Ella King won the BPA Pitch Prize 2019 with the first 500 words of her brilliant first novel, Bad Fruit. Since then, she has accepted representation from literary agent Hellie Ogden (after receiving seven offers) and signed a two-book deal with HarperFiction (in a five-way auction). We thought it was time for a catch-up and asked Ella some questions about her journey to a publishing deal.
Where did you find the initial inspiration for Bad Fruit and how long did the drafting process take?
Bad Fruit explores generational trauma from the perspective of Lily, a first-generation, British-Chinese 18 year-old living in Greenwich. It is inspired by the stories my grandmother told me about living in Japanese-occupied China during World War II, stories which I realised as an adult, reflected the plight of women everywhere. What is the effect of war on mothers and daughters generations later? How do women break free from inherited trauma?
Writing a protagonist who is multi-racial is also important to me. Fiction is undergoing an incredible but long over-due movement towards diversity in what is agented, acquired and ultimately read. Not least because I have a multi-racial daughter, I wanted to contribute to a body of literature that normalises people and cultures who’ve been otherwise othered in the arts.
I finished the bulk of the drafting over three months but I’ve been trying to write Bad Fruit for years. Don’t give up! Every draft of a chapter that doesn’t work, every sentence you delete moves you closer to that final manuscript. I wrote half the manuscript from the standpoint of the wrong protagonist, then wrote it in third person before finally settling on the first-person voice of Lily. It takes time.
‘I wrote half the manuscript from the standpoint of the wrong protagonist, then wrote it in third person before finally settling on the first-person voice of Lily. It takes time.’
What did you find aided your revision process most? Writing courses? Trusted readers? Books?
Writing is a solitary activity and while much of the work is done alone, I cannot stress how helpful it is to test plot, voice and character with trusted readers. My husband is the first port of call; he’s got a great sense of whether a scene is overdramatised or if a plot strand hasn’t been properly seeded. I’m also privileged to be part of my old 2018 Faber Academy group, which meets to review 5000 words of two members each week. This group has spotted and fixed plot holes, pared down my language and helped prepare synopses, bios and prize entries.
I’d also recommend Faber Academy’s six month ‘Writing A Novel’ course. I was tutored by Sarah May, an insane talent in her own right but also a discerning critic on what’s working with your novel and what isn’t, where your strengths lie and what you need to work on.
What made you decide to enter the BPA Pitch Prize?
The chance to pitch and receive feedback from the wonderful Nelle Andrew before the novel was finished. Like many debut authors, I wanted to understand if my novel had broad appeal during its embryonic stages – when I entered, I’d only finished nine chapters. The BPA Pitch Prize is unique in allowing novelists the chance to test their novel early on and to gain insights from agents at the top of their game.
It would be great to hear some insights into what actually happens in that winner’s literary agent meet-and-greet. What was it like chatting one-on-one with Nelle Andrew?
I was excited to meet Nelle and she didn’t disappoint. She was very editorial and went through the first three chapters in detail, identifying areas where I could reveal more about setting, time or character to ground the world of the book. She also explained where she could see Bad Fruit fitting in the market and why it straddled literary and reading group fiction.
‘[Nelle Andrew] explained where she could see Bad Fruit fitting in the market and why it straddled literary and reading group fiction.’
At the time of the one-on-one, I was in the middle of deciding between several offers of representation. Nelle’s advice was essential in helping me determine what was important to me when choosing an agent. Until then, I hadn’t realised how much of a cri de coeur it is on the part of literary agents, nor how essential agents are to each step of the novel.
You are now signed with the wonderful Hellie Ogden (who is judging the BPA First Novel Award this year). How did you decide she was the right literary agent for you?
Instinct. From that first phone call, I knew Hellie understood my characters intimately, was moved by the novels’ themes, and was excited about my writing. Paired with her editorial eye, commercial acumen and ambition for my writing career, I instantly thought she was the one for me.
Hellie was the first agent to offer me representation but she wasn’t the last – seven literary agencies offered based on the first three chapters. It sounds like a dream, but actually, that level of interest was fairly terrifying. I asked myself difficult questions. Who would support me if the novel flopped? Who would be most editorial? Who understood the themes of the novel and what I was trying to achieve? There was only ever one person.
Congratulations on signing a two-book deal with HarperFiction. Was there anything in their vision for publication that surprised you?
I think what surprised me about HarperFiction’s vision is that it didn’t differ from mine. As a debut novelist, you hear horror stories about editors changing your key themes, landscape, characters. This didn’t happen. Charlotte Brabbins (Senior Commissioning Editor at HarperFiction) has such a deep understanding of my novel, I find her edits make it more itself. Every time I speak to her, I come away energised by her ideas. I trust her implicitly.
Ella King was born to first-generation Singaporean parents and grew up in London. She read Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University and attended Faber Academy’s ‘Writing A Novel’ course. She came 3rd in the Aurora Prize for Short Fiction 2019 and won the Blue Pencil Agency Pitch Prize 2019. Currently, she works as a corporate lawyer in London and volunteers at anti-human trafficking and domestic violence charities. She lives in Greenwich with her husband and daughter.