The Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition is a prestigious annual contest offering the winner a worldwide publishing contract with a £10,000 advance. I caught up with 2017 winner Jasbinder Bilan, whose entry saw her taking the top prize.
Congratulations on winning the Times Chickenhouse prize 2017! How long had you been working on Song of the Mountain when you entered it into the competition?
Song Of The Mountain was the novel I wrote for my MA Creative Writing Course and I completed it as a first draft in time for our anthology launch in 2015. Following the launch, I decided to make a major change to the manuscript in order to bring the story closer to the reader. This change meant re-writing the whole novel and putting it into present tense, so I’d been editing the MS for around a year when I entered it for the Times Chickenhouse Competition.
What has life been like since winning the prize?
It has truly been a whirlwind of the very best kind. The Times/ Chickenhouse Prize is one of the most prestigious awards for unpublished writers of Children’s fiction and I never imagined that I would ever win. It was a dream come true and such an honour. After the announcement it still didn’t feel real, I was walking on air for weeks afterwards, in fact I still am! Following the lunch at The Saville Club I met the whole of the fabulous Chickenhouse team at HQ in the most adorable bookish townhouse in the West Country and ate lots of delicious cake – of course! - and discussed the next stages of transforming my story into a real live book, which is so wonderful and exciting. We even imagined what the cover might be like.
Can you briefly tell us what the book is about and when it will be published?
Song Of The Mountain is an adventure story with a magical twist set in India. It follows eleven year old Asha, who is empowered with spiritual connections to her grandmother, as she journeys through the wild and dangerous Himalayas in search of her missing father. Publication with Chickenhouse Books, is planned for Spring 2019.
The book is inspired by your own family relationships and young life in the Himalayas. What advice would you give to other authors hoping to write about their childhood memories?
I was born in Northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas on the farm which has been in my family for generations. I had a very special relationship with my grandmother and she was the one who kept the past alive for me. She would tell us stories all the time and so they were a huge part of my life when growing up. When I write, I feel I have this rich treasure box from which to draw inspiration, part memory and part imagination. The beauty of creating characters is that each time you can let your imagination go wild and so long as you trust your reader and make sure you keep them at the centre of your writing you will be able to weave visceral childhood memories and create a unique story which only you can write. It was Professor David Almond who always said that when we write we create lies, beautiful lies, so my advice to writers wanting to use their memories for their fiction is, don’t be afraid to embellish. Lure your reader into a world that they won’t want to leave.
How has taking the Bath Spa WYP MA enriched your knowledge and ability as a writer?
The course at Bath Spa was definitely a turning point for me. In many ways I had waited most of my life to be given the chance to do a course such as this. I have always written but I had never shown anybody my writing before the first workshop and it was both scary and exciting. The course gave me the confidence to try a range of different ideas before plunging into the one I always knew I wanted to do, which became Song Of The Mountain. The most wonderful thing about the course is the inspiration that surrounds you. From the most beautiful campus where you can’t help but be creative to all the amazing writers and tutors who really make it a magical year from start to finish.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors of books for children?
I think the very first step is to begin writing. Be brave and put your pen to paper and get your thoughts and ideas written down. Join a writing group, there are lots of them around and start to think critically about your story. It takes a lot of hard work but if you keep going you will get to the end. One final piece of advice is to keep true to yourself and your heart, don’t try to recreate something that’s already out there, write the story that’s special to you and that your younger self would have adored reading.
Are you currently working on a new title?
I have begun to write my next piece and I am currently about a third of the way in. I am not too certain what it will be exactly so I can’t reveal too much but it’s another MG story which is magical and also set in India.
What are your writing plans for the future?
I am lucky enough to be a part of a very close knit writing group and we work together and support each other through our various projects so my plan is to continue writing my next story and once that is complete I have two further ideas to choose from for the third project.
Now that I have won the Times/Chickenhouse Prize I feel that I can teach less and really focus on my writing. I can see very exciting times ahead and am really looking forward to doing the literary festivals, book events and school workshops which are such a huge part of being a children’s author.