Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Brandy Scott on how to write a debut novel: 'Don't give up your day job'

We catch up with the Dubai radio presenter to talk about her critically-acclaimed first novel, and about her second one, which is already in the works

Brandy Scott's first novel has already been picked up from a TV series. Courtesy Vera Schoppe Photography. 
Brandy Scott's first novel has already been picked up from a TV series. Courtesy Vera Schoppe Photography. 

The geographical trajectory of Brandy Scott's debut novel is hard to keep up with.

After all, she's a New Zealander in Dubai who wrote a novel about a fictional Australian town, had it published by the Australian arm of a publisher based in the United States, and then sold the television rights to a New Zealander.

So it seems only fitting that we're sitting at a South African restaurant as we chat about that novel.

The smash-hit Not Bad People is radio presenter Scott's first published story – but it's not the first one she's ever written. She actually penned two novels during a recent writing course in New Zealand, but it wasn't the one that started this whole crazy journey – it was a conceptual idea that landed her a book deal.

"I got an agent from that first manuscript. And she said 'Are you working on anything else?', and then I sent her three or four scenes from another idea," Scott says over a beetroot salad and a flat white, as we inadvertently pay homage to our homeland.

"So instead of selling the book that I had already written, she’d sold the one that I’d written three to four scenes of."

Considering the effect it has had on a discerning novel-­reading public, it’s incredible to think Not Bad People was released barely a month ago. The critical acclaim came swiftly, and while it’s easy to write that off as a Kiwi public laying claim to anyone that does anything of note on the world stage (I’m from New Zealand too, I’m allowed to say that), there’s a genuine success story to back up the story of Brandy Scott.

She came to Dubai and took up a role at a B2B when she was about 21, after studying journalism in the UK. As for many of us, it was only ever supposed to be for a year or two, but quickly became about 12.

Not Bad People by Brandy Scott. Courtesy Brandy Scott 
Not Bad People by Brandy Scott. Courtesy Brandy Scott 

She went back to New Zealand for a brief stint, where she worked for the country’s public broadcaster, but it wasn’t long before the desert came calling. She’s held her job on Dubai Eye’s morning show, the Business Breakfast, on and off for about a decade.

But the idea of writing a novel was never far from her mind. A writing course over summer in Iowa a few years ago was her first step to literary success. “The girl I sat next to was by far and away the best writer in class, and I just thought ‘I’ve got to befriend you or else I’ll hate you’. I now go back out to visit her every year to 18 months and I’m godmother to her two children. We’re each other’s first readers,” she says. After that, Scott continued writing in her spare time. It was not yet substantial, but more “pottering around with new beginnings”. In 2014, she took a leap and enrolled in the ­highly competitive ­Victoria University of Wellington’s ­International Institute of ­Modern Letters. “I’d wanted to do it forever. I love my day job, but I was in that space of thinking if I’m going to do it, I need to just do it.”

I’ve realised that everything I write is kind of about the same stuff. It’s about resentment in relationships and finances, with a good bit of black humour

Scott came out of that course with two unpublished books to her name, which is when she managed to get an agent, and those fateful first scenes of Not Bad People excited the people at HarperCollins – one of the world’s top five biggest names in publishing.

The novel follows three ­Australian friends who release Chinese lanterns on December 31 as they mark their New Year’s resolutions. Instead, the act triggers a chain of tragic events, “leading the women to confront buried resentments, shattering secrets, dark lies, and the moral ­consequences that could alter their lives ­forever” – or, so says the book’s blurb.

But, given that the story was written by a New Zealander in Dubai with seemingly no close connections with Victoria, or Australia for that matter, why was it set there?

“It was a complete accident actually, but in a fortunate way,” she laughs. “When plotting the book, you’re always trying to put your characters under pressure. The Chinese lanterns are totally illegal in Australia, but they’re not in New Zealand. They are restricted in New Zealand, but only in certain regions. And I wanted a character to face jail... that’s basically the reason.” But she admits that setting it in Australia, and living in Dubai, did probably make it more accessible for international audiences.

The genesis behind the novel is just as seemingly inconsequential. “Years and years ago I was at a ‘letting go ceremony’ and we were letting off Chinese lanterns and as they were ­floating away, I was thinking about what would happen if they hit something.”

The writing of the book took about nine months, with about four hours of writing around her normal work at Dubai Eye. Each day, she would sit down and edit the day before’s writing before writing more, likening it to “backstitch”.

“I really appreciated my job,” she says. “Having both allows you to still be part of the world while writing. And your ideas come from being in the world. I loved the fact that I went to work and for four hours a day I could not think about the book.”

The process also included a month’s worth of road tripping around Victoria. (“It was a research trip, but I also put on about five kilograms because I was eating everything. I was so scared of getting the details wrong – I didn’t want people to be like ‘But it wouldn’t be light at seven o’clock’.”) Plus a last-minute slog in a voluntary lock-in at a UAE hotel.

“A week before deadline, I had 20,000 words to write. So I took a week off work, booked a hotel room at JA Hatta Fort Hotel and wrote about 5,000 words a day.”

In a stunning debut for a novelist, the book was published by HarperCollins in Australia and the United States. Scott admits to being “really nervous” once she’d released it out into the world. “I wasn’t sure of the reception it was going to get. So I sat down and started writing another book.” Reviews came in slowly, mostly from friends writing positive things online and on Good Reads. Then came the comparisons to Big Little Lies, the hit novel from Australian author Liane ­Moriarty, which went on to ­become an even bigger phenomenon when US actress Reese Witherspoon turned it into a successful series.

But it still wasn’t until she landed in New Zealand on a recent trip, and picked up a copy of The Listener, one of the nation’s biggest current affairs magazine, that it all sunk in.

“I remember seeing this huge, very glowing, review of the book with the word ‘Bestseller’ in the headline. I’m just standing in the news agent at the airport crying. I bought five copies.”

And it all really snowballed from there. Scott was aware international and New Zealand TV producers were looking at picking up the book for adaptation, but in the end, she went for leading New Zealand film and television producer John Barnett – a domestic TV legend, who has helmed cult favourite series Outrageous Fortune. International audiences might know his work from the 2002 movie Whale Rider.

“I grew up watching his stuff on TV. I knew that he had an amazing reputation, I spoke to him on the phone for an hour-and-a-half and he wanted to keep it really close to the small-town, Australian ethos of the book.”

Scott doesn’t know how much input she’ll have on the TV version, which will reportedly be an eight-part series. It doesn’t really matter, she says, as she’s already on to the next one.

“I’ve written the first chapter ... it’s set in Australia. I’m in love with the idea at the moment.

“I’ve realised that everything I write is kind of about the same stuff. It’s about resentment in relationships and finances, with a good bit of black humour.”

Updated: June 24, 2019 05:18 PM

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