How I got a book deal in a week

New author, Poppy Gee.

New author, Poppy Gee.

Anyone who has ever lived in a share house knows it's hard to keep secrets - especially if you write them down in a personal diary.

When I was a 21-year-old university student, living away from home, my boyfriend snooped through my bedroom and found my diary hidden at the back of my wardrobe.

He read it.


I've written in a journal regularly since I was eight. My very first entry lists what I received for my birthday that day – a scooter, some clothes, and a little blue floral notebook that would be my diary.


Later in primary school an entry reveals: “Everyone in my family tries to make me cry before I go to school so the kids will laugh at me.”

The self-absorbed angst increased in my teens when I wrote in the diary almost every day, mainly tales of rifts with girlfriends, descriptions of boys I liked and speculation on what they thought of me, details of drunken parties my sisters and I held secretly in our family's old shack on Tasmania's east coast, and who was having sex and how and where.

During my university years the diary covered increasingly colourful topics. When my boyfriend read it I was shocked and furious, but mostly terribly embarrassed by the graphic nature of the content, and I vowed never to write in the diary again. Instead, I focused my compulsion to write on creative writing.

This week my debut novel, Bay of Fires, a murder-mystery set in Tasmania, hits bookstore shelves in Australia. Next month it will be published in the US and Britain.

I always dreamed of being a published author, but I never seriously thought it would happen. In my career I've worked as a journalist, a subeditor and a book reviewer, and I've taught journalism at university, all the time chipping away at novels, stories and screenplays at night.

The turning point for me was when I enrolled in the creative writing masters program at the University of Queensland. I was fortunate to meet four gifted writing students and we met monthly in cafes for the mutual pleasure of tearing apart one another's work.

I set my novel in a fictional sleepy Tasmanian east coast village, in the area where my family spent many summers.

When I was a teenager, there was reason to believe that a violent criminal was lurking somewhere on the coast. The fear experienced by the community provided an early seed for my book.

In my novel, the villagers turn on each other following two mysterious events: the disappearance of a young girl, and a woman's body washing up on the beach. The characters respond with macabre voyeurism to these alleged crimes, tensions heighten and eventually everyone's darkest secrets are revealed.

I wrote the novel on my laptop at the kitchen table while my two small children slept.

One of my most satisfying achievements as a mother was synchronising the babies' sleep times so I could continue my writing obsession. I would write and write until I heard the demanding squawk that forced me to stop. I can honestly say I never got writer's block because I never had enough time.

I read somewhere that only three out of every thousand creative writing students in Australia find a home for their novel manuscript. Believing that my novel would end up piled on top of the rest of my unpublished work, I decided to see if anyone in the US would be curious about a murder-mystery set on a tiny island at the end of the earth.

Light heartedly, I typed "literary agent new york" into Google and sent my first query to Julia Kenny, at Markson Thoma Literary Agency.

I was amazed when Julia loved my manuscript and offered her representation. Everything happened really quickly from that point. Julia gave the novel a vigorous edit and sent it to publishers with the news that she would be holding a book auction in seven days' time.

Later that week I set my alarm clock and woke up early to speak on the phone with a handful of editors from various publishing houses. They wanted to chat with me, and see if I was happy to make some small changes. Of course I was!

That day, only four days after she had sent the novel out, Julia accepted an offer prior to auction, in what they call a pre-empt. The world English rights to Bay of Fires were acquired by Reagan Arthur Books (Little, Brown) in the US, Headline in Britain and Hachette in Australia.

It's a wonderful feeling to hold a novel that you wrote yourself. I know I am lucky. Some people say they don't believe in luck, but I do. I've got lots of writer friends with great manuscripts: they just need to find that one person who will love it.

And what happened to the sticky-beak boyfriend who indirectly sent me on this path? He was lucky too - he is now my husband. I'm pretty sure he has never snooped again.

He still likes to read my writing, under my supervision of course, and these days I am happy to listen to his feedback on my portrayal of male characters.

Bay of Fires, Hachette, $29.99, is available at all good bookstores.