Jessica Townsend | 'Life is really silly and it's really serious'

Jessica Townsend | 'Life is really silly and it's really serious'

Big YA book deals have become commonplace, but one of this year’s biggest stories is middle-grade fantasy series Nevermoor by début Australian author Jessica Townsend. The book became the talk of the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair, rapidly evolving into a fierce eight-way auction. Hachette Children’s Books, with Hachette US and Australia, won a three-book deal for an undisclosed six-figure sum. Orion Children’s Books will publish Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow as its lead autumn début in October. In the weeks following Frankfurt, the book sold in a further 26 territories and film rights went to 20th Century Fox in another auction.

“I did not expect any of it to kick off in the way it did,” says Townsend when we meet six months after this whirlwind. She describes the whole experience as bizarre. “It happened very quickly. It went out on submission the week before Frankfurt, and the movie stuff happened simultaneously.” Overwhelming for any writer, let alone a début author whose work had been read by only a handful of people. “A lot of people share their work with friends and family but I didn’t really do that. My sister read it, and two former bosses, just so I knew I wasn’t crazy.” She credits her “smart and enthusiastic” agent, Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency, with guiding her through the experience -“I’m a big believer in intuition and as soon I spoke to her, I knew.” Choosing between eight publishers can be no easy task, and for Townsend it was certainly about more than the money. “Hachette put together this very thoughtful, extensive publishing plan, very much taking a global approach. It had a lot of what I saw as genuine affection for the story and these characters, and was specific in the things that it loved, which is like catnip to an author.”

The world building is probably why I wanted to write a book in the first place. The whole story is something for me to hang world building on, because I love and enjoy it so much

The book stars Morrigan Crow, a cursed child doomed to die at midnight on her 11th birthday. With the help of the enigmatic, remarkable Jupiter North, she escapes death and is whisked away to the extraordinary world of Nevermoor. Living in North’s enchanted hotel, Morrigan discovers he has chosen her to compete for a place in the city’s most prestigious organisation, the Wundrous Society. In order to join the society and remain in Nevermoor, she must pass four dangerous trials, pitted against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent. Morrigan, however, has yet to discover her gift. And lurking beneath the city’s magic is a dark menace...

Lofty comparisons

Townsend’s boundless imagination, compelling plotting and quirky humour bring a genuinely fresh approach to magical fantasy and the “chosen child” trope, and it’s easy to see why this book is captivating so many. She grew up in Australia, in a family where books featured heavily, reading “typical literary fare”: she names Little Women as her favourite and singles out The Baby-Sitter’s Club as a “literary gateway drug”.

As a fantasy series, Nevermoor is attracting inevitable comparisons with Harry Potter and she readily admits her “completely unabashed” love for the books. She read the series in her early teens, queueing in bookshops for each new title, and calls J K Rowling her hero. “I was looking at that amazing woman and seeing her as a role model, so admiring and envious that she owned this world completely made up from scratch out of her head. It caught my imagination and is a huge part of why I became an author.”

She wrote her first story aged seven, an “enormous missive” published in a local library newsletter. In her adult life, jobs have included being a copywriter and content manager in the property and tourism industries. She also worked for five years at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, including a stint as editor of its rather wonderfully titled children’s magazine Crikey! “I’ve always known that I wanted to write,” she says. “In my teen years and early twenties, I started various things but this was really the first thing that stuck. This was the first idea I really committed to and committed to in a big way, because I wrote it for many years.” Close to a decade, in fact. At what point did she feel ready to pursue publication? “It took a long time to get to that point because I’m a hardcore perfectionist and, of course, perfection doesn’t exist.” Getting an agent is “such a scary thing, it’s so exciting and terrifying, pressing send on your first query.” After extensive research Townsend signed with Cooper, who was immediately hooked: “Jess’ confidence in her storytelling is masterful; it walks the line between commercial and literary... I knew immediately this would be a big, special book.”

What really sets Nevermoor apart is the incredibly detailed, vivid world building. It’s joyful to read and evident that Townsend had immense fun in creating her world. “The world building is probably why I wanted to write a book in the first place,” she confesses. “The whole story is something for me to hang world building on, because I love and enjoy it so much.” She names His Dark Materials, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began as particular influences. “Everything that’s in this book is there because I secretly want it in my real life. What I love more than anything is taking silly, absurd things and treating them in a totally serious way. That’s something I’ve tried to carry over into these books. That’s life. Life is really silly and it’s really serious.”

London calling

When we meet on the sixth floor of Carmelite House, the London skyline is showcased before us. A self-declared London “nerd”, Townsend has dipped in and out of living in the city for the past decade and its influence echoes around Nevermoor, from the Wunderground transport system to Courage Square, inspired by Trafalgar Square. “The concept of [Nevermoor] was definitely born in London. Morrigan and Jupiter and some of these characters existed, but when I came here it became something to hang that story on. A magical city, because that’s what it is to me.”

Her writing is intensely cinematic, which makes news of the film deal no surprise. The narrative is staged around big set-pieces: the Eventide celebrations, the Trials and the truly magical Battle of Christmas. “It’s a big part of my writing process. I don’t write chronologically; I know the ‘tent pole’, events that need to happen. I see them very visually in my head.” Any anxieties about handing her world over to Fox are long gone. “[Fox is] super-excited and the thing that really struck me was how much it had read and absorbed the story. I feel very confident with Fox.” There’s no date on timings, but a screenwriter is attached to the project.

For now, book two beckons - with a deadline significantly sooner than a decade away. “So much of that time was spent creating that world. I know so much of what is going to happen. My laptop is a graveyard of the past 10 years. Folders for every year, folders for world-building, a Nevermoor encyclopedia, family trees...” Townsend is signed for three books but has plots for nine, with firm rules about how her magic can work. Although Nevermoor is a satisfying read in itself, there’s also a sense that this is just the beginning. We still have much to learn about Morrigan, the Wundrous Society and the city of Nevermoor itself. “The challenge is what to give away when... It’s like a bizarre game of Tetris, trying to rearrange everything to fit perfectly.”