Movie rights already snapped up, writes Rachel Eadie.
It's 8.30am in Australia when I call Jessica Townsend: she's in an Uber on her way to Melbourne airport; this is her second interview of the day and it won't be her last.
She's on a world tour to promote her debut children's novel Nevermoor, The Trials of Morrigan Crow. The hype is huge: an eight-publisher, 24-hour bidding war, resulting in a six-figure deal; movie rights snapped up by 20th Century Fox.
Nevermoor is the whimsical Gothic tale of Morrigan Crow, a cursed child fated to die on Eventide, her 12th birthday. Unloved and unwanted, she awaits her fate until she is whisked away by the eccentric Jupiter North to the magical city of Nevermoor. There she must pass four dangerous and difficult trials to enter the Wondrous Society and remain safe.
Townsend is 32 but started writing about Morrigan Crow when she was 18, although it was then quite a different story about a girl who went to live with her Aunt Morrigan, who was an eccentric, brave, strange woman.
She says the niece wasn't particularly interesting but she started thinking of Aunt Morrigan - where did she come from and what kind of world did she live in? Moving from the Sunshine Coast to London in her 20s provided the inspiration for Townsend to begin work in earnest.
"It gave me an anchor, a place to set the story. Nevermoor, in my head, is a fictional London," she says.
Although some specifics, such as the Underground, have been translated to Nevermoor, Townsend wanted to recreate the feeling of being swept away by an unbearably magical, swarming city. Because of its setting and the unloved/unwanted child protagonist - the archetype is a classic aspect of many children's stories - Nevermoor has been heralded as the "next Harry Potter".
Though flattered, Townsend says J.K. Rowling is a role model because she showed how big complex worlds can be created that, while fantastical, funny and with great heart, still reflect our world. Townsend's writing is also influenced by everything she has ever read, from authors like Neil Gaiman and John Marsden to such childhood favourites as Little Women and the Babysitters Club series. Voracious reading meant she could pick up writing almost by osmosis.
"I learnt to write by reading, down to the sentence level," she says.
Her work is full of wit, humour and clever word play and, although Townsend thinks she is probably wittier on the page than in real life, she points out being the youngest of five meant that to survive you had to come back with a zinger.
She never set out to write an allegory but the book touches subtly on current social themes such as immigration: Morrigan is an illegal immigrant in Nevermoor facing the threat of deportation.
"Unconsciously, things happening around me have filtered into the story, which is essentially me all over the pages, weird things I love, my sense of humour but also my values," says Townsend, adding that to be able to connect and influence children positively is important. But a story must be compelling.
When she started writing she was hard on herself, thinking she wanted it finished in six months to a year. However, as "a procrastinator but also a perfectionist", she learned she needed to get the story as perfect as possible on her own before sending it to literary agents. If she could give advice to her younger self, she'd say do the work, chill out and be patient because there's plenty of time.
"The constant dichotomy if you work creatively is that one side is riddled with self-doubt; the other bombastically confident that you're on a path and you're going to get there. Managing those two animals in your brain is the challenge," she says.
Perhaps intuitively knowing she had a good story was one of the keys to success and, as a self-confessed total daydreamer and a little bit of a control freak, the idea she could daydream up a world and control everything that happened in it appealed.
"Unlike the other stories I would start and never finish, I wanted to see this to fruition."
Townsend also took her time choosing an agent, meticulously researching them for a year before narrowing the list to 11. She expected to it to take a couple of years to hear back but had four offers of representation within four months.
After a year of edits -- and some more procrastination -- the novel was submitted; the auction between agents came a week later and, overnight, Townsend was a literary sensation. Naturally, she still finds the experience surreal.
"I feel I have lost my ability to react," she says. "Right now I am just adjusting to the fact that this is my life but I am really excited for whatever comes next."
Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend