Ali Harris has written for magazines such as Red, ELLE, Stylist, Cosmopolitan and Company and Glamour before leaving to pursue a career as an author.
Ali Harris’s novel “The First Last Kiss” hit the shops on January 17th this year.
After the success of her first novel, “Miracle on Regent Street”, there was no doubt that Ali’s next read would be just as enjoyable, sassy and downright addictive as the last.
I decided to catch up with her to find out more about the woman behind the fiction. In this open interview Ali talks of the highs and lows of becoming a writer, the hard work that follows when you make it, and imparts some useful tips for the aspiring writers amongst you too.
“Does it take knowing that you’re losing someone for us to truly appreciate what we have?”
First things first. How did you become a writer?
I’d had ambitions to write a book since I was a child but was side-tracked in my teens by the way more glamorous ambition of being an actress. However, after graduating from my performing arts degree I found myself waitressing. For far longer than I’d planned. I hated my uninspiring job and any spare minute of the day when I wasn’t serving tables I had my nose in a book, losing myself in tales about funny, bright, sassy women who were struggling to make their way in the world, just like me. I’d always been an avid reader and the ‘chick lit’ genre had just been born. Inspired by the brilliance of Helen Fielding, Lisa Jewell, Jennifer Weiner and Adele Parks I started writing by day, whilst serving tables at night.
Six months later I’d finished the book and sent three chapters off to ten agents. I got nine rejections and when the tenth agent showed a flicker of interest but then rejected it too, I cried. My sister cleverly pointed out that whilst I should never give up on my dreams to get published, maybe I should consider getting a job that involved writing every day, instead. I’d always loved fashion magazines so I wrote to 5 of my favourite titles and a week later had a work experience placement. From the first day, I loved it and gradually worked my way up to Features writer on Company, where I had my own column. I followed that by working at Cosmo and ELLE before becoming deputy features editor of Glamour. But during those years my dream of being a published author had never gone away. In fact, working in magazines had only fuelled my ambition more. As a journalist I was lucky enough to meet and interview many celebrities – but even more excitingly for me, many of my favourite authors. I’d always quiz them about how they got published and got some great advice. One of them even told her agent about me, who asked to see the novel I was working on, when I was ready. I was so freaked out I didn’t send her anything for three years! I was too busy developing my magazine career, falling in love, having fun…. the usual 20 something stuff! It was only when I was 31 and pregnant with my first baby that I realized that it was now or never. No more excuses. I used my maternity leave to focus on finishing a book I’d been working on for years – and sent it to the agent and was overjoyed when she took me on. I’d like to say the rest is history, but more rejections followed as the book I finally finished, edited and submitted was turned down by ten publishers. Luckily this time the feedback was much more positive. They liked my writing but in a tough market, they didn’t feel the story was strong enough for a debut novel. Luckily I had also submitted an idea for a second novel – which was to become ‘Miracle on Regent St’. All of them showed an interest in this book and one editor in particular, from Simon and Schuster (my now publisher) asked to meet me. Fifteen chapters later she offered me a two book deal! Last year I signed with them for another two more.
Can you tell us a bit about the plot for your new book?
With pleasure! It’s a story about a couple, Molly and Ryan who meet in their teens and seem destined to be together forever. They fall in love, but soon it becomes clear that one day they will be torn apart. Each chapter is a kiss in their relationship but as the story flits back and forth in time we see them share their first, last kiss and from that moment Molly finds herself asking if you can ever know how much you love someone until its too late? Can you make a kiss last a lifetime? I like to think it’s an emotional, but uplifting read that will really make you think about love and life.
After the success of your first book, was the second more difficult to write?
Hell, yes! My first book, Miracle on Regent Street had been such a joy to write, I was so unencumbered by expectation and the story was so straightforward and so life-affirming. Going to Evie’s world made me happy every single day. But The First Last Kiss was different. As well as being a bigger story and structurally more complex it was also incredibly emotionally draining (if you read it you’ll understand why!) Without sounding dramatic I felt like I carried the weight of Molly and Ryan’s future’s around with me for the entire year that I was writing it. Added to that we’d just moved house and I had a new baby as well as a very active toddler running about. None of those things make writing particularly ‘easy’.
Also, with a second book you’re no longer in a bubble where you’re just writing unselfconsciously or indulgently for yourself. I was editing and then promoting my first one, as well as reading reviews for the first time which can really effect your confidence when you’re trying to write your next book. I’ve since learned its not a good idea to look at Amazon obsessively! Especially as I didn’t have the belief that the first wasn’t a complete fluke. On top of all that I had a toddler, a new baby and we’d just moved to the countryside from London. So to say I was a bit strung out, is to put it mildly! But even though it was hard and I was stressed, I always had complete, immeasurable belief in the book, the characters and my writing. I honestly have no idea where that confidence came from. I don’t think I’m naturally a confident person. But I adore writing, I’m completely passionate about it and I knew what I was writing was better than anything I’d ever done before.
What has inspired the stories behind your novels?
So many things! People, places, film, music, emotions, fears… I have definitely used the various jobs I have done over the years as inspiration. One of my first jobs after university was working in retail in a concession at Selfridges. At the morning staff meetings I was always intrigued by the pale, quiet stockroom girl who kept herself to herself. I found myself envying the freedom of her job that meant she came and went as she pleased and didn’t have to deal with all the petty problems and bitchiness of the shop floor. It occurred to me that although she probably felt invisible, she was in the engine room and we all relied on her, whether we knew her name or not. She was the heart and soul of the store. Ten years later, she was who I imagined when I wrote Miracle On Regent Street. The First Last Kiss came from a much darker place. I had the idea shortly after I’d had my first child. My husband was home late, I hadn’t heard from him and I was lying in bed worrying – as anxious new mums tend to do! I remember wondering if I kissed him properly before he left and then I panicked because I realised I couldn’t remember. And then I thought, how could I have let the love of my life walk out of the house and not savoured the moment our lips met? What if it had been the last time? How could I ever forgive myself? When he came home I showered him with kisses and as he fell into an easy sleep next to me, I vowed to try as hard as I could never take him – or our kisses for granted again. That’s when the title and idea began to form in my mind.
As I began to map out the story of Molly and Ryan, a couple who have been together for years and loved each other for what feels like forever, I began to question this theory more. Is it ever possible to be the perfect partner? Does it take knowing that you’re losing someone for us to truly appreciate what we have?
I told you it came from a dark place!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Oh wow. I have so much advice! Stop talking about it and start writing? And then when you start writing, don’t stop till you’ve finished? I know, I know that makes it sound easy and impossible all at once, right? Actually, that’s what writing novels feels like all the time. When it’s going well it is a breeze, the best job in the world! When it’s going badly it feels like a long, painful journey up an insurmountable mountain.
But, saying that my tips to make it easier would be to take the time to shape your story and characters before you start writing. I can’t tell you how many novels I started where I just said whimsically: ‘oh, you know I’ll just see where the characters take me!’ In my experience that will either take you very, very sl-oooow-ly, or you’ll write yourself into a corner you can’t get out of, realize you have no idea where the story is going and you’ll have to start again. It says also the first book I ever plotted from begin to end was also the first book (of the many I’d tried to write!) to get published. I think that speaks for itself!
Set yourself a weekly target. It could be 1000 words; it could be 10,000 the important thing is to stick to it. Deadlines are good. They are what you will have to write to when you get a book deal, so you may as well start now. Don’t labor over every sentence. If you’re picking up a thesaurus every two minutes, you shouldn’t be writing a novel, you should be going on Countdown! Get out and about. In order to write about life, you have to see it. Staying in a locked room staring at a computer is a sure fire road to insanity so if the words aren’t coming go for a walk, a run, go to the pub (yes, really!) or to a coffee shop. But then come home and write.
What else? Oh yes, find your voice, one that’s unique to you. Admire other authors yes, but don’t try to write like them. Get as much experience in other forms of writing as possible: write for newspapers, magazines, write an opinion piece, a speech, write a kids story, a short story or a poem, or even a blog.
Just write. Every single day. Easy, right?!
Fashion seems to figure strongly in your narrative. Is this another love of yours? If so, can you tell me three of your favourite items in your wardrobe?
I’ve always loved fashion and working in women’s magazines definitely fanned the flames even further. I’ve always loved classic, simple style and yearned to have some classic designer staples in my wardrobe. So my favourite has to be my Chanel handbag that I bought myself the day Miracle on Regent Street was published. It’s the 2011 version of the classic 2.55. Black, quilted, quite small and boxy with a silver and black chain. I love it! The plan is that I’m going to hand it down to my daughter when she’s 21 – with the caveat that she does the same to her daughter (if she has one) at the same age! Coincidentally my daughter’s initials are CC – just like Coco Chanel’s so it seems appropriate. And I love the fact that the bag embodies my dreams coming true. I think that’s a lovely gift to hand on through the generations. One of my other favourite items would be my wedding shoes – they’re a gorgeous ivory Christian Louboutin stiletto with a diamante embossed butterfly over the foot. I told myself when I handed over the £500 for them that I’d wear them again, but I just can’t bring myself too. I love that the heels are still caked with dried mud and looking at them on my shoe shelves brings back all the memories of my wedding day. The last item is a jigsaw striped Breton top. It’s the fashion law that when you become a mum you have to wear Breton stripes! I always feel simple and stylish in it.
Pick up your copy of The First Last Kiss in all major book stores now!