Former UEA student lands major book deal

Norfolk writer Polly Crosby, author of The Illustrated Child. Photo: Matt Crosby

Norfolk writer Polly Crosby, author of The Illustrated Child. Photo: Matt Crosby - Credit: Archant

HarperCollins has backed Polly Crosby’s ‘haunting’ debut The Illustrated Child

When someone achieves brilliance, it can look sudden and easy to everyone else. Certainly Polly Crosby’s rise as an author can appear that way. Polly wrote a novel, then entered The Bridport Prize’s Peggy Chapman Andrews Award for a first novel, where she was runner-up.

Next she gained a place on the prestigious University of East Anglia creative writing masters course and then attracted overwhelming publisher interest for her book. This led to HarperCollins UK and US offering ’significant six figure deals’ for her work, The Illustrated Child, out at the end of the month.

“It has been a whirlwind!” says Polly, “I’m tentatively so excited, but also quite nervous about my book being out there.” Of course, the path to publication is never as smooth as it looks on the outside. In fact, Polly wrote her first novel when she was 19 – but there were no book deals then. She also applied for the MA in creative writing at UEA in 2001, and was turned down. She was told to come back when she had some more life experience. Rejections are the backbone of most authors’ histories, and Polly was no different, but still she kept on writing.

Now, life has changed and she is editing her second novel as part of her two book deal with HarperCollins, while eagerly awaiting the publication date of The Illustrated Child. Pre-publication, it has already caught the imagination of many book bloggers, critics and people on social media. I have been lucky enough to read a proof version and was utterly charmed, entranced and mesmerised by the ‘coming of age’ story about a girl called Romilly.

Based in Suffolk (Polly’s place of birth), we join Romilly in the sprawling old house that she shares with her father, an eccentric artist. As her father succumbs to early onset dementia, Romilly realises that the pictures books he writes and illustrates contain a hidden treasure hunt, just for her. But this is no fairy tale story for Romilly, as she unlocks the disturbing secrets of their past.

Polly describes the novel as “dark and haunting, bittersweet and a little bit magical.” Set in the mid-1980s, it is a nostalgic adventure, which takes you from the whimsical, playful world of a near-feral childhood to one that is increasingly adult as well as deeply touching, melancholic and compelling.

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I meet Polly at her home in the countryside south of Norwich, where she lives with her husband and son. Her elderly rescue cat, inspiration for Monty the Siamese cat in her novel, greets me with a loud miaow. Polly explains that whilst the book is set in Suffolk, it is deeply inspired by the Norfolk landscape. She has lived in the county for 17 years now, and spent much of her childhood exploring the Norfolk coast, enjoying the outdoors and fun such as camping trips to Weybourne.

“I have a real affinity with watery places, especially the beautiful reedy habitats of Norfolk, like Strumpshaw Fen and Smockmill Common, where the River Tas meanders through,” Polly tells me. In fact, the shrieking pits which feature in the book are based on the spooky legends of Alymerton and Northrepps, where folklore tells of a ghostly woman who weeps and wails for her dead baby. Those of us familiar with tales of a roaming Norfolk panther will also appreciate its prowl through the pages of this book, as Romilly’s imagination blends with local myth and hearsay.

Polly also has a love of the sea – look out for that in her second novel, which is about two women who live on an island in the North Sea. She promises a Gothic feel, and lots of strange and mysterious occurrences.

It is a significant footnote to Polly’s own story that she suffers from the genetic condition cystic fibrosis. As she says, “I’ve lived with this illness all my life, and I think it’s made me find ways of working around it, both in my writing, and in how I view the world.” Polly understands the challenges of writing whilst having a chronic condition, and she wants to use her success to help others in a similar situation achieve their authorial dreams.

Polly has created bursaries, using some of her publishing advance, to enable writers who are disabled or living with a long term illness, to enter their novels into The Bridport Prize without having to pay the entry fee; “It’s fantastic that there is support out there for marginalised groups such as black, Asian and ethnic minority writers and those on a low income, but I still don’t see that much help for people with disabilities. I want to try and change that.”

Polly is a Norfolk-grown talent to watch and her work is a celebration of the beauty and dark mystery of our region. The Illustrated Child is perfect for book groups, with hidden secrets that you’ll just love to discuss. Just like Romilly, who finds fame in her father’s popular picture books, Polly will need to brace herself for the attention and acclaim that comes with such a stunning novel.

The Illustrated Child is published by HarperCollins Publishers and will be launched on October 29.

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