The life of Amanda Prowse almost reads like one of her hugely popular novels. Five years ago she quit her job to write her first book, Poppy Day, which was rejected by every agent in town.
Determined not to give up, she self-published her book (donating 100% of the profits to the Royal British Legion) – and to her surprise, it became a much-loved bestseller.
Today she’s an established author, with nine books to her name and is a familiar face on TV. She very generously shared her incredible story with us – plus some tips for would-be writers!
How did you get started as a writer?
I haven’t been a professional writer all my life – far from it! I was a management consultant until I was 40. I was married to a soldier and was the main breadwinner in our family.
We had a nice life and house, and two great kids. But when I was 32 I was diagnosed with cancer and everything changed for me. I thought, ‘I only have one life. What do I really want to do with it?’
I’d always loved writing, and wanted to make it my career, but I didn’t know if I could do it. Eventually though, I plucked up the courage to give it a go. My husband, Simeon, completely supported my decision. We were both worried about how we’d live, but material possessions didn’t matter to us.
So we sold our house, furniture and cars, moved into rented military family housing, maxed out two credit cards, and just got on with it. We’d never been so skint but so happy.
How did you get the idea for your first book?
I’d always had lots of ideas for books. I’m a real bookworm, and every time I read a book I’d either think ‘I wish I’d written it’ or ‘I could write better than that’.
The idea for Poppy Day, my first book came from an interview with the father of Gilad Shaalit, a soldier who had been taken hostage. He was asked what the worst thing about having a son in captivity was, and he replied that every day he woke up knowing his son needed him, but he couldn’t get to him.
My family is my absolute life and I couldn’t imagine anything happening to them. If you’re in a business meeting and you get a call from the school saying that your child is sick or injured you just drop everything and go.
When people you love need you, you get to them. And it made me wonder what would happen if Simeon was taken while he was on tour. What would I do?
The idea of Poppy Day came into my head and I decided to write the book. I didn’t know if I could actually write, so when the first version was finished I asked Simeon to read it.
He sat on the sofa for eight hours straight reading it, and by the time he finished he was sobbing. He’d never thought about the danger he was in from my perspective before – the one left at home. I realised then that if I can get to him then I’ve got something.
What did you do next?
I sent the book everywhere, but no one wanted to read it. The common response was that no one wants to read about Afghanistan or war. It’s not women’s fiction.
I was trying to work out how I could get the story out when Simeon and I travelled to London. We stayed in the Union Jack Club and when we came back from supper one night there were lots of young, injured servicemen there, just back from their first round of treatment.
I realised that the only reason Simeon had always come back from his tours was luck – nothing else. Seeing these fit and handsome young men with no arms and legs really made it real to me, and I asked Simeon what we could do to help. He replied that we could sell the book and give the money to help soldiers.
How did you get it published?
I sneaked a copy of the book to board directors of the Royal British Legion at break time in a meeting. A couple of them liked the story and called me. They agreed to publish it, and every penny of profit it makes goes to the Royal British Legion.
The success of Poppy Day grew organically from there. It caught the imagination of people, maybe because it was a simple premise – a very relatable story.
In the beginning we thought that it would be great to sell as many as 5,000 copies, but today it’s sold over a quarter of a million copies, and it’s still selling!
What happened after Poppy Day? How did you get your second book published?
I was very lucky in that I managed to get a book signing at Selfridges for Poppy Day. I called them up and asked if I could do a signing for Valentine’s Day and they said yes. I couldn’t believe it! I’m not a sales person and making that call was excruciatingly difficult for me, but I’m so glad I did it.
A few weeks before the signing I had a few calls from a private number on my mobile, but I had ignored them as I wasn’t sure who they were from.
Then on the day in Selfridges an incredibly elegant and well-dressed woman walked down the queue towards me. She said that she was a publishing agent and had been trying to get hold of me. She’d read Poppy Day and loved it and wanted to sign me! Three weeks later I got an offer from my current publisher.
How easy is it to come up with ideas for books?
I am lucky in that I always have new stories in my head. As I am writing one book, I am writing the next in my head.
The stories come to me in their entirety, and I write quickly too. I’m always one book ahead of the last book out.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It takes me between four and five months. I write every day during that time – if I don’t, I feel agitated, like I need to crack on.
What does your average writing day look like?
I get up early in my PJs and write. I take the boys to school and then carry on writing. I write all day and usually suddenly notice the time and realise I need to get dinner ready! I find the process absorbing and would happily write for 15 hours a day – it almost feels like something has been tapped into.
I come from a very ordinary family – I didn’t grow up thinking that I would write books. I didn’t even know anyone who had written a book. It still feels like an odd profession to have.
How does it feel when you see someone reading one of your books?
It feels like nothing on earth. I remember the first time I saw someone reading Poppy Day. It was on the tube and I was sat opposite her. It was a surreal moment. I really wanted to say something but didn’t have the courage, so I just sat there beaming at her. She probably thought I was crazy!
Even now I still feel grateful that people enjoy my books – it doesn’t lessen for me. I feel very lucky and honoured. Not just that people have spent their hard-earned cash on my stories, but that they’re giving me their time. It’s an incredible privilege.
I am still amazed at the popularity of my books. They sell all over the world – I go to remote places and they have a whole section of my books in their local book store, people in the most out of the way towns in foreign countries know me, and I see piles of my books at airports. It’s pinch-me stuff!
How have you found the PR side of being an author?
It was completely unexpected. I didn’t think the whole process through when I was writing Poppy Day. I thought you just wrote books and that was it.
But a big part of my work now involves travelling and giving interviews. I’m a confident speaker, but I’m also a shy person and I still find it quite daunting. I usually feel nervous or sick before going on TV or radio, but as soon as I’m doing the interview I’m fine. I’m learning as I go along!
What’s your plan now?
I have at least another 20 books in my head right now. I’m writing a one woman play and a one man play, too. I’m just going to carry on doing what I’m doing – I feel that if I can make a difference along the way it’s almost my duty to.
Why do you think your books are so popular?
Maybe because I write about topics that are quite difficult. But by putting it into a story, it’s easier to talk about. In my latest book, Will you remember me? Poppy is diagnosed with cancer, like me. The story is my worst fears played out on paper – wondering how you say goodbye to your kids.
I write about very real, human situations. Ones that many of us have lived (and are living) through – such as domestic violence, illness, loss, prejudice.
If you were to write a government-style white paper about these issues, no one would read it. But putting it into a story, it becomes a hot topic. Women contact me and say they recognise their sister, mum or themselves in my stories. It feels like a safe environment to voice their own experiences.
Who inspires you?
My family – they’ll always come first for me. I cherish every second I spend with my children and husband, and I grab every opportunity to sit with my mum and have a coffee. The people I love are everything to me. I see myself as a mum firstly, followed by an army wife and then a writer.
I’m also inspired by other women – women who face struggle and overcome it. Whether that struggle is being a single parent, battling breast cancer, leaving an abusive relationship or caring for a sick child.
I admire anyone who has the courage to change a situation that they’re unhappy with, or who put themselves out of their comfort zone.
What tips do you have for other aspiring writers?
Don’t give up! 90% of the effort in getting your first book published will be in approaching people and getting rejected. You’ll probably get around 150 million nos – and each one is a step to yes.
Take what you can from each rejection. Learn from it and act on it. You’ll get good, bad and indifferent feedback, and sometimes you’ll agree with it, and sometimes you won’t. But even the negative comments are good because they stoke the fire in your belly.
Also, don’t set out to write a bestseller. if you start by thinking you’re going to write the next Thornbirds you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. And you’re much more likely to give up as you’ll think you’re not succeeding.
In fact, don’t put pressure on yourself to write ‘a novel’ at all. Just start writing something. Write a letter, a short story, even a list! Start small and keep going. If you feel confident, show people your writing and ask what they think of it.
How can budding writers get their work noticed?
It’s difficult to get your work read, so don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t happen straight away for you (it didn’t for me either!).
If no one reads your work, use ebooks and get it out there on the internet. You can get an audience at the click of the button, and you’ll soon know if your work is any good or not as they’ll tell you.
You don’t need an expensive course or huge investement – you just need people reading what you’re doing. If they like it enough, you’ll get spotted. Agents and publishers are out there looking, and they’re often looking in the same places as everyone else.
And finally, what’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I only own three outfits! It’s true – if you take a look at the videos on my YouTube channel, or photographs of me you’ll see I am wearing one the of the three.
Every day I wash and dry them ready to be worn again. I’ve had the same clothes for five years – I don’t need anything else.
In my 20s I used to think I wanted things, but as I have got older I feel that the less I have the more content I am. I guess that there are just other things that matter more to me now.