Author of The 392 Ashley Hickson-Lovence tells us about his first two months as a published debut author.
It was moments after I had just got off the Megabus at Stratford that I finally felt like a proper published author. I hopped off the coach and braved Westfield to have a look in Foyles and, as I entered, I immediately spotted my recognisably red and black cover sitting alongside the likes of Michelle Obama, Candice Carty-Williams, Akala, Jeffrey Boakye and others under the ‘Foyles Choice’ section. I had spotted The 392 in shops before – sometimes on the main table, sometimes hidden on a shelf, sometimes on a trolley – but this sight took me by surprise, being in such esteemed company felt special.
My little novel is told from different passengers’ perspectives as a single-decker London bus negotiates the gentrified streets of Hackney and Islington. We hear from a range of different characters, of varying ages and backgrounds, over the course of 36 minutes as a suspected terrorist loiters at the front shouldering a cumbersome rucksack. Today, two months after its release, I’ve been reassured that The 392 continues to sell steadily which is a pleasant relief. I knew in signing with an indie press, with a small/non-existent marketing budget, it would be a much slower burn compared to releasing it with a bigger publishing house. This is not to say that this has been to the detriment of the success of the book so far; in just two months there have been some incredible highs. The London launch at Second Home London Fields in April for example, was probably the best night of my life. Former colleagues, friends and family all joined me to celebrate The 392’s release into the world in style. In a packed programme hosted by JJ Bola, featuring a Q+A with writing royalty Irenosen Okojie and mesmerising poetry performances by Deshawn McKinney, MC Angel, Sophia Thakur and Suli Breaks, there is no doubt that this was another example of a fantastic OWN IT! launch event.
Since then, I have had a second smaller but equally lovely launch at Norwich’s The Book Hive, appeared twice at Stoke Newington Literary Festival, including as part of a ‘Rising Stars’ panel alongside Elizabeth Macneal and Rosie Price. I have been on BBC Radio London twice with Robert Elms and Judi Love. I featured on an episode of Tim Clare’s ‘A Death of a 1000 Cuts’ podcast. Publishing superwoman Sharmaine Lovegrove said that The 392 made her “laugh, cry, nod and remember what it means to be a Londoner” on Twitter. Fellow bus fanatic and writer Travis Elborough said “the whole thing had such pace” and the “plot was compulsive”. Even Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has been pictured handling my book.
All this, and more, in just eight weeks. Although, one of my proudest moments was when a close friend messaged me to say it was the first book that they had read cover to cover, ever. This for me epitomised one of my main initial aims when writing The 392, to engage reluctant readers.
I am still somewhat anxious of having people read – and sometimes review – my work but I try my best to embrace it. I had very particular aims when writing The 392 and for these reasons I appreciate it mightn’t be to everyone’s taste. I wanted it to be a pacey, accessible read, quintessentially British, written in an authentic youthful vernacular at times to appeal to, among others, some of my former students I used to teach. Although I label it a love letter to London, the wider themes of gentrification, otherness, growing old and unconditional love are hopefully relatable to readers from all walks of life, so I am encouraged by hearing from readers – who are sometimes not even from London – engage with and enjoy this story I’ve written.
I am so grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read or review The 392 or tweet me a picture of them reading it on holiday or on a bus! This really means a lot. I hope to continue to be just as generous when I read new works I enjoy. I am ridiculously excited about what the future holds for The 392 and otherwise; excitingly, as part of my Creative Writing PhD, I have already started work my second novel. I also have some very exciting events lined up in the coming months, including: Riff Raff (July 4th), Africa Writes (July 6th), Greyhound on the Green book club appearance (July 23rd), WOMAD (July 27th), Primadonna Festival (30th August); I look forward to hopefully getting the book into more people’s hands and sharing my story as a young, black, working-class debut novelist.
If you haven’t already, you can buy a copy of The 392 from all good bookshops (including lots of London indies) as well as Amazon, Waterstones and the OWN IT! online shop. I have already had some lovely ratings and reviews on Goodreads, Amazon and Waterstones but I would greatly appreciate some more if can spare five minutes, I’ve been told these can make a big difference.