Maggie Hartford talks to a North Oxford author about her debut novel, The Well

Catherine Chanter was teaching in an acute mental health ward for seriously disturbed teenagers in Oxford when news came that publishers from all over the world were bidding to buy her first novel, The Well.

She said: “My agent had said, ‘we are going to the Frankfurt Book Fair and you will have to decide what offers to accept. You will have to keep your phone on’.

“I said, ‘I work in a school, I work on a mental health ward, I can’t do that’. So I went out to the car park at lunchtime and started talking to someone in Germany about the offers from America. It was surreal, because then I went back to teaching Romeo and Juliet on the ward.”

To understand her bewilderment, you have to remember that less than one in 1,000 first-time novels are accepted. Even J.K. Rowling had Harry Potter rejected by a dozen publishers and reportedly only succeeded after the eight-year-old daughter of an editor pleaded for it.

Catherine’s story is about Londoners Ruth and Mark, who move to a farm called The Well, named after a mysterious water source that has never run dry.

Literary agents were drawn to its page-turning combination of psychology and gripping literary metaphor, and its setting in a dystopian, drought-ridden Britain, just enough like our own society to be believably scary.

Her publisher, Canongate, is putting its full weight behind the novel, with a publicity campaign involving sending book reviewers packages containing what looks like a ball of dry twigs. In fact they are a plant called the Rose of Jericho, which in Catherine’s book is the symbol of a fictional religious cult which grows up around The Well.

Catherine said: “They are the most miraculous plants which really do look like a rootless handful of dust and yet, left out in the rain, blossom with tiny white flowers.”

The Well grew out of poems she wrote after looking at paintings depicting the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen by God to have a baby.

“I started thinking about what it would be like to be a Chosen Woman in contemporary Britain. It was combined with the experience of staying in a holiday cottage without mains water. You could hear the water being pumped up from a well, and it was a very dry summer.

“It made me think about how we take water for granted, and what would happen if there was a serious shortage. I did some research into Government and agency ‘hypothetical’ scenarios about water shortages in the UK.”

As for the religious cult, Catherine’s online research unearthed some “weird and exploitative” websites as well as “clearly wonderful” places for people to share prayers and worship. It reinforced her interest in medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard, who had visions which attracted thousands of followers.

“I have always been interested in how different societies have different ideas about mental illness, and nowadays they would be in the Warneford being treated as psychotic.”

Catherine, who lives in Walton Manor with her husband Sam, said: “I wrote the story quite quickly while working full time and doing a creative writing masters at Oxford Brookes University in the evenings. When you finish your first novel, you don’t realise that that’s the least of it. There are hours of rewriting and restructuring.”

Of the several thousand students who do such courses in the UK each year, perhaps one or two will succeed in getting a book published.

She admits that she was “incredibly lucky” that when she sent off her manuscript, several literary agents replied saying they were interested and wanted to meet. However, her good luck story rapidly evaporated.

“They all wanted something changed, either for another body to turn up, or for Ruth to be younger and sexier. I knew that the book was as I wanted it to be. I didn’t want to change anything significant. Rather rashly, I turned them all down.

“Then I sat here thinking, ‘I have my pride intact, but I’m not going to get it published’. I sent it off for a first-time novelists’ competition, the Lucy Cavendish Prize, in a fit of rage.”

As a result of being shortlisted (she eventually won), Catherine was introduced to a new literary agent who sold the rights in Germany, the UK, Australia, Holland, Sweden, Norway, France, Italy, Japan and Turkey. The US launch is in May.

She said: “I don’t know what the odds are of this happening.”

The odds are even longer because she is 56, and publishers are renowned for preferring their authors young.

After leaving Oxford University with an English degree, she wrote poetry and short stories for years, while working as a political lobbyist in Britain and the US, and then while re-training as a teacher and working with emotionally disturbed young people.

No one at the Highfield mental health unit, where she worked in Oxford under the name Catherine Lloyd, knew that her novel had even been written, let alone that it was being sold worldwide.

“I think if you work in places with very troubled young people or where there is a lot of emotional turmoil, you have to be quite strong yourself and keep yourself contained. I kept that part of my life quite separate.

“Once the first couple of weeks of madness was over, at least for a time, that was still possible. But later it became obvious that it would be difficult.”

So, after 20 years of writing in snatched hours and weekends, she made the difficult decision to give up her job to help promote her novel. “It was a heart-breaking decision.”

However, she has found a role running training courses for teachers on how to spot mental illness in mainstream schools, which will fit in with a busy time promoting her book.

The Well is published by Canongate at £12.99. Catherine is at Waterstones in Oxford on April 16, Witney Library on March 23 and at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 28.