Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of
Sharon Cohen’s debut novel The Starman and Me was edited by Sarah Lambert of Quercus Children’s Books. The judges described it as ‘a great story with real emotions’; ‘a book that children will really enjoy’; and praised its ‘good, clean prose’.
Can you tell us about the inspirations for The Starman and Me?
On a roundabout near my house, there’s a small stone hut with a doorway so dark you can’t see inside. I used to pass the roundabout every day and began to imagine that someone or something could be living there. Around the same time, on the other side of the globe, some archaeologists found the skeletons of a completely new human species in a cave on an island in Indonesia. These little hominins were only a metre tall - the perfect size for my stone hut and were the inspiration for the character, Rorty. I’m always on the lookout for cutting-edge developments in science and was blown away by the idea of brain implants. These too made their way into the book giving Rorty some unexpected powers.
As a debut author, what was the thing you found most hard to get right?
As this was the first complete novel I had written, without any intention initially of approaching an agent or publisher, the most challenging part was finding a way to bring all my ideas together into a captivating story. The plot went through many changes and hit numerous ‘brick walls’ where I had no idea what would happen next. I was about to give up altogether when one Saturday morning the three main characters popped out of my head and came to sit on the side of my bed, looking across at me, as if willing me to carry on. I immediately stuck some pieces of paper together, mapped out the plot and managed to finish draft one.
What did you enjoy most about the editorial process and what do you think was the most important suggestion or piece of advice that Sarah gave you?
The first thing that bowled me over was that an editor was as excited and passionate about my story as I was. The manuscript was fairly well advanced when it arrived with Sarah. She was immensely encouraging and made some brilliant suggestions which added extra polish and shine to the characters and improved the tension and story arcs. Amongst many gems of advice, Sarah encouraged me to ask the question - is what I know in my heart what the reader knows and feels? – something I now carry with me in all my writing.
What most excited you about Sharon’s manuscript when you first read it?
Sharon's manuscript was a breath of the most exciting fresh air. It was clear from the first page that she had the makings of a master storyteller - unique characters, an immediate voice, and a brilliant premise with huge child appeal. Who hasn't imagined what it would be like to meet a strange creature from another world - and how you would hide them from your mum?! Importantly, Sharon also knew the power she was wielding - the power to tell a story which matters, which illuminates the world for a child and which gives them the power to consider important questions without ever feeling preached to or patronised. Simply, it was a rare joy to read and I knew I had to publish it!
What were the aspects that you worked on most when editing it with her?
Sharon's distinctive narrative style in the form of Kofi's first person voice was immediately striking - direct, fast-paced and precise, with a sparkling dash of funny - and I knew it was perfect to engage a child reader. We worked a little on fleshing out this voice, giving us more of Kofi's character between the lines of the story without losing the pace that the adventure needed. We also worked on building the relationship between Kofi and Rorty - we both wanted to make sure that the reader really felt their deep connection and could root for both of them to the end.
Most crucially we worked hard on the structure and mechanics of the plot - giving the story a more distinct three-act arc so that Sharon could build exciting crescendos and cliffhangers in the right places. Sharon was a dream to edit and showed just how talented she is in the brilliant ideas and solutions she brought to the book.
What’s your favourite scene in the book and why?
The scene where Janie and Kofi fly across the beach thanks to Rorty's powers took my breath away. It was so joyful and free, as if Sharon had taken the essence of childhood and bottled it in that one glorious moment. Magic.
Thanks to Sharon and Sarah for answering our questions.