Welcome to our new blog series, Behind the Book, where we’ll be putting our Cornerstones alumni in the hot-seat. This week, we’re thrilled to be joined by Julie Ma. Her novel Happy Families won Richard and Judy’s Search for a Bestseller competition in 2020, and was published with Welbeck in February 2021.
If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that there’s no one route to publication!
What is your story about and where did you get the inspiration to write it from?
Happy Families is about three generations of a family living above a Chinese takeaway in a small Welsh town. It mirrors my own experience of being the third generation of a family living close to a Chinese takeaway in a small Welsh town but isn’t quite as autobiographical as you might think (I hope!) I knew I wanted to show something you might not expect to see in such a rural setting so I just took that as the starting point and set off on what proved to be quite a long journey to publication!
How close was the experience of being published to what you expected? Were there any big surprises?
I think I always expected a much more conventional approach to publication. Probably in the same way that Daphne Bridgerton expected to marry an ordinary well-to-do gentleman but ends up with Simon, Duke of Hastings! I had already presented myself to many agents but most of them said they didn’t ‘love’ me – sorry, I mean to say my submission – enough. And then a handsome duke in the form of Richard and Judy arrived! On a more serious note, I did not realise how collaborative a process publishing is and how much teamwork, along with firm, frank and friendly notes, is involved. As a lone writer tapping away at home, it is ever so nice to see other serious publishing professionals lavish your work with their time and attention.
What was the most important piece of advice you received while collaborating with Cornerstones?
I think, for me, the most important aspect of working with Cornerstones is the feeling of taking yourself seriously as a writer. It is a big investment to think of having professional feedback in this way but I’d received so many rejections while also feeling that I couldn’t give up on these characters and this story just yet. In my report, there were two sections, one called ‘Why I would buy your book’ and the other called ‘Why I wouldn’t buy your book.’ First of all, how thrilling to have it phrased that way! And secondly, although you may prefer the first section, it’s the second one you need to heed. You don’t need to act on everything it says but it does prod you into having a good hard think about what you want to keep and what you want to ditch.
What stage in your writing career are you at now? Are you working on anything new?
Still very near the beginning! I’m working on the next novel which is set in the same Welsh town but with a mostly new set of characters who I hope you’ll get to meet in due course.
If you could go back and talk to yourself just before you started writing your first manuscript, what would you say to yourself?
Everything takes much longer than you think. You will get ghosted (‘what does that mean?’ my previous self would have asked) and rejected. In the end, it will come down to being in the right place at the right time. Just make sure you’re standing there with the best version of this novel you can possibly write.