Helen Fisher, FAYE, FARAWAY

Helen Fisher, FAYE, FARAWAY

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Helen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Helen Fisher: Pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: How are you?

Helen: Fine. I feel like I know you because I’ve just watched a few of your podcasts the last couple of days.

Zibby: Thanks for preparing.

Helen: I love your bookshelves in the background with all the color coordinated.

Zibby: Thank you. What is behind you? What is that? What are you counting?

Helen: This lives here. I love it because when I have Zoom meetings, people do comment on it. Over time, it gets colored in. This is a grid that I use now when I’m writing a novel. I know that at about eighty thousand words, I know that I will be near the end. This starts off as a blank grid. Every time I write a thousand words, I color a square in so that I can see myself making progress.

Zibby: I love that.

Helen: It just helps. Although it says the end makes eighty thousand words, this bit was never there. It was always eighty thousand. The actual end was here at 102,000. I finished it last Friday.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Amazing. Congratulations.

Helen: Thank you. What a relief. I loved writing it. It’s just nice. When you get started, you feel like, yeah, I’m getting there. Then just one square at a time. That was the most exciting part of my day was getting the colored pencils and coloring a square in. Monday to Friday when I’m writing, I have to write at least a thousand words. I have to color a square in. Then as I got to the end, you can see there was four thousand on that day. You get that momentum towards the end where you think, I’ve got to get it out.

Zibby: Wow. How many days did that take? Were they consecutive days? Do you work weekends?

Helen: Actually, I was trying to work out how long it took me because I was planning to start this in September when the kids went back to school. I think I wrote a little bit towards the end of August. Essentially, that was about three months. I finished on the 30th of November, but that was finishing a read-through as well. I think it’s about three months. It was good. If it was Monday to Friday, I had to do at least five thousand words. Some weeks, I was doing ten thousand words because I was hitting two thousand a day.

Zibby: This is an ingenious system.

Helen: You see, now and then, I can’t see where I’ve got . I had two days there where I wrote three thousand on the first day, then three thousand on the next day. Then it was one thousand. I didn’t beat myself up because I’d already hit my quota. It’s so hard to keep going sometimes. That’s just taking that one chunk at a .

Zibby: That was an amazing way to start off this podcast because I usually ask for advice at the end. This was the best advice ever right off the bat. I love it.

Helen: I actually saw a grid like this on Twitter when I first went on Twitter. I don’t know who put it up there. Somebody had a little grid. I thought, right, I need a grid like that, just that way to take one step at a time. It’s quite useful for pretty much anything you do that’s a project that’s quite a long time.

Zibby: I just actually found a flip chart of paper stashed away in the kids’ stuff. I literally said to my son, who’s turning six, I was like, “Should we just throw this away?” Then I was like, how can I throw away perfectly good paper? Where I am going to put it again? What are we going to use it for? Now this is great.

Helen: You’ve got the flip chart paper, but have you actually got the flip chart, the thing with the stand?

Zibby: Yes.

Helen: Good. They’re brilliant for Pictionary and stuff at Christmas.

Zibby: Ours actually, if you pull it off, they have Post-it sticky so you can pull it and stick it on the wall.

Helen: Nice one. Love it. We love our stationary things, don’t we? I love anything.

Zibby: Yes, totally. I’m the same way. So your book in the US is called Faye, Faraway, but it is not called that in the UK. Tell me about that and your frustration, perhaps, with the toys and what we call them here versus where you are.

Helen: It was never anything I thought about. This is the proof in the UK. It’s Space Hopper, as you know. This is my first novel that’s been published. I didn’t have an agent or anything. I was writing it because I wanted to write something. I just called it The Space Hopper. It was a little bit of a, what should I call it? Anything. I picked that. If I knew then what problems it causes when you get your heart set on a title, I probably would’ve just called it Book. It was called The Space Hopper. Then my agent said, “Let’s perhaps change it to Space Hopper.” When it was picked up by a publisher and then the US were interested — first of all, the UK side did want to change it. We went through all sorts of different ideas. One of the reasons it needed to be changed was because — I don’t think Americans know what a Space Hopper is. Do they know what Space Hopper — no. I didn’t really know that. I am half American, but I was very young when I moved here. I didn’t realize. I was googling it thinking, we’ll just call it the American version of the Space Hopper, but that was Hoppity Hop. I was like, we can’t call it Hoppity Hop.

Zibby: Oh, yes, Hoppity Hop, those little things you bounce — yeah.

Helen: In England, Space Hoppers are iconic. They represent the seventies, practically, or seventies childhood. I don’t think in America that Hoppity Hop has the same relevance. For Americans, was…

Zibby: I remember having one in the seventies, but not everybody, maybe. I don’t know.

Helen: We just thought, well, we won’t go with that. We’ll change it so that we’ve got a title that works across the pond both ways. The flip chart was full of names, different ideas. They were flooding in, the different names, the different options. Some of them were like, eh. Some of them were like, yeah, that’s okay. Some of them, we were starting to be a bit brutal with each other. “Don’t like it,” that sort of thing. In the end, we came up with something. I think it was Twenty Questions for Jeanie Green. We settled on it, or sort of settled on it. Then I had in meeting in London with my editor and another colleague from Simon & Schuster over there. Every time the book was mentioned, they said Space Hopper. I was going, Twenty Questions for Jeanie Green. They were going, Space Hopper. I said, “Why do you keep calling it Space Hopper? We’ve had our tears. We’ve put it to bed. We’re changing it.” They said, “The thing is, everyone in the office keeps calling it Space Hopper. It sort of stuck.” They then decided that we would have it Space Hopper over here and just something else in the USA. I think the preference is to have it the same name everywhere. On this occasion, they just decided that it was a really strong, iconic word and image to have in the UK, strong enough to keep it. Then Faye, Faraway, which it’s called in America, has got a very different feel to it, I think. The cover that’s going to come out does actually have a Space Hooper on the front. Have you seen it? There’s a girl. She’s a bit blurred. I love that little nod to the Space Hopper. That’s the story behind the name of that.

Zibby: I found it so interesting because how you market a book — they say not to judge a book by its cover, of course, but your covers and names both make it feel very different in both places. I’m glad you told me about the backstory and all of that. Either way, it’s great. I feel like Space Hopper is sort of a double entendre, but it’s fine. Faye, Faraway is still intriguing.

Helen: I know what you mean. I have to say, whilst they both give me a very different feeling as well, I love them both. I love both the covers. I love both the names. The Faraway is a reference to The Faraway Tree. Do you know The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton? Again, an English writer, quite iconic here. She wrote about a million books. Growing up in England, Enid Blyton was everything that I read. As a child, I loved her books. There’s a book called The Faraway Tree. It is mentioned in the novel. Faye, when she goes back home, sees this book on the shelf.

Zibby: Now that we’ve established the different tones and titles and everything, let’s talk about what’s in the book and the content of it which, by the way, I cannot stop thinking about. I did not see any of that coming. I keep spinning around in my head and going back to the beginning to see how it all works. It’s thought-provoking and amazing. It was so cool. I love how you did the whole thing. I read somewhere that that wasn’t even your plan at the beginning. Is that true?

Helen: I didn’t know how it was going to end at the beginning. I don’t think I’d be able to write a novel like that now because I like to know the destination, at least, and then find my way there, but I didn’t know. What happened, I was at a friend’s house. She was there with her teenage daughter. She said, “Tell us about your novel.” I said, “It’s about this.” Then the teenager girl, Megan, she was going, “Then what happens?” I told her the next bit. I didn’t want to bore them, so I didn’t carry on. She’s like, “No, no, then what happens?” I told them the whole thing up to where I had written it. I was about two thirds of the way through or maybe three quarters of the way through, maybe not quite as far as that. I was chatting to them. I don’t want to give anything away. It was a bit like, I’d love to do maybe this. I’m driving home. That’s where my characters, that’s when they come to life and they start doing things, when I’m in the car on my own. Driving back home that day, I thought, oh, my god, I think I could do that. I didn’t put my foot down. I didn’t speed because I don’t do that, but I certainly sped up with my writing. I just couldn’t stop then. I was really worried I’d get hit by a bus before I got the ending down. I was really happy with the ending. I felt that it worked. Oddly enough, it’s almost like it was lurking because when I went back, the things that make it work were sort of there anyway. A lot of them were there anyway. I was quite pleased. They do things on their own, the characters in there. They know what’s happening before you do sometimes.

Zibby: It’s true. Wow.

Helen: Thank you. Thank you for liking that because I’m quite proud of that ending.

Zibby: It’s great because I feel like it’s hard sometimes to keep people’s attention. I hear this all the time from busy people asking me, how do you get to the end? It’s great when there’s a plot that — I didn’t know there was going to be anything special at the end. It just made me want to keep reading anyway. It was really enjoyable. Also, even from the very beginning — I just want to read your opening sentence and maybe a couple other passages. You said, “The loss of my mother is like a missing tooth, an absence I can feel at all times but one I can hide as long as I keep my mouth shut, and so I rarely talk about her.” So sad. I just wanted to know — I’m sorry to even ask this. It’s probably none of my business. Did you lose your own mother? Is that where this plot is coming from? No? She’s around?

Helen: My mom’s still alive. She’s eighty. No, the physical losses of parents are none of mine. I do have friends who lost their parents when they were kids. That’s where the nugget of the idea came from. When you write about loss, which I had never done before — in fact, when I was writing this, I had the idea for the story and I didn’t really latch onto the fact that it was about grief and loss really until afterwards because I just wanted to get the story down, the plot. Sometimes the grief got in the way a little bit. When I wrote the first draft, I was a bit like, and then she cried and they move on. They’ll get it. I sort of did that. I left the grief out a little bit. When I went back and I had to work on it, that’s what I had to work on. When the grief and the emotion needed to be there, it actually dropped out of the — when I first wrote Space Hopper, I didn’t have an agent. I scrapped all my money together and I sent the manuscript off to an editor. When she came back, she was really positive, but she said that. She said, “The thing you need to work on is when the emotion is supposed to be higher, it just drops off the page.” I start telling and not showing. It’s almost as though I’ve gone, ah! I can’t deal with the grief. I had to face that head on. I dealt with loss from a personal perspective because I didn’t ask my friends how they felt about it. I didn’t delve into their personal feelings of what it was like to feel loss. I have done that with the new novel that I’ve just finished. I have really looked at grief face on. I avoided it in Faye, Faraway and Space Hopper at first. No, it’s not my loss. My parents are both alive.

Zibby: Now I have to ask about your next novel now that I have the visual of how many words you’ve gotten done and all of that. Facing grief head on, so what is the plot of your next one, if you can share it?

Helen: I don’t know how much I can share, actually. This was a two-book deal. This is still under contract with Simon & Schuster. I will tell you the stage I’m at because it may end up being changed. The stage that I’m at is I’ve finished and I’ve sent it to beta readers. I only sent it a week ago to them. They’ve all come back. They’ve all finished it. I was really pleased. It’s been really positive feedback. It doesn’t really mean anything ultimately because, of course, agent and editors have to like it, but I’ve had really positive feedback. The central character is a young woman who loses her leg in an accident. She’s a very talented sculptor. She lives in Cambridge. She’s got good friends. She’s very cool. She’s gay. She’s a boi lesbian. She’s just a great character. She’s very funny and cool. She lost her parents when she was young. There was a lot of grief to deal with because there was not only the leg, but there was the way that grief — actually, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about this. One of the podcasts I watched when I was trying to see what you were like —

Zibby: — Uh, oh.

Helen: Is it Hope Edelman?

Zibby: Yes.

Helen: She wrote something.

Zibby: The AfterGrief.

Helen: The AfterGrief. She was talking about parents and how and you lose a parent, that grief never goes away, but it evolves. Then there are days when it’s really hard, and days where you’re sort of getting on with life and it doesn’t impede too much, and other times when it’s just terribly difficult. With my character in the new novel, she carries her grief, again, a bit like Faye in Faye, Faraway. She carries it, but she’s not walking around — you wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t know she’s grieving, but she carries her grief. Then when she has this loss, this physical trauma, grief from the past — it’s just too much. It’s a loss too far, really, to deal with without her parents being there. There are a cast of characters who are there for her. A bit like in Faye, Faraway, I like nice people in my novels, quirky and unusual, yes, some of them, but generally, good people. I don’t think that’s unrealistic because they’re the sort of people I have in my life. I’m not surrounded by nasty people. I am grateful for that. I’ve tried to do something similar, that cast of loving characters that we can hopefully get that heartwarming feeling off.

Zibby: What do you think it is that makes you drawn to writing about grief?

Helen: I’ve thought loads about grief in the last few months because I was asked to do a webinar in the summer called How to Write Grief in Fiction. I was like, “I don’t know how to do that.” She said, “But you wrote Space Hopper. There’s a grieving woman in it.” I thought, oh, yeah. Well, I don’t know how to write it. If it’s worked in Faye, Faraway, in Space Hopper, the grief, some of that was, either it came a little bit naturally or I got a little bit lucky. When I was asked to do this webinar, I did lots of research. They said to me, “You do a webinar on how to write grief in fiction.” I was googling, how do you write grief in fiction? I don’t know how to do it. It was really eye-opening. Of course, I did what you do at the beginning of something. You say, I’m not the expert, but don’t let that put you off listening. I found out some really interesting things that are helpful to me. I’ll tell you all those things that were so helpful to me and that have really helped with writing this.

When I wrote Space Hopper, like I said a minute ago, I don’t think I was drawn to the grief. I think I was repelled by it. I really found it hard to touch it because it was like touching an electric fence. I had to go near it in order to make things happen in the book, but I really didn’t want to touch it because it felt like it was going to hurt. I did have an emotional time in terms of writing about the grief in Space Hopper between mother and daughter just because of what I tapped into to try and make it work. I don’t know how many people do this. When you’re writing and you’re trying to feel it, I’d be at the keyboard going, . I’d be trying to feel it and trying to tap in, trying to remember what it was like to feel hurt or feel abandoned or feel betrayed and try and tap into that. I think you’ve got to be willing to feel the hurt yourself in order to get it down authentically. Otherwise, how are you going to do it? You can’t pretend. It’s a bit like pretending you like a Christmas present. You’ve got to really pretend you like it. Otherwise, they’re never going to believe you. With Space Hopper, I wasn’t drawn to grief. I just didn’t think about it. It was a side effect. I was interested in the other parts of the plot. I’m more interested in it now. I’ve been reading it to my son. I’ve felt much more removed from it, so I’ve been able to look at that part of it. I’m rambling now. What am I talking about?

Zibby: I love it.

Helen: Ask me another question. Move on.

Zibby: There’s another line I wanted to talk about. You said, “I realized I knew nothing about this woman even though I loved her with all my heart.” I underlined it as I read. So often with our parents, we feel like we know them, but we have a side of them. It’s perhaps carefully chosen, perhaps not, but it’s a side nonetheless. There’s so much we don’t know about our parents. Now as parents, there are things that my kids might not know about. I hope they’re not listening. Nothing specific. Nothing too revelatory in any way. There is this sense of, can you love someone wholly if you don’t know all of them? I don’t know. It just raised some question marks. I don’t know if you gave that line any thought or it was just a throwaway, but it made me pause.

Helen: I give every line a thought. I mean that. I really think about every line. It’s interesting, that one. I’ve sometimes been with my mom, and then one of her friends will turn up. I’m watching them going, who are you? I’m looking at my mom thinking, you’re never like that when you’re just with me. That more than the grief, I’m quite drawn to the fact that you present yourself in different ways to different people. I think parenting is the strongest version of that. We feel like we know our kids or they know us because we’re around them so much. I know that I have friends who I am a completely different person around compared to other friends. I guess with parents it’s the same. I don’t know if there’s a generational thing as well. My parents would’ve wanted me to think that they had always been good and never stepped out of line. My daughter asked me the other day if I’d ever skived off school. Skived, is that an English…?

Zibby: Like cut school?

Helen: Yeah, cut school. I did once or twice, but it was horrible. I said to her, “Yeah, I did. Then I found myself sitting on the other side of a hedge outside the field and feeling really weird and lonely. Then all my friends were in the classroom. They might be bored or annoyed, but they weren’t on their own. I felt really out of place. I just tried to get back into the school.” It was quite nice to be able to share it. I think we do that a bit more these days. We think it might be useful to tell our kids that we weren’t perfect because then they can let us know when they’ve done something wrong or whatever and not feel so intimidated. Then you don’t want to be a really bad influence. Yeah, my mom skived off. I’m going around smoking. There’s a line to be drawn, isn’t there? I think it’s better to talk more. I’d have loved to know my parents a little bit better when they were younger.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Helen: My son’s ten. My daughter’s twelve. How old are yours?

Zibby: I have thirteen-year-old twins, boy/girl. Then I have a seven-year-old and an almost six-year-old.

Helen: You’ve got four kids. Wow. Lovely.

Zibby: I do. They’re all doing homeschool as we speak. So far, we haven’t been interrupted, so it’s a miracle.

Helen: They’re not going into school at the moment?

Zibby: No. Hopefully, after the…

Helen: Over here, the kids are going to school, which is a bit different. It’s good that you’re able to homeschool so well. It really wasn’t working here.

Zibby: It’s remote. The teachers are on. Not to say I got the supplies and all the rest of it. I thought this book was amazing. I love your personality. I’m so excited for what’s going to happen when this book comes out. I just had to get that out. I want to know, aside from the flip chart which I am obsessed with, and I’m going to go start one as soon as we get off, and aside from the motivation and the regular writing, what advice do you have to aspiring authors who are trying to write a novel that gets picked up and that you start — I know you started writing later in life and this is a dream come true. Maybe tell me a bit about that and then go into your advice. Then I’ll leave you alone.

Helen: No, don’t leave me alone. I’m loving it. The first thing I wrote, I was about forty-four. A friend had said to me, “Why don’t you write something?” I’d had this idea. I gave her a chapter every week. This isn’t Space Hopper. This is something I tried before and I ended up abandoning. I wrote the whole thing. I was just very pleased to have finished it. Then I abandoned it because I’d had the idea for Space Hopper. I’ve got a couple of bits of advice. One of them kind of relates to this. Have you heard of the author EL Doctorow and his famous quote which is writing a novel is like driving home in the dark? You can only see as far as your headlights will allow, but that’s enough to get home if you just keep doing a bit at a time. When I write, I kind of know what I want to achieve in that bit of writing. I write that. Then in between then and writing the next time, I think about what needs to happen just for the next little bit. I do think, for me, it’s useful to have a plan of the whole novel first. Taking it a step at a time, that’s where that comes in too. If I can take it one step at a time and fill in one bit at a time and gradually see myself getting there, that really helps.

When I sent Space Hopper out to agents, I got a lot of rejections. I started sending out in October 2018. Between October and December 2018, I had about fourteen or seventeen — I can’t remember how many it was — rejections. Honestly, they ground me down. I had just got to December. I thought, I can’t take this anymore. If I can’t do it with Space Hopper, I can’t do this. I can’t do it better than that first time. I just can’t go on. Then quite a strange thing happened. In the October that I started sending out, my ex-husband’s fiancé who I get on well with — haven’t always got on well with, but we do get on well. She loves books. I didn’t realize at the time quite how much she loves books. She said to me, “Can I read your novel?” I was like, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” She said, “I’ll read it. I won’t tell anyone.” She read it. She said she loved it. She said, “I’ve deleted it.”

I got all those rejections. In December, I gave up. I cried myself to sleep every night for a very long time. I thought, well, I was happy before. I can be happy again. I kind of got over it. I didn’t write anymore. I just left it. Then in February 2019, this girl, Sarah, sent me message. She said, “I’ve just finished reading a book. It’s not the same as yours, but I got a similar sort of feeling, that seventies vibe and just that mother-daughter thing. It just reminded me of your book.” That’s it. She just wanted to tell me. I was like, that’s nice. Then the next day, I was in Waterstones, the bookstore, with my kids. I saw the book that she was talking about. I flipped to the back thinking, I wonder if the agent has been mentioned. She was. I thought, I’ll just send it to one more agent, her. I sent it to her. Then I googled her. She’s a super agent. I thought, I’ve got no chance here, but I sent it anyway. A few days later, I had a message from her assistant saying — it’s Judith Murray from Greene & Heaton — “She’s loving the first chapters. Can you please send the rest of the manuscript?” I was in the cinema at the time with my kids and my friends and their kids. I was like, yes! I didn’t even want to watch the film. I was like, I’ve got to go home and send this. Somehow, I managed to get through the film. Sent the manuscript.

It all happened very quickly. That was February. I met my agent on the first of March. My point is, and every aspiring author is told this, you’ve got to find the right agent. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how brilliant it is. If it’s not for them — they have to get passionate about it. I would say read stuff, if you can, that you think is something like yours. It’s just got that same feel. Find the agents that worked on them. Genre, for me, wasn’t enough. I’m sorry, I’m going off on a bit of a tangent. One of the problems for me with Space Hopper and Faye, Faraway was that because it had a time travel element but it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy, it’s not really about time travel at all — it’s about loss and grief and hope and a longing that a lot of people have, everybody has. If I sent that book to agents that were interested in science fiction and fantasy, they weren’t going to be interested. If I sent it to any other agent, they’re like, oh, it’s time travel. It’s not for me. That was really tough for me to get the right agent. Luckily with Judith, I guess she saw beyond the time travel element.

Zibby: What was the other book?

Helen: It was The Queen of Bloody Everything.

Zibby: Now I have to go read that.

Helen: That’s really strongly set in the seventies and a very strong mother-daughter relationship. No time travel.

Zibby: Very interesting. Last parting advice and then I’ll let you go for real.

Helen: Just read lots. This is another massive piece of advice. I found something that really triggered in me — I don’t know if you’re interested in this. I found it fascinating. Everybody says read a lot because, actually, you’re getting ideas. For me, sometimes I’m a bit boosted if I think, I think I could do better than that. Then sometimes I read something, and it’s so great. I over-awed. I’m like, I’ll never ever be able to write something this good. There’s something else as well. Space Hopper is written in the first person. This novel is written in the third person. I read loads when I was writing this or just before I was writing it and while I was thinking about it and then when I was actually doing it. If I’m writing in the third person, I can’t read in the first because when I come to write, I have to switch the way around that I’m thinking. If I can read really good stuff in the same person as I’m writing in, that really helps. I found that when I wrote Space Hopper, I sometimes thought, I mustn’t read because if I’ve got time to read, then I’ve got to time to write. I was really pushed then because I was working. My mom had had a stroke. The kids were at school. I’m a single mom. It was quite hard to get those slots of time. In me, reading seems to trigger a writing button in my brain. I would advise that. Sorry, I talk so long about stuff.

Zibby: I love it. This is what it is. It’s a podcast so I can listen to people talk about really cool stuff. In my mind, this is perfect. It’s a perfect podcast. Helen, thank you so much. By the way, it almost reminded me, in terms of feel — I don’t know if you’ve read Rebecca Serle’s In Five Years. Have you read that book?

Helen: No, but I’m going to write it down. I don’t need to because I can watch the podcast. What’s it about?

Zibby: It’s a similar alternate reality thing, but it’s really about love. You might want to check it out.

Helen: I do want to check it out.

Zibby: Thank you. You’re so delightful. I don’t know if we’ll ever end up in the same place, but it would be great to grab a drink or anything at some point.

Helen: I would love it. If we’re in the same place at the same time, that would be fantastic.

Zibby: In the meantime, congratulations on your book.

Helen: Actually, I’m right outside now. I’m going to knock on the door.

Zibby: Wouldn’t that be funny?

Helen: I’ve got a mask on and everything. Your room is massive, so we can sit quite a long way away.

Zibby: It looks big in this Zoom. It’s really not. I promise. My ottoman is three feet away from me. I don’t know what it is with Zoom. I know it looks much bigger. Anyway, have a great day. Thank you so much.

Helen: And you. Lovely to meet you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Helen: Bye.

Helen Fisher, FAYE, FARAWAY