Meet Julie Houston – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Sapere Books Popular Romantic Fiction Award

Hi Julie

In your shortlist interview you wrote:

I was inspired to write SING ME A SECRET after taking part in a musical production of Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar in Leeds Town Hall several years ago. In the actual book, a family secret held between four sisters is played out, and eventually revealed, while rehearsing and performing in their village’s own production of this fabulous musical. I’d loved every minute of taking part in the show, especially as we all fell in love with Jesus. And what a Jesus…

You revealed the source of this novel was a musical – how did this come about?

I’ve sung in a choir for the past twenty-five years or so and, on one occasion, we were lucky enough to be given permission to perform JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR by Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Group. This was performed in Leeds Town Hall and it was one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in. We all fell in love with Jesus, who was an extremely talented – as well as rather good looking – young man, and taking part in the production was really fantastic. Our choirmaster, Gary, who I’ve acknowledged in the book, Sing Me A Secret, surprised us all by donning a yellow suit and purple wig and taking on the part of Herod. This was my inspiration for Juno’s love object – Dr Scott Butler – when he took on the part of Herod in his own yellow suit and purple wig.

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Can you share some of your journey from unpublished to published author with us?

I’ve always read, as surely all authors must have done in order to write a novel themselves, and really wish – again as all authors probably wish – I’d started writing much earlier. However, I started writing Goodness Grace and Me when my children were small and I suppose it took me many years to not only write it but have the confidence to submit to agents. Then came the usual rejections. I joined the RNA and submitted this first book into their New Writers’ Scheme which was extremely helpful in pointing out where I was going wrong. (As well as going right, thank goodness). Eventually my lovely agent, Anne Williams at KHLA, took me on and we did the round of submissions. This was back in 2014 when publishing was still all about paperbacks and the Romantic Comedy genre seemed to be losing popularity As such, the main publishing houses rejected it. I decided to go independent and worked with Ebook Publishing to get Goodness Grace and Me up as an e-book with Amazon Kindle. The book did well, reaching 64 in the UK charts. I then wrote The One Saving Grace and Looking for Lucy and was taken on by White Glove which was an arm of Amazon publishing for agented writers. I don’t think it exists any more. They were brilliant at promoting and Looking for Lucy reached Number 1 in Australia. Anne submitted A Village Affair to a round of publishers and I was taken on by Sarah Ritherdon who was then with Aria. Aria took all my back numbers as well as offering a new three-book deal and then, with Hannah Smith as editorial director, was given another three-book deal. The team at HeadOfZeus/Aria have been fabulous to work with. Sing Me A Secret won the Sapere Books Popular Fiction prize in March this year. A Family Affair will be published in June and I’m just about to complete my tenth novel, A Better Life.

What advice would you give to your younger unpublished self?

Write that book now!! Don’t leave it until you think you have time. Read everything, even books outside the genre in which you want to write. Also, go with your gut instinct: if you really think people will enjoy reading what you’ve written, don’t listen to anyone who might try and put you off. Persevere, don’t give up. Plod on. You’ll get there if you really want to.

Are you a very organised plotter or do you write from a specific starting point and then let the characters evolve and take you on a journey?

By the time I was writing my fifth book and had been taken on by Aria, I knew this was a serious business and I had to see this as a job, rather than a hobby! I’ve never been asked to write a certain plot – sometimes I think it might be interesting to be given an idea – so it’s now a matter of sitting down with a brand-new exercise book and creating characters, time lines and family trees. I hate that first page of writing a new novel. In fact, I probably hate the first few chapters as I am homesick for my old characters and not yet in love with the new ones. Once I’m in love with them, I let them write themselves. I know this sound utterly daft, and I’ve certainly ridiculed the idea that characters can write the stories themselves, but give them their head and they will. I love writing dialogue – I’d love to do some script writing – so I suppose my books are very much character, as opposed to plot, driven.

How have you coped to keep yourself mentally and physically fit during lockdown?

I’ve just got on and written two books: A Family Affair which comes out in June and A Better Life (title might change.) I started the first last March as Lockdown started and am on the point of finishing the second. If anyone had suggested, when I first started this writing lark, I’d be writing two books a year, I’d have laughed out loud. Lockdown has given me the opportunity to do that. My children are in their early twenties and have basically left home, giving me all the time I need to write. Physically, I run most days as well as walking the dog. (Sometimes I combine the two, much to the dog’s dismay who doesn’t like being on a lead). I was swimming most days until the gym closed for Lockdown and we’ve now just been informed this one isn’t going to be reopening at all. Who needs yet another retail park which, I believe, is going to be there instead? I’m livid!!

What has the RNA and winning this award meant to you?

The RNA has been fabulous. I’ve met so many friendly and talented writers happy to share their time, advice and expertise. Winning the RNA Sapere Popular Fiction award this year can only be described as a dream come true.

What next for Julie?

As we speak, I’m just about finishing book 10: A Better Life. Brand new characters apart from Cassie, Fiona and Clare from A Village Affair who, although featuring only briefly, I enjoyed bringing to life once again. I certainly can’t imagine stopping writing very soon yet. Who knows – in another five years, I may have written another ten books?

I certainly hope that you do and wish you every success in the future.

Please leave a comment or a question in the comments below!

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