I’ve just been to collect my dog from her country seat (she stayed for a few days to keep my in-laws company when all the noise and children and fun suddenly disappeared a few days after Christmas). I could have asked another member of the family to go to get her, but secretly what I really wanted was two lovely train journeys to finish the book I was reading.
This was a book I knew terribly well – but it transpired, as I read it, not at all.
Vigilante by Shelley Harris is published on January 8th. I’m trying to remember when I first heard of Shelley’s wonderful idea of a woman who is so determined to be someone that she creates an alter ego for herself, but it may be as long ago as July, 2010, when Shelley’s debut Jubilee was the subject of a four-way auction in a two book deal, and Vigilante was just a twinkle in its author’s eye. I read an early draft in the autumn of 2012, and I could tell then that it was going to be fantastic: Jenny Pepper was such a straightforward and loveable character, who was so determined to matter… very recognisable. And her husband Elliott with his cool job (he’s a designer), and his apparent confidence was instantly likeable and recognisable too. But like every early draft of any book I’ve ever read, it needed work. We discussed the book in Patisserie Valerie over coffee and cakes, and then I didn’t see it for a while. The next edits were done by Shelley’s very sharp editor, Kirsty Dunseath at Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Shelley and Kirsty kept me in the loop as to what changes were being made, and then suddenly last month I had a finished copy in my hand. I wanted to read it before Christmas, but didn’t want to read this precious book through a mulled-wine addled filter.
So I waited for my train journey.
What is so extraordinary is that the book is the same book I read a while back, and yet it felt utterly different. Jenny hadn’t changed in her essence, but now she is fully fleshed out, I’m with her every step of the way. Where once I was admiring the concept, I’m now fully engaged, so much so that the author (‘my’ author) falls away, and I’m just galloping through the pages.
Shelley would be the first to say that the second book is a difficult thing. As an agent you’re very privileged to be party to that difficulty, but though you try to help, there’s really not much you can do other than offer tea and gags and thank God you‘re not an author. So isn’t it ridiculous that I’ve come away from reading Vigilante feeling … incredibly proud. I’m proud to be associated with the book, proud to see what Shelley has achieved, and excited to see that the very first national review sees the book as a bestseller.
There IS a prize for the best second novel: it’s The Encore award. I’m not saying Shelley should win it (though that would be dandy) but it’s great that such a prize does exist. It’s a huge thing to follow up a big successful debut – and very very satisfying to see that challenge NAILED.