"I've surprised myself": debut author of 'Don't Forget Me' Lisa Nicholas on growing up a bookworm, ideas from dreams, and the torturous editing process
The clues were there from the start. If you knew where to look, that is. And where to look was in the family photo albums, where one would invariably find pictures of Lisa Nicholas as a child, a stern look painted across her face and a book in her hand.
"I've always been happiest when wrapped up with a book on the sofa," says Lisa. "From an early age, I was an absolute bookworm who just loved to read because books transported me to another world which, as a more introverted child, suddenly gave me access to all these different places and adventures which I longed to go on.
"At an age when you otherwise have very little freedom and independence, that was magic," adds Lisa. "We had a house full of books and I'd devour them."
Born in Northern Ireland, Lisa grew up in Greater Manchester and, as a child, remembers being like a kid in a sweetshop when told she could take six books out at a time from the local library. Inspired, she soon took to writing her own short stories as well as 'some angsty poetry as a teenager which is probably best left in the cupboard', and thought little more of it.
In sixth form, Lisa studied philosophy, history, and politics before going on to read modern history at Oxford University. "Because of my love for books, I've always wanted to write and emulate those who bring me so much happiness," she says. "But reading and writing wasn't something I saw as a career, it was something I did for pleasure."
Described as 'a twisty psychological thriller about love, obsession, and the desperation to belong', Don't Forget Me has been a labour of love for Lisa. After uni, she landed a job in advertising with the BBC and later with an agency, picking up - she says - invaluable skills in researching, constructing arguments, and storytelling which she coupled with her natural sense of narrative and creativity.
But, whilst her yearning to write never left her completely, the impetus to pour the necessary amount of time, effort, and mental energy into a singular novel evaded Lisa for a long time.
"My work in advertising was always hands-on so, when I got home, I felt like switching off as opposed to pouring loads of ideas out onto the page," she says. "Writing is something which is quite difficult to focus on unless it's your entire focus and, while lots of people work and find slots of time to write at night, I found that very, very difficult for years.
"I must have started six or seven novels over the course of 10 years and, with each one, I got so far and life took over and I ended up feeling like it had nowhere to go," Lisa adds. "I ran out of steam. But there are two elements to this novel which made everything different: the story and the fact that, when I started writing, I couldn't stop."
Determined to commit fully if she was to try and develop this germ of an idea and make a proper fist of a career as an author - something she realised she had been dreaming of for two decades - Lisa decided in late 2018 to take a sabbatical from work. The break allowed her to focus on the writing completely, but it was nevertheless a leap into the unknown.
A leap which paid off.
"I know it sounds romantic, but the idea for the novel came to me in a dream," explains Lisa. "I had this lovely, warm dream about love and unwavering loyalty and family relationships and told my husband, who said I should maybe write about it. But, as a fan of psychological thrillers and the dark and the sinister, I found myself thinking 'I don't want to read this sweet story'.
"I took the narrative and switched it to all the dark sides available: love became obsession, loyalty became greed," she adds. "The elements were flipped, which I thought would make it a more gripping read. I immediately fell in love with my heroine, who's acerbic and witty and narcissistic and un-self-aware she was of her terrible qualities. It was just great fun.
"Whereas before I'd come unstuck, this time the story just flew out. From the very beginning, the concept felt different from other ideas I'd had in the past because it felt easy where previously it had felt clunky and complex. I was exploring people and their behaviour; what drives them and how something positive can become dangerous if it's left unchecked.
"Reflecting such human emotions and concepts came naturally."
Having started writing in earnest in the December of 2018, Lisa - who moved to the bucolic hills of East Lancashire eight years ago with her husband Steve, their two dogs, and their two cats - had a completed first draft by August the following year. It was then that the hard work actually started.
"I naively thought 'smashed it, done; I'll just quickly re-read this and get it out'," says Lisa with a smile. "But I found plot holes, repetitions, overuse of go-to words, and I realised it actually got really boring at one point in the middle. I was shocked at how much reworking it needed and it took absolutely ages. By the time I sent it out, I was on version 18.
"At that point, I almost knew it off by heart," Lisa says. "And yet on the 17th read-through, I'd used the wrong name for my character at one point. That's my character - my own child, almost! Silly mistakes like that are daunting and you start to think that, if you've changed it and made it better 18 times, imagine how much better it could be after another 10 rounds..."
Having also asked friends, family, and a former teacher from a writing retreat to read through the prose, Lisa was also offered a mountain of feedback, some of it contradictory, which brought home the realisation that she had to be the one to make the final call. "You realise that you can't please everyone, which makes you doubt yourself," she says. "I still do."
Asked how she knew when the book was finished, when that final full-stop was indeed final, Lisa puffs her cheeks out slightly. "You can't keep changing three words here and three words there but, unfortunately, I don't think it will ever be finished in my eyes."
Now armed with a more polished manuscript, Lisa embarked on the famously sapping process of trying to get an agent at one of the big publishers - an endeavour she describes as 'like job-hunting at university: absolutely awful'.
"Finding a publisher was the most difficult bit because it can be so demoralising," says Lisa, who lives in Fence in Pendle. "I tried to get myself an agent and got lots of good feedback but no agent, so I decided to go direct to small, independent publishers and that's where I found my publisher. But that still took months and, at one point, I thought of just giving up.
"Publishers have to be psychic about what's going to be popular in a year or two, so you can believe in your own novel, but it might not be popular in the zeitgeist, the ship might have sailed for your kind of novel, or the publisher might simply already have a few other books of a similar genre coming out already," she adds. "It's so subjective.
"A lot of famous books are well-known for being rejected; you've just got to roll with the punches and it wasn't October last year that I finally got the email saying 'we'd like to talk to you'. That feeling was amazing, but something in me has always held back from getting too excited. There's still a feeling of 'is this really going to happen?'
"When I see it in shops, I think that will be the best feeling ever - that's what I've been waiting for," Lisa says with the publication date looming. "All these years, that's been the dream - holding it and seeing other people with it. That's when I'll believe it; that's when I'll be over the moon. And, cheesy as it sounds, I know my mum and dad and family will be so proud.
"Even if it doesn't sell well and strangers don't read it, just knowing people around me will be thinking 'you did it' will be the best."
Decades after the budding bookworm first began to cultivate what will surely remain a lifelong passion for literature, Lisa is now to become a published author. And it doesn't end there: she is currently working on her second novel having recently recognised that same vibrant spark of an idea which she believes has the tangible potential to flower into a full-blown novel.
"Sometimes I can't quite believe I've done it," says Lisa. "I think 'how did I manage to sit there for all those hours typing away, making it up as I went along? I'm really proud. I've surprised myself."