Q&A interview with Sophie Anderson (author) and Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker, editors of
A beautifully told, original take on the tale of Baba Yaga this timeless story of death and grief and the zest for life stars a sentient house with chicken legs.
The judges praised its gentle pace, the way the book holds readers’ attention so completely, and highlighted the beautiful details that pull the story together.
The House with Chicken Legsˇhas made you an overnight success. How long was the process actually, and how long did it take you to find a publisher?
My writing journey began over ten years ago. I’ve written countless picture book texts, several short chapter books, three MG novels and two YA novels that have all been rejected by many agents.
I wrote The House with Chicken Legs in early 2016 and it too was rejected by several agents before Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency was kind enough to offer me representation. Gemma guided me through several rounds of edits over four months before she declared the manuscript submission ready. Thanks to her amazing editing and agenting skills, there was interest from several publishers and by the end of 2016 we had accepted an offer from Usborne.
During the submission process I spoke on the phone to several editors from different publishing houses but it was Rebecca Hill who I felt an immediate affinity with. She understood exactly what I wanted The House with Chicken Legs to be and her gentle suggestions even at that early stage were so well communicated, wise and enlightening, I knew I wanted to work with her.
The editorial process with Rebecca and Becky took over a year, and I enjoyed every moment. It has been incredible to see The House with Chicken Legs evolve over that time into something I now feel is a truly collaborative work that I am immensely proud of.
What was the editing process like and what did you most enjoy about working with Rebecca and Becky on your book?
Edits began with face to face and telephone discussions. Rebecca and Becky’s enthusiasm and energy was infectious, and their confidence in what the book could become was hugely motivating. Their comments and suggestions were delivered in the most patient and thoughtful of ways, and were truly insightful.
With the gentlest touch, Rebecca and Becky made enormous differences to my work. They challenged me to think critically and conscientiously, and encouraged me to explore new and astonishing paths. They led me to a deeper understanding of my work and what it could grow into.
Following our verbal discussions, I was given an incredibly detailed letter and marked up manuscript that became an invaluable map through the forest of edits and guided me back to the path every time I lost my way. And both Rebecca and Becky were always there for me, via e-mail or telephone, if I ever needed further guidance as I worked through the edits.
Occasionally it seemed there was a mountain of work to be done, but Rebecca and Becky made me feel like I could not only climb the mountain, but reach the stars and sprinkle their dust over my work. That is what I enjoy most about working with Rebecca and Becky – the fact they both lift me and stretch me, boosting my confidence while encouraging me to work ever harder. They make me and my work strive to be the best we can be.
What would you say was the best piece of advice they gave you?
Rebecca and Becky encouraged me to really think about Marinka’s motivations and feed them back into the story arc, so they ‘become the glue that knits together the episodes to make for a wholly cohesive story.’
At different points in The House with Chicken Legs Marinka wants different things; friends, freedom, her grandmother to come home. I remember the exact moment I realized all these things were linked by Marinka’s desire to control her own life – I was on the phone to Rebecca, and her guiding me to this realization was such a ‘Eureka!’ moment I squealed with excitement. It was after this epiphany that I was really able to unify all the strands and pull the story together in an immensely satisfying way.
Your second book is soon to be published. Did you find it easier to write? Do you think you approached it differently?
I learned so much working with Rebecca and Becky on The House with Chicken Legs I definitely carried some of that new knowledge into how I approached The Girl who Speaks Bear. I tried to have clear character motivations established at the outset, and keep the story arc to the fore. I thought more deeply about what shape I wanted the story to take, and what I wanted it to say. Sometimes this made it easier to write, but at other times I’ll admit I got lost in the woods! Thankfully Rebecca and Becky were with me again and their guidance on The Girl who Speaks Bear has been absolutely invaluable. Just like with The House with Chicken Legs, Rebecca and Becky seemed to understand my story better than me, and without them I think The Girl who Speaks Bear would still be wandering aimlessly amongst the trees!
What advice would you give a debut author?
To really listen and appreciate the opportunity to work with professionals in the industry. I learned more about the craft of writing in my debut year, working with Gemma, Rebecca and Becky, than I did in the whole ten years of writing previously. There are such passionate, talented and kind professionals working in children’s publishing, it has been a real pleasure and a privilege to work with them on improving my skills. I love writing, and for over a decade have been striving to write the best I can, but it wasn’t until my debut year, when I had this opportunity to work with such experienced, accomplished people, that I think I really started to learn.
What most excited you about The House with Chicken Legs and Sophie’s writing when you first read her book?
Sophie’s story is a love song to life and thrums with a magical quality that feels wholly unique and exciting. Embracing the reader, we were all spellbound by Sophie’s sweeping storyline, magnificent world building and breath-taking writing. However, if we had to name one thing that excited us the most, it was Marinka: a courageous yet sometimes imperfect heroine that we grew to love more and more with each turn of the page.
What were the aspects that you worked on most when editing it?
Sophie’s book is filled with emotional truth that evokes strong reactions. However, one area of the story where we needed more emotional resonance was at the ending; with so much resting on what Marinka’s destiny might become, Sophie needed to spend a little more time here. With a tweak on emphasis, Sophie created an ending that fitted her luminous story and one that leaves readers hopeful and content, keeping Marinka with a hold in the Yaga world and the real world.
What’s your favourite scene in the book and why?
There are too many scenes to have just one favourite, but it’s mesmerising when we first encounter the thunder of Yaga houses at the bonding ceremony. The Old Yagas' whoops of delight, the susurrus in the air; as a reader you are desperate for Marinka to find her resolution and utterly broken when she gets rejected by the gate. One of the true joys of storytelling is being transported and here you are with Marinka for every heartbeat.
Thanks to Sophie, Rebecca and Becky for answering our questions.