Stephanie Elmas has written her first critically acclaimed novel. It took her seven years as she was looking after small children, but now she's set on a career as a writer.
Stephanie Elmas was working as a head hunter during the e-commerce bubble. It was an exciting time, but she realised she was not cut out for the cut and thrust of business and preferred books. Over time she had saved up enough money to go back to university to do a masters in 19th century literature, specialising in Victorian sensation writing. She was so inspired that she wrote and published her own novel, The Room Beyond, and it is gaining critical acclaim.
The book is described as “a thriller that delves beneath the romance and grandeur of a London house and finds a family haunted by the legacy of past wrongdoings”. Stephanie says she is attracted to old houses where “you never know what is lurking around the corner” and adds that the Victorian sensation novel genre is “riveting and dark”. “It’s not the kind of writing that always springs to mind when people think about Victorian literature,” she says.
It took her seven years to finish the novel as she was writing it in between bringing up three children, now aged two, six and nine, but now that they are getting older and she has her first book under her belt, there is no stopping her. She has already started the next one, in which she takes up the story of a relatively minor character in The Room Beyond because she found she loved writing about him. Walter Balanchine comes from the East End which was a melting pot of cultures and new ideas from abroad. “People were experimenting and questioning established religions. There was an interest in mysticism and the occult and alternative ideas. Walter embodies all of this,” she says. “He is a mixture of everything you can imagine the East End of that time might create with its opium dens and shady characters. He was so exciting, I couldn’t leave him. I had to tell his story.”
Stephanie, who lives in Surrey, studied English at King’s College, London, before taking up the head hunter position. After using her savings to do her masters, she went travelling for a year and taught English in Japan for six months. When she returned home after another six months travelling in Asia and South America she continued to teach English at a language school in London, studying at night to get the qualifications she needed. Then she got pregnant with her first daughter. She decided to go back into academia and do a PhD after her daughter was born, but found that her heart wasn’t in it. “I was worried I was not giving enough time to the baby or to reading the books I needed to read,” she says. “It was a flat feeling to realise that what had been my dream was not what I anticipated. I needed to be a mum for a while.”
She was sitting in the British Library at the time when it hit her that she needed to give up her PhD and instead start writing literature. She began writing while her daughter was sleeping and when she herself should have been sleeping. “It was my brain time,” she says, “a kind of gymnastics for my brain.”
She had two more children and suffered serious baby blues after her second child. She says writing helped her at this point as it represented “a return to my old self”. “It was part of the healing process and showed I could still look after two children and write. It was a little corner of myself.” As well as having children, she also moved home and renovated a house, but all the time she continued to write. “I would go through spurts. There were times when I thought I would pack it in altogether and then others when I would be totally lost in my work,” she says. “I was constantly thinking about ideas and images and scribbling things down. It was tremendously hard and the way I wrote the book probably breaks every rule about writing a novel. It grew organically and I learned how to write during the process. I did no chapter breakdowns or plans, but I knew in my head what I wanted to do.”
After several years she got an agent and went through the whole publishing process. A major publisher was interested, but at the last hurdle they decided they wanted a romance rather than the darker novel that Stephanie was writing. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. Her agent told her about Amazon’s White Glove Programme, an agent-led scheme for quality books which she describes as halfway between self publishing and publishing. It gives self-published books literary agents’ seal of approval and helps promote them. She published the book on Kindle and has got some great reviews from all over the world, including on the Huffington Post. The novel has also just made it onto The Bookbag Top Ten self published books of 2013, beating fierce competition.
“I’m having the time of my life,” she says. She hopes to bring out a paperback version of the book with a publisher in the new year. “The publishing industry is in a difficult situation at the moment,” she says “If you are unknown and writing your first book it is very difficult to get published. So many wonderful books are not published. I was so lucky there was an alternative.”
Stephanie says she would never write a book in the same way as her first novel again and, in any event, it will be easier now the children are older – two are at school and her youngest will start nursery soon. She is also now convinced that writing is her career and this time round she's doing things by the book, as it were. “I’ve done chapter breakdowns for the next novel. I need to get it written in a decent amount of time!” she laughs. “It’s my dream to make money from writing and be a full-time writer. Watch this space!”