Jenny Downham
Jenny Downham

After I stopped wanting to be a ballerina (aged around seven) I felt as if there were only two choices of career for me – an actor or a writer. I was always reading, but I also loved performing. I was in all the school plays, but my favourite subject was creative writing. I went to university to study both drama and English, then I went to drama school, became an actor, but never stopped writing.

But being an actor is a tough life. I was often 'resting, ' and this is here other careers came in - selling brushes door to door, working on a mushroom farm, in a perfumery, a car parts factory, a bakery, etc, etc.

I was an actor for over ten years, but gave up when my second son was born because I couldn't take two kids out on the road with me. I began to write more at that point because it was my only creative outlet. I used all my acting techniques to do it. I still do. I keep notebooks and journals and diaries for the characters, researching them as if I'm going to play them on stage – what they like to eat, what their hopes and fears are. It might not all get in the book, but it helps me to know who they are.

In 2003 I entered the London Writer's Competition, just to see what would happen. I won first prize and began to take myself more seriously. I joined a writer's group and this provided me with a place for on-going critical feedback and support. By 2005 I'd finished my first novel and I sent it out to agents. I met lots of them. And publishers. But I began to realise that first books are often where writers learn their craft and that it would need some re-writing. Since I had begun 'Before I Die,' I was reluctant to go back.


Two more years passed. I wrote every day (almost), sitting at the back of the house where it's quiet and away from the road. I treated it like a 9-5 job. I had to be really disciplined because there was no-one telling me to do it. Inspiration came from everywhere. I watched the world for stories in a very energised way – newspapers, overheard conversations, etc – anything was used. I went out with my notebook if I need distraction or stimuli and wrote in a cafe or in the park or anywhere else I could think of. I never left the house without paper and a pen.

Every now and then I'd show my agent a few thousand words and she'd say something encouraging and I'd take a big breath and get back down to it.

By February 2007, Before I Die was finished and was passed to a publisher – David Fickling, who made a pre-emptive offer only a week after it was completed. I was sitting on a train when I found out, and I was so excited it took all my will power to resist announcing it to the whole carriage! Within less than 24 hours, the book had sold to Holland, and in a further ten languages within two weeks. It was all a bit overwhelming – the sort of thing I'd read about, but not the kind of thing that would ever happen to me.

It's wonderful to be published.