First of all, how are you and how are you coping in 2020?
Oh, 2020. First of all, thank you for asking! I am okay, and I am hanging in there. I live alone, so I’ve spent a lot of time in isolation, which – even for this self-proclaimed introvert – has been a challenge. On the other hand, I know I am lucky: I am healthy, and I have a job I love that enables me to work from home safely. Working on the first book in The Magpie Society series has given me something to focus on creatively, and Zoe and I have adapted well to working together-but-separately. I also welcomed Moose, my cavalier King Charles spaniel, into my life in June, and he has been an absolute lifesaver. Nothing like puppy snuggles to turn a bad year around.
Tell us about how you got into writing?
I actually can’t remember a time that I wasn’t writing! When I was eight, I wrote a short story about getting out on the wrong side of bed in the morning, and it’s like the stories haven’t stopped since then. My favourite genres to read have always been sci-fi and fantasy, starting with the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth, so writing fantasy was always my first love. As someone who is mixed race (Chinese-White), I struggled to find stories that represented my diverse background and experience. So I realized that if I wanted to read about characters like me in the type of books I liked … I’d have to write them.
What did the start of your journey to publication look like?
I actually never believed that I would be published! It seemed like such a pipe dream. I submitted my first novel to literary agents while I was at university and was rejected by absolutely everyone. However, since reading and writing was my passion, I decided a career in publishing might be a good fit for me. I moved to London from Canada and got a job as an editorial assistant at a tiny indie publishing house.
I still held on to that dream of one day seeing my own book on the shelves… so I wrote and revised my novel every spare moment that I had. I submitted to agents again and this time, I was successful! I signed with the amazing Juliet Mushens of Mushens Entertainment (as her first-ever client!) and she sold my first book – the one that had been rejected by everyone – to Random House Children’s Publishing. It was a literal dream come true. It launched in 2013, and I’ve published a book a year since then.
Tell us about some of your work that our audience might not know about!
The Magpie Society represents the first time I’ve written something other than sci-fi and fantasy! So hello Zoella audience-members, if you’re into speculative fiction about non-white characters with plenty of action and adventure, I have some books for you:
The Potion Diaries trilogy (now with a snazzy new cover) is a modern, magical YA series. We’re talking a whole load of adventure, chemistry, magical creatures, a dash of LGBTQ romance – perfect if you like Sarah J Maas, Meg Cabot or Rainbow Rowell.
Jinxed is a near-future YA sci-fi duology featuring a kick-ass teen female engineer, her master-coder best friend and a super snarky robot cat. This might suit you if you like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder or Marie Lu’s Warcross.
The Oathbreaker’s Shadow and its sequel were my first books! They’re YA epic fantasy set in a desert world; think shadowy magic, swords and broken promises, in the style of Dune or A Game of Thrones.
How long have you known Zoe and how did your friendship start?
Zoe and I have known each other since 2014! Six years now – wow, time flies. I was the editorial director for Penguin Children’s books when we met, and had been following Zoe’s vlogs for ages. When she wanted to write her first book, Girl Online, I became her editor. Over the many years of working on the Girl Online books together, we became really great friends too. She’s seen me through some of the most tumultuous times in my life; I’m so lucky to have her as a friend – and I’m glad fate (and books) brought us together!
When did you start thinking about writing together?
While we were working together on the second Girl Online book, we bonded over a shared love of true crime and Pretty Little Liars. We thought it would be so much fun to write a UK-based twisty thriller book series together. It took a while for all the pieces to come together, but eventually… The Magpie Society was born.
What was it like having someone to write with and how did you work together on The Magpie Society: One For Sorrow?
Writing is such a solitary activity normally that I love having a co-author! It’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off of, and we always push each other to see how dark we can take the story! Once we plot out the entire novel together, it’s then easy for us to divide the work as we write the novel from the point of view of two different characters. Zoe writes all the Ivy chapters, and I write all the Audrey chapters. We then share with each other and make sure it all makes sense together. COVID-19 has meant a lot of the work has been done over FaceTime and WhatsApp voice notes, but we make it work!
What are you currently working on?
Zoe and I are working on Two for Joy – the next book in The Magpie Society series. And I’ve also been tinkering away at my first adult novel, a thriller inspired by my mountaineering adventures (in addition to writing, I love going to the mountains: in 2019, I became the youngest Canadian woman to climb the world’s eighth highest mountain in Nepal!). It’s something completely different to anything I’ve written before, and I’m really enjoying it.
What are some of the best books you’ve read this year?
I found reading during lockdown really hard – I just couldn’t concentrate and I ended up watching a lot of TV instead! I’ve actually really missed it. However, there have been a few gems in 2020 that blew me away – and the Zoella Book Club helped a lot! Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid was a highlight, as was Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. I also really enjoyed After the Silence by Louise O’Neill for a gripping psychological thriller, Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis for the creepiest YA horror I think I’ve ever read, and Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan for a sumptuous epic fantasy with added Sapphic romance.
What do you always carry with you?
Always: Phone, notebook, pen, keys
New for 2020: Facemask (I splurged on a set from Liberty and I love them so much) and dog treats
What does your perfect weekend look like?
A drive out of London to the hills – Snowdonia or the Lake District – to hole up in a cosy Airbnb with the puppy, breaking out the OS maps and heading out on a long hike somewhere beautiful, punctuated by lunch, afternoon tea and dinner in the cutest cosy pubs. Add in a warm fire and a great book, and you have the recipe for my perfect weekend.
If you could only eat one meal again what would it be?
A roast chicken dinner, with all the trimmings. If we could throw in a sticky toffee pudding for dessert, I’d be set.
If you could give one positive message to our followers what would it be?
COVID-19 has turned our world upside down and put intense amounts of stress on every aspect of our lives. Don’t feel guilty about escaping into that TV series, that video game, or that book for a few hours. Art will help us find a way through.