She didn’t realise it at the time, but Phoebe Morgan’s journey to becoming a published author started when she was only 6, when her dad made her an impressive doll house. This became the inspiration for her chilling debut, The Doll House, which has already been met with rave reviews by early readers.
In the first instalment of our series of interviews with debut authors, Phoebe Morgan, author of The Doll House, talks about setbacks, support networks, and why an idyllic family home is the perfect setting for a psychological thriller…
The Doll House is out today, but first let’s look back to where it all started. Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?
When I was about six or seven, my Dad made me a doll house and I was obsessed with it! It was beautiful, with six rooms, a fully functioning staircase and even a loft. I used to spend ages creating the perfect little family set-up, and so when it came to thinking of ideas for my first book, the doll house sprang to mind. A doll house is like a perfect little microcosm of the ideal home, one in which you’re in charge. As a child, I could create the perfect narrative by playing with my dolls – I had a Mummy doll in the kitchen (horribly sexist) and a Daddy who returned home from work with a briefcase (fairly sure my own father doesn’t have one!) while the small dolls played by the fire (all a tad unrealistic).
As a writer, I wanted to explore that idea of the idyllic family home not being quite as lovely as it might first seem. I knew I wanted to write a book about the complicated relationship that can exist between sisters too, and the memory gaps that can exist between childhood and adulthood. It fascinates me how we all remember certain scenes differently, and as we become adults we sometimes learn things about our families and our parents that do not quite match up with the idealistic childhood memories we’ve remembered. In the book, this concept of a perfect home begins to slowly disintegrate until the characters’ memories are distorted by the truths that have been uncovered. There have been a lot of lies and the sisters in my book have to deal with the repercussions of that!
As plenty of budding authors know, getting published is rarely a straightforward process. What for you was the most difficult aspect of your journey as a debut author?
Oh, it’s always so hard getting rejections! With The Doll House, we had a couple of near misses, and some straight no’s too, and every time you get an email explaining why it’s not quite right for a list it definitely stings. It can be difficult picking yourself back up and continuing to have hope when things aren’t going your way but honestly, I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t been rejected at some point in their career. When you’re a debut, you’re a total unknown so you do need an editor to take a chance on you and your idea, which can be terrifying. I think near-misses have probably actually been the hardest bit, because that’s when you really get your hopes up and start allowing yourself to imagine getting a deal, and so when that comes to nothing, it can feel pretty tough. But you absolutely never know what is around the corner and you have to be persistent, and remember that you only need one yes, and then it really doesn’t matter any more how many no’s you got along the way!
I also remember having a particularly sticky plot point while writing this book which always stays in my mind. I was working on it in the British Library, which is such a lovely place to write (despite the vastly overpriced snacks!) and I just could not figure out this one thing. I called my mum in tears, and then suddenly had an idea for the solution and ended the call very quickly… I did ring back to apologise though.
We’ve obviously loved working with you, but what’s it been like for you to work with an agent and an editor for the first time?
I’m so lucky to have worked with Camilla Wray here at Darley Anderson and with Charlotte Mursell at HQ, both of whom brought new ideas to the book and helped me make it what it is today. When you write, you get so close to your manuscript that you do start to lose sight of it a little, and having those extra pairs of eyes reading everything over makes all the difference. Camilla is a very hands-on editorial agent so we worked a lot on the book before it went on submission, straightening out plot problems, revising sections of the narrative and even cutting out a whole strand at one point! At the time, rewriting can feel brutal and difficult, but the novel is so much better for it. You have to constantly be aware of the reader, how they’ll feel at each juncture, and how the book will sit in the market. I worked very hard on getting my opening just right along with my chapter endings, with the aim of keeping the reader on their toes and giving them that incentive to keep turning the pages. Agents and editors know the market inside out and having that crucial insight is invaluable.
Finally – it’s publication day! How have you been feeling in the run up to the big day?
The run up to publication has been a strange time! I work in publishing too as a Commissioning Editor at Avon, so I do have an insight into how some of this works and what to expect, which is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse! I think it means I can’t kid myself, and am realistic in my expectations, but at the same time it makes it easier to torture myself with nerves when I look at the amount of amazing books that I will be competing against! Mostly, I’ve been really overwhelmed with how kind people have been – telling me they’ve pre-ordered the book, leaving positive reviews on GoodReads, getting in touch on social media – but then the closer we get to publication, the harder I’m finding it to sleep too as it does feel as though it’s becoming very real now, when for so long it was a bit of a pipe dream. It’s also been quite a whirlwind fitting in writing publicity bits and pieces in the run up, and making sure I’m on top of extra stuff such as social media.
Having a book go out into the world is without doubt a very nerve-wracking process, but I’ve found that talking to other writers really helps as they know what you’re going through and can offer words of wisdom in that respect. I think it’s also important to remember – and this is something I’m trying to do – that your book is one part of your life, an important one, but that it’s not your whole life, and so things always need to be kept in perspective. If I keep thinking that way, I’m hoping any negative reviews and set-backs won’t feel quite as bad…!