Debbie Young is the author of warm, witty, feel-good fiction that includes the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the St Bride’s School series, the first of which was shortlisted for the 2020 Bookbrunch Selfies Award for best independently-published fiction in the UK. She is UK Ambassador and Special Projects Advisor for the global nonprofit organisation, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and for eight years she edited their self-publishing advice blog. An influential figure on the international stage of the self-publishing movement and a frequent speaker and competition judge at literary events, Young is also very much involved in the life of her local community, a small village in the beautiful English Cotswolds region, where writes in a hut at the bottom of her garden.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in south-east London, on the edge of the county of Kent, known as “the Garden of England”. Sidcup was mostly developed between the two world wars and was built on the principles of a “garden suburb”, with lots of public parks, and every house had a garden and every street was lined with trees. It was a delightful place to be a child in an era when we were allowed out freely to play in the parks and streets and in our friends’ gardens. Yet we were just a 30-minute train ride from central London, and from the age of about 11, I often went into London for day-trips with my friends or escorted young cousins to city-centre museums. Such independence at such a young age seems remarkable to me now.
I lived within walking distance of both sets of grandparents and some aunts, uncles, and cousins, and this extensive family network made me feel safe, loved, and confident. I was especially close to my grandmothers who were strong, wise women, and their influence made me self-reliant and resourceful.
This suburban idyll was punctuated by two periods of living abroad with my family when my father’s employer transferred him. We moved to the US when I was eight years old, and our year-long stay included a family road trip by car from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, driving a scenic route to take in as many great sights as we could, which triggered a lifelong love of travel and a can-do attitude. When I was fourteen, we moved to Frankfurt, West Germany, where I attended an international school with pupils from more than sixty countries. This experience broadened my outlook on life from suburban to global and made me more ambitious.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
That despite enjoying my suburban childhood, as an adult I’d prefer living in the countryside. Sunday drives with my family into the Kent countryside and holidays in the Cotswolds and Cornwall made me relish rural places and realise the constraints of urban and suburban life. It took me until I was nearly 30 to move to a village, but now I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
That to count as a professional author, your books must be published by one of the big trade publishing houses. I publish my books independently, which means I have creative control of my books – themes, content, cover designs, titles – as well as managing the business. I employ a team of freelance specialists who ensure my books meet professional standards, and many people are surprised to know that these specialists – editors, cover designers – also work for the trade publishers. I much prefer the autonomy and creative freedom of independent publishing, and knowing that my author business has me, the author, at its core, rather than having to please shareholders, board members, marketing committees, and so on. I make far more money per book sold too!
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Six months after our tenth wedding anniversary, and eight days before my fortieth birthday, my first husband – he of the “things are never as good…” motto – died of a very aggressive form of leukemia just seven weeks after his diagnosis. Quite apart from the obvious bereavement process, it made me very aware of my own mortality and that we each have a limited time to do whatever we are going to do in our allotted span. The experience made me focus on my writing ambitions, and now my main driver is to write all the stories in my head before I die. That might sound grim, but actually, it’s a very good motivator, and I know my late husband would be very glad that since his death I have become a full-time professional writer. I’ve since remarried and now have a teenage daughter who brings me great joy.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Embrace the technology that has made self-publishing a viable option. The invention of the ebook has had a similar democratising impact on reading that the invention of the paperback did back in 1935. The rise of print on demand means you no longer have to invest upfront in a huge print run to achieve an economic unit price. The advent of the internet means I can publish, distribute and market my books, working from in-home in a little Victorian cottage in a tiny village surrounded by fields, and reach readers all around the world at the touch of a button. There has never been a better time to be an author, in my view.
What is your morning routine?
On a school day, I’m up at 6.30 am to have breakfast with my teenage daughter before she catches the school bus. Then I head for my writing hut at the bottom of the garden and write until elevenses time. After a coffee break with my husband, I will either continue to write, or head to my study upstairs to take care of other matters related to my author business – managing the publication, distribution, marketing, and promotion of my books; responding to letters from readers; fielding invitations to speak at events and judge writing competitions; and so on.
During the school holidays, we all sleep later – we are all night-owls by nature – but I’m usually up and working for a couple of hours before midday. Otherwise, I fit my work around family time. Next year my daughter will be off to university, and I want to make the most of her while she’s still at home.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
To echo Virginia Woolf’s recommendation, having a room of my own. I realise I am very lucky to have both my own study in my cottage, where I keep my PC, my reference books and a huge pile of notebooks, and a minimalist wooden writing hut at the bottom of the garden, where there’s just a desk, a chair, a lamp, a heater, and my notebook and pen. I write the first drafts of my novels by hand, and the minute I sit down at my desk in what I like to think of as my Little House in the Big Woods, it’s like a switch has been flicked in my brain and the words start to flow. This dual base has made me more productive and more contented, and it also helps me keep my work life and family life separate while working from home.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Keeping regular hours is key, as is taking frequent short breaks away from my desk. I stop for a cup of tea and a chat when my daughter returns from school late afternoon, then I work until our evening meal, but after that, I down tools. It’s important to do something different in the evenings to rest the creative brain. I read avidly and widely, and I am very much involved in local community activities. I sing in the church choir, am on the management committee of our village community shop, and have recently taken up bellringing at our parish church. It’s also really important to have a change of scene with a weekly trip to somewhere inspirational, such as museums, art galleries, and historic buildings. I also have a “day of rest” every weekend, usually on a Saturday, when I don’t even turn my computer on. Otherwise, I’ll feel sluggish come Monday, which is a great incentive to make sure I take a break.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Discovering Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels in my teens turned me into an avid reader of classic mysteries. I also read all the Sherlock Holmes stories around this time. Together these books set me on the path of becoming a mystery writer myself. Reading the complete works of George Orwell when I was 17 shaped my politics and my use of language. Although the themes of my books and journalism are very different from Orwell’s, I swear by his famous six rules of writing. In my twenties, Dorothea Brande’s On Writing gave me permission to self-identify for life as a creative writer. Reading that book was a homecoming.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“Do as you would be done by” – from The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. I first heard this saying when I was about eight years old, at school, in an address by our headmaster, who was keen on shaping young characters, and it has stayed with me ever since as the right way to live your life.
“Nothing is ever as good as you think it will be and nothing is ever as bad as you think it will be” – from my late first husband, whenever I was nervous about doing something, such as a job interview or appraisal. As an eternal optimist, I tend to ignore the first half of the quote, but the second half has helped me on many occasions, and I often quote it to others, including my teenage daughter, to allay any anxieties.
“The best way to get something done is to do it.” I don’t know where that came from, but that’s how I admonish myself if I find myself procrastinating!