The Secret of Haven Point is the debut children’s novel by Darlington-based writer Lisette Auton. Set on an instantly-recognisable North East coastline, the story takes place around a ramshackle old lighthouse that is home to a group of disabled children; a place of both sanctuary and magic. The novel is not just a beguiling adventure story for 9-12 year-olds, but it also seems almost unique in the marketplace in its centring of a glorious cast of disabled characters.

In this interview we talk to Lisette about her writing journey, working with a mentor, and publishing work that centres and celebrates disabled children.

Laura Fraine: You’re a poet, novelist, spoken-word artist, actor, film and theatre-maker, and now a children’s author – tell us a bit about your writing journey and wearing all these different creative hats. Is there one area of writing that feels most like ‘home’ to you? When did you realise you wanted to write for children and how has this varied from your other work? 

Lisette Auton: Words have always felt like home, that’s a really lovely way to describe it. I’ve always loved them, but I didn’t realise how important they were to me until impairment struck. Day-dreaming and making up worlds to spend my time in became vital. My body doesn’t fit into 9-5 work, it just can’t do it, and I thought this meant that I was broken. What I didn’t realise for a long time was that it doesn’t have to! The world is a bit broken, not me. Once I understood that I can make and create the way my body and brain need, well then everything just exploded. In a fabulous manner.

My tentative steps back into the world of words occurred with poetry and then the spoken word scene; we are so lucky that it is vibrant and welcoming in the north east. My first love is writing for and creating theatre, that visceral, being in the moment, anything could happen world. During the pandemic this translated to film with the Writing the Missing series for Durham Book Festival alongside the tremendous Rob Irish.

I still can’t quite believe that writing for children is part of this eclectic word mayhem. I’ve always written stories. When I was little I sellotaped ‘books’ together, wrote the ISBN on the back and drew a little Puffin. Children’s stories are my favourite to read, and write. The audience is incredibly discerning, every single word has to earn its place or the book will be swiftly discarded. I like that challenge! Now there is a Puffin on my actual book. Mind blowing. I need the different mediums, and the challenges they bring, I think the different skills needed for each help each other out, and if I’m bored or stuck with one thing, there is always something else to dive into. 

LF: I believe The Secret of Haven Point was first picked up as part of the Penguin WriteNow programme you took part in. How was it to work with a mentor on the process of writing the book? 

LA: Working with Emma Jones as my mentor on the WriteNow programme was absolutely nothing short of life changing. What I learned in such a short space of time about the technicalities of writing, editing, line editing, structure, character and pace was incredible, like a one-to-one masterclass. But it wasn’t just that, it was the confidence she instilled in me through her faith in my story and my writing. I finally believed it was possible. My story is incredibly northern with a cast of disabled characters, it’s not necessarily the most commercial sell going! But it was my heart song and Emma never asked me to water that down, but to dig deep and go for it even more. It wouldn’t exist the way it does now without her skill and kindness. When Puffin acquired The Secret of Haven Point I was so proud that she became my editor. A relationship I relish, and she’s still challenging me now – you should see the notes on my latest edit for book two! 

LF:The Secret of Haven Point is set on the North East coast, and your Writing the Missing films are also set in rivers and the sea. What draws you to water as a writer? 

LA: I think it’s in my blood. My family are all based by the sea and always have been. My mum and dad moved to Darlington and I became a river lass. Next to water is where I feel most at peace. It’s silly, but I don’t think I realised that connection! It just is. The second book is river based, so it’s obviously a thing whether I like it or not… 

LF: At the start of the book there is note on language in which you write about the responsibility you feel writing about disabled characters, to get everything ‘right’, because there are so few children’s books centring disabled characters and written by disabled people. What does it mean to be creating the kind of book you wish there were more of in the world? I hope as well as the feeling of responsibility you mention in the introduction, it also makes you feel very proud. 

LA: I did feel scared, the weight was a lot. Emma and I realised that the note on language would serve two purposes – help me to feel okay (access needs being met!) and set out my activism stall right at the beginning, a call to action, if you find yourself missing from book shelves, write the stories you need to read. And if you like this book, ask for more! In all the writing palaver, I know this sounds silly, but I hadn’t realised it would be read. My incredible copy editor, Wendy, told me what it meant to her to find herself reflected in a character, and since it has gone out into the world there has been so much more of this from children and parents. That makes me proud, that disabled children are seeing themselves on an adventure, in a gang of friends, not wanting or needing to be magically fixed, but celebrated exactly the way they are. It will make me even more proud when those children write their heart song books and they appear on shelves. 

LF: I love the illustrations in The Secret of Haven Point! Tell us about working with three illustrators and the different elements they brought to the book. 

LA: Oh my seas, aren’t the illustrations just INCREDIBLE I am so lucky. Alice, the designer at Puffin, worked absolute magic to bring these all together (she is also responsible for the starfish as asterisk throughout the book – it’s the little touches like these that are so special). I had very little to do with it apart from blubbing uncontrollably and being astonished. How on earth were these images extracted from my brain? It was a beautiful process, with my teeny little notes on first drafts (along the lines of ‘could it be a bit more weather beaten’ or ‘a little more fierce’) being taken on board and then there was the world in front of me. Gillian Gamble, cover illustrator and bringer to life of Old Ben, is Oop North too, the friendship we’ve made from this is something I treasure. I love maps in books, so when I found out Luke Ashforth was creating one for Haven Point I was overwhelmed, then the cross-section of Old Ben was a complete surprise. So many things to spot! How he created that is absolutely beyond me. Valentina Toro, who did the internal illustrations is disabled too. She sent me a note about what it meant to her, and the child she once was, to work on a book like this. I’m so proud that we were able to include this in the book. 

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