Sally Thorne remembers with shining clarity the moment she realised her life was about to change in a huge way. "I remember going in to my desk at work [in the public service] and sitting down and just feeling like suddenly an escape hatch had opened in what was a pretty dry, corporate world," she says. "And I spoke to the guy next to me and I just said, 'I was given a book deal.'"
This is a story of how the internet sometimes makes dreams come wildly true. In the space of a few crazy months last year, Sally Thorne went from public servant at Customs and Border Protection to landing a two-book deal with HarperCollins on the back of a romance novel which was first written in just six weeks. All from the comfort of the study at her home in Gordon in Canberra's south, where she lives with her husband and pug. "I'm pretty much still in shock," she laughs.
The romance novel, The Hating Game, is an office romp about Lucy, a young publishing executive, and her bitter rival Josh, who sits directly opposite her at work. Lucy is short and sassy. Josh is tall and smouldering. There is a lot of rapid fire banter, a swirl of sex, and a plot that touches on the boredom and gloss of the corporate world and the people who navigate it.
Thorne is a Canberra girl through and through. "I was the kid at Rivett Primary that was always standing up to read her short story out loud. And so I always loved writing and it was always my lifelong dream to have a book," she recalls. But she put that dream aside when she went to university, studied law and entered the APS. She got married (they eloped). "I just kind of forgot about writing as a hobby completely."
Things changed one dark, cold winter (really, you couldn't make this stuff up). "I was trying to think of a new hobby… and I thought, creative writing, I could go back to that," she says. So Thorne enrolled in a course at the Canberra Institute of Technology and started to write fiction for fun. She joined online writing forums, finding her voice. One day, a friend suggested that Thorne write a short story as a birthday gift. Thorne agreed but wanted a challenge. "I said look, you have to give me a prompt word or something to get me started," Thorne remembers. "She said 'nemesis' and straight away I could see these two characters, a man and a woman, sitting in a silent office opposite each other, just completely hating each other's guts."
She started writing, with no plan, no outline, no idea of where this idea would take her. Inspiration flowed. Six weeks later, she'd finished the first draft of The Hating Game. "It was the first time I'd completed anything, and I gave it to the friend and she really loved it, which it was nice," she says. Thorne put the novel on the back burner, revisiting it in her spare time to edit and polish. She thought of it as a project for her own amusement, to learn to write better. Then she turned to another pair of online contacts for more advice.
Thorne had become friendly with Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, the popular American romance novelists who write under the combined pen name of Christina Lauren. "I'd known them online for a few years and they said when you've got something finished send it and we'll have a read of it," Thorne says. So she passed on a copy of her new piece, hoping to get feedback and constructive criticism from two successful authors. Instead, Hobbs and Billings came back with a very different request: they asked if they could send the novel to their literary agent.
This is where everything started to tilt gently into the surreal. "I said, sure, why not, still, like, just completely thinking it will come to nothing," Thorne says. "I got a call probably a week later from [New York literary agency] Waxman Leavell and talked to an agent who said look this is really great, I'd like to be your agent, are you being represented by anyone?"
Thorne pauses because she's laughing so much. "And I'm sitting in my study here in Gordon, ACT, you know, trying to play it pretty cool… I said, no, I'm not talking to any other agents. (I'd never spoken to an agent, I'd never done a pitch to an agent.) So I suddenly had this really amazing agent in New York." At this point, Thorne was still feeling mostly disbelief. She played down her expectations, telling herself that nothing would come of the exercise but useful feedback. While the agent shopped the manuscript around New York in July last year, Thorne got on with her life as a Canberra public servant.
Within a week, she was offered a two-book deal with HarperCollins. "I basically died. So it was, I mean, I'm still in a state of shock."
A large part of The Hating Game takes place in a slick, shiny office in an unnamed city. Thorne drew on her creatively unfulfilling day job to capture the sense of ennui faced by corporate workers. "I know what it's like to be in a really silent office watching the clock tick past," she says. But that's the only thing she drew on from real life, thankfully for the man who sat opposite her at work in Canberra ("that would have been pretty awkward").
What else was awkward? Her family and friends reading the novel. The book situation had escalated so quickly that Thorne suddenly had to adjust to the fact that her fun writing project was a real book, on shelves, in libraries, around the world. "I've read a few reviews where it's been compared it to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, that style of rapid fire dialogue," she says. "I guess I was mainly concerned with - was I actually funny or have I just been writing this, finding myself funny?" Luckily, it wasn't just her - the novel was featured in People magazine and selected as top summer romance read by the Washington Post.
Thorne also had to start writing her second novel very quickly - completing a draft for the publishers in four months, a task she describes as "insanely stressful and challenging, because I don't know how I did the first one, so it's really hard to replicate doing it again!" To devote herself to the task, Thorne took a year's unpaid leave from the APS to write full time and has nothing but praise for her department. "Everyone was so excited and so supportive. People love a dream come true type scenario."
That year came up in June. "I found out that me working part time wasn't going to suit them so well. And I had to make a pretty scary decision - on whether to kind of bank on myself and pursue this dream or potentially go back and maybe slip back into my old life," she says. "And so I resigned, which was terrifying because it was great people, really good salary. But I thought, you've changed your life already."
Now she works part time in a bookstore. She goes to yoga, walks her little pug dog. She and her husband still live in Gordon. She writes all night if she has to. She's polishing the second novel, which won't be a sequel to The Hating Game but will be a romance. Everything has changed and the dream is real.
The Hating Game is published by Hachette Australia. $32.99.