Q+A with Jen Campbell
Tell me a bit about yourself, your background and where you are from.
My name’s Jen (hello!), I’m thirty and I grew up in the north east of England, in a small village by the sea. At the moment I live in London (and whilst I love it, I miss the sea very much). I was a bookseller for ten years and now I write books, run a Youtube channel where I chat about books, run writing workshops, judge literary prizes… basically, I do a lot of things centred around books. And I love it.
Tell me more about your work as a writer and how the ideas for a Youtube channel and running writing workshops came about.
I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I spent a lot of time in hospital as a child. I have a rare condition called EEC Syndrome, which meant I was born with my fingers fused together and some of them are missing. Doctors helped form fingers for me and I became fascinated with the act of holding a pen. Stories also distracted me when recovering from operations, and I wanted to create some of my own, to become part of that conversation.
I remember my parents buying me a typewriter for Christmas when I was little (I assure you that missing some fingers just makes me more aerodynamic when it comes to typing), and I’d write late into the night. I had a few poems published as a teenager, then went to Edinburgh University to study English Literature and took up a job bookselling. My first book actually happened quite by accident. It was a series called Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, inspired by my life as a bookseller. My follow up, The Bookshop Book was about weird and wonderful bookshops all around the world.
Now I’ve returned to writing fiction and poetry, which is where I started. My first children’s book, Franklin’s Flying Bookshop, illustrated by Katie Harnett is published by Thames & Hudson, and my debut short story collection The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night has just been released from Two Roads. It’s my first book of fiction for adults, a collection of twelve stories many of which are inspired by fairy tale.
I started my Youtube channel three years ago, as I’d moved to London and started working at an antiquarian bookshop and missed recommending new releases. Booktube is a great place to talk about books, and I enjoy creating videos about books I’ve read, as well as running a series on the history of fairy tales. As I’d run writing workshops with The Poetry School and at book festivals, I decided to set up courses of my own. I run group workshops three times a year and individual workshops via email all year round (details can be found at www.jen-campbell.com/writing-workshops)
How did you get to where you are today and what was your career path?
It’s always difficult to say what leads to what when you look back over a freelance career, but I worked doing lots of different things for a very long time, to see what was feasible, what I enjoyed, what I could take further. I spent ten years working as a bookseller, a few of those years working seven day weeks to make ends meet, while I worked on my writing in the evenings and gradually made the move to become entirely self-employed a year ago.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being an author and running a business and how did you overcome it?
There are many different challenges – as with any job. Fighting doubt is one of those, especially when you’re working on a new project. It’s something that doesn’t go away, as you’re always only ‘as good as’ your last book. It’s also an interesting juxtaposition: the writing of a book and the promoting of that book. One is so solitary, the other requires interacting with lots of people once your book has a life of its own. I don’t find it difficult, necessarily, but it is very weird.
How important is marketing for an author? Any tips?
It’s not necessary but it is desirable. I have a Youtube channel, which helps me reach people, but I set it up after my fourth book was published; it didn’t get me a book deal. You need to be able to engage people in some way. That might be online, it might be at events, it might be in articles you’re writing on your subject area. You should, if possible, live outside of your book in a visible form somewhere.
How do you keep motivated?
Reading good books. Speaking to readers. Finishing projects and remembering the joy of finishing those projects (as, when you’re in the middle of them, it can feel impossible at times.)
Have you had any mentors?
Not really, no, though I’ve met lots of lovely writerly folk along the way.
What has being self-employed taught you?
Diversify. I find it helpful to do many different projects, all related to books, so I can balance my workload depending on what’s happening at any given time.
Any career aspirations?
To keep writing in the hope that people will keep reading.
What advice would you give to writers and those thinking of becoming writers?
In the words of Philip Pullman: read like a butterfly, write like a bee.
Jen Campbell is an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her debut short story collection ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ is published by Two Roads and her first children’s book ‘Franklin’s Flying Bookshop’ is published by Thames & Hudson. She is also the Sunday Times bestselling author of the ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’ series and ‘The Bookshop Book.’ Her poetry collection ‘The Hungry Ghost Festival’ is published by The Rialto and she won an Eric Gregory Award in 2016. She talks about all things books at youtube.com/jenvcampbell