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Jordan Lees Dreaming up the enchanted world of The Whisperwicks was a journey in itself

Jordan Lees describes the process in his creation of The Whisperwicks and the agony of waiting to see if it would be published.

BEFORE WRITING THE WHISPERWICKS, I reflected a lot on the books that had impacted me most as a kid, whether that was The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Harry Potter or anything by Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman.

I think what particularly enchanted me about all these different worlds was the room they gave me, as a child, to daydream my own adventures within them.

Beyond being absorbed by the stories themselves, the worlds were rich enough that I could dream up my own adventures within them. You read the book – or an entire series of books – and still feel like you’ve only scratched the surface, that there’s so much more to still be explored and enjoyed.

Magical worlds

Capturing a sense of this is probably why it took me so long to actually write The Whisperwicks. It was over 10 years before writing the book that I’d first started writing stories in a magical world where the people all had poppet dolls. In Wreathenwold, the magical, labyrinthine world of The Whisperwicks, everybody has a poppet which they can cast as different animals and magical creatures. I really liked the possibility that came with this magic system, as well as the idea that a poppet was both a means to do magic and a companion.

But I still spent many more years adding to the world of Wreathenwold. I’d decided it would be a labyrinth, where every branch is a street or a stretch of woods. This fed into the richness that I wanted to recreate, as every turn could bring something new and unexpected and fantastical.

Over the years I added more to the world – history, fairy tales and folklore, different forms of magic and mythical creatures – to try and emulate those huge worlds I always loved getting lost in as a young reader.

The story itself took shape amid all this world building. The main character, Benjamiah Creek, lives in a bookshop in our world and has absolutely no interest in the fantastical.

Then, with the help of a poppet sent to him anonymously, he enters Wreathenwold via a secret doorway. There he joins a young girl called Elizabella on an epic adventure through the vast labyrinth world in search of Elizabella’s missing brother, following a trail of clues left by Elizabella’s brother – a trail of whisperwicks.

Along the way they must overcome many of the dangers the labyrinth poses: of getting lost and never finding their way again; of old monsters and dangerous magic; of colour-poachers, the ghoulish Hanged Men who patrol the streets, and a cruel sorcerer bent on reviving an old evil. Most importantly, along the way, Benjamiah and Elizabella find in each other the best friend they sorely needed.

Dreaming up the story

Even though I’d spent so long plotting out the world, it wasn’t until my late twenties that I was able to write the book. I did try a couple of times when I was younger but it came out horribly. Then, in mid-2021, with the story so well established in my head that I could picture it almost chapter by chapter, I had another go. And this time I felt like it was working almost immediately. I wrote the first three chapters in a few days and had an entire first draft in less than eight weeks. It needed a lot of work but it felt great to finally have the story down in a workable shape. I spent a few months editing and then decided to try and get an agent.

I was a literary agent myself at the time, so knew the process well. I didn’t really know any other agents and the idea of approaching my peers, particularly with a book that felt so personal, was absolutely terrifying. So I sent it out under a pseudonym (I did say I was a literary agent but gave nothing else away). I was a nervous wreck from the moment I’d sent it out until the moment it was over. Even though I’d been on the other side of the querying process, and therefore had a sense of what authors go through when approaching agents, I still wasn’t prepared for how anxious I felt, how frantically I’d check my emails for responses and how much rejections hurt, even when they were very nice.

The Whisperwicks High res Jacket

Over the next few weeks, I had a few agents turn the book down, a few ask to read the full manuscript, and a couple of offers of representation. In the end, I signed with Chloe Seager, who I’d known was fantastic by reputation and who was very passionate about the book. We spent a couple of months editing the manuscript further before it was time to send to publishers.

I’d thought waiting on agent responses was nerve-wracking but the anxiety I felt while the book was on submission to publishers was on another level entirely. And I was incredibly fortunate on that front, because I only had to wait a week for Puffin to come in with an incredible offer for three books and a level of enthusiasm that absolutely blew me away. Having spent so long with the story and the world, that the team at Puffin had loved it so much really meant the world to me. The Thursday night the offer came in is still a blur. I was both absolutely elated and in total shock. I can’t remember much of what else happened that night except I couldn’t eat my dinner or get to sleep.

From there, I did more edits with my wonderful editor, Carmen McCullough, before Puffin began sending the book out to international publishers in the build-up to Frankfurt 2022, in the hope of securing translation deals. What followed was another whirlwind few weeks in which Puffin closed multiple deals with publishers all across Europe, before adding the US shortly afterwards.

All of that meant The Whisperwicks will be published in many different languages around the world, which was a dream come true. It has meant so much to me that Benjamiah and Elizabella’s journey through the labyrinth – and their story of finding their way when feeling so lost – has resonated with so many people already, and now I’m really excited (albeit still nervous) for it to finally hit bookshops and the hands of readers.

‘The Whisperwicks’ by Jordan Lees is published by Puffin and is available in stores and online.

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