It is a writer’s dream come true – after years of diligently working away, your debut novel lands a £50,000 publishing deal. No wonder, then, that when we speak author Tracy Rees is in a buoyant mood.
Swansea-based Rees, a member of the York Writers group, was announced last October as the winner of Richard and Judy’s inaugural Search for a Bestseller competition and her book Amy Snow, selected by a team of experts from thousands of entries, was published earlier this month by Quercus.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me,” says Rees, 42. “It was tremendous. I felt complete joy and a huge amount of relief. I have sent things off before and been rejected but this is what I have always wanted to do.”
Set in the 19th century, Amy Snow tells the story of orphan Amy, abandoned in the snow as a baby and taken in by kindly young heiress Aurelia Vennaway whose family barely acknowledge the new addition to their household.
Treated like a servant, Amy’s only ally is Aurelia and when she dies tragically early, Amy is dismissed from Hatville Court and left to find her way alone in the world. But Aurelia was able to bequeath Amy one final gift – a modest amount of money and a bundle of letters that contain a number of clues leading Amy to a life-changing discovery.
A Cambridge graduate, Rees had a successful career in non-fiction publishing before retraining as a counsellor and was working in York when she heard about the competition which was launched in August 2013. She had written the first few pages of Amy Snow a few years earlier during a break between jobs and the novel’s opening had been partly inspired by her move to a new house in a period of heavy snow. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop the idea further.
“You had to write 10,000 words for the entry and I got out the initial pages again and started work. I sent it off never thinking I would even get shortlisted, but I was and then I had five months to write the whole book. So I thought ‘I am taking the summer off to do this’. It was pretty hairy financially but it was worth it.”
The novel is a hugely engaging read, with a strong sense of the period and a wholly sympathetic central character in Amy. “I think she is easy to relate to,” says Rees. “She has had a really tough upbringing – she is lacking in confidence at the beginning of the book and afraid of getting things wrong. We all have those sorts of insecurities. At the time that I was writing the book I was working as a counsellor and I was aware of how many worries we carry around with us all the time.”
Although Aurelia dies very early on in the novel, her – pleasingly protofeminist – voice is also very much a presence throughout. “I absolutely love the Victorian era and I wanted to write something set at that time, but I was conscious not to romanticize it completely,” says Rees. “It must have been phenomenally stifling to be a woman during that period and Aurelia was a way to rage against that.”
Having written since she was a child, Rees is now in a position to become a full-time writer and is already well into her next novel, also set in the 19th century.
“It’s about a young country girl who starts off in Cornwall and then her life changes completely,” she says. “The way I write is that I begin with a little gem of an idea and I don’t know where it is going to go. I know lots of writers work in different ways, but I am not one of those people who plan and have timelines – it’s a question of finding what works best for you. If I tried to think about where the narrative is going I would get too inhibited. I tend to just write and write and write and see what comes out.”
It’s an approach that seems to have worked pretty well for her so far.
• Amy Snow, published by Quercus, £7.99.