PUBLISHED: 17:31 20 June 2018
When pupils complained no-one wrote books about children like them, teacher Hayley Long turned novelist. Now she is a full-time, award-winning writer, living in Norfolk with her next two books set in Suffolk
From the day a primary school teacher told the young Hayley Long the meaning of the world ambition, she knew her ambition was to be a writer.
It was many years before she began – but now she is a full-time novelist, a winner of many awards for her books and the current holder of the Mal Peet Children’s Book of the year title, from the East Anglian Book Awards.
On Saturday, June 30 Hayley will be appearing at the Felixstowe Book Festival, discussing growing up, writing for teenagers and life for girls and women over the past 100 years.
All this was many years ahead when she emerged from university into a recession and left the country to travel, taking jobs as a holiday rep, boat cleaner, and tourist guide through a Tunisian souk. “It was such an adventure,” said Hayley, who grew up in Felixstowe, and now lives in Norwich with her husband and their house rabbit.
“I’ve spent my whole adult life saying: “‘No, not Folkestone, Felixstowe!” she said. “And then people say: ‘Oh, I love Oldeeburg,’”
And so she explains the gentle seaside charm of Felixstowe and fends off locals who would rather it was not mentioned too often for fear of weekending hordes detouring from Southwold and Aldeburgh.
It was on her way to catch the ferry back to Felixstowe from her travels that she visited a friend in Brussels and decided to stay and teach English as a foreign language. “I really loved teaching. It was the first time I felt I was doing something worthwhile,” said Hayley. Inspired, she returned to Britain to train as a teacher and worked in schools in Cardiff before returning to East Anglia, with her husband Graham, and a job at Paston College in North Walsham.
She began writing in Cardiff, as a way of carving a few hours for herself away from the demands of teaching.
“I had this very funny, sparky, inspiring class of 12-13 year olds. They complained there were no books set in Wales, so I thought I would write something.” The result was Lottie Biggs Is Not Mad, about an engaging but troubled 14-year-old. It was picked up by publishers Pan Macmillan, who asked Hayley to write some more.
And so she did. With eight novels for teens, and the non-fiction Being a Girl, she has twice been shortlisted for the Costa Awards and at the East Anglian Book Awards her 2017 novel The Nearest Faraway Place won the children’s book award. “I have been shortlisted lots, for lots of awards, but nothing beats actually winning!” she said.
The title is taken from a Beach Boys song, and like all of Hayley’s books, it has a strong musical background.
Music threads through the story of teenage brothers jolted out of their normal lives by a devastating car accident, swelling to a crescendo of grief - and hope. The plot is lightened by comedy and heightened by quirky typefaces, with a final heart-wrenching realisation as shocking as the crash itself.
The teenagers, distilled from Hayley’s years of teaching, are compelling. “Their voices are in my head. It’s not so much their experiences. It’s more the observations they might make,” she said, “The intensity of everything. Things seem insurmountable. And the next day something else comes along. I remember being 14; everything was so intense, things that seem trivial now.”
Most of Hayley’s novels have been for teenagers but the book she is writing now is different. It’s non-fiction and based around her love of 1990s American indie bands. And her next novel is set in Ipswich, the town of her birth. It links two stories set a century apart and was inspired by buying a copy of Kelly’s Directory for the town, from the second-hand bookshop at Blickling. Through it she traced her grandparents and great grandparents. “It held the ghosts of my family,” she said. “I just found having that book in my hand so powerful.”
Hayley Long will be talking to Virginia Bergin, who also writes books for young adults, as part of the Felixstowe Book Festival.
Who Runs the World? at Felixstowe Library on Saturday, June 30, includes a light lunch and the chance to hear Hayley and Virginia talk about their work and what growing up as a girl means, 100 years after women first got the vote. Tickets £7, or £5 for under 18s and students.
Entries are now open for the 2018 East Anglian Book Awards, run by the National Centre for Writing in partnership with the Eastern Daily Press and Jarrold, and in association with the University of East Anglia. For full details of how to enter visit nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk
Categories include children’s books, fiction, poetry, history and tradition, biography and memoir, and non-fiction and the closing date is Friday, July 27.