The Writer's Practice: Jen Campbell

With words, Jen Campbell has constructed a life. For 10 years, the UK-based writer and vlogger worked as a bookseller. She creates original book-centric content for her YouTube channel and its nearly 40,000 subscribers. She teaches writing workshops and has published six books, including her first two works of fiction, out last fall. 

In September, her children's book Franklin's Flying Bookshop launched in the UK, to be followed by a sequel later this year. A month later The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, Campbell's first short story collection, arrived in bookstores. Campbell spoke with Spine about the creative and publishing processes for both titles.

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night

 
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Campbell's debut short story collection is filled with magic, beautiful and dark, sinuous and sly, sliding through a narrative, sometimes easy to spot, sometimes just beyond the point of certain perception.

A writer who creates poetry and nonfiction prose as well as fiction, Campbell chose both the short-story format and the themes for the simple reason that she liked them. "I'd always wanted to write a short story collection. As someone who writes poetry and prose, perhaps that's not surprising, but I love how you can experiment with the form." As for the book's themes — fairy tales, bodily transformations, otherness, storytelling — "these are all topics I'm drawn to anyway, so I suppose the collection reflects where my mind's at." 

Pulling words from her mind and transforming them into story, into words on paper, represents only one part of Campbell's process on the book. She always subjects her words to a read-aloud, and said this practice was especially important with The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night. The book is "inspired by fairy tale, which is traditionally told rather than read, so the way the stories sound when spoken is very important to me."

About a third of the way into writing the book, Campbell asked her agent Charlie Campbell (Kingsford Campbell) to contact Lisa Highton at Two Roads, an imprint of UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. "I knew she was a fan of fairy tales," Campbell said.

Highton is a fan of fairy tales, and of Campbell. In a video on Campbell's YouTube channel, she tells Campbell and viewers how the deal transpired.

"I'd been stalking [you] for years. … It's verging on the creepy, really, isn't it. But I just really loved your style, and I loved the way you wrote. … I just knew that you'd turn up with something one day, and I wanted to be there to catch it. And so when your agent approached me and said, 'I've got some short stories from Jen,' I said, 'yes,' and that was pretty much it."

Not quite it; Campbell spent nine months finishing the book, followed by very minor edits, adjustments, and an overall sculpt. Editor Lisa Highton spoke to Campbell on video about the editing process. "It wasn't that you were perfect, but in fact what you'd been doing over the years … was actually continuing to fine tune each of the stories individually, I think. … Our biggest task was to get the shape of it right."

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night launched in November.

Franklin's Flying Bookshop

 
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Franklin the dragon lives in a cave full of books, which he loves and longs to share. He discovers a girl reading in the woods, and the two team up to widen village minds with books and the worlds they contain.

While Campbell's short story collection began with themes, and form, Franklin's Flying Bookshop was motivated by Campbell's fondness for its target audience. "I wanted to write a children's book because children were my favorite part of being a bookseller," she said. "When they love something, they love it fiercely."    

Thames & Hudson bought the text, plus a sequel, and sent Campbell on a quest for an illustrator. She found Cambridge illustrator/writer Katie Harnett in a book festival catalogue, and fell in love with her art. While the current book was written before Harnett drew the characters, Campbell wrote the sequel with the illustrator's images in her mind.

"It was wonderful to know, in my head, what Luna and Franklin look like. It made the writing process much more vivid."

Franklin and Luna's second set of adventures will be published this fall.

To watch a bookish chat with Campbell and editor Lisa Highton, visit "Publishing a Book" on Campbell's YouTube channel.

To watch Campbell and illustrator Katie Harnett talk about "Franklin's Flying Bookshop," visit "Writing a Children's Book" on Campbell's YouTube channel.

Find Jen Campbell online at www.jen-campbell.co.uk, on Twitter @jenvcampbell, and on YouTube.


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Susanna previously wrote for the online design community Dribbble, helping transform their occasional blog into the online publication Courtside. Her bylines also include AOL News, Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, among other publications. 

@SusannaBaird