Janelle McCurdy is an author and fully-fledged gamer. Having started writing and querying at only sixteen years old, she joined JULA (Jo Unwin Literary Agency) in her early twenties. After graduating from Royal Holloway University with a Criminology and Sociology degree, Janelle moved back home to London, and began writing middle-grade fantasy, including her FAB Prize winning story, Umbra Tales: The Lightcasters.
In her free time, you can find her holed-up in her room, gaming and watching anime (some of her favourites being Inuyasha, Dragon Ball Z and Death Note), or attending numerous comic cons and gaming events.
Tell me a bit about your journey into writing. When did you know you were a writer?
I’ve always enjoyed reading. My mum always read books to me as a kid. I started writing little stories when I was twelve. I wrote mini-stories and manuscripts that will never see the light of day. But in terms of actually wanting to pursue it as a career, I would say I started when I was sixteen. That’s when I first told my mum about it and she was so supportive. I started going to writer’s events and meeting other people who were pursuing the same thing. I hardly saw people like me and even though that was disheartening, I knew I wanted to pursue this. In order to fund myself, to get a laptop or go to events, I needed to work. My mum supported me but it’s just the two of us.
It’s been eight years since then. I finally got an agent last year. Time is going so fast. Then a month or two later, we revised my manuscript and sent it out. Within a week, we were getting responses and then your team got in touch and I thought, OMG this is actually happening! I had just left my job to pursue writing full-time. Faber won me over from the start. Your kind words really touched my heart.
That is so lovely to hear! When we read your work, we were so impressed. We’re all looking for some form of escapism right now. You created a world that was so amazing, we were all so absorbed in it. There are so many things I want to ask you! Tell me a little bit more about that process of getting an agent. What was that like for you?
I started off querying at sixteen with an older manuscript. I was writing contemporary YA (Young Adult) and fantasy at that time. My fantasy didn’t get any responses at all. Looking back, I can see why. I was young and naive. That’s why I went to the writing events, to try and understand how to write a query letter.
Then I started querying with contemporary YA and I heard back from an agent. I was so excited but, in the end, they said no. That really hurt because it was an agency I really wanted to work with at the time. That sent me into a bad depressive state. I was so close to getting my dream and I thought I had ruined it. I actually stopped writing for a year after that, because I was so downhearted. Then I got back into the game, going to events and entering competitions as well. I never got to the next stage of any competition.
I started thinking that my writing must be terrible. That was really hard on my mental health. I think it’s really important to have people to speak to. I spoke to my mum about everything because it really was hard. I wasn’t seeing any Black authors being published either. You had ones like Malorie Blackman and Nicola Yoon, but I wasn’t seeing any young Black authors which made me feel like I was going against the tide.
I think I wrote seven other manuscripts before I wrote Umbra Tales. I entered it into pitch competitions during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. There was a new hashtag #BVM for Black Voices Matter. I got a lot of coverage with that, which was really sweet of everyone. That’s how I got in touch with agents. Funnily enough, I’d already sent Rachel my manuscript beforehand, but I also sent it to new agents. I got really great responses. All the other agents were lovely but there was something about Rachel. I felt a true connection.
I must have sent well over 200 queries over the years. I guess it’s just about persevering. Even if you don’t see people like you being published right now, there’s always someone else in the same boat as you. Just keep going.
When you look back, what do you think would have helped? What more should be done to help support new writers? What did you need at the time that you didn’t have?
We need more workshops. The workshop Faber did recently for last year’s FAB Prize winners was really helpful! If I had that before I had an agent or a book deal, it would have helped tenfold. Before I went to my first writer’s event, I thought agents were scary. Keep in mind that I was only sixteen years old. I thought they were intimidating to approach. I think it’s the same with publishing. It would be great to have more workshops or sharing insight into how the industry runs, how to write query letters, how to get an agent and how you are trying to make changes happen across the industry.
Let’s talk a bit about your writing now. Where do you get your inspiration from? What’s the process like for you?
For the last few manuscripts, I got my inspiration from gaming. When I game, I feel different emotions. I wanted to capture those emotions in writing. I like the mystical fantasy vibes when I’m playing Final Fantasy and I wanted to combine that with the scary vibes of Resident Evil. I got my weird and wacky idea for Umbra Tales from gaming.
What keeps you motivated to go on writing?
I think it’s mainly for my younger self. I wanted to read so much more books that were diverse, and they just weren’t there. I don’t want that experience for my kids. I don’t want that experience for any Black kid. I want to show them that no matter their age, they can be anything. They can see themselves in books as mermaids, dragon riders and umbra tamers. I feel so much joy when I read children’s books now and there’s a Black character on the front cover. I want to be a part of the change, even if I only play a small part.
What was the first book that you read and really connected with? What book made you feel seen?
When I was younger, it was definitely Malorie Blackman with Noughts and Crosses. Some books I’ve enjoyed recently and felt seen are Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.
I love Nicola Yoon too! I listened to The Sun Is Also A Star and it was such a different experience. Hearing different voice actors for each of the chapters just brought it to life in such a unique way. We really need optimistic and hopeful books and there is just something about The Sun Is Also A Star. Even though it is dealing with difficult conversations about families, deportation and racism within Black and Asian communities, there is still so much hope and joy in that book!
Yes! I just loved it!
What are some of the things that you think we need more of, especially in children’s publishing?
I think there is some diversity in YA books, more so than middle-grade, but that diversity is still heavily US-based. We need to focus more on UK diverse talent. With middle-grade books, in particular, I would love to see more of a connection between books and video games. Kids that age love gaming. Bridging that gap is so important.
So much has happened in the past year for you? What have been some of your highlights?
The big one! Having my book acquired has changed my life in a way that’s just so amazing. Not just my life, but my mum’s as well. I made her proud. It’s taken eight years to get here.
Eight long years! What lessons stand out most to you from this time?
Never give up. I knew writing was my calling. If I could tell my younger self anything it would be to keep going. Never give up. I’ve also learnt to sit in my emotions, both good and bad, rather than trying to bury them. I would tell young Janelle that, yes, things are tough now, but it will get better. Don’t try and suppress your feelings.
What would you say to applicants of this year’s FAB Prize?
Do it! Apply! What do you have to lose? The worst that can happen is not making it through to the next round. Then you can apply again next year! Just keep going!