The weaver of deeds most dark pours herself a peppermint tea.
Beyond the cafe’s sliding door the sun-washed clarity of a lakeside summer’s afternoon stands in stark contrast to the subject matter at hand.
First-time author Jaye Ford is elucidating on the crafting of her psychological thriller Beyond Fear, a tale of reawakened terror set among the rolling hills of the Dungog district.
‘‘It started out as a light thriller but after two chapters or so, I realised it had become a whole lot darker,’’ she explains. ‘‘The characters just took over.’’
You will be hearing plenty about Jaye Ford. Random House has not only seized upon her first novel but is backing it with the sort of marketing blitz usually reserved for proven mega-sellers. The sales pitch of ‘‘A spine-tingling thriller from an amazing new Australian talent’’ has put fans of the genre on notice for its March 1 release.
And, if that’s not enough, how’s this as endorsement from Random’s associate publisher of fiction, Beverley Cousins: ‘‘The hairs on the back of my neck are still standing up, a) from the chilling storyline, and b) because publishers dream of submissions like this! I haven’t been this excited about a debut for years.’’
As the publisher is advising retailers: ‘‘Beyond Fear will be positioned as the must-read thriller of 2011 and Jaye will be perfect for women’s magazines, newspapers, TV radio and online blogs.’’
Before the media ruck has a chance to form, Weekender pounces. Truth, be told, we have the inside running – Ford lives at Lake Macquarie and is still unaffected enough by impending fame to hand out her email address and home phone number.
We meet at a Warners Bay cafe. Any trivia buff with a special interest in the comings and goings of Newcastle electronic media types would get full marks for recognising the slender, blonde woman seated by the far wall. Twenty or so years ago Janette Hankinson was a member of the Prime TV news team before motherhood and a sojourn into the public relations game claimed her. In recent years, with the kids – Mark, 21, and Claire, 19 – grown, she has found time to work extremely hard at completing item one of her career bucket list: becoming a published author.
And that’s no mean feat. Wannabes can spend entire lives papering their study walls with rejection slips. The chance of manuscripts making it through the minefield of acceptance is brutally slim.
Anybody who has ever sat down to a blank page or computer screen and wound up some time later with a real, published book knows the feeling of utter validation when the first advanced copy lands in their hands. Feel the weight.
Between the covers of Ford’s first effort resides ‘‘an adrenaline-pumping suspense thriller’’.
What’s it about? Well, to quote the blurb: ‘‘Imagine if your worst fears come true ... again. At 17, Jodie Cramer survived a terrifying assault at the hands of three strangers. Her schoolfriend, Angie, was not so lucky. Now, 18 years later, Jodie is a teacher and a mother-of-two. She’s worked hard to put her horrific past behind her, and with three friends she’s heading to a luxurious, remote country hideaway for a girls’ weekend. But unknown to the four women, their seemingly idyllic retreat was once the focus of a police investigation and, like Jodie, holds a dark secret. When Jodie finds evidence of prowlers at the cabin, she is convinced they are being watched, though none of her friends believe her. Until two men knock at the door ...’’
Ford came to the yarn by a somewhat sinuous route, one she first trod about 10 years ago.
‘‘I had just folded my public relations business and was fiddling around with a book idea, wondering whether to go back to a regular job or have a serious go at writing a novel,’’ she explains.
As a working journalist she had a natural and cultivated aptitude for narrative that allowed her to furnish two manuscripts of the chick-lit genre. The first effort didn’t quicken any pulses but the second attempt sparked some interest among publishers without leading to a contract.
‘‘I had started with chick lit thinking that there was a demand out there and that would be a logical way to get into the business. But after the second attempt went nowhere I decided I’d write what I wanted to read.’’
The set-up – the idea of four girlfriends going away for a weekend – was already in hand. In fact, Ford had three or four versions of that scenario down in draft form.
As for the setting, the writer went for the familiar.
‘‘Dungog, with its rolling hills, seemed such a fantastic location to set such a story. It’s so peaceful and idyllic – the perfect place to throw in some nasties!’’
The heroine of the piece – the Jodie Cramer character – came straight from the journalist-author’s eye for a good news story. Thirty years before, Sydney-raised Ford had been inspired by a media report detailing the courage of a young woman who had been savagely assaulted, stabbed multiple times and left for dead. That true story provided the thread and the rationale for Jodie’s stake in what unfolds.
‘‘Jodie needed a strong reason to know self-defence and know how to fight. She also carried that survivor guilt.’’
Ford pitched the manuscript to agent Clare Forster of Curtis Brown who in turn submitted it to six publishers. The response was extraordinary.
‘‘It ended up in a bidding war,’’ Ford says in wonderment.
The prize was knocked down to Random House.
‘‘They emailed with the news. After 10 years of trying it was totally mind-blowing. After almost leading myself to believe that in all likelihood I would never be published, it was like a dream.’’
In the process she has stepped from the cocoon of relative obscurity as Janette Hankinson, Lake Macquarie mother-of-two, to emerge anew as Jaye Ford. As Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) and a heap of others have realised, a truncated name that fits neatly on the dust jacket doesn’t hurt.
The writer is more than comfortable with the nom de plume.
‘‘I had always been called J, and the Ford was an abbreviation of my maiden name, Fulford.’’
Random is expecting more. Ford has signed a two-book deal and is already midway through the first draft of her follow-up. Expect the packaging to look similar to the first.
‘‘Random has designed a Jaye Ford-look,’’ the writer volunteers.
Writing is a solitary business. Mustering words and then sorting them into some sort of cogent order that, miraculously, pans out as a narrative is not a team sport. It takes one away from family and friends. At times, such a sacrifice can seem entirely worthless, especially if the chances of publication are remote. It can be soul-destroying. Plumbers and public servants wouldn’t be so foolish.
Family support can be crucial. (One of the great stories of world publishing tells how Stephen King binned a draft of his first novel Carrie only for his wife to retrieve it from the rubbish, read it and tell him he should persevere. With career sales upwards of 350million, King figures in the top 20 all-time best-selling authors.)
Janette Hankinson has a solid cheer squad in husband Paul and their children.
‘‘They understand that I sometimes go off into mum’s spaced-out writing world.’’
She will remain forever indebted to her husband for his insistence that she proclaim herself as a writer. When well-meaning friends ask ‘What are you up to these days?’ the fear of not being published makes it very difficult for first-time authors to admit that they’re having a stab at a novel. If rejection is the result, better to fail in private.
‘‘Paul was the one who encouraged me to ‘out’ myself as a writer. It was very important because, in a personal way, you’re are saying ‘I am giving this priority’.’’
Significantly, she timed her run.
‘‘The timing worked perfectly,’’ she says. ‘‘At the end of 2009 Claire had finished her HSC. By the time things took off in 2010, she was at university.’’
As for the chore of writing, like most of us Ford sits in wonder at those disciplinarians who can set themselves down at the word processor and churn out 3000 unadulterated words a day. That’s not her.
‘‘Writing is both easy and hard. You have your bad days when it seems impossible to get even a few words done. Then there are those days when you are simply flying.’’
After the slog of writing and the tension of the pitching and negotiating processes, the author didn’t dare consider it a done deal until the ink was on the dotted line. The contract was signed in July last year.
‘‘On the day I accepted the offer Paul came home with a bottle of Moet and all four of us stood around the kitchen bench and drank a toast.’’
Ford’s agent appears to have struck a very good deal for a first-time author. As well as a generous advance against sales it entails the book being translated into three languages besides English and allows for the shopping of film rights.
Already, a portion of the advance has been invested.
‘‘When it arrived I shouted myself a workspace at home by knocking out a wall and creating a great new office.’’
She won’t spend much time there in the next few weeks. There’s a Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane author tour to complete. Right now Ford is more than a little moved by all the marketing fuss surrounding the release of Beyond Fear.
‘‘It’s flattering and a little unreal,’’ she says.
Will she cope?
The peppermint tea is done. Weekender’s photographer arrives to shoot the new author. We take our leave, turning before crossing the road to glimpse Jaye Ford chatting amiably with Herald snapper Simone De Peak on the lake shore.
Fame, with all its attendants, is about to descend on this author/mother of two.
She’ll cope just fine.