Having spent the last decade writing for national magazines, it was writing for herself that helped Ali Harris finally land her dream role. Ella Walker meets the journalist and soon-to-be-published author at her gorgeous new home in Histon.
It might be the first interview where Ali would be answering the questions instead of asking them, but walking up the drive to the gothic house she’s just moved into with husband Ben and their two young children, the fear set in anyway.
After all, it’s pretty intimidating wandering up to any house that looks like it could have a couple of dragons languishing in the garden, let alone when you’re about to meet a lady who has worked for some of the best women’s glossies around.
But as soon as we’re settled in her luminous kitchen, an enormous Aga keeping us warm, I realise my slight panic (do I ring the ancient bell or knock and hope for the best?) was ridiculous. She tells me later: “I feel it’s going to be a really inspirational place to write. We’re going to put a little writing shed at the bottom of the garden and I fell in love with the turret, obviously, being a writer I was like: ‘It’s got a turret, we’ve got to live there!’”
Ali, who is the definition of English rose and flutters about gracefully, making tea and even hunting for batteries to save my Dictaphone from certain death, is bright, funny and unfailingly passionate.
Hence why her CV is spilling over with big names: ELLE, Red, Cosmopolitan, Company Magazine and Glamour all jostle for space but it’s the release of her debut novel, Miracle on Regent Street, that she’s been dreaming of most.
“It has been a bit of a slow burn but now it’s really starting to feel real,” says Ali, who started writing novels straight out of university almost 13 years ago, tapping out plots between waitressing shifts. After turning 25 – a book deal as elusive as ever – her sister stepped in saying: you love writing, you love magazines, why not apply to some?
“I wrote five letters to my five favourite magazines at the time and I was so lucky, two days later I got a phone call from Celebrity Look saying their work experience had just dropped out and could I start the following Monday?” Ali buzzes. “I went into the restaurant I was working at in Piccadilly and said: ‘I’m not coming back’, handed in my notice, took this five week placement and I swore to myself that I would never ever serve tables again.”
Although Celebrity Look folded eight months later (“Which was gutting,”) she was on her way, bagging the role of features assistant at Company Magazine and getting her own column soon after.
But the thought of becoming a published novelist still niggled away. “I never stopped writing books; I was always writing something,” she bubbles. “My job at Company meant I got to meet authors. I got to interview people who had gotten their dream career like Adele Parks and I’d be like: ‘How did you do it? How did you do it?!’”
Finally nabbing an agent it looked like her own name was soon going to be on a book jacket, but again the rejections trickled in: “The difference this time was that they were saying: ‘We really love Ali and we love her writing style, we don’t think this is right as a first novel’.”
“When the last [rejection] came in I cried and cried, but all it takes is one yes.” Pretty and petite, Ali’s full of fight too. “The next day I got up and started [writing] the next one.”
Her synopsis for a second book option had attracted the attention of publishers Simon & Schuster and 15 chapters later, Ali had a book deal. “I guess I just never took no for an answer,” she says. “It’s like banging your head against a brick wall; I thought I will get there eventually.
“[Writing] is hard and it’s a learning process, you take things from each rejection. I learned to just write something that was for me. I thought what do I want to read about? What do I love? What have I got experience of? And that’s where it came from and because of that, it felt easy, I just loved it – I hope everyone else does!”
Miracle on Regent Street, due out on October 13, follows Evie, a “really sweet, unassuming stockroom girl” who works in a faded and forgotten department store she loves called Hardy’s. After overhearing the owner say the store will be forced to close if it doesn’t start making a profit by December 26 (three weeks away), Evie sets out to transform the store, and makes herself over along the way too – all plumped up with a lot of style, love (there’s an enigmatic American involved) and the odd bit of Christmas magic too.
“It’s a classic Cinderella story,” Ali enthuses. “A real feel-good, curl up with a cashmere blanket and a mug of hot chocolate read and is properly romantic, unashamedly romantic.” And she’s completely embraced the book’s chick-lit genre. “I’m totally proud of that because that’s what I love to read, that’s what I believe in, I’m a hopeless romantic myself.”
Moving from London to Cambridge is also a topic that makes her hands leap up and her eyes spark. “We fell in love with Histon because it’s so pretty but there’s so much here as well,” says Ali. “It’s got this amazing duck pond and beautiful thatched houses but it’s also got these brilliant shops and a really active community.
“We just feel like we’re on holiday at the moment, it’s brilliant!”
Ali is already working on her next novel, The First Last Kiss, and after that? “Hopefully lots more books, not as many babies,” she laughs. “I hope that this is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life now. It was always a long term career and that’s why I wanted it to be the right book, you hope that when you’ve written the right one people will like it and you can keep doing it. That would be amazing.”
Before I leave, she muses: “We all feel invisible sometimes. I remember doing work experience and thinking I was never going to get noticed, no-one was ever going to give me a job, that no matter how hard I worked that there’s always someone else who’s brighter and shinier that everything seems to come easily to.”
But she’s proved that being tough and barricading your self belief can change everything: “It’s the dream that I wasn’t always sure would come true but I had faith and believed that I could do it.” As I leave she whirls me into a hug and I walk back down the dragon-free drive, filled with a sense of possibility.
Ali’s top tips for writing a novel:
- Write every day – even when you don’t want to or there are a million other things to do
- Don’t agonise – you think you’ve written the most perfect sentence that’s full of these amazing words and actually they’re usually the ones that get cut. It’s the ones that just flow off the top of your head that are the most true.
- Don’t give up – have belief in yourself. If you don’t believe you can do it, no one else will.
For more tips from Ali, see the ‘Advice for writers’ section on her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AliHarrisWriter.
Follow Ali on Twitter @AliHarrisWriter for all her latest news. Miracle on Regent Street (Simon and Schuster) is out on October 13, priced £6.99.