Cornwall LivingIssue #62

Silver linings

Publishing supremo Rachel Hickman discusses working with Roald Dahl, and how her love of the Roseland led to penning her debut novel.

Introducing author Rachel Hickman, whose recently published debut novel for the YA market, One Silver Summer, explores loss and first love in an atmospheric Cornwall. We’ve met to learn more about her lifelong love of books, a fascinating career in the publishing industry, and her family’s deep connection with Cornwall.

“Cornwall is like another character in the book… I love its moods.” – Rachel Hickman

For as long as she can remember, Rachel has been enchanted by the magic and escapism of a good book. As a young girl, she joined the iconic Puffin Club, and she would often be found curled up with a well-thumbed copy of the latest summer page-turner. Growing up in Hong Kong afforded a unique childhood, and – much like the books she read – this exposure to a foreign land nurtured an enduring desire to travel and discover new worlds.

Following a degree in publishing, Rachel went on to enjoy a fruitful career in children’s books, working for all the household name publishers, including the very one that started it all: Puffin Books. “It was literally a dream come true,” says Rachel, “working with some of the world’s most beloved authors, and heroes of mine, from Dick King Smith to Roald Dahl. I remember, very early on in my career, going for an interview at Penguin Books’ head office and finding myself in the lift with the legendary poet, Roger McGough – a very surreal moment!”

Back when Rachel was a young publicist, Roald Dahl was the biggest author on the planet. “He had a big physical presence too,” Rachel remembers, “he was very tall, like the BFG – and no doubt Quentin Blake took some inspiration from this in his illustrations. He was terrifying to my bosses, but charming to a young publicist. He could appear very stern and intimidating one minute, then say something slightly outrageous and have his readers in fits of giggles!”

A particularly memorable experience was working with the illustrator and newspaper cartoonist Posy Simmonds at an Arvon Foundation creative break for writers, in a beautiful setting in Devon. “It was a blissful week with authors and artists, enjoying creative writing sessions. Posy was funny and elegant, and kind – although I remember spending most of the week coaxing everyone out of the pub to actually do some work!”

In 2000, Rachel set up independent publisher, Chicken House, alongside Barry Cunningham – famed for ‘discovering’ JK Rowling. The hugely successful publishing house has gone on to sell millions of books around the world.

The Cornish connection

Rachel has a deep affinity with the Roseland, and I’m keen to discover how it came about. “A series of coincidences really,” explains Rachel. “My parents used to take me down to Cornwall as a child – a huge contrast to the concrete jungle of Hong Kong.” Years later, Rachel and her husband, Simon, took their honeymoon in Cornwall, travelling around in a classic Triumph sports car.

“We stayed at Hotel Tresanton in St Mawes – before the Polizzis took over – and it felt like walking into a Du Maurier novel. In fact, I read most of her books again during our stay!”

Their love affair with the Roseland continued; when their children were little they regularly visited Portloe, staying at the same fisherman’s cottage looking out over the cove. “It felt like being in an Enid Blyton novel. The children used to go tombstoning in Portloe, though it’s not allowed anymore. My husband loves to go fishing and star-watching at night. We’ve been returning for about 18 years now.”

But, as Rachel recently discovered, the connection goes back even further. “As I was flicking through some old pictures of my mum, I found one of her as a child on a beach. On the back was a handwritten note: ‘Porthscatho, 1939’. I also have a picture of me at a similar age from the ‘70s on that very beach, and it’s amazing to realise all these years we’ve been visiting the very same spot!”

One of Rachel’s favourite beaches is Towan, between Porthscatho and St Antony Head, where she’s seen horses being ridden close to the coast path, but the beach they spend most of their time on is Carne, as Rachel explains: “It always feels empty, even in the height of summer. From here you can walk to Pendower and then onto Melinsey Mill, a 16th century water mill and now a tearoom and craft workshop, which does the best afternoon tea.”

One Silver Summer

After years of publishing and talking about books, the time came for Rachel to practise what she preached and put pen to paper herself. She used her visits to the Roseland to write what would become One Silver Summer, taking long walks on the beach and coast path, before returning to the cottage, or one winter to the fireside at The Lugger Hotel in Portloe, as well as The Nare Hotel in St Mawes.

Rachel explains her inspiration. “I wanted to write a classic summertime fairy tale and romance for young teens. A touch of Daphne. With first novels, there’s often so much of a writer in their book, and I think that’s true. I also love horses – my other great passion – and the book is full of horses and dogs.What’s more, the heroine in the book, Sass, is American. As I grew up abroad, I consciously avoided making her from Britain, reflecting my own mixed up upbringing. The idea of taking a character from one world and plonking them in another that’s completely alien to them creates an another interesting dimension of otherness to explore.” Without giving too much away, Sass meets a dashing young stable hand who, it transpires, is destined for greatness – a twist inspired by the real-life story of a childhood friend, who went on to be a Danish Princess!

But the greatest influence is Cornwall itself, a significant presence throughout. “Cornwall is like another character in the book, it’s unlike anywhere else. I love its moods; that the weather can be totally different in Porthscatho and Portloe when only a few miles apart. Silver is a colour I really associate with Cornwall, hence the book’s title.”

Indeed, you get a sense of Du Maurier’s influence in the way the landscape entwines itself within the pages. “I’ve been lucky to travel all around the world to some extraordinary places, but Cornwall remains my favourite place anywhere.”

Aside from its incomparable scenery, Cornwall’s other great draw is its food. “Curgurrell Farm does fantastic bread, and dressed crab and lobster,” says Rachel. “Run by the Taffinder family, their son Ben is building a name as an artist.”

While notably delighted to add ‘published author’ to her already impressive list of accolades, Rachel is deep into her second book, “a darker novel this time, with a supernatural thread running through it,” again based in the West Country. Keep a look out for this emerging new talent, as I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Rachel Hickman in future.

"Cornwall is like another character in the book... I love its moods." - Rachel Hickman