Opening the golden envelope – Anouska Knight
By Jade Craddock
Two years ago Anouska Knight was running her own cake business. Now, after winning a competition, she’s written two bestselling novels and is already working on the third. Here she tells us more about the competition that launched her career. ♥
1. Can you tell us a bit about how you got into writing and the Racy Reads competition that started your journey?
Like a lot of people I started writing diary entries as a teen, trying to work out all the usual coming-of-age stuff that flummoxes most of us, but I didn’t even think about having a crack at anything remotely like a novel until 2012. I’d been batting around a few ideas for a fantasy novel for months, then when I closed my cake business Nouskie Noo’s later that year I desperately needed something that would provide me not only with a creative outlet, but a means of escapism from the hassles going on at the time.
I guess it’s funny how things work out. I’d have never seen the Racy Reads comp on ITV’s Lorraine if I hadn’t closed my little cake shop. Lorraine announced that there were only a few days left before the closing date so I sat down that afternoon and wrote my 1k word submission, then emailed it off and basically forgot about it.
Within a couple of weeks I had a call inviting me down to London to be interviewed about my ‘novel’ by a panel of judges including Jackie Collins and Victoria Fox. I didn’t even have a romantic/racy novel at that point! Somehow though, with a bit of power-thinking and a burst of excitement, a plot came together in my head before the judges grilled us six finalists. The following week, I’d made it into the final three (!) so ITV came and hung out with us for a day, filming our home-life a million miles away from the buzz of national television and publishing deals. Finally, on Valentine’s Day 2013, live on TV, I stood with the other two finalists and sweated it out while Lorraine Kelly opened her golden envelope.
2. What made you decide to enter the competition and what did you expect?
I entered the competition because I had absolutely nothing to lose. And I suppose, it was an excuse to spend a few hours writing instead of attacking another long-winded job application. Plus, there was a rather swanky trip to LA in the offing, lunch in Beverly Hills with Ms Collins herself and a bleedin’ publishing contract ready and waiting for one seriously lucky bugger. So I had a bash! But I had absolutely no expectations of anything ever coming of it, why would I? A random bird from the Midlands with a typically chaotic young family and zero proper writing experience? I mean, bagging an opportunity like this… what were the odds of that even happening?
And that’s the mindset I kinda stuck with throughout. The months running up to the comp had been a bit of a downer. The shop had cost me too much to run and I’d found myself looking for rubbishy part-time jobs and getting nowhere. So, just making the final six out of some two thousand or so entries was a serious boost for me.
Even after the initial filmed interviews down at the ITV studios, I was already over the moon with the experience and happy enough to go home with a new spring in my step. I’d met a panel of amazing authors and had enough of a confidence boost to go back to my life and really give writing a good go. I never expected to actually win! I still find it all utterly amazing eighteen months on.
3. How did you find out that you’d won and what was your initial reaction?
I found out I’d won when Lorraine went and pulled my flipping name out of the golden envelope! Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. I think that much is pretty obvious from the footage. Shock’s not a good look.
4. What happened next?
Everything happened next! There was a gaggle of faces from the publishers there behind the scenes in the studios and every one of them was just super-enthusiastic and lovely. I met my brilliant editor Donna (The Don) Hillyer and she took me for a super-posh lunch the following week to toast my publishing deal and check they hadn’t picked a lunatic, probably. By the end of February I was starting to send The Don sections of chapters as I wrote them, by the end of March I’d nipped over to LA for a natter with Jackie and a fleeting glance at how the other half live, and by the end of April, I’d finished my first ever novel Since You’ve Been Gone.
5. What were the highs and lows of winning the competition?
It’s been highs all the way. There’s a new sense of possibility in our home now and I can see the difference that’s made to my husband and little boys too, and for as long as that lasts I’ll be massively grateful for it. Another pretty epic moment was being offered two additional book deals by my publishers, giving me the chance to wonder whether this might actually be the long game for us now. Suddenly that notion doesn’t seem quite so bonkers.
Of course, the late nights are chronic at times, and deadlines can get a bit stressy. My six-year-old son was hospitalised twice with a blood disorder during the writing of Since You’ve Been Gone, and that was really stressful for a little while. But the fact is I love what I do now and even if I didn’t, I’d just remind myself how my mum used to clean toilets in nursing homes before me and my sisters were old enough for her to go to university and become the professional mega-boffin she is today. I know how lucky I am to have this chance of doing something I really love around my family and make a living from it.
6. What advice did you get from Jackie Collins and Victoria Fox?
Jackie basically told me to do things the way I want to do them. Write what I want to write and take no shizzle. I pointed out that that I don’t really hold quite as much sway as the Black Panthress herself. Luckily though, my publishers have turned out to be a pretty darned lovely bunch. Phew.
And Foxy? Well she’s always giving me advice, mostly on the business side of things which I know absolutely zilch about. I was a bit nervy about looking into getting myself an agent until Foxy walked me through the ins and outs of professional representation. Actually we had lunch yesterday and she was as cool as usual while I fired yet more stupid queries at her. I’m surprised she hasn’t blocked my email yet.
7. The competition pretty much launched your career overnight, how easy was it to adjust and make the transition?
Very easy, actually. I had a very supportive team at the publishers, gently guiding me forward, and invaluable support at home, in particular from Jim, the hubster, who stepped in and took care of everything that needed to be done at home so I could bash out thousands of words typing with just a few of my fingers. On top of that I was desperate for it to all work out, so the stars were kind of aligned.
8. Did you feel a certain pressure on your novel to live up to expectations?
Definitely. This was the trickiest thing for me to deal with mentally. I’d never done this before, I hadn’t studied English since A-level and I think I flunked that because I was too busy playing kiss-chase with Jim. I wrote my first novel within a matter of weeks with the needs of two young children and a trip across the Atlantic to fit in.
And then there was all the media coverage to consider, the friends and family who had cheered me on and what they’d think. At times, these were pretty scary thoughts but my editor was great at talking me down. At the end of the day, you can’t be held back in life because you’re worried about failing. You’re never going to please everybody anyway so I think it’s best to just give things your best shot, be grateful for the wins and try and take something useful from the losses.
9. Do you think you would have pursued your writing if you hadn’t entered the competition?
I hope so. I was getting close to putting something of my fantasy novel online at the time, just to test the water with other would-be authors out there. But there’s no understating just how much this competition has opened things up for me.
10. When did it begin to sink in that you were an author?
When I saw Since You’ve Been Gone finished and in print. It’s quite something to walk into a shop and see your name on the shelf.
11. You’ve recently published your second novel – how has the process been this time around?
Harder than the first! I don’t know what it was this time around, maybe having longer to think things over gave me too much room to amble off course in the early stages of plotting. It took a while for me to identify what it was I wanted to explore within my second book, but I knew it when I saw it and A Part of Me came fairly quickly after that. There was also more research involved in A Part of Me than in Since You’ve Been Gone, so I had to be much more organised, which doesn’t come naturally to me, unfortunately.
12. Was it more relaxing/stressful, easy/difficult writing without the spectre of the competition?
Actually, I think the adrenalin off the back of the competition and the time constraints with Since You’ve Been Gone fired me along. I think I work better under pressure, if I’m too chilled out I find it hard to get motivated. Don’t tell my editor that though or she’ll be cracking the whip.
13. What one thing have you learnt about publishing/writing that you wish you’d known before you entered the competition?
I wrote Since You’ve Been Gone just over a year ago now, and only have fond memories of the process, which I know is ridiculous! It was bloody hard work! I think writing a book is a bit like giving birth, as soon as the hard bit’s over you count your lucky stars and forget how painful it was… right up until the next one starts making its way into the world. I only wish I’d have known how supportive and insightful a good publishing house can be, and then I might’ve gotten off my ass, started writing sooner and tried banging on a few of their doors. I also wish I’d have played on my typewriter a bit more when I was a kid, so I could type with more than seven fingers now.
14. Are there plans for any future novels?
There are always plans! I am very excited about my third book Letting You Go which is due for release in 2015, but I’m only half way through writing it so I can’t really say much more than that!
15. What advice would you give to any aspiring authors out there deliberating whether to enter writing contests?
Do it. Do it. DO IT!!! What have you got to lose? At best, it’s a chance of something special, at worst, an excuse to write. It’s a no-brainer really. And trust me… wonderful things might come of it!
Working as an interior designer before having her two sons, Anouska Knight then started her own special occasion cake business. When she had to close it in 2012, she decided to focus on writing a novel – and by chance saw Lorraine Kelly announce the ITV’s Racy Reads competition. She lives in Staffordshire, near where she grew up, with husband Jim, her childhood sweetheart, and their two boys. She can still be persuaded to whip up the odd cake when the mood takes her.