Hard Craft

After years of dedication, local author Laura Powell has just seen her first book published. She describes how Clerkenwell was key to its creation.

Originally from Wales, I lived in London for five years before I found “home”. There was a mice- riddled dorm room in New Cross, shared flats with overflowing bins and greasy bathrooms in Tufnell Park and Wimbledon. Then, in 2012, my boyfriend and I rented our own flat, in Clerkenwell.

It was teeny and subsiding, with wonky floorboards. The built-in bookcase lurched, as though it might topple over. The sash windows shook with the traffic from the Goswell Road below. And the front door looked like the entrance to, in my Nan’s words, “a junkie’s squat”. But I loved it.

I loved the way the yellow light fell across the living room in the mornings. I loved hearing the reassuring clatter of the butter knife in Berni’s, the sandwich shop beneath us. But what I loved most was that it was mine – and a great place to write.

I had always written fiction; my first attempt at a novel came at 23. Then a features writer at the Daily Mail, I would return from work and write until 3am. It was exhausting, obsessive – and unpublishable. The novel, about a fictional victim of the Bridgend suicides, piqued interest from agents but they said it was just too bleak.

So I began writing another, this time a dark psychological drama called The Unforgotten, about a 15-year-old schoolgirl who falls for a mysterious 30-year-old journalist when he arrives in her home town to report on a series of murders. By the time I moved to Clerkenwell, I had done the first, woolly draft and shortly after,

I applied for and won a novel-writing bursary from Literature Wales (a Welsh charitable organisation), which afforded me a blissful four-month sabbatical to finish it. I pushed my big, lime-washed desk in front of the living room windows, poured pots of Oolong tea and honed The Unforgotten into something publishable. It took four drafts.

Sometimes I took my laptop to the nearby Candid Arts Café at the Angel, or The Modern Pantry; or I broke my day with a swim. But the truth was, I loved the solitude of that flat, and the freedom of wandering the streets of Clerkenwell when I needed to turn over plot dilemmas in my mind.

In late 2013, the manuscript was finally ready. I sent it to a handful of literary agents – and three offered to represent me. I chose Curtis Brown, who secured me a deal with Hesperus Press, a small London publisher. I was on a high. This was it!

Then it went horribly wrong. Just weeks before my book was due to be published, the entire staff at Hesperus quit, following an internal dispute. The office was left empty, its published writers went unpaid and its unpublished writers, like me, went unpublished. I handwrote letters to 50 novelists, begging for a cover quote, I procured the phone numbers of the team charged with selling it to bookshops – but doing the work of a publisher on top of my day job (by now I was deputy editor of a business magazine) proved too great.

And worse, my boyfriend and I split up. I was forced to move out of my beloved flat, unable to afford it on my own. I’ll always remember the day I wheeled my sad little suitcase with a few meagre belongings to my new home, on nearby Central Street; a small room in a friend’s flat, which had a single bed against a wall and no space for a desk. I was weeping and telling myself to let it go: the flat, the boyfriend, the thoughts of being published. Then the door of my new place opened, a glass of wine was pressed into my hand and I was surrounded by neighbours. I had never experienced community spirit like it. Instantly, I knew things would improve.

My agent managed to secure me a new deal, with the Scottish publisher Freight Books. The team there spent a further year preparing my book for publication and The Unforgotten finally launched in March this year. Things continue to look up, as I recently started a new job I love, at The Daily Telegraph. It would make sense to move flats, to shorten my commute (to Victoria) and find somewhere with space for a desk – but I’ve decided not to. I’m staying put for as long as Clerkenwell will have me.

“The Unforgotten” by Laura Powell is published by Freight Books. Laura has been named by Amazon as one of its Rising Stars for 2016.