|Astonishing 100 year old colour picture of the Ukraine by Prokudin-Gorskii|
It was, as rejections go, quite heartening, although it was followed by a deafening silence on all fronts. But it was also - as it turned out - the straw that broke this particular camel's back.
The email came soon after a BIG birthday. One of those birthdays that make you sit up and take stock. I duly took stock.
Firstly, I was sitting on a huge inventory - lots of finished or almost finished but unpublished work, in the shape of novels and stories. Secondly, I couldn't afford to sit on it any longer. Thirdly, I didn't have to.
Over the years, I had worked diligently and had met with a certain amount of publishing success. I had - moreover - managed to juggle my fiction writing with a respectably large number of professionally produced plays for radio and the stage, some of which were also published and are still in print. But I still found myself in the frustrating position of having several completed pieces of fiction sitting in files on my PC and in my desk drawers. These were not the usual unsatisfactory bottom-drawer manuscripts. (I have quite a lot of those and they can stay where they are!) No. They were good, polished pieces of work. Plenty of people, professionals rather than friends and family, had told me so.
The story of the Amber Heart is a good illustration of what has happened to so many of us - or what used to happen, before the advent of eBook publishing. It may help to explain why so many of us disagree with Jonathan Franzen's recent diatribe against the digital world and why we have become so sceptical about the traditional gatekeepers.
Way back in the 1980s, I had forged a successful career as a radio dramatist. I had even done a little television. But I had hankerings to write fiction. I had written a novel based on my young adult television series, Shadow of the Stone. (You can still watch the original on YouTube, here!) and it had been nicely published by a small Scottish publisher.
|A very young Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming in Shadow of the Stone|
Around that time, while accompanying my professional yacht skipper husband on a trip to the Canaries, I sat on deck in the sunshine (one of the best times of my life) and wrote a new novel called The Golden Apple, set largely on the Canarian Island of La Gomera. The agent who was representing me for drama passed it on to the late great Pat Kavanagh at the same agency and she sold the novel to The Bodley Head.
In all my innocence, I thought I was on my way. Fat chance.
Between acquisition and publication, The Bodley Head was sold to Century and The Golden Apple was published and marketed as something it wasn't - a piece of genre fiction in a glossy but somewhat misleading cover. Not that it was heavily or experimentally literary either. It was, if you can remember that far back, a typical Bodley Head book. A mid-list book. Much later, my editor wrote to me to apologise. 'I now think we published the Golden Apple in quite the wrong way,' she told me. They had even persuaded me to change the spelling of my name to Cherkavska.
Meanwhile, I had been busy working on my next novel, a big, unashamedly romantic historical novel, set in mid nineteenth century Eastern Poland, a sort of Polish 'Gone With The Wind', loosely based on my own family history. I had been researching it on and off for years with my father's help. Even without the internet, we had managed to discover an astonishing amount of fascinating material. I had also become aware of just what a huge diaspora of Poles there was, and how interested they were in reading about this time and place. Many of them were taking the trouble to tell me so. I worked diligently and finished Noon Ghosts, which Pat said that she loved. Since she didn't ever say this lightly, I was hopeful of a breakthrough, all over again.
|Poles were always very fond of their horses!|
Time passed, and because my plays were doing rather well, I filed Noon Ghosts away and - after much heart searching - changed agencies for one that specialised in theatre.
Early in the new millennium, and for reasons too complicated to go into here, I went back to fiction and eventually back to a younger agent at my old agency. While working on other novels, not least the Curiosity Cabinet, I rewrote Noon Ghosts pretty comprehensively in the light of experience and changed the title to The Amber Heart. Poland was more popular than it had once been, and historical fiction was definitely 'in' but my new agent wouldn't even read the rewritten version, let alone send it out again. 'Not the done thing,' she said. I sent sample chapters out myself, to languish on various slush piles. Nobody so much as replied.
Then, sadly, Pat died, my young agent inherited her starry clients and I fell off the end of her list. Did I fall or was I pushed? Let's be honest. I was pushed. More time passed, and I acquired a new agent. Eventually, I let him see The Amber Heart, in which I had now lost all confidence, but his response amazed me. 'This is wonderful!' he said. 'If I can't sell this, I'm in the wrong job.' I did wonder at the time if those words might come back to haunt him, and of course they did. Because the newly revised and edited book was sent out, only to meet with the same old 'I love this, but ...' response.
Which was, dear reader, the final straw.
But even more of a final straw was that 'some editorial work needs to be done' comment.
Hell, this novel had been edited to the point of emaciation. It had almost been edited to destruction. It had been edited so much and by so many different people, with different agendas, that I've had to take a long hard look at it and decide what I want to reinstate in my book. Nobody else but me is getting their hands on it again.
|Painting by Juliusz Kossak, one of my forebears, inspiration for The Amber Heart|
In the meantime, I had acquired a Kindle, and realised that indie publishing was perfectly do-able. I cut my teeth with a reissue of The Curiosity Cabinet, followed it up with a new novel called Bird of Passage, which is selling very well, and am now almost ready to publish The Amber Heart. Not everyone will like it. Why should they? Not everyone likes Marmite. (I do!) But at least it will be out there. At least anyone with or without Polish connections, who is interested in the history of Eastern Europe, or just interested in a big story of love and loss in an engaging setting, will be able to read it. And now I can move on to work on something new, without the frustration of hitting another landmark birthday, weighed down by work which people are telling me they would like to read, but which doesn't slot neatly into the increasingly narrow and celebrity obsessed constraints of the current publishing industry.