Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of We Are Giants
Amber Lee Dodd’s debut We are Giants was edited by Niamh Mulvey of Quercus. The judges described it as ‘a huge-hearted book of enormous charm’; ‘unusual and distinctive’, and one in which ‘you can really feel the family’s love for one another’.
Where did the inspiration for We Are Giants come from?
That’s always a hard question to answer. I had worked with children and teenagers who had disabilities and had noticed the lack of books featuring disabled people who had stories that didn’t revolve around their disability. But I didn’t intend to write a book featuring a character with dwarfism. The truth is the idea for We Are Giants came like a bolt out of the blue. I woke up on a dark and stormy night with the idea of a girl who wanted to be little just like her mum. I could hear both Sydney and Amy’s voice and I knew I couldn’t resist writing their story.
As a debut author, what did you find the most challenging part of the writing process for We Are Giants?
For me the hardest part was getting through the first two drafts. No matter how wrong and horrible the early drafts are (and they always are), once you have something finished you can work with it. And redrafting is where I really get to work. That’s when the lights turn on. But sometimes you need a little push to get there and it helped having an editor see past the rough edges and encourage me to keep going. So I could get from first draft to fifth.
What was the thing you most enjoyed about working with your editor on the book?
Niamh asked me to be braver and bolder with this book. The book became both funnier and much sadder in places, the shrinking got developed and minor characters became major ones. I can’t imagine We Are Giants without Grandma in it and she was barely there in the first draft. Niamh having faith in my work and asking me to go bigger with it was pretty invaluable, especially with a first book. And We Are Giants was the first ever book that I had written!
Also on a side note, having someone help me with tenses and general dyslexic problems without ever complaining was a godsend. I never had to have a horrible school flashback to a page marked up with angry red corrections.
What was the best piece of advice Niamh gave you?
The best piece of advice came in my very first meeting with Niamh. It was my first time meeting an editor and I was terribly nervous. I’d spilt tea down my top and I was all sticky from the train journey up and through the whole meeting I was thinking ‘don’t say anything really stupid’, which meant I ended up saying hardly anything at all. Niamh was very professional and ran through what she liked about the book but what I needed to do next. Unfortunately what I needed to do next was double the word count! I think I must have gone completely white, or babbled something incoherent, or spilt more tea down myself. Because Niamh very kindly said, ‘Don’t worry, I know you can do this.’ Those words where magic for a very nervous debut author. And luckily Niamh turned out to be right.
What piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Don’t be afraid. Be brave. Go with big ideas; go with things that are a little quirky or aren’t on trend. Take risks. And know that the best ideas are probably the ones you’re slightly afraid of. But the wonderful thing with children’s books is there is no need to limit your imagination.
What's your favourite scene in We Are Giants?
My favourite scene is the one with Sydney and Grandma when they return to the London flat one last time. It’s a chapter about dealing with grief and saying goodbyes. Even more poignant for me when writing it was that it hadn’t been long since my own Grandma had died. I rewrote that scene several times so I could get it just perfect. And I cried every time.
What excited you about Amber’s writing when you read the manuscript for We are Giants?
I first saw the manuscript for We Are Giants when it was still at a very early stage of its development – before Amber had even pitched it to an agent. It was only about 20,000 words long and still quite rough in its plotting. But I immediately just loved the voice – it was brimming with wit and charm.· Amber has a very direct and succinct style which grabbed me immediately – I love authors who don’t feel like they have to show off; who can convey the essence of a character with a few deft brush strokes. Most of all, I remember the way the first line grabbed me: ‘Have you ever tried to shrink yourself?’ I hadn’t, but I was intrigued…
As editor, what do you enjoy most about working with Amber?
I love to be surprised by my authors and so I really enjoy Amber’s ·unusual way of thinking about things. She always comes up with new ways of overcoming plotting challenges and bringing characters to life. ·She is a very original writer, particularly when it comes to characterisation.
What would you say is the one quality of her writing that marks her out as a talent to watch?
Amber’s writing is direct and unsentimental. She doesn’t talk down to her young readers and she doesn’t waste words. She manages to be moving without ever making the reader feel manipulated. The final scene of We Are Giants has always brought tears to my eyes – even after reading it countless times during the editorial process.
This stylistic precision combined with Amber’s subject matter – ·ordinary families, siblings, relationships – always puts me in mind of Jacqueline Wilson, who is a huge inspiration to Amber.
Thanks to Amber and Niamh for answering our questions.