A Publishing Phenomenon

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Sally Green’s debut novel has been published in 45 languages

“I’m pleased it wasn’t too awful!” says author Sally Green when I tell her that her debut novel, Half Bad, made me feel ‘good uneasy.’

The English writer is on a publicity tour to promote her first book, an unsettling tale of modern day good and bad witches who are afraid of a child called Nathan who is descended from both sides. His mother is dead and his father, Marcus, is the most Black Witch of all time.

The story opens with Nathan trapped in a cage; he knows he has to escape before he turns 17, when he’ll receive three gifts from his father and his magical ability. If he doesn’t, he’ll die. Sally says it’s a ‘difficult question’ to answer when she first started writing Half Bad.

“I had an initial idea about witches back in 2009 and that’s what started me writing. I hadn’t written anything since O Level, since I was 16 and I was now 48. In 2010, I had a spare afternoon and thought I could write a short story. That grew into a larger story and it was a witchy story; it wasn’t Half Bad but it was my first novel. I never wrote short stories; lots of people try things but I just went into a novel.

“I tried to get it published. It got a few rejections from agents and after getting them I looked at the story and thought that it wouldn’t get published, it wasn’t good enough really. I started again. Half Bad is the same idea but completely rewritten in a completely different way.

“The first story was written from a girl’s point of view, it was a love story and it wouldn’t have got you worried at all, it wouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable at all, it was far too nice!”

Work on Half Bad commenced in April 2012 with Sally sending her manuscript to an agent in January 2013. This is where it got exciting. Half Bad was commissioned to appear in 45 languages before being initially published. It’s now the owner of two Guinness World Records, the most translated book and the most translated children’s book by a debut author before publication.

Normally a book would be translated if it had been shown to be doing well in its domestic market, but Half Bad was an international conversation starter at manuscript stage. Nifty. Couple this with the announcement that Fox 2000 has acquired fi lm rights to Half Bad and you have what could only be described as a whirlwind for Sally.

“I really have been swept along,” she says. “There are various stages when you’re lying in bed and thinking, ‘Goodness me, this is odd!’ The initial thing when my agent sold the book to Penguin and there was a two-week period where I got the Penguin deal, Viking is my publisher in the States and we got the first two of the foreign language deals, Brazil and Israel.

“We got the Fox deal for the film at the same time and this was a real moment. I was at home answering phone calls and emails, I had never actually met people face to face, so it was almost like it was happening to somebody else. You’re reading about it and making decisions but it felt sort of once removed because I really wasn’t meeting people. Most of the correspondence was by email; I’d spoken to my agent a few times on the phone when it came to a really big decisions but it was more of a surreal experience.

“Now I’m doing loads of PR and you’re sitting there, waiting to start being questioned and you think, ‘Wow, this is really strange.’ When you’re writing a book, you dream of it being published, but it’s really gone way, way beyond anything I had ever thought of.”

It is the world of covert good and bad witches that sets Sally’s book apart from other reads on similar subjects. Even before publication comparisons were being drawn to The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Twilight series, and even George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Praise indeed for a book that hadn’t even been published.

“I think what appealed to me is that I don’t read a lot of fantasy books,” explains Sally when we ask about the pressure to deliver something fresh and interesting.

“I think in a way that’s helped me because I do bring a fresh look at things, I’m not borrowing many ideas because I don’t know what the other ideas are. I think, like most people, the appeal of this sort of world, whether it’s vampire or other witches, or even the Marvel comics and films, they’re still human beings, they’re still vulnerable and have the vulnerability of ordinary people, they have the loves and losses and pains just like everyone.

“But they also have super powers as well which makes it terribly exciting and you can have an exciting adventure story side by side. It’s marrying those two up makes it a fun read.” It’s clear this book from the former accountant has cast a spell over readers and the publishing industry alike.

For Sally, her priority is her protagonist, Nathan.

“The thing is that really interests me is Nathan’s internal struggles, they’re actually for me for more appealing to investigate and find ways to convey.”

We comment that unlike many books, Half Bad starts in the middle of the story – the reader learns about the background to what’s happened at the same time as Nathan. It works because the reader believes nothing has been hidden from them, rather they learn the information as and when needed.

“Because it’s a teen book, it was important for me to launch into the story straightaway,” says Sally.

“It’s the beginning that draws the reader in, but not to reveal the full story immediately. The writer’s job is to reveal little bits at a time so the reader wants to reveal more. It’s great that it works because it’s difficult for a writer to judge the balance.”

When Woman’s Way spoke to Sally, she was in the middle of writing the follow-up, Half Wild, the second in the Half Life trilogy.

“I’d always thought of a trilogy. The first witch book was standalone but when I had the idea of the trilogy. I knew I had a lot of story and it would have to be one huge book if I didn’t split it up. The different stages of Nathan’s life are represented in each book, so this one takes up til his 17th birthday, a milestone in his life and the next, Half Wild, moves on from that.”

Young Adult (YA) novels have sprung up in recent years and it’s thanks to them that so many more teenagers are returning to reading. Given that you’re writing for a different demographic, we ask Sally, how difficult is it to get the tone right.

“I think it depends on the writer. My writing style lent itself to the Young Adult books for sure. I struggled to write in a different style and I think this style just comes naturally. I enjoy writing in this way; I still feel I’m quite a beginner in terms of learning to write and learning new techniques and that’s part of the fun of this as well.

“Since I started writing Half Bad, I thought I better read about what everyone else is writing about in the YA genre. A third of the books I read are YA, mainly British and American authors, and there’s some great writing out there. Then I read purely for pleasure and the author I love the most at the moment is David Mitchell, he’s just a beautiful writer. I love reading but time is a problem, trying to fi t it all in.”