The first agent Annabel Pitcher approached with her debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, may well be kicking herself now. "Commercially disastrous" was her crisp rejection of the novel that went on to be the subject of an auction war between publishers in both the UK and the US, a crossover sales success and is in the running for the Guardian children's fiction prize, among other awards.
In fairness, a synopsis of the book may not sound too promising. The story is told by ginger-haired Jamie, a 10-year-old boy who lost his sister five years previously in a July 7-style terrorist attack. His mother has disappeared off the scene with a member of her bombing survivor's support group, his father has become an alcoholic and his 15-year-old sister – who survived her twin's death – is flirting with anorexia. Oh, and Jamie is bullied at his new school and risks losing the only friend he makes, a Muslim girl, after a racist outburst from his father who hates everything to do with Islam since the bombing.
Fortunately, the second agent Pitcher approached recognised the humour, sensitivity and warmth in the beautifully written story and snapped it up. The book has gone on to sell more than 20,000 copies in hardback, and the money negotiated from the bidding war has allowed Pitcher to dedicate herself full-time to writing its follow-up.
She can hardly believe her luck, especially given what she calls the "randomness" of the inspiration for the book, which came out of the blue while she was on a year off from being an English teacher, travelling the world with her husband, as she explains over tea in a London hotel.
"I got this incredible idea one night in a youth hostel in Ecuador..." she begins in her soft Yorkshire accent. "Loads of things happened that made me think it was destiny that I should write it. We flew to Ecuador and our plane was delayed and so all the restaurants were closed, which meant that we ended up getting some food and taking it back to the youth hostel and eating it in front of the television and the only English film was United 93, about the September 11th attacks, and then because I was jetlagged I couldn't sleep and I had the idea for the book – and so it was this series of fortunate events."
It all fell into place within two minutes, says Pitcher. "How weird it is to lose someone personal to you in such a public way – that's what really interested me. I saw Jamie, I saw him in his Spiderman T-shirt and I saw his ginger hair, and I saw that he had lost his sister and the urn on the mantelpiece and I thought wouldn't it be even more interesting if he couldn't care less about her because then it stops it from being sentimental."
Tying her hiking socks round her husband's head as a blindfold when the light in the hostel room she was writing by disturbed his sleep, she worked until the small hours on the first chapter and then continued to write the novel in little notebooks while travelling – "I could just pick it up in Brazil on a bus or in Cambodia" – and it was completed, ready for her to type up, on their return to England.
"It was the most blissful 12 months of my life – I was 25, 26, I had just got married, I wasn't working and was writing a book I wanted to write and also seeing all these incredible things," she says.
Which might all sound annoyingly smug coming out of some young authors' mouths but Pitcher is so likeable, such gigglingly fun company and has produced such a good book, as well as being genuinely grateful for the way things have worked out for her, that any response other than to cheer her on would be churlish in the extreme.
Despite the themes of the book, Pitcher says "I've never seen it as an issues book, ever" and it is certainly anything but worthy. The warmth and directness of Jamie's voice and the (frequently very dark) humour throughout lifts the book right out of that territory. The very first lines of the first chapter give a pretty good indication of the tone: "My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London."
"For me it's a story about a boy coming to terms with grief. It's about him learning what his dad's going through. It's about hope and courage, not a book about terrorism or racism," says Pitcher.
It is also heartbreaking. There is a scene involving the death of Jamie's beloved cat Roger, when he comes to understand the overwhelming grief his father lives with, which should not be read without a box of tissues to hand, while Jamie's conviction that his mother will return, and his belief that a TV talent contest is the way to win her back, is equally honestly and searingly written.
"Nobody wants to write about a perfect family that's perfectly happy," argues Pitcher, but Jamie's childhood sounds a long way from her own upbringing in the small Pennine village of Holmfirth. She is the second oldest of four within a close, very stable family. Her parents fell in love with each other at the age of 12 and have been together ever since. Pitcher has recently moved back to live in the village with her own husband, whom she met when they were both students at Oxford. It was a childhood of freedom and imagination, filled with books and poetry courtesy of her English teacher mother, and games of make-believe drawing on her own love of "putting on plays and dressing up and looking for Narnia in my cupboard".
"I solved a lot of crime at 10," says Pitcher, mock-seriously. "I loved mysteries and the Famous Five and so I had a detective club in my shed with all the neighbours' kids and a password and lemonade. I used to scour the local paper for burglaries and then go round to the burgled person's house in the village and try to do evidence-gathering interviews with them."
"I was a bit of a Peter Pan, I didn't really want to grow up, I wanted to be 10 years old forever," she admits.
There is still something a little Peter Pan-ish about the slight figure of Pitcher, with her confession that she was still reading Enid Blyton's Malory Towers as a teenager and Harry Potter when she should have been studying Dickens at university.
Yet the pressure is now on. Pitcher has just finished her second novel, which is for a slightly older readership and is written in the form of a letter to a woman on death row ("cheery!") and she acknowledges second-novel nerves after the huge, unexpected success of her first.
"It's brilliant and terrifying in equal measure," says Pitcher. "When I wrote Mantelpiece I was pretty fearless because I didn't really expect anyone except my mum to read it. But I wouldn't want to be in any other kind of situation. I love that it started with a big bang and if I crash and burn I crash and burn, that's just the way it is."