By Roz Kay
Five unpublished novels in, Phaedra Patrick was beginning to wonder whether she’d ever achieve her childhood ambition of writing for a living.
Then one day she showed her son, now ten, her charm bracelet and tried to remember the stories behind the charms for him.
“As I showed it to him, I thought it would be a really lovely idea,” Phaedra says. “I like writing short stories so I thought it would be an interesting structure, almost like each charm was a short story and it was a bracelet or narrative weaving it all together.”
The result was Phaedra’s first published novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, released in May 2016.
Arthur is a retired Yorkshireman struggling with bereavement. He’s slowly forced out of his shell as he tries to uncover the mysteries hinted at by the charms on a bracelet he finds that belonged to his wife, but that he never knew she had.
“I have a little acorn with a squirrel in it, a piggy bank with a coin, and there’s one for the National Railway Museum in York,” Phaedra says of her own charm bracelet.
“Quite unglamorous compared to Arthur’s. There weren’t any kind of mysterious stories behind any of mine.”
A strategic idea … and a bit of whimsy
Phaedra had an agent for a couple of her earlier novels, but wasn’t able to secure a publishing deal. Other than the idea about the charms, she made a conscious effort to write from a different place.
“My first five books that got rejected were all about young women,” she says.
“So I thought, if I write about an old man, they can’t reject it for that reason.” She laughs. “That was the strategic idea.”
She also felt it would be a challenge to write about an older male character. Women, she feels, have greater support networks and female friends. A female character with a problem or bereavement could pick up the phone and go out for a glass of wine; a man might be facing his problems alone.
“We share it, we talk about it,” Phaedra says. “And I thought, older men probably don’t have that support network.
“I almost thought of him as a bit like an onion. He’s closed up and it’s just peeling back his layers one by one, to take him on this journey so he can really discover himself along the way.”
But there was more to it than the strategic decision to write about an opposite type of character. Phaedra wanted to write something with “that little touch of whimsy.”
“I learned a little bit with each one about what I wanted to write,” she says of her first novels. “And with this one, I felt like I really wrote it from the heart.
“I wrote the one that I wanted to write rather than thinking about what my agents want, what my publishers want.
“If I write something that I really enjoy, that means something to me, then if it gets published that’s brilliant. But if not, I feel like I’ve been true to myself with it.
“And luckily this was the one that worked.”
Nonetheless it’s hard to stay motivated when everything you write is being turned down. Phaedra read a great deal as a child and she knew by the time she was eight that she wanted to be a writer. But she was in her twenties before she decided to “give it a go.”
“I had to teach myself computers and how to touch type,” she says.
Phaedra studied what was in bookshops, read blurbs, learned about agents. With each
book that she wrote, she learned more. She started getting feedback from agents and publishers. And with each rejection, she told herself it just meant what she’d written wasn’t yet good enough.
“So, back to it,” she says.
“Between books five and six I did have two or three years out, because I did lose my confidence. But I entered a couple of short story competitions and when I did okay in those competitions, it gave me that little boost to say right, one more.”
“But if this one hadn’t made it, I’m not sure there’d have been a number seven. Because I threw everything into it, and this was the one that I really, really wanted to write, that was probably the closest to my personality.”
Foreign sales and the next novel
Phaedra’s agent pitched her manuscript to foreign publishers as well as in the UK. Before it got picked up in England, five other countries bought it, starting with Italy.
“I just didn’t think at all that anywhere other than the UK would be interested in it, because it is very, very English,” Phaedra says.
“So that was a big surprise.”
When I spoke to Phaedra, shortly before The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper was published in the UK and US, it had just sold in its twentieth country, Serbia.
As well as the surprise and pleasure of foreign sales, Phaedra (who now, having achieved what she dreamed of at the age of eight, writes full time) was thrilled by how collaborative and supportive she has found the publishing industry. Having left her job, she says, gone are the days when your boss might tell you the report you wrote wasn’t quite good enough.
“Once you’ve done all your hard work in writing, you’ve got the support of some great editors and agents who want to help you polish it and make it that bit better,” she says.
Phaedra has been putting the finishing touches on a new novel.
“It’s been a very exciting time,” she says.
© Roz DeKett
About the author
Phaedra Patrick studied art and marketing and has worked as a stained glass artist, film festival organizer, and communications manager. She is a prize-winning short story writer and now writes full time. Phaedra lives in Saddleworth, UK, with her husband and son, and she enjoys walking, eating chocolate, and arts and crafts. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is her first novel and is published by MIRA books in the UK and Harlequin in the US. You’ll find a short YouTube video on the book here.
Unless otherwise credited, photos are Phaedra Patrick’s.