Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of
Mitch Johnson’s debut children’s book Kick was edited by Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker of Usborne. The judges found the story ‘well-researched and beautifully described’; describing it as ‘fresh and different’ and ‘a very brave first novel’.
Can you tell us about the inspiration for Kick?
Kick was inspired by a piece of rubbish that I found in a shoebox in 2013. I was working as a sales assistant in a sport shop when I found a discarded energy gel sachet – covered in Asiatic branding – between a pair of brand-new football boots. The discovery prompted me to question how things are made and what the lives of people behind the logos are like, and the more I learned about the shadowy world of garment production, the more I knew there was a story that needed to be told.
As a debut author, what was the thing you found most hard to get right?
I think one of the hardest things about writing is knowing what to keep and what to cut. During the early drafts, before I had editors to consult, I often struggled to identify the bits worth keeping. It’s amazing how good some bad writing can look (and vice versa) if only you stare at the words for long enough. My job was made even more difficult by the fact that Kick was originally a short story, so I had characters and scenes that just weren’t big enough to hold their own in a novel, but they lingered and clung on all the same, until I picked up the nerve to cut them loose or reinvent them completely.
·What did you enjoy most about the editorial process and what do you think was the most important suggestion or piece of advice that Rebecca and Becky gave you?
I really enjoyed the feeling of momentum that the editorial process generated. As a debut author trying to get signed, it can sometimes feel as though the publishing industry is working against you (it isn’t), and so to suddenly have a team of people dedicated to propelling your work forwards is wonderful. Rebecca and Becky made lots of suggestions that improved Kick immensely, but in my opinion their most important contribution was to re-introduce hope at the end of the narrative. I think I’d spent so long researching a desperate subject, and encountered so many rejections along the way, that I’d allowed a personal sense of hopelessness to creep into Budi’s story. Without my editors’ energy, optimism, and sound judgement, I think Kick would have been a very different - and far inferior - novel.
What most excited you about Mitch’s manuscript when you first read it?
In a nutshell: everything! But above all it was the characters who leapt out, taking us by the hand from the word go, with their big dreams and fast-moving plot line. Kick has bold ambition at its core, but manages to sophisticatedly tread that very fine line between being both incredibly moving and funny, with universal child-friendly appeal; we knew instantly that Mitch had an exceptional writing talent.
What were the aspects that you worked on most when editing it with him?
Mitch is a natural storyteller, and his first draft blew us away. One of the key areas we worked on was ensuring·the content was appropriate for middle-grade readers – that meant reworking some scenes of a darker nature, and, most importantly, asking Mitch to re-examine his ending, which betrayed, to our minds, some of the key messages contained earlier within the book. Mitch’s skill and understanding of his characters came to the fore here – he amended his last scene with only the barest of tweaks, but it worked so powerfully that we were both left spellbound by his true skill with words, while never sugar-coating the storyline.
What’s your favourite scene in the book and why?
There are two scenes that stuck out for us both, but in the final draft, it was the ending that clinched it. Without giving anything away, Mitch's closing scene is at once hopeful, uplifting and a true testament to the power of friendship, while balancing this with the impossibility of making good everything that has happened to Budi in the story. It is an ending that echoes for a long time after you've finished the book, and one that shows so completely the power and brilliance of Mitch's writing. His is a talent that we know will continue to grow and grow – and we’re thrilled to be part of Mitch's journey.
Thanks to Mitch and Rebecca and Becky for answering our questions.
Rebecca Hill - Photo by Dan Gulliver