How I Came to Publish My First Novel
Two British friends encouraged me to write a novel. At first I rejected their kindness out of hand. Something about being trained as a historian led me to dismiss instinctively the idea of making things up. In grad school I learned to drop a footnote listing the source for each new assertion, so that it could be reviewed independently and verified by other readers. History is not a science, but one of its claims to truth rests on other historians’ being able to follow up the references in your footnotes. It seemed like an outrage not only to do away with footnotes, but also to invent a story that had happened only in my imagination.
Slowly I came around to the notion that I might say a lot more in fiction than was possible in nonfiction. I’d spent many months in Windsor over the years working in the Royal Archives. A retired teacher from Eton, across the river, rented me some rooms in his house so that I didn’t have to commute back to London every time I had to do research in Windsor. I was often wandering around the public parts of Windsor Great Park, or along the river at Eton, on rainy weekends when the archives were closed. I watched the boys who went to school there. They wore white tie and tails to attend classes. In the afternoon, they’d dress like American delinquents, with sagging jeans, the waistbands of their underwear exposed, scuffed athletic shoes, and tee shirts with funny mottos. They crossed the river into Windsor and sloped up the hill to buy chocolate, contraband vodka, and cans of Coke.
I didn’t know any of these boys and seldom spoke to them. Pairs of them often jogged by me in the park, their exposed skin raw from the cold. Their way of speaking to one another was laconic. I sometimes had no idea what they were saying. They drawled. One time I was taking the train back into London when two of them came in and flopped down on the seat across from mine. They had a friendly scuffle with one another. One succeeded in tying the other’s shoelaces together. They seemed young for their age. One of them wore rugby shorts with brightly-colored knee socks. When the other managed to re-tie his shoelaces and get off at the next station, I spoke to the boy who was now by himself. He was going up to London for a school theatre trip, just the sort of thing I did with my students from Wisconsin.
Talking to him reduced the magic of him a little. When I didn’t know them they were impossibly distant boys with impenetrable accents, who had the sexiness of their age and their privilege. When I met them they were fairly ordinary grubby kids who weren’t as bright I imagined.
When I got back to my room, I wondered what the Queen would make of running into these two boys in the Great Park. She often walked her dogs, or rode a pony along the river. What if I were to write a mystery about that? The Queen is walking her dogs and comes upon the bodies of two boys rucked up against a log in a foaming backwater of the river. What does she do? I tried reading several popular mystery novelists to see how such a story might be done. But each time I did it, I found that the murder-mystery or thriller-detective genre so bored me I couldn’t finish the book. Anyway, I didn’t like thinking of the two boys I’d seen on the train drowned in the river.
What if they weren’t dead? What if one of them grew up, joined the army, became a junior officer and then served as equerry to the Queen after a difficult posting in Iraq? Now that was something I knew about. Henry Ponsonby had had such a career before he joined Queen Victoria as her private secretary. He’d been to war before he came home to serve as her equerry. I’d written Ponsonby’s biography. I’d also had a boyfriend in Boston who’d served as an officer in the air force. I’d had a student who’d served twice in Iraq. So the Eton boys on the train going from Windsor into Waterloo that evening weren’t in the eventual novel, but dreaming about them certainly got me started. Meeting strangers on a train also became one of the novel’s central plot points in Mrs Queen Takes the Train.
That novel flowed on to the computer screen so easily that it was one of the purest feelings of writing pleasure I’ve ever had. I wasn’t worried. There was Reading Jackie money leftover in the bank. I had margin to fail if my novel wasn’t any good. I also knew enough people who served in the Royal Household to know about their daily lives. My story was as much about the people who worked for the Queen as it was about the Queen herself.
I wanted to write about the people who served a medieval monarchy, but who drove home at the end of the day in battered economy cars. I had plenty of material in my imagination and in my memory. I didn’t stop to write footnotes to the books I’d read. I was finished in less than twelve months.
My American agent liked the first draft he saw. My first indication of this, and his sense that he’d have no trouble selling it to a publisher, was a box full of British treats in the mail. He sent me tea, chocolates, and toffee. He didn’t ordinarily give me gifts. I think he was afraid I was going to take this project back to my British agent and sell it through her. I didn’t intend to do that. I knew that British readers would be more skeptical about a royal novel written by an American than American readers would be.
One person who I didn’t expect to be skeptical was Nan Talese. I thought from what I knew of her that the book would certainly be her cup of tea. It came as an abrupt surprise when she told my agent she was going to “pass” on Mrs Queen. That meant she didn’t want to publish it. “I thought the first chapter was brilliant,” she told him in her email. “After that, I wasn’t interested in the characters.”
That may have been true. I also think that Reading Jackie hadn’t sold as well as she’d hoped. It had had to compete at the last minute with a rival book on the same subject. It didn’t sell badly. It sold better than all my previous books put together, but I’m sure the publisher was feeling a little out-of-pocket because of the size of the advance they’d given me. That might’ve been one unspoken reason why Nan passed on Mrs Queen.
No matter what Nan thought of the characters, when my agent put Mrs Queen on the market, he fairly rapidly had competing bids from different divisions of Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. I soon had a new editor in Claire Wachtel at Harper Books. She paid just over $100,000 for the book. In a dating setting, when you meet a new person, you always feel hopeful. You feel that if you’re able to start a romantic relationship, it would be nice if it were long-term. You scarcely dare tell yourself that it will be forever, as much as you want it to be. Something similar occurs with each new editor who signs up to publish one of your books. There is a feeling of mutual admiration, esteem, and gratitude. It’s not unlike love. You hope your publishing collaboration will be forever.
In the time I’ve been writing and publishing books, however, two of my editors have been fired. I left one because there was no hope of an advance for my next book. Others abandoned me because they didn’t see a commercial possibility in what I wanted to do next. It’s been as difficult to find true love in publishing as it has been to find a romantic partner in life. However, things with Claire started off smoothly enough. She had some suggestions for edits of Mrs Queen that were smart and that I was willing to make. The publicity department at HarperCollins put the book out into the world. It received good reviews in big-circulation print media like People Magazine and USA Today.
When the book was published they did two free book giveaways on Goodreads.com that seemed to drive awareness of the novel in a community of intense readers. A book-to-film agent sold a movie option on it. Suddenly, I wasn’t exactly famous, but a movie mogul was putting a small wager on my work and throwing around names of possible stars for the title role. It felt great. It was an immense boost to my self-assurance. (But what is that old saying about too much confidence going before a fall?)
A career in writing is hard to sustain, even when you’re getting six-figure advances. It’s hard to make that kind of advance pay out for the publisher. Each new book has to have an almost unbelievable clout for it to justify continued big advances. I had certainly learned to dare with each new book, to take chances with each one that I hadn’t taken before. The daring is hard to sustain, too.
The chance I’m trying to take now is to turn the focus around and put it squarely on me. I want to dare to solve the puzzle of my past childhood abuse, of my writing’s connection with my present libido, of my seeming always to follow the finding of a loving romantic partner with an impulse to leave and to get out of town.
And what about that abuse? Was it always on my mind? No. It couldn’t have been further away. Success in the world gives you license to forget your childhood. If I continue to blame my father for those childhood tickles I didn’t want, I also have to acknowledge that the daring to write a novel rested on having grown up in a house where books mattered. When my father died early in 2012, he had the first proof of Mrs Queen Takes the Train on his desk at home. I came home from the hospital to find his pencilled suggestions in the margins for tightening up the writing. It was the nicest possible thing he could have given me.