A Dance in the Moon Garden

Chatting with us about the release of her first children’s book, Susie Darnton tells us about her writing journey and about how coming to Margate Bookie’s live lit fest in 2019 inspired her work.

Background! Who are you, what do you do, where do you live?

I’m Susie Darnton and I was a teacher for many years. I currently only teach one Special Needs pupil, who I absolutely adore. We have a wonderful time with lots of glue and make the most incredible mess. We also love making up poems and recite them with great gusto! Most of my time now, however, is spent being a full-time carer for my 93-year-old mother.

I’ve always enjoyed writing. In 1974, I won a writing competition and was introduced to Roald Dahl at the Puffin Book Show. He encouraged me to keep writing, but it’s taken all this time to actually complete a book! I studied Fine Art at Newcastle University for six years, then worked in Venice as a Private Tutor and then for the British Council at the Biennale, cleaning blue lizard footprints off the white walls from Anish Kapoor’s blue pigment covered works.

Since 2012, I’ve curated several group exhibitions in Margate under the name ‘Barber’s Son – Hairdresser’s Daughter’, which is a joke relating to J.M.W. Turner, who was a barber’s son. I divide my time between Broadstairs, where I live in a tiny flat on top of the cliffs, and Godalming, where I look after my mother, whose garden inspired the book.

Tell us about your book!

My book is A Dance in the Moon Garden, a lavishly illustrated children’s picture book, which tells the story of a small girl called Emilia who dances for the moon, much to the consternation of the animals who live in the garden! It has a rhythmic, repetitive text which is soothing and ideal for bedtime. Although the text is pretty minimal, I edited it time and again! The original rhythm was suggested by the sound of windscreen wipers in heavy rain. The illustrations were pure self-indulgence and I produced a ridiculous amount for a standard 32-page picture book. It did give the book designer a good choice though.

Images from Susie Darnton’s A Dance in the Moon Garden collection

What event did you come to at Margate Bookie and when?

I attended the Margate Bookie on November 23rd 2019. I bought a Saturday ticket, which was excellent value for £20. This meant that there were funds available to purchase several books from the Margate Bookshop. I was a ridiculously eager student and hung on everyone’s words. The evening finished with Louis de Berniéres, whose book Notwithstanding relates closely to my own childhood in Godalming.

Saturday events at Margate Bookie 2019

How did your experience with Margate Bookie help you with your writing?

At the time I was floundering a bit. My teaching job had finished, my son was in Australia carrying out exciting sculpture commissions and I needed a new purpose. With lots of ideas and unfinished stories, I was hungry for advice, information and direction. The Margate Bookie had many sensible and practical suggestions, as well as advice on approaching publishers and agents, which helped me to focus. I learnt that I needed to seek out people who’d be honest and brutal about my writing, so I could push things further. I left exhausted, but very aware that I had a great deal of work in front of me.

The first draft of Moon Garden was made a short while after this. I knew that I needed to edit and edit again and then some more. Attending the Margate Bookie made me realise that I was one of many striving towards becoming a writer and that I needed to work very hard!

There are a lot of steps between writing that first page and getting published. Can you tell us about the journey?

I started Moon Garden in early December 2019. I’d been to see my godmother for the last time and on the journey home, I was deep in thought about childhood memories and the books she had given me. I remembered one in particular which had lovely illustrations of owls and the moon with an amazing deep blue sky. The rhythm of the windscreen wipers in the heavy rain suggested “these are my good toes, these are my naughty toes, I am Emilia and I’m dancing for the Moon.”

I wrote the first draft the next day and sent it to my harshest critic, who suggested that I took it further. After more edits, I showed it to a librarian and an English teacher, who both had very different approaches and suggestions. After further edits were made, I started the illustrations, again soaking up ideas and suggestions from anyone who offered them.

When lockdown hit and I became trapped with a very ill nonagenarian, Moon Garden became my escape. At this stage it was just a personal creative project and I hadn’t any thoughts of publishing. I’d posted images on Facebook and received very positive responses and people have since said they looked forward to seeing the images in their newsfeed.

“As I continued to edit the text, I fell in and out of love with
the book, but kept going.”

By January 2021, I had produced around 80 images and was still editing the text! I was urged by lots of people to get it published. In the midst of a pandemic, everything was very slow and no one wanted children’s picture books, I explored scores of agents and publishers, but to no avail.

After a chance email to Peahen Publishing, and editing the text some more, Carly from Peahen got back to me and a working partnership was born. I sent 50 images to Nic, the book designer, who sifted through and created the book. I love how she’s added the text directly onto the illustrations and adjusted them so subtly.

When I saw the electronic proofs, I completely lost my nerve. The publisher kept nudging me as I’d already advertised a book launch at a Margate exhibition and she needed my permission to give the printers the green light, to meet the exhibition deadline. I felt sick. I had to leave things a few days but finally, after more nudges, said go ahead.

What advice would you have for anyone looking to start writing?

Just sit down and start, keep going and then edit, edit, edit, edit and edit again! I would also say that children’s books are far harder to write than you think!

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