Helen Limon is a creative writing PhD student at Newcastle University. She won the 2011 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award for her novel, Om Shanti, Babe. Helen tells NCLA about the strange connection between her holidays and her literary successes, publication plans for Om Shanti, Babe, and the importance of lemon drizzle cake.
I started writing creatively about ten years ago. I began with a small community writing project that grew and grew. Then I worked with a number of excellent local illustrators and artists on a couple of picture books. I knew I wanted to tackle a novel, but it wasn't until I started the PhD that I really got to grips with it. When I look back on my earlier work I see lots of energy, which I like, and some rather humbling horrors of style and grammar.
The best part of the PhD has been the enormous benefit of working with a completely brilliant writer and editor, Margaret Wilkinson. Her patience, insight, and discipline were inspirational and Om Shanti, Babe would be a much poorer book without her input. We are very lucky in the North East in as much as writing for children is a recognised part of the arts scene. There are lots of opportunities to learn and practice and no end of groups and venues where writing and children's literature is part of the cultural conversation.
Om Shanti, Babe was inspired by a holiday. I lost my travel notebook halfway through the trip and went into a shop which sold school supplies. Writing my name on the front of the book, with a super-sharp new pencil, just like I did so often as the new kid at school, seemed to bounce me into the right frame of mind to make up a story located in the places we visited. Jet lag helped a lot when I got back and I just carried on until the first of many (many) drafts was finished.
We were on holiday (again) and worried about delays caused by the 2nd Icelandic volcano. Just before we were due to leave for the airport, I got onto the internet and saw an email from the Diverse Voices Coordinator asking me to get in touch. I replied with my mobile number expecting to hear something when we got back, but it rang almost immediately. The connection was terrible and full of static, but the 'you've won' jumped out clearly.
The impact was huge. Suddenly I started getting feedback about the book and a range of reader's views on the story and the characters. I was really pleased that the judges felt I had portrayed characters from the Indian middle-class with respect and authenticity. This has given me confidence in my capacity to observe and reflect on what I see. The prize was followed up by an offer to publish from Frances Lincoln Children's Books and getting a deal for your first novel is pretty much a dream come true for any writer.
Being back at Seven Stories for the award ceremony was strange and wonderful. Despite being quite a frequent visitor, I'd always felt unable to sit in the special story-telling chair, so to do a reading from my own book, validated as a 'real writer' was a blast. Also they made me the most fantastic lemon drizzle cake for after the ceremony and that was almost the very best thing of all!
To write a book you have to write; a lot of the time you spend talking about writing is time you could/should have been writing. All you really need is a pen, paper and flat surface and a little time every day. That's it. Frances Lincoln have asked for very few changes to the manuscript so I'm lucky enough to be able to start new work. Right now, I'm working on a sequel to Om Shanti, Babe and thinking about reworking an early draft of a book set in Northumberland. Oh, and finishing the revisions to my PhD submission.
Publication is pencilled in for autumn 2012, but it may be held over until the announcement of the 2012 Diverse Voice award which would be Spring 2013. I think the decision will be made in the next couple of months, but the cover is being designed now and I've started on the synopsis for a sequel. I'm very excited about it arriving in book shops and I'm working with an all-girl group of street dancers, SANA Crew, to put together a short film reel to help with marketing.
To be kept up-to-date with the publication schedule for Om Shanti, Babe or for further details about the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award, visit the publisher’s website at www.franceslincoln.co.uk
Interview by Viccy Adams