Sally Green’s debut novel, Half Bad, is about magic. There are witches – good and bad – who can transform into animals, shadows, or other people. But the real magic lies much closer to reality, in Green’s own transformation from an accountant into a writer, with a few years of full-time motherhood sandwiched in between. The speed with which her book for young adults became a worldwide success was a further catalyst – within 10 weeks of posting the first 50 pages of her manuscript to an agent, she had signed with Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge & White, struck a three-book, six-figure deal with Puffin and sold the film rights to Fox 2000.
“It does sound a bit ‘as if by magic’,” says Green, “but I promise you, I put the hours in before I got to that stage. Once I’d finished writing, though, things did happen incredibly quickly. Claire contacted me a couple of days after receiving the first few chapters, asking to see the rest of the book. She emailed it to a few publishers and within two hours she’d heard back from Puffin. Others were also interested, so there was a bit of a bidding war, which was really exciting. I remember pacing up and down waiting for Claire’s call with my heart pounding and my thoughts racing. I’d never experienced anything like it before – it was a moment of true euphoria, as was walking into bookshops this March and seeing my book everywhere.”
Puffin won the war, taking Green’s enthralling tale about divided good and bad witches living among ordinary humans and united in their fear of a boy called Nathan, to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. There it sold the book and its sequels (due out in 2015 and 2016) to 45 countries, including Thailand, Greece, Denmark, Lithuania, Russia and Turkey. Soon after that, Fox 2000 bought the film rights, with Karen Rosenfelt, who worked on the Twilight Saga films and The Devil Wears Prada, on board as producer.
Subsequently, it has been sold to two more countries and is among Time magazine’s top 15 books of 2014. It has also taken two Guinness World Records for the most translated book and the most translated children’s book by a debut author, pre-publication. Green’s success is remarkable by any standards, but when you consider that she had written “nothing more than business reports,” until her 40s, her achievement becomes nothing short of extraordinary. “It never occurred to me to write,” she says. “I took science A-levels, did a degree in mining geology and then became an accountant embarking on a clearly defined and linear career path.” She went from one job to another, progressed from accountant to finance manager to finance director, and worked for a “not very successful” start-up, never stopping to think if she should or could be doing anything else.
It wasn’t until she had her son Indy, when she was 41, that she found the space to reconsider. She became a full-time mum, grew vegetables, kept chickens and started reading – something she’d never had time for before. “My objective was to enjoy life and motherhood,” she says. “Being pregnant, having my son, devoting all that time to him and to other areas I’d not so much neglected as been unaware of was revelatory. It was the genesis of so much – my body changed, of course, but so did my mind and the way I thought. I had this surge of creativity – not immediately to write, but in other ways. I was making bread, jam, going to story-telling festivals, generally exploring avenues that were taking me further and further away from all I’d known before.”
In 2009, Green enrolled on an Open University social sciences course and loved the writing assignments so much that, come the summer holidays, she started a short story that grew and grew. “I couldn’t stop,” she says. “I wrote all day, every day and even when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about the next instalment. Before long, I had the makings of a book, but knew my work needed refining, so I switched courses and did creative writing instead, just to learn how a novel works.”
She sent the novel out in late 2011 and though it was rejected, constructive feedback helped her isolate which aspects to keep; the following April she started writing what was to become Half Bad. “The first book had been about witchcraft, so I kept that, and also the idea of the witches receiving three gifts when they come of age, but I changed my narrator from a girl to a boy. Once I had Nathan’s voice, the words flew out of me – I had 20,000 in two weeks. I’d finished it by December 2012, and sent it out in January, so the whole process, from starting the book to getting it accepted by Puffin took just under a year.”
Clearly, there’s no going back to accountancy. “No, I had a wonderful career and worked with some lovely people, but that stage of my life is over. What I will say, though, is that I still use some of my accountancy skills. I have an enormous amount of self discipline, and I don’t stop until I am completely happy with what I’m working on and that is partly down to my training.”
She adds, “Thinking back to when I was looking for an agent, I did such thorough research. I was absolutely forensic about it, and I’m sure that degree of analysis, being a good strategist, comes from having been an accountant for so long.”
IN A NUTSHELL
2014: Half Bad published. Time magazine votes it one of the top 15 books of 2014
2012–2013: Puffin confirms a three-book deal. Fox 2000 buys the film rights
2010: Writes first novel
2009: Enrols with the Open University to study social sciences; switches to creative writing
2001–2009: Full-time mum
2000–2001: Finance director, Parcelweb
1997–2000: Finance director, Newhall Group
1990–1997: Finance manager, finance controller, GPT
1989–1990: Financial accountant, Avis Lease and Fleet Management