ASTONISHINGLY for a new writer, Annabel Pitcher found herself at the centre of a bidding war for the rights to her first novel My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece.
No-one was more surprised than she to be told that her story of a family riven apart by grief following a terrorist attack was going to be big.
"I thought it might get published and earn a few hundred pounds, but I certainly didn’t expect the response I got," she said.
Although she won’t reveal how much she was paid as an advance, it’s probably fair to say that she must have felt as if she’d hit the jackpot. She was certainly thrilled.
Within a few short weeks of submitting the manuscript to an agent, the 28-year-old Oxford graduate, who was brought up in Netherthong, found herself resigning from her job as a teacher at Wakefield Girls High School to become a full-time writer.
"I’ve gone from being in a packed classroom, in control of 30 teenagers, to sitting in a room on my own writing," she says.
"I was really sad to leave teaching but I do love writing and it’s been like a dream come true."
The book, published this week, is being described by the publishers Orion as ‘an accomplished and deeply involving debut for readers in their teens and far beyond’. There are high hopes that it will make Annabel Pitcher a household name. The rights for American and foreign language editions have been sold separately.
While the story, told in the first person by a 10-year-old boy whose sister is killed in a terrorist bombing, is exciting, emotional and punchy, the tale behind how it was written is almost as fascinating.
Annabel, who is an English graduate, was on a year-long honeymoon with her husband Steve, a language teacher, travelling the world, when the germ of an idea for a novel came to her. "We had arrived in Ecuador late at night and couldn’t sleep because we were jet lagged," she explained.
"It was our first stop in South America and it was too late to go out so we watched an English DVD, United 93, about 9/11. It got me thinking about terrorism and what happens after an attack.
"Most of us come to terms with it and move on but I started to think about the families who have lost someone and are never going to be able to do that."
And so Annabel began to fill notebooks with her ideas and by the time the couple returned to England after travelling around South America, the Far East, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the Middle East she had a working novel.
"The central character Jamie just dropped into my head," she says. "He doesn’t really remember his sister and doesn’t understand how her death has affected the family. It’s told from his point of view."
Although the book deals with a host of issues – bereavement, divorce, terrorism, Islamophobia, bullying and alcoholism – it also covers the themes of friendship, loyalty, hope and love.
"I wanted the book to be uplifting and not depressing," says Annabel, who laced her story with threads of humour and childhood innocence.
"I don’t see it as an issues book, it’s just a good story set in the contemporary world."
Annabel, whose mum and dad Shelagh and Alan Leech still live in Netherthong, says her own family has been blissfully free of the problems faced by her protagonist, his parents and sister.
"I had a blessed childhood," she says, "but I’ve worked with teenagers and I can still remember how a 10-year-old thinks. I see their vulnerability."
Annabel also believes that being the second eldest in a family of four – with two sisters and a brother – has enabled her to write though the eyes of a child.
"My youngest sister is seven years younger than me so I feel as if I went through childhood again when she was born. We were very close," she explained.
It is this ability to use her imagination fiercely and passionately that makes Annabel’s writing so gripping. It also allowed her to write My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece without doing any research.
"The only thing I checked up on was that no-one else had written anything like it, about terrorism. It was something new," she says.
She’s not entirely sure what the first print run has been but she knows that bookseller Waterstones has put in a larger-than-usual order for a first time writer.
At the moment Annabel and her husband are staying in Netherthong while waiting to move to a new house on the other side of the Holme Valley. She’s busy completing her second novel, which is to be entitled Ketchup Clouds and is narrated by a 15-year-old girl, but for now won’t reveal what it’s about.
What she will say is that she feels fortunate indeed to be making a good living doing something that she loves:
"I always wanted to be a writer but I never thought it was do-able. It wasn’t until, in my early twenties, I went into a bookshop in Ambleside, looked in the children’s section and thought ‘people do this as a career’ that I thought it was possible."
My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece is published by Orion in hardback at £9.99.
THE novel begins with Jamie, his father and sister Jas moving to the Lake District. Five years earlier his sister’s twin, Rose, was blown up by a terrorist bomb. Their parents, wrecked by grief have split up and his father has become an alcoholic. But Jamie, who was too young when his sister died to remember much about either her or what happened, doesn’t understand why those around him are falling apart. But he knows enough to keep his new friend Sunya, a Muslim, a secret.
Annabel Pitcher explores what it would feel like to be the twin left behind and how families learn to live again after tragedy.