Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Celebrating Writers - Happy Birthday Julia Williams

When I recent celebrated some of my favourite flash fiction writers on this blog it occurred to me that I have never officially celebrated my favourite commercial fiction writer and lovely twin, Julia Williams. So it being our mutual birthday, it seems only fair enough to devote today's blog to her.

Julia and I were born to write. From an early age, we loved nothing more than creating and acting out stories with our siblings and our best friends, the Laws. When no siblings or friends were about, we always had each other to bounce off, and once we learnt to read and write, there was no stopping us. I have a vague memory of at least one summer holiday spent making little books, though I have no recollection what we wrote since they have long since been chucked away. But I can remember that we were inspired by the books we loved: fantasy, magic, boarding schools, orphanages,action adventures all fuelled our imaginings. We wanted to be CS Lewis, Enid Blyton, Joan Aiken, Malcolm Saville all rolled into one.  By the time we were dreamy sixth formers, studying English Literature with the incomparable Sue Brown and Keith Ward, and encouraged by our lovely English teacher Dad, we were determined to be the next Brontes.

Then, somewhere along the line, the dream faltered. While I found myself immersed in a career in social care, Julia joined the world of publishing, first in production, and then in her perfect job as commissioning editor for Scholastic Children's Books. She was a fine editor, who was eventually responsible for managing the prestigious Point lists (Horror, Romance, Fantasy, Crime) and commissioning the brilliant Sterkhalm Handshake by Susan Price, which won the 1999 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. It was an exciting time, but there wasn't much space for writing fiction. It wasn't till Julia took a career break with the birth of her second child, that her writing self was at last able to emerge.

And it wasn't easy. Having young children allows you a lot of head-space to think about writing, but not much time to actually do it. But over the next few years, as her family grew to four, and she also cared for her in-laws, Julia kept going. She wrote two great children's books (one about a fairy community living on ley lines, the other a fantasy based around Chislehurst Caves) found herself an agent,  but couldn't get a whiff of interest. Somewhat to my surprise, as I'm not that into romantic fiction, she joined the Romantic Novelist's Association, took a number of courses, and absorbed all she could from their mentoring programmes. She wrote another book (I can't recall its title, but remember a memorable passage where her hero and heroine had to rush their child to hospital with an asthma attack), but couldn't sell it. She wrote a second, based on mothers coping with the school run, only to miss out when another author got a book deal with a similar idea. At last, after nine years of hard work and determination never to give up, she finally got the two book  deal she deserved, with the (then new) Avon imprint at Harper Collins. "Pastures New", the story of a grieving widow learning to find love again, was an instant hit when it was published in 2007, and she has never looked back. "Strictly Love" followed in 2008, a hilarious account of couples meeting on the dance floor as they deal with the fall out from a Z list celebrity law suit. A year later she began her Hope Christmas trilogy (a town based on our Mother's home Church Stretton), as she detailed perfectly the reality of keeping romance in a long term relationship, with the fine and funny Last Christmas. This was followed by my personal favourite, "The Bridesmaid's Pact" which puts the romance in the background as she explores the lives of four childhood friends growing in understanding through various fallings out and reconcilations over the years. In "Summer Season" a neglected garden becomes the vehicle for a developing romance. "A Merry Little Christmas" returns to Hope Christmas for another slice of real life marriages, dealing with teenage pregnancy, accidents, and raising a disabled child, with aplomb. Whilst alast year's "Midsummer Magic" updates "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with verve and panache.

I have to confess that before Julia wrote her books, romantic fiction was the last thing you would get me reading. And it is still true that I am often more drawn to her non-romantic relationships (such as between Amy and  her elderly neighbour, Harry in "Pastures New", the friends in "The Bridesmaid's Pact",  all the parent/child relationships in the Hope Christmas series). But Julia is  a fine writer, with great heart and a wonderful sense of what makes people tick, so though romance may fuel her books, I am always absorbed into her novels which are  great page turners, and emotionally satisfying. She is also adept at making readers think about wider issues as she lets her stories unfold. "Strictly Love" is very funny about compensation culture and the trivia of celebrity. "Last Christmas" is just perfect on the struggles of modern family life. And her forthcoming "Coming Home for Christmas" covers saving the environment and challenging social care cuts (much to my delight, there's even a bit of direct action).   And she's done it all while raising four beautiful daughters, caring for her mother-in-law till she died, and freelancing.

In addition to doing all that, Julia has also been a great support for me, giving me helpful advice and encouragement at every turn. Most recently, she did a wonderful job editing my flash fiction collection, ensuring it was in pristine condition when I submitted it to Gumbo. I know she's quietly supported a number of writers she's worked with on writing courses, and I do hope she'll develop this side of her work in future. And I am also very pleased to see she  hasn't given up on children's books yet either. She's started a great series on dragons, which really deserves to do well.

So happy birthday dearest twin, thanks for all the publishing tips and support for my own writing. Most of all, thanks for the pleasure you give me and all your readers with the wonderful stories you tell.

Here's to many, many more.

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