THE PURSUIT OF AWESOME: PAIGE TOON
Former Heat magazine reviews editor and author of over a dozen novels, Paige Toon, grew up between England, Australia and America, or wherever her Formula 1 racing driver Dad took her! Passionate about books, magazines and film, Paige is a firm favourite with chick lit readers around the world. One of my favourite authors, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Paige in her home town of Cambridge to talk about the journey to pursuing her wildest dreams.
“I know it sounds cliché, but I’ve wanted to write ever since I could remember. As a little girl, I used to escape to the back of the garden to write poems and songs. The first job I ever wanted to do was to work in a magazine. I wanted to be an author before that but when I started reading magazines as a teenager and I quite fancied it as a fun job.
I remember writing sad stories in my childhood years. I’ve always liked surprising my audience. I used to think that my parents and relatives thought I was just a kid who would always write happy endings and so I would make them as sad as possible for the shock factor.
By the time I got to university, I decided to study philosophy. I was worried that doing English would put me off writing. When I wrote my novel, One Perfect Summer, I created this heroine called Alice who goes to study English Literature and I remember thinking, ‘I wish I had done that; that would have been really lovely.’ Philosophy still allowed me to open up my mind though. It allowed me to be creative in my own way, without forcing literature down my throat.
Post college, I took a year out before finding work experience at a small magazine. I really wanted to write film reviews and so off I went to work for a film magazine called Neon. I did one week’s work experience and they were only too happy to have someone come in and offer to help. They weren’t a massive publication by any means. For bigger magazines like Heat, there was up to a years’ wait but I quite liked working in this smaller office. I used it as an opportunity to shine and make an impact. Being quite determined and passionate, I didn’t think a week was long enough so I nicely asked if I could stick around a little longer. I promised to clear out Neon’s entire video cabinet if they kept me on. I think they thought I was a little crazy but they obliged. I was just really, really, really enthusiastic.
At the end of my placement, the editorial assistant (who is the most junior position in a magazine) asked me if I wanted to cover for her because she was going away for a couple of weeks. I jumped at the chance and by the end of that, I’d had a whole month in this office. I really tried to make an impact where I could. I did my best to be enthusiastic and helpful as much as I could and ask the right questions. When I left, I gave my CV to the editor and said ‘please, please, please think of me if you need anything.’
Three months later, I got a phone call from the editor of Big magazine, a teenage title. She needed an editorial assistant and I got the job after working there for about three months or so. I was about 23 at this stage, which was actually quite old for a newbie. A lot of people go into the magazine industry straight from school. I felt like quite an old editorial assistant even though I was only 23. I was sort of the magazine’s secretary. I would do everything from changing the photocopy paper to replying to the millions of reader’s letters. They’d write in all the time, wanting to know what it was like meeting Leonardo diCaprio and all of these other famous people. They’d sort of just expect bands like 5ive to pop in for tea and hang out. That never happened during my time but I do remember Westlife coming into the office before they became absolutely huge.
As part of my duties, I got to interview a young Jake Gyllenhall before he became really famous. I got to do film reviews too which was what I had always wanted. I also used to handle the work experience students, which they call ‘workies’ in the industry. The one thing I really noticed, considering how lucky and grateful and how much I never took it for granted that I got a job there, was that it was quite amazing how few work experience people stood out throughout the time that I was looking after them. I felt very few made the most of such a great opportunity. Over the course of a year, only two or three would stand out. It just goes to show you can really make a difference if you try really hard.
I worked at Big for about a year and a half. Just before I applied for a job at Heat, my editor said to me, ‘don’t wait until you feel ready to move on’ (their last editorial assistant had been there for two and a half years and she got a bit fed up with the job). My editor said ‘jump before you feel ready’ and that was the best advice she could have given me because I really had been thinking, ‘I can’t move on from here until I’ve been here for at least a couple of years.’ I just assumed that was what people expected.
I eventually did go for a job at Heat magazine as the editor and reviews assistant and I got it. Oddly, a week later Big closed down; I was lucky I jumped in time. Five months upon joining Heat, my boss- the reviews editor left and they were a bit disorganised to say the least. I was doing both the absent editors role along with mine and I ended up getting her job when I finally asked for it. It was a very quick progression going from the lowest position to an editor in a magazine. Interestingly, at the time that I began working at Heat, the magazine was on the verge of closing down. It was selling less than 30,000 copies a week. Over the next couple of years under the editorship of Mark Frith, it rose to selling 600,000 copies a week. It was an exciting time to be an editor at one of the biggest magazines in the world- it was pretty incredible.
One of my favourite interviews during that time was with Paul McKenna. He had a real charisma to him and he was quite inspirational, talking about hypnotising himself on planes to make flights go quicker and other random stuff. He’s got quite a lot of friends and he does attract a lot of those people with big personalities. I also loved interviewing Ant and Dec. They were just so nice and so much fun and really kind, genuine guys.
My least favourite person to interview was David Boreanaz who played Angel in Buffy. He was particularly grumpy. It was the end of a very long day of interviews and I had my questions, which, in fairness, did kind of mostly focus on what it was like kissing Sarah Michelle Gellar. David was like ‘people should ask more interesting questions’ and I said, ‘well what do you think is an interesting question?’ to which he responded, ‘I don’t know, like why are you wearing those socks?’ So I asked him exactly that and he responded with a shrug and an- ‘I don’t know,’ It was a pretty dull interview, I have to say.
I liked interviewing people like Sir Alan Sugar. I remember asking him what he thought of Jordan and Peter Andre because there was some sort of scandal going on between them at the time. Or maybe it was the Beckham’s… and he was like ‘I don’t bloody know.’ I was asking him stuff I knew he wouldn’t care about and my editor loved the technique. I remember him saying he wanted more of that. I had to ask the slightly silly questions sometimes to get an amusing response. The Dragons Den were also really fun to interview. I remember going in once and pitching ideas to them. They were supposed to be jokey ideas but they all took it very, very seriously. One of my colleagues said ‘suggest making candles of your pets’ and that’s what I went in with. I had a good laugh during my time with Heat, that’s for sure.
NAILING THE INTERVIEW
To get a good interview, being quite succinct is important. Getting to the point and being interesting is important too. Don’t avoid controversy all the time. Fair enough you don’t want to put yourself out there too much personally but have an opinion about things otherwise it’s boring; you shouldn’t be afraid to be cheeky. I remember one time my editor couldn’t believe I asked one particular question. I was interviewing this lady who had just been kicked out of the Apprentice who wasn’t all that liked. I asked her how it felt to be the most hated woman in Britain. I kind of said it with a twinkle in my eye and she sort of laughed and went along with it but it could definitely have gone wrong!
The way into magazines is with experience and its worth your time when you’re starting out to save for a little while so you can afford to work for free for those initial two or three months. Even when you get employment, its not the best paid job in the world.
As you can imagine, I was terrified making the transition from editing magazines to becoming an author. I’d wanted a book deal for years and years and years and for me it was the absolute pinnacle. If I didn’t make the transition to author, I still believe it would have been my biggest regret.
FROM MAGAZINES TO BOOKS
I was extremely lucky to get my deal and I definitely didn’t follow the typical route. What happened to me was very unusual. I had this book idea while working at Heat as reviews editor. Because I used to get lots of books sent to me by lots of people wanting their books to be featured, I had a good relationship with a many different publishers and publicity people. One of them at Simon and Schuster, Nigel Stoneman, had become a friend of mine. I loved his no-nonsense attitude. He’s say ‘this book isn’t very Heat but the author’s loooovely, if you could squeeze her in the chart then put her in.’
We became friends because I just liked him being straight to the point. We went out for lunch one day and he said to me, ‘you should write a book love, you’d get a book deal easy.’ And so I told him about my idea. I think he was just saying it flippantly but was surprised by my sudden enthusiasm. I told him about the idea for Lucy in the Sky, about a girl who gets on a flight to Australia and gets a text message from her boyfriend’s phone saying ‘I’ve slept with your boyfriend four times this month.’ And he said ‘I love it, I’m going to go back and tell my publisher.’ I got very, very nervous, almost sick with nerves. About five minutes after I got back to the office, I had an email from Nigel saying his publisher loved my idea and wanted to meet me. Not only that, but I also had an email from said publisher asking when we could meet.
She tells the story differently- apparently Nigel came into the office and shut the door behind him and said ‘I’ve just had a meeting with Paige from Heat magazine and she’s got a book idea.’ And she said ‘if I had a pound everyone said that to me, I’d be loaded.’
I met with Suzanne a week later and in that space of time, I wrote the first three chapters of my debut novel, bearing in mind I had only wrote a page and a half of this story previously. My brother came up with the title Lucy in the Sky and I quickly changed the heroine’s name from Meg to Lucy and I wrote a 5,000 word synopsis. I sent the synopsis through to Suzanne ahead of our meeting but held onto the first three chapters. We met, she told me how much she loved it and asked to see some written maternal and I obliged. I sent the first three chapters and two days later she offered me a two-book deal.
Around the time I can up with the idea for Lucy in the Sky, my mam, dad and brother had moved back to Australia and I stayed behind in University in England. Born in England but growing up in Australia to an Australinan family, I felt incredibly homesick. I was going out with a boy (who ended up being my husband) who had no interest in going to live in Australia and I was very torn between the two countries. I have an overactive mind and I’m always coming up with weird ideas so I can’t recall exactly how the initial idea came to me but I decided to write a story about this girl called Lucy who was, like me, caught between two countries, and unlike, me, two men.
When it came down to it, the book practically wrote itself. I had my initial ideas but it just took a life of it’s own. It was an absolute joy to write; even to this day, everything else competes with it. You couldn’t keep me away from my computer. I kept on the full time job in Heat at the time and if I had a quiet moment in work, occasionally I might have been doing a little bit of writing. I remember my editor looking over at me a couple of times, giving me a knowing look. I’d write before work, lunchtimes, after work and weekends. I didn’t go out or socialize that much during that time but I was just in the happiest place to have this book deal and to lose myself inside these characters lives. It was so much fun to be in their heads. During that time I also went back to Australia for my mum’s birthday. We went on a cruise and then took a trip to Sydney to do research for Lucy’s trip to Sydney where she spends half of the book. It brought the story to life for me. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have connected as much to the story and it would have been more stressful. Once I’d been to Sydney and I had seen where my character lived, breathed, worked, played, went out, swam, I really got a sense of who she was. It really brought her to life I was able to walk in her shoes. So many of the places mentioned in the book are real, the cafes and ice bar that she goes to, it’s all real.
After I completed the book, we sent it to Marian Keyes who is absolutely my favourite author. I’d reviewed her books at Heat and met her a couple of times and asked if she would quote on it. I felt absolutely sick with fear. That’s when it first started sinking in that all of my friends and family would be reading this book. My mother-in-law, my husband’s granny. I’d written a few swear words in there and a couple of steamy scenes. I thought of my colleagues at Heat reading it and judging me.
Because I wrote Lucy in the Sky in two and half months, I thought I’d be able to write my second novel Johnny Be Good in speedy time as well. It turns out I can only write in the winter and that I’m completely unproductive any other time of year. I also fell pregnant right after I delivered my first book. I tried to write Johnny Be Good before my baby came and it was really, really stressful. I managed to get 50,000 words into it and after I had a baby, my mind just cleared and it was autumn and I wrote the book very, very quickly again. I ended up rewriting those first 50,000 words. I remember thinking ‘please, please, please let some of my readers love this almost as much as they love Lucy in the Sky,’ and a massive, massive, massive chunk of them loved it even more. It was just amazing and such a relief. I’ve thought that every time I’ve delivered a book and every book I’ve ever written has had a big chunk of people tell me it’s their favourite. That’s pretty nuts. I don’t feel like I’ve had a flop. In all of my reviews I’ve got at least four and a half star rating on Amazon, which is incredible.
The idea for that second novel came from a book I read- a Robbie Williams biography. I wasn’t a huge fan of Robbie but I happened to read this book because it had good reviews and it was by a journalist called Chris Heath. He was a journalist who had gone out to interview Robbie and ended up getting on really well with him so much so, Robbie offered him the chance to write his biography. And so, this ordinary guy was thrust into this celebrity lifestyle, going backstage at concerts etc.
He talked about Robbie’s PA and I just thought what that must be like for an ordinary girl, working for one of the biggest pop stars on the planet and what it must be like to be confided with their secrets. That was the idea for Johnny Be Good; Meg goes to work for this bad boy rock star and falls for him even though he’s really bad news. In the story, Christian, Johnny’s good friend is writing his biography and Meg comes very good friends with him too and it becomes a bit of a love triangle. It’s funny that that’s where the inspiration came for my second novel- a book about Robbie… even though Johnny is a slightly less grungy Kurt Cobain!
INSPIRATION FROM REAL LIFE
With most of my ideas I tend to write from experience. My dad was a racing driver and my book Chasing Daisy was definitely inspired by him and the racing scene I grew up around. My Dad had raced in Formula 1 and intercar and won le monde in 1983. I remember him taking to me to the Australian Grand Prix as a teenager and introducing me to Senna and people like that. It was pretty nuts. A friend or a friend had worked in hospitality for the Formula 1 scene and after talking to her about being –as she put it - ‘a waitress in a car park,’ getting to fly all around the world with the Forumla 1 team and staying in amazing hotels and dealing with these racing drivers who are doing one of the most dangerous jobs that you can do, that was where inspiration came from. There was a crash in one of the chapters and that’s based on a crash my dad had when he was racing in America. My dad said there had been two points in his life where he was absolutely certain he was going to die and this crash was one of them. His steering locked, breaks locked, he was going straight towards a concrete wall at crazy, crazy speeds. He said he was absolutely certain he was going to die. I thought ‘what must that been like?’ and channeled it into my book.
Most of the time when an idea takes hold; if it’s the right one, it sticks. I’ve always come up with the idea of my next book while I’m writing the one before. When I was writing my fifth book, Baby Be Mine, I must have been listening to Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ a lot. That song is obviously about her being famous and thinking of a boy that she used to love and how she’s heard that he’s married now and wishes him all the best but still can’t stop thinking of him. I twisted the story round and started thinking about my character Alice, meeting a young guy and having a perfect summer with him. I imagined them going their separate ways and how he fails to come and find her in university in Cambridge. He never appears and she ends up meeting someone else. On her wedding day she finds out that Joe has gone on to become a film star. He’d been discovered doing a kickboxing documentary and some director had decided to make him an actor. While she’s leading this ordinary life, her one time love of her life has gone on to become a very famous actor.
You find inspiration from anywhere. For me it happens to come from other books and movies and songs and things. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the road and an idea will pop into my head and it will be pretty nuts. For example, I was on my way to an event in the back of a car when I was writing The Sun in Your Eyes. We were in a bit of a rush and the person who was driving might have slammed on their breaks once or twice. I thought to myself ‘if I die now, I’ll be so cross because I wouldn’t get to finish this book.’ I imagined Simon and Shuster getting a ghostwriter to finish the book and me being really peeved because they weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. I thought, I can imagine myself coming back to haunt them. That’s the idea behind one of my future books.
The best thing about being an author is being able to create your own little movie inside your head. You’re living vicariously through your characters and it’s just really fun. I think writing is a lot like acting. You really have to put yourself in your characters’ position and that’s the biggest compliment a reader can pay me is that they really feel the emotions. I love knowing that they cried and laughed because I’m sitting there crying when I’m writing a sad scene. I really connect to the characters and that enables my readers to connect with them too. I think that’s why I’m able to have so many good reviews. Sometimes I read other books and I don’t connect so much because I don’t feel like the author has connected.
Writing commercial women’s fiction is a great genre to be in. You have to write what you’re passionate about and I love reading chick lit. I’d also choose to read a lot of young adult fantasy stuff too. I love the Hunger Games and I’ve got an idea for a book, which at some point I will write. You have to write about things you believe in and as long as you’re connected to your characters, then there are readers out there who will connect. If you don’t love what you’re writing or there’s something wrong with the scene then stop. Go for a walk, take a break, try to skip past that scene and come back to it later or just try to move the story onto another scene- so that you’re excited about what you’re writing about once again. I would never deliver a book that I’m not 100% happy with or almost 100% happy with.
I’ve learned from experience that when writers block strikes, the best thing to do is take a break. There’s no point sitting in front of a computer screen, staring at blank words and feeling rubbish about yourself. It’s better that you take yourself out of the situation, go for a walk, listen to some music, go see a movie and just let the world inspire you so that you can get writing again. That’s what I do if it affects me and more often than not, my characters start speaking to me again. If my characters are keeping me awake when I’m trying to fall asleep, that’s a really good sign.
PINCH ME MOMENTS
I still can’t quite believe what I’ve achieved as an author and it feels very surreal. Sometimes I realize that there are hundreds of thousands of people reading my books and when that sinks in, it kind of makes my brains explode a bit. When I hear from readers on Twitter and Facebook, it’s awesome. Those reader reviews on Amazon were the first reviews I had on any of my books and to this day, I’m one of the most highly rated women’s fiction authors out there. I just feel so lucky.
My proudest moment was getting that first book deal. It was an absolute dream come true. As young as I can remember I’ve wanted to write and the first job I ever wanted to do was to be an author. In the future I want to continue writing and never take it for granted. I get too much enjoyment from it.
Oh! And Marian Keyes did quote on that very first novel. She said ‘I loved it, I couldn’t put it down.”
ACCORDING TO PAIGE...
ROCKING WORK EXPERIENCE
You can impress your supervisors by being really eager, really keen, asking the right questions and not getting grumpy if they’re asked to sit there hours upon end cutting out newspapers. With work experience, it’s all about attitude and enthusiasm and pleasantness. Being friendly and keen is so important. I really believe if you are passionate about getting into the magazine industry and you really want it then you will absolutely succeed because you’ll try that bit harder.