Spread the Word’s Emily Ajgan interviews debut novelist Ella King about her novel Bad Fruit, a literary thriller about a dark, unravelling relationship between mother and daughter.
In her interview, Ella talks to us about her writing journey, the influences and life experiences that shaped it, and shares the inspiration behind her anticipated debut novel, published in August 2022 by HarperFiction.
Emily: Tell us about Bad Fruit and how you were inspired to write it.
Ella: 17 year-old British-Singaporean Lily knows exactly how to manage her volatile mother, May. She arranges her mother’s teddies. She wears pink. She pours her a glass of perfectly spoilt orange juice. But as May spirals out of control, Lily starts to uncover her mother’s disturbing childhood in Singapore, and the shattering secrets at the heart of her own.
The inspiration for my novel are the stories my grandmother told me of her experience during World War II – stories of brutality, trauma and violence. This, together with my volunteer work with domestic violence and anti-human trafficking charities, made me understand how trauma can be passed down generations and the importance of breaking cycles of inherited trauma.
Emily: Can you tell us about your writing journey and what lead you to this place – publishing your debut novel with HarperFiction?
Ella: I’ve always wanted to write a novel but it wasn’t until I was on maternity leave that it began to take shape. There’s something about looking after a baby that pulls you into your own interiority. I’d walk around pushing my pram, observing my surroundings but also thinking about my volunteer work with womens’ charities. The collision of those two aspects (which essentially formed the setting and theme of Bad Fruit) was electric, suddenly, I knew what I wanted to write about. Any time my daughter fell asleep, I’d throw myself down on the nearest bench and write.
A few months later, I was accepted onto Faber Academy’s ‘Writing A Novel’ course with the incredible author and tutor, Sarah May. There, I started writing regularly, giving more thought to character, plot and voice and being critiqued by an insanely talented group of other authors. After Faber Academy ended, I still wrote but I found it harder to fit in with returning to work and looking after my daughter.
Writing returned to centre stage two years later, strangely, when I developed a rare but curable form of cancer. The chemo made me too ill to write but I had enough energy to submit my work to places like Spread the Word and other competitions. By the time I’d finished chemo, I’d won several opportunities and prizes. That gave me the confidence to submit to literary agents, which resulted in eight literary agents offering me representation. I chose the incredible Hellie Ogden because she was so editorial and I just really liked and trusted her as a person and friend. We worked tirelessly together for several months before submitting to publishers – ultimately, HarperFiction won the auction and signed me for a two-book deal. I haven’t looked back since.
Emily: You developed the first three chapters of your novel with Spread the Word – can you tell us a little bit about this opportunity and how you found the process?
Ella: I benefitted from two opportunities put on by Spread the Word. The first was being selected for a callout. This is where you submit your cover letter, synopsis and the first few chapters. If selected, you receive feedback by a major literary agent, in my case, Sallyanne Sweeney from MMB Creative. Sallyanne’s evaluation was absolutely pivotal to my journey – she provided written feedback on the cover letter, synopsis and excerpt, including detailed pointers on how each should be improved. It was due to her that I made the decision to delete my prologue (which, in retrospect, was beautifully written but had nothing to do with the book) and to cut straight to the explosive beginning of the novel. It’s that beginning which forms the opening of Bad Fruit hitting the shelves now.
I also attended a 1-2-1 Fiction Surgery with Eva Lewin, Writer Development Manager at Spread the Word. You submit a 3000 word extract of your work plus synopsis and then meet with Eva for an hour to discuss. It was such a fantastic opportunity to gain a fresh perspective, Eva was so incisive and thoughtful, interrogating me about character arc and challenging me to up the stakes for the protagonist and the readers.
Emily: How has your volunteer work in anti-human trafficking and domestic violence charities influenced your writing?
Ella: My work with anti-human trafficking and domestic violence charities has been a huge source of inspiration for Bad Fruit. So often, we have very simplistic views about race, motherhood and trauma, in part, I think, because it enables us to hold these issues at arms-length from ourselves. But working with survivors strips you of uncomplicated perspectives – what do you do when instead of seeing one victim, you see a chain of victims each of whom is hurting and hurts others? You’re forced to confront harder questions. How do you break chains of inherited trauma? How is healing possible? These are the topics that Bad Fruit seeks to grapple with.
Emily: Do you have any words of advice or tips for aspiring writers?
Ella: The first step to traditional publication is to submit your cover letter, synopsis and first three chapters to literary agents but there are so many opportunities to perfect these three elements before you take that first plunge. I highly recommend looking out for callouts, surgeries, workshops and competitions (which Spread the Word provides) and submitting your work to them before your first round of literary agents. Each time you do that, you learn something new – editing out those extraneous words, straightening out that plot point, refining your synopsis, making your pitch punchier – all of which will increase your chances of being signed by your dream agent.
Ella King is a Singaporean novelist living in London. She read Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University and is a corporate lawyer. A graduate of Faber Academy’s novel-writing programme, she won the Blue Pencil Pitch Prize 2019 and came third in the Aurora Prize for Short Fiction 2019. She was inspired to write Bad Fruit by the stories her grandmother told her and her volunteer work with anti-human trafficking and domestic violence charities. You can buy Bad Fruit here.
Published 16 August 2022