Today I'd like to welcome Alice Gent! Tell us a little about yourself.Hello! I live in Bristol, England, where I work as a small animal veterinary surgeon. Though I have previously treated tigers, penguins and snakes, I have to say that dogs are my favourite animal to work with! I have always been dog obsessed and own a cuddly, adventurous Labrador called Summer, who comes to work with me every day. She can always bring me back to my cheerful self, no matter how long and stressful the day is. I also live with my husband, Sam, who has to put up with the various sick animals I bring home (mainly pigeons…) as well as reading every story I write multiple times. We are currently expecting our first child in December and we have told him firmly he’s not allowed to arrive too close to Christmas!
I have written stories for as long as I can remember. The first full length novel I wrote at 11 was about a magician’s apprentice who was bad at magic. Then throughout my teenage years I wrote epic fantasy after epic fantasy and my poor parents had to read through everyone, even when they went over 200,000 words! As a child I was badly dyslexic and struggled with sentence structure and spelling to the extent that many of my early stories were illegible until I typed them up. It took me much longer then all the other children in my class to both write and type, but I just loved to tell stories and ignored the criticisms and when people told me I was ‘stupid’ I decided to not believe them. Slowly I developed techniques to get around my dyslexia and now it never holds me back.
I still spend a lot of my free time writing and am so excited about my second book coming out at the end of October! It’s called ‘The Fox and the Train’ and is a fairytale like adventure for confident eleven year olds upwards. Don’t be put off adults, it’s for you as well!
I love middle grade fiction. I think it's the perfect genre. I can read it to my kids and still enjoy it myself. Will you share a short excerpt from your novel with us?
Anna stands, and it feels as if she is made of snow. She can’t distinguish between her body parts. She feels so light she might drift away in a spiralling dance. Yet her limbs creak and crackle like when you put weight on a fresh snowfall. They hold her up unsteadily. She looks like snow as well, white and unblemished. Just her hair shines with autumnal fire.
She drifts out into the wood. For some reason she’s not scared. She feels like she is meant to be there. She stretches out her arms and laughs, swirling in the moonlight, a dancer of snow and flame.
Suddenly she stops, realising she has an observer. It’s there, bright eyes, auburn fur, a smile, then it’s gone. Anna releases her breath, aware that this moment is special, important. She runs after it, not caring that her feet are just in socks, for she feels as if she is barely touching the ground. It disappears into the undergrowth and to Anna’s amazement, the brambles seem to part for her as she flies after it, giving her a trail. She runs like a deer across the frozen mud, her heart pounding with the chase.
Suddenly it’s there in front of her. Or rather he is. She stops sharply and falls to her knees. The Spirit King stares at her and her perception shatters. She gasps and all she can see is his eyes. They are green like the first spring buds bursting with life. There is so much energy there she can’t comprehend them. Her mind is frozen. His eyes are lowlighted with blackest soot and are surrounded by flames. His fur is alive with fire, shimmering and glowing. He is terrifying yet wonderful. All of Anna’s life falls away as ash. Nothing she has ever seen or felt compares to this. This majesty and wisdom. This balance of life and death.
“Why are you here?” he says. His words are both warm and cold. Commanding and gentle. Terrifying and yet alive with hope.
From somewhere within, Anna finds her courage and her voice. “I must rescue my brother, Michael. He’s in trouble in the mines.”
The Spirit King regards her as if listening to a hundred parts of her crying out. Anna bows her head, feeling like she is lacking under his scrutiny. It’s as if the fox’s fur is dimming in response as he sieves through her. She is not enough. She never is enough to stop everything happening around her. She is so weak, she just makes situations worse. But, no, this time she has to be good enough! She refuses to be weak, to be insufficient. She is all she is and that has to be enough to save her brother.
Alice, what brought about the idea for this book?
‘The Fox and the Train’ is meant to feel like a fairytale with a loose setting and time, so the reader can transfer it to many places, but it aims to give the feel of northern Europe in the early 1900s. It’s about a thirteen year old girl called Anna who has an overactive imagination. She lives with her grandma and together they care for her mother who has advanced dementia. Anna is very lonely and when her older brother is trapped in a mining accident, she is determined to save him, even though the adults say it is impossible.
Anna’s best friend is Benny, who is autistic and bullied by the rest of their village. He likes to break everything he experiences down to simple logic so struggles with Anna’s imagination. Together they have to learn to overcome their differences and gain enough courage to make it through the huge forest to the site of the mine to rescue Anna’s brother.
A magical fox appears to help them on their way… or does he?
I have always been intrigued by how people can see the world in completely different ways, yet learn to get along, especially cold logic vs imagination or spiritualism. I really wanted to explore this in Anna and Benny. I have also always loved stories were you’re never quite sure what is real and what is not. I look forward to hearing your own explanation for whether the Spirit King really exist.
I also wanted to explore what bravery looks like. We so often undervalue acts of extraordinary bravery due to their unflashy nature, such as Anna caring for a mother with dementia, or due to the people who perform them, such as autistic Benny being forever overlooked, yet easily the bravest person in the whole book. Hence one of the catchphrases of the story being ‘Perhaps bravery looks different from what you think.’
I was also inspired by some of the beautiful prose of two middle grade books, the classic ‘Earthsea’ series, and the recent ‘Girl of Ink and Stars’ (sometimes called ‘The Cartographer's Daughter’ in US editions). So many books for younger teenagers have such simple language and I wanted to attempt to echo the beauty of the magical language that made me love reading in the first place. Language so beautiful that it sends shivers up your spine. Maybe one day I’ll get there.
Sounds like an intriguing story line. Where do you see yourself in five years?
I would love to have published at least four more books by then. Hopefully I can control myself and stick to two genres! (Though I am very tempted to write some veterinary inspired ones!) I look forward to seeing how my writing changes with a little baby around!
Over your writing career have you been given any helpful advice? If so, what?
Never stop writing. No matter how successful you are or how many people read what you have written, if you love it, don’t let anyone put you off. It’s amazing how much my writing style has changed over the years of practice and how much it has helped me order my thoughts for logical arguments and beat my dyslexia. I would never give it up.
That's great advice and I think it can be applied to any dream, even if it's not writing. Currently, what are you working on?
I have recently finished a young adult fantasy called ‘The Flawed Princess’ which is a magical slow burn romance. I am very excited about seeing where it goes. It is currently being assessed by publishers. I am hoping to follow it with a similar book this coming year.
Most of my time is being spent on my next Christian fiction. It is called ‘Leaving’ and is a sequel to ‘Sarah’s Footsteps’ but can be read separately. It is written for Christians graduating from University looking at how to deal or support others with doubt, depression, loneliness, and the shock of being an independent adult! I’m finding this book very hard to write, partly because it is so emotional, partly because the plot won’t behave, but hope to finish it in 2019.
What has been the best compliment you have received?
I was blown over by most of my reviews for ‘Sarah’s Footsteps’. One of them said it was their favorite book of the year. I already have some lovely feedback filtering in for ‘Fox and the Train’ from ARC copies.
Naomi Gibson (shortlisted author for the 2017 Yeovil Literary Prize) said on 'The Fox and the Train,' "I found the novel to be a beautiful cross between THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey (a fairy tale retelling) and THE GIRL OF INK AND STARS by Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, where a young girl goes on an adventure but with a volcano as opposed to a forest. I thought the mix was wonderful."
I loved that compliment since ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ had been the style and feel I had been aiming for. The Snow Child was also such a beautiful book. It was an honour to be compared to them both.
It's nice when your vision translates into your work. Do you have people read your drafts before you publish? How do you select beta readers?
A professional copy editor reads my novels and she is invaluable. However the first person who always gets to read my books is my mum, because I’m always too embarrassed to let anybody else see the initial mistakes! The amount of times a minor character has changed names halfway through and I’ve not noticed! Nobody spots plot holes and typos better than my mum, who is a linguist and ex-lawyer. I then give the novel to a team of five or so beta readers who are also good friends. I have two seperate teams, one Christians to read my Christian fiction, and one fantasy obsessed to read my young adult fantasy and speculative fiction. I really couldn’t do this without their blunt and honest criticism and encouragement. I’m always up for having more beta readers, however, if anyone else wants to join a team!
I agree a great team is invaluable. I am always shocked at how many authors don't use them. I couldn't survive without mine. Who designed the artwork for your cover? Or did you design it yourself?
The cover was designed by my friend and fellow author, Annie Welton. She is a professional photographer and artist and also took my wedding photos. I think she did a wonderful job capturing the beauty and magic of the story.
You can see her facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/AnnieTheIllustrator/
How do you handle criticism when it comes to your writing?
If I feel like they have a point, I try to learn from it. If not, I’m happy to accept that everyone is allowed different tastes and preferences. Luckily I’ve not had any reviews that were just mean or rude! I’m slowly learning to grow a thick skin, even though my writing is deeply personal to me.
Is there something you learned from writing your first book?
Sooo many things. Silly little things such as not using as many ‘!’ as I would in texts, emails, and conversational writing. (As soon as my publisher pointed them out I couldn’t believe how many I naturally put in!) (Yes I do feel one was justified at the end of that sentence.)
‘Sarah’s Footsteps’ was closely modeled on my own experiences at Bristol University and that of my friends. I’ve found it so interesting talking to my readers who are students there and how differently some of them have viewed their experiences to me. Half my readers have said it’s mirrored their experiences and world view scarily accurately, while others have said they were amazed people could see Uni that way. I’m always amazed to learn more and more how complex people are.
Alice, any last words?
Thank you so much to S.T Sanchez for hosting me.
I am always happy to be contacted by readers on goodreads or through my facebook page, so do drop me a line if you have any other questions.