Truly Tan is a well-established series for middle readers but when and where did the idea for Tan originate?
It’s difficult for me to remember exactly, but I think I began the first book in 2003.
The first book was simply a stand-alone. I had no plans for a series. I just wanted to write something funny and lively … I didn’t even plan the spy angle, it just happened. I had no idea who Tan was when I first began writing. All I knew was that she was in a tree house muttering to herself. And she owned a telescope.
How many publishers did you approach before Tan was first published? How long did it take to get that first break? What was the title of this first publication?
Tan was picked up immediately by Penguin. I had already written an Aussie Chomp (I Hate Sport) and an Aussie Bite (Sing, Pepi, Sing!) for them, so I had established a lovely relationship with the children’s publishing division. The team at Penguin were very supportive of my work and had a huge influence on how I developed as a children’s author.
Then what happened?
There were many delays in getting Truly Tan off the ground, including a couple of rewrites (naturally). My publisher also went on extended maternity leave during that time and the manuscript sort of languished.
It was three years to the day from the time Truly Tan hit the editor’s desk to the time it was published. But the girls at Penguin adored Tan and their enthusiasm never wavered. They asked me to work it up into a series.
With this in mind, they retitled the first book (Tan Callahan’s Secret Spy Files) The Mystery of Purple Haunt. I began work on the second book (which in later years would be titled, Truly Tan: Jinxed!). I did not have a contract for the second book.
Note to self: Writing book two in a series sans a contract—not such a good idea. Meanwhile, book one was finally published in late 2007.
What did you do when Tan tanked?
I was devastated. Everyone was devastated. It was not an editing decision. It was purely a decision made by the bean counters. They declared that Tan did not sell enough copies to warrant a second book. This meant I was now stuck with the second book (I had spent a year writing it) and no possibility of selling it. Who would want the second book in a series that had failed?
Lots of tears were shed. But what could I do? I put the manuscript in the bottom drawer and got on with writing Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children.
What did you do when Tan was resurrected?
It was astonishing. To this day I have to pinch myself at my good fortune.
In 2011, out of the blue, I received an email from HarperCollins. Oddly, the email had been sent two months earlier but wound up in my junk mail! I only came across it accidentally. Can you believe that?
The email was from Tegan Morrison. Tegan had been a junior editor at Penguin back in the early days of Tan and was now a publisher at HarperCollins. She contacted me to ask if I would like to write some junior fiction for Harper. She said how much she adored Tan.
Now, here’s another fab piece of synchronicity. That very same week I had received an email from Penguin to say Tan Callahan’s Secret Spy Files had gone out of print and the rights were reverting to me. I said to Tegan, ‘You can have Tan if you want’.
I still believed passionately in Tan’s potential but I was also nervous about suggesting that Tegan take it on. I need not have worried. Tegan was ecstatic. We set to work repackaging, renaming and re-imagining the series. I secured a four-book contract, too. Truly Tan was re-released in November 2012. It has since evolved into an eight book series.
Note to self: Well done on keeping the faith.
Can you tell us about your writing through these ups and downs?
I love writing. I hate writing. I don’t know. I just can’t not do it. The Tan debacle was crushing but I discovered a lot about myself through it. I do not see myself as a tough person: in fact quite the opposite. I am highly sensitive. But I am also quite stoic. You have to be stoic to be a writer.
Absolutely. I didn’t keep a stiff upper lip through all this (there was a lot of ranting and raving and hissy fits) but I did keep going. Of course, Tensy Farlow was a remarkable book to work on. I won’t say publicly that I believe in angels (ahem) but Tensy definitely helped heal the broken artist in me.
If you love writing, if you want to be an author, you will always find a way to keep going. At least, that has been my experience.
Jen’s new novel, The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack, will be released in September this year. Truly Tan: Hoodwinked! will be released in May 2016. HarperCollins Publishers, Australia.