. I’d sit up there in a red velvet gown like the one Fenella Fielding wore in Carry On Screaming, typing out my masterpiece on an old-fashioned typewriter and living off wine and cake. Sometimes a dove or a seagull would fly in and land on the windowsill, and I’d give it cake crumbs. I didn’t think it would take too long to knock out a novel, doing it like that.


Eventually, of course, I did get to be a full-time writer. I didn’t get the tall tower – in fact I don’t even write upstairs. I write downstairs, in our dining-room, which has the most disgusting floral wallpaper ever created (it has a contrasting border at the top, with a different but equally hideous floral design on it; sensitive authors would probably be rendered unable to write a thing by the very sight of it, but luckily I mostly do serial killers and Gothic mystery, so a gruesome background is no problem). The nearest I ever get to a red velvet gown is a purple dressing-gown, and the typewriter is a MacBook with the ghost of spilled tea and toast crumbs gradually jamming up the keys. We’re saving the last of the wine because we are skint, and I’ve given up cake because if you have a sedentary job, that’s the way to end up looking like Jabba.

The only thing I do have is the peace and quiet. The hours, and hours, and hours of finger-drumming, looking-out-of-the-windows peace and quiet. Of course, when the writing is going well, it’s brilliant. I can think aloud, I can make cups of tea whenever I like, and wander around the house picking my nose and singing Loch Lomond at the top of my voice if I so desire. The story gallops on at a fierce pace accompanied by the rattling of the keyboard and the words flow like absinthe at an artistic soirée.


And then there are those other times. The days when electrodes and 1,000 volts couldn’t get the story going. The days when the editorial letter you have just received is less welcome than a death warrant with your name inked on it in big red letters. The days when every other author on social media is complaining about schools who try to book them up for World Book Day 2030 A.D. when obviously they’ve been booked up since 1975, while your own inbox is choked with tumbleweed. The days when you look on Amazon and your carefully-nurtured masterwork is at number 2,305,367 while the number one bestseller is the ghost written biography of a celebrity gerbil. The days you look at what someone said about you on Goodreads…

Those are the days when you need your Tribe. The other local author who can always be persuaded to come out for breakfast in the town. The literary friend who is 480 miles away but having a dire day too, and whose caustic remarks about it over Skype chat are so hilarious that you laugh until tea comes out of your nose. And most importantly, the other authors you chat to on Facebook or Twitter, who’ve been there themselves. Knowing, for example, that nearly everyone has a bit in the middle of the book where they start thinking it’s all tripe is incredibly reassuring.


It’s brilliant to have other authors whose friendly brains you can pick, people who will tell you that, no, it is not reasonable for someone to ask you to travel to the other end of the country and do four one-hour-long author sessions for “the exposure”; people who will remind you that a bad review is not the end of the world because someone once said their book was only fit for hamster bedding, and their career somehow survived; people who know what a longed-for shortlisting (or indeed longlisting) for a book award really means to you, and cheer you on.

Colleagues, role models, mentors, constructive critics, and best of all, friends. That’s what the writing community means to me.

Helen portrait 300b copy copyHelen Grant
Helen Grant was born in London. In 2001 she and her family moved to Bad Münstereifel in Germany, and it was exploring the history and legends of this beautiful little town that inspired her first YA novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. The book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Booktrust Teenage Award and won an ALA Alex Award in the US. Helen has written two other novels set in the same part of Germany: The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead. She later moved to Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and her two most recent novels, Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent, are set there. Helen now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two rather shiftless cats. As well as writing YA, she writes ghost stories for adults. She spends her spare time walking, exploring ruined churches and castles, and going to the cinema.


3 comments on “Helen Grant: Finding your People

  1. Penny Dolan
    April 8, 2016

    I totally agree with this, Helen. Well said – being stuck in your own little space can be numbing and painful – even when you know you should be glad of the “freedom”..

  2. D F William
    April 8, 2016

    Really excellent. Never mind the next thriller – write a book about writing… and trying to get published.

  3. Kathryn Evans
    April 10, 2016

    I actually love you for writing this. Have a genuine little tear as I think how little time it has taken for me to poke at the ulcer of Goodreads and Amazon ranking and thank the lord for writer pals who truly understand x

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