“We don’t always agree on everything!”: Alexandra Hart and Phoebe Sleeman on publishing their childhood novel

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Many of us attempted to write books with friends at the age of twelve. I forced my friends into many a collaborative document, convinced that it would be our ticket to the Booker Prize, only to abandon it three weeks later. For and Phoebe Sleeman, this is not the case: Alight, the project of some seven years, is going to be found in Waterstones at the end of the month.

‘We met on the first day of secondary school”, Alex relays, “Phoebe was standing in ballet first position, and I decided I wanted her to be my friend, and we’ve been friends ever since. We both had separate ideas for fantasy novels at around the same time, but it was when we started to talking about it together that it took shape”.

The book-lined surroundings of Kingsgate’s upstairs room seem a very fitting environment for our conversation. They are everything you’d expect a pair of first-time authors to be: giggly, excited, possibly slightly nervous.  They hand me a bookmark, printed last month by their publishing company, Cranthorpe Millner, and with their names in curling script underneath the title.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Phoebe tells me, “I don’t think it’ll feel real until I have the printed book in front of me.”

“I don’t think it’ll feel real until I have the printed book in front of me”

“It was something we always dreamed about — seeing our book in Waterstones!”

Born initially out of a game Phoebe played with her siblings, they began writing it over a series of playdates at the age of twelve. What followed was an increasingly developed plotline and highly realised characters, gradually taking shape over the course of their time at school.

“It was lockdown that really pushed us to finish it. Our A Levels were cancelled, we had nothing to do—so we thought, why not try and work on it?”

“It was cool, actually.’ says Phoebe. “I’d get up in the morning and write, go for a walk in the afternoon—it felt like being a real author.”

“I’m not sure when we’d get that time again, actually.” Alex adds. Despite their protests, I get the feeling that their work would have come about somewhat inevitably: even in the half-hour I spend with them, I learn very quickly that they are fully conversant with each other’s styles in the way that only friends who have known each other since the age of twelve can be. They don’t quite finish each other’s sentences: rather, they pick up almost instinctively on what the other is going to say, quietly affirming each other’s ideas in a way that can’t be too dissimilar to their editorial process. The entire enterprise has been collaborative, they stress. Phoebe states, “It really helped having someone to set deadlines for you: all the little worries that you’d have when working on something by yourself—they’re a bit less pressing when you have someone to run them past with.”

The entire process has been collaborative

Alex laughs. “We don’t always agree on everything, though.” She adds. “But even that’s really beneficial: there were moments that it was really hard to let go of particular things we’d held onto since we were twelve, but doing it together helped a lot.”

The entire process has been collaborative, they stress. When asked about the issue of dealing with differences in each other’s styles in a single text, they have the perfect solution: to produce three voices within the text, one cultivated by each of them, and that of the overarching narrator produced in harmony with each other, and a long, cohesive editing process.

“We edited it together, which really helped. It went through a long process, working on it just the two of us, then handing it out to our families, then sending it out to publishers, who came back with more edits.’ Coming back to it as adults, in the wake of a pandemic and a collective heightened social-consciousness after the BLM protests, meant that real experience and twelve-year-old imagination collided in all kinds of ways.

‘The entire experience has taught us so much.’ Even the process of getting Alight out into the world was a learning curve: following the first round of less successful publisher applications, they returned to it six months later and came back with three offers.

‘Coming back to it as an eighteen-year-old was great, actually.’ Alex tells me. ‘The whole process was very reflective: reading what my twelve-year-old self was writing was a real insight. Then, publishing it as my teenage years ended felt very [apt??]: that period of my life ended along with the character’s.’

Alex and Phoebe’s teenage years might be closing, this is unlikely to be the last we see of their work—they are keen to keep working with each other, with both of them stating that writing together was completely central to working towards a finished product. ‘It simply wouldn’t exist without anyone else.’

The process of revisiting is on-going: as part of their publicity tour, they’re heading back to their old school to speak to the students.

‘If someone had told me [that it’s possible] for it to be published, that would have been a huge motivation.’ Phoebe smiles.

‘Yeah,’ Alex affirms, ‘I think if I had known that the difference between thinking of something and seeing it published was just to keep at it, that would have been amazing.’

Alight (Cranthorpe Millner) is currently available for pre-order and is out in print from Tuesday, 29th March 2022. Durham book release: Saturday, 30th April 2022, Waterstones, Saddler St.

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