Killer debut: Polly Phillips's journey from Dubai prize to book deal with Stephen King’s publisher

She claimed the 2019 Montegrappa Writing Prize at the Emirates Literature Festival, and is set to release her debut novel in January

Author Polly Phillips has been signed to Simon & Schuster. Supplied
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What do Dan Brown, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Frank McCourt, Hunter S Thompson, Jackie Collins and Stephen King all have in common?

Besides making up the ultimate literary fantasy dinner party, they are some of the most famous names among the roll call of clients represented by New York publisher Simon & Schuster since it began operations nearly a century ago.

And, late last month, it was announced that Polly Phillips, whose My Best Friend's Murder won the prestigious Montegrappa Writing Prize at last year's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, will be taking her place among this august company.

Since 2013, the Dubai competition has been judged by London literary agent Luigi Bonomi, whose clients include British household names such as Judy Finnigan, John Humphrys, Esther Rantzen and Alan Titchmarsh. But how did Phillips, a former journalist, use this springboard to capture the attention of one of the brightest agents in London and sign a deal with one of the world's top publishing houses?

Write 15,000 words, and then delete most of it ...

Despite her draft winning the Montegrappa top prize, the first thing she did was delete most of the 15,000 words she had already written. "I scrapped quite a lot of that and really worked with trying to get the plot to be much more of a thriller and more knife-edge," she tells The National.

Originally titled Keep Your Friends Close, the book was inspired by a toxic female friendship Phillips had as a teenager, except in the book the destructive relationship takes a deadly turn, resulting in the title being changed to the catchier My Best Friend's Murder.

Equipped with the $6,000 (Dh22,000) engraved pen she received as part of the competition, Phillips set about completing her manuscript. She also had an impending deadline – the end of the school year in July – as she knew that as soon as her young children were off for the summer, she would never get any writing done.

“The beginning of September, schools went back … I breathed a huge sigh of relief and opened the manuscript back up and said, ‘Where am I going to go with it?’” Little did Phillips know that where she was going was straight into a competition among London agents scrambling to represent her book.

Montegrappa Prize Giving 2019: Luigi Bonomi, founder of Luigi Bonomi Associates (LBA), winner Polly Phillips and Charles Nahhas, Montegrappa’s Middle East distributor. Courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 
Montegrappa Prize Giving 2019: Luigi Bonomi, founder of Luigi Bonomi Associates (LBA), winner Polly Phillips and Charles Nahhas, Montegrappa’s Middle East distributor. Courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 

"To suddenly have not just one person want you, but three … I completely wasn't prepared for it. It's a really nice problem to have," she says. Although one agent responded that she thought it might be hard to sell – reminiscent of the 17 agents who rejected J K Rowling and Harry Potter – the others were all very keen and very difficult to decide between.

"It seemed to be almost like a choice between a big company or little company," Phillips says. She eventually opted to go with Sarah Hornsley from The Bent Agency, who was listed among the Rising Stars of 2019 by publishing industry magazine The Bookseller. One of the things that convinced Phillips was speaking to some of Hornsley's existing clients, they had nothing but glowing praise. The feeling was certainly mutual.

'The person who did the murder changed twice'

“I knew from Polly’s prologue that this was something I was going to offer representation to. It was so intriguing and set the concept up so well that I knew this was a writer who knew their craft,” Hornsley remembers.

“The first page showed me the promise of the novel and the quality of Polly’s writing so strongly that I was confident even if the plot didn’t unfold quite how it needed to in order to be commercial, this was a writer and an idea that I could work with. Luckily for me, the rest of the novel definitely delivered anyway.”

Cover of My Best Friend's Murder. Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Cover of My Best Friend's Murder. Courtesy Simon & Schuster

The relationship between agent and author can vary but Hornsley is renowned in the industry for being very hands-on with her writers and spent a further six weeks helping to get the manuscript perfect before pitching to publishers. “We had a huge change,” Phillips says. “I think the person who did [the murder] changed twice in that couple of months.”

Hornsley lined up interest from two publishers, one of which was Simon & Schuster. Phillips, who now lives in Perth, Australia, flew back to England to meet the two potential publishers and it was while on a quick trip to Paris with friends that she received the good news that she had signed a deal with one of the five biggest publishing houses in the world.

When picking a publisher, Phillips admits it came down to a mix of commercial considerations and gut feeling, especially when she met her now-editor Bethan Jones in London, who, coincidentally, grew up in Dubai and left 12 years ago to pursue her publishing career.

"Bethan reminded me of a friend of mine and she seemed to really get the book and be excited about it," she recalls. "[Anatomy of a Scandal writer] Sarah Vaughan is a Simon & Schuster author, too, and the idea of being in the same cohort as her was a big thrill."

Again, for Jones, the instinct to sign Phillips’s debut was instant. “Once I started reading, I just couldn’t stop. It is absolutely addictive, everything you could want from a domestic thriller. It’s really fresh and unique, despite being part of a genre that is perennially popular and that’s a real testament to her skill as a writer.”

How can other writers in the region get their foot in the door?

With Phillips already in the final drafts of her second book, one of the aims of every author is longevity and developing a career. "Winning a prize such as Montegrappa is an excellent way for unpublished writers to get a foot in the door, bringing their work to the attention of top agents and piquing the interest of publishers. But it's no cakewalk," says Annabel Kantaria, winner of the inaugural Montegrappa Writing Prize in 2013, who is set to publish her fifth novel, House of Whispers, under the pseudonym Anna Kent in March.

Read, read and read some more. How are you meant to think critically about your own work if you aren't sure what else is working in that space?

“Many people dream of writing a book and getting it published – but, once you’ve achieved that, it’s time to ask yourself how much further you want to take it. Will it be a one-off – a box ticked – or the start of a new career as an author? Polly’s proven she has what it takes so I’m sure she’ll see even further success.”

With My Best Friend's Murder set to be released in audio and digital format in January, and in print in July, how can other aspiring writers in the region get a foot in the door of the notoriously competitive publishing world?

“The best way to help yourself is to read, read and read some more,” says Hornsley. “Too often we ask writers what they’ve read recently in the genre they’ve written in and they struggle to think of anything. How are you meant to think critically about your own work if you aren’t sure what else is working in that space?”

Jones also advises against writing what authors think is currently in vogue or trendy. “Write the book you want to write – don’t focus on other books that are ‘working’ in the market. The writing process will be so much easier (and much more fun) if you’re writing a book that you are truly passionate about,” she says.

And the biggest piece of advice? Never give up trying, because the year Phillips won the Montegrappa prize marked her third attempt. Or, as Stephen King famously once said, "a little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer".