A former Bloomsbury editor’s début novel about a child refugee’s perilous journey is being published by Pushkin, which bought the title after it was submitted under a nom de plume.
Ele Fountain (pictured) had worked at Bloomsbury for 14 years when her husband was given a new role at the Foreign Office in Ethiopia. The pair moved there with their two young daughters in October 2014. Fountain, a former senior commissioning editor, contended with power cuts and internet shutdowns to write Boy 87, described as an “original and beautifully written page-turner of a novel” by author Sarah Crossan.
Fountain sent the manuscript to Charlie Viney of the Viney Agency under a pseudonym, so that it was viewed impartially. He eagerly offered to represent her, and later submitted the manuscript to Sarah Odedina, editor-at-large at Pushkin Children’s Books and a former colleague of Fountain’s, who guessed the author’s true identity before finishing the book.
It was a trip to the border of Eritrea that planted the seed of the novel in Fountain’s mind, and she decided to begin writing the book as a “project” during maternity leave. It follows 14-year- old refugee Shif and his best friend Bini and their “dangerous and unforgettable journey” across the desert to the Mediterranean and onwards to England.
Fountain told The Bookseller: “While we were in Ethiopia we would see terrible reports [about the journeys of refugees], and friends would ask me about it . . . It was after one of those conversations that I thought, everyone is aware of those tragedies but no one is aware of these people’s lives, and the fact that they had experienced so much to be in that boat in the first place. And I thought, I want to tell this story.”
Fountain, who has recently moved back to the UK, revealed that it took some adjustment to go from editor to author. She said: “It was strange writing in the middle of the page—I was used to writing in the margins [as an editor]. However, as soon as I started writing, it became addictive.
I would start as soon as my children were out the door, at 7.45 a.m., and continue until they came back from nursery.”
There were also difficult conditions owing to Ethiopia’s fragile political situation. She said: “A state of emergency was declared while we there and they switched the internet off, so I was often writing with power cuts or the internet wouldn’t work.” She sent the manuscript to Viney under the name Florence Orton, crafted from one of her daughter’s middle names and the surname of a colleague of her husband’s.
The agent responded within a few days and told her, “I don’t care who you are, I want to sign you”, before she phoned him to reveal her identity. When Viney sent the manuscript to Odedina under the nom de plume, she “guessed by chapter two” that the author was Fountain as the pair had worked together closely for many years.
Odedina, who was editor-in-chief for children’s books at Bloomsbury during Fountain’s spell at the publisher, said: “I am delighted to be working with Ele, who I know very well from 14 years working together at Bloomsbury. During all that time she proved herself time and again to be an astute judge of a fine book and it is all the more remarkable that now she is on the other side of the table, having created a really stand-out book for young readers.”
Odedina bought world rights for all languages and a spokesperson for Pushkin expects “huge interest” when the book is submitted internationally later this month.
Fountain is now based in Hampshire and is looking to return to publishing as an editor. Boy 87 will be published by Pushkin Children’s Books on 5th April 2018, priced £7.99. It is aimed at readers aged 10 and above.