Today it's my pleasure to be shining the spotlight on Heidi Stephens on the paperback publication day of her debut novel Two Metres from You.
|© Nick Cole|
My writing journey began at work, as is often the case for people like me who came to writing novels a little later in life. I’ve made my living in the marketing and advertising industry for over 20 years, including working as a copywriter for lots of brands and advertising agencies, covering everything from vacuum cleaners to face creams, whisky and sex toys.
Since 2008, I’ve also freelanced as a journalist, primarily liveblogging TV shows for The Guardian. Bake Off, Strictly, Eurovision ... all the good stuff.
So, I guess writing, in one form or another, has always been a profession, but also a passion for as long as I can remember. Reading and writing stories were all I ever wanted to do as a child.If you had to give an elevator pitch for your debut novel Two Metres from You, what would it be?
It’s a 2020-set romantic comedy about a 32-year-old woman called Gemma who flees her cheating boyfriend and ends up spending lockdown in a west country village with her dog, Mabel. It’s the story of a life-changing six weeks for Gemma and the people she meets in the village – romantic, uplifting and fun.
Love might be closer than you think . . .
Gemma isn't sure what upsets her more. The fact she just caught her boyfriend cheating, or that he did it on her brand-new Heal's cushions.
All she knows is she needs to put as many miles between her and Fraser as humanly possible. So, when her best friend suggests a restorative few days in the West Country, it seems like the perfect solution.
That is, until the country enters a national lockdown that leaves her stranded. All she has for company is her dog, Mabel. And the mysterious (and handsome!) stranger living at the bottom of her garden . . .Two Metres from You is set during the early days of lockdown, were you worried about how readers would react to a novel set during a pandemic?
Honestly, in the beginning I never gave it a thought, because it genuinely never occurred to me that this book would ever be published. I’d been furloughed from my job at a marketing agency in London, so it started out as an experiment in ‘can I write a book?’, mostly as a way to fill the time. I chose a lockdown romance because it really helped me navigate a challenging time – somehow documenting what was happening through a fictional lens gave me some kind of control over it.
Only when I realised I was going to finish it did I start thinking about querying literary agents, and by that time it was too late to reinvent the plot! But yes, I definitely lost some sleep over people not being ready for a story set in lockdown. I’m sure that’s still the case for some people, but I hope they’ll give it a chance or come back to it one day. The pandemic provides a backdrop, but it’s very much not what the book is about.Has your experience as a journalist helped with the whole writing/editing process?
Yes, definitely. I’m very used to writing quickly and working to tight deadlines, so I set myself a ridiculous eight weeks to write the book and was really disciplined about writing every day. Some days I looked like that GIF of Kermit The Frog typing frantically. One of the skills I’ve learned from liveblogging is to use my inner voice as an editing tool – reading it aloud to myself as I write helps me identify patchy prose and dialogue really quickly. It’s a skill I’ve always taken for granted but I’ve discovered it’s really useful!
Incidentally, that eight-week timeline was based on an expectation that furlough would be over and I’d be back at work after eight weeks – how little we knew! In the end I was furloughed for 12 weeks then made redundant, by which time I’d signed with an agent and was well into my second book.What advice would you give to any other aspiring authors?
Remember to enjoy it. We put so much pressure on ourselves – start the book, finish the book, get an agent, get a publishing deal, climb the rankings, get 5-star reviews, write a bestseller. Some days I have to remind myself that I wrote an actual book, and that’s a huge achievement. Of course I want to be better and write more, but it’s a journey, not a race. Be kind to yourself.
Oh, that’s such a good question. I’m a big fan of Mike Gayle, he’s so great at romantic comedies and writes male characters brilliantly. I’d love to collaborate on a dual-perspective romance that brings together two flawed but fabulous characters.
The best thing is when someone tweets or messages to tell me they loved the book – obviously it’s lovely when it’s a friend or a family member, but when a total stranger tells you your book lifted their day, it’s such an amazing feeling. I can only imagine it’s on a par with that euphoric high athletes get (I’m not one of life’s natural athletes, so I’ll have to take their word for it). The hardest thing is the fear that comes with embarking on a new adventure in middle age. Other than my agent and my editor, nobody had read a single word of Two Metres From You when it launched in March. I had no idea what to expect, and a lot of the time it’s been entirely terrifying.
I’m currently doing structural edits on my second novel, which I purposely set in 2019 so people could dance and socialise and snog with wild abandon. It’s been a lot of fun to write – I think the plan is to launch it early next year.