Three years ago the opportunity came my way to interview Fay Weldon for the Historical Novel Society. To say I seized on the chance would be an understatement. Weldon is a household name, a woman whose writing career spans 5 decades, who has written 34 novels and many short story collections, TV dramas and plays for stage and radio. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to read her latest book and email over some questions? I read and asked, and she sent me some great, generous answers. The interview was published and that was that.
Fast forward two years and I signed a contract with Fireship Press, a small publisher specializing in historical fiction. A new world of work opened up and demanded my attention, beginning with finding someone who would provide a cover quote for my debut novel. I imagine in a big publishing house this isn’t a question new authors have to consider, but I’m not with a big publishing house and surprise, surprise, my address book is not over-filled with top names from the literary firmament.
So I emailed Fay Weldon’s agent. There. It sounds simple and, honestly, it was that simple. I found the agent’s name on the internet, wrote a nice email referencing the interview we had done, made my ‘crazy request’ (quoting from the email I sent) and expected nothing in return. Yet two days later I received an email from Fay’s assistant. “Fay says she’ll read it but alas cannot do so for two months.” Wow.
Two months later I emailed again. Was Fay still up for reading? Could I send an electronic copy or would she prefer the hard copy my publisher had made available? Her assistant said an electronic copy would be fine and suddenly I found myself emailing my novel to Fay Weldon. The next thing I knew, only two and half weeks later, I was in receipt of an email from Fay with a cover quote for my book: “This book kept me reading into the night – luxury and squalor, royal scandal and sorcery… how could it not?” Fay Weldon had read my book. Even now it sounds bizarre: even now when the quote is on my book, my bookmarks, my website (you name it!)
One final Fay Weldon moment. At the beginning of September I had a chance to meet Fay at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford. I showed her a copy of the novel and she asked if she could have it. I did not say no!
What is particularly heartening and worth sharing, though, is that Fay Weldon has not been the only person open to helping me (to repeat, a completely unknown, debut author). I have another cover quote from the historian Anne Somerset who could not have been kinder in reading my work and assuring me that my research was sound. Book bloggers are also amazing people – well read, intelligent, highly organized and honorable. I’d encourage all authors to seek out experts and bloggers whose interests fit their stories and ask them if they would be interesting in reading and/or reviewing.
My book is historical fiction, set in 17th Century France. Pre-publication I’ve had wonderful reviews from Jo at jaffareadstoo, (Jo reads historical fiction and has a cat called Jaffa… I read historical fiction and used to have a cat called Jaffa) Emma at Words and Peace (Emma is French and loves French fiction… I am not French but I my novel is set in France and I hoped she would love it) Aurora at Party like 1660 (Aurora is German and an expert on all things Louis XIV… I am not German and not quite the expert she is but I’m trying!). More reviews, features and a book-signing at an independent bookshop are scribbled on my calendar and I’ve arranged them all, one by one.
I also discovered through this process that receiving help from people you don’t know, people who have nothing to gain from helping you, is a heartening and even uplifting experience. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” says the rather tragic Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar named Desire, but there is no dramatic irony for me when I say that the kindness of strangers has been the most surprising and pleasing thing I have come across in the business end of writing a novel.
My advice to other debut writers? Look around. Think who might be kind to you. Identify other writers, find experts, research bloggers and visit local bookstores. Choose carefully and then ask for help. Make sure you ask nicely. Keep your expectations low and if things don’t work out don’t worry. But you might be pleasantly surprised.
Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but has lived in various parts of the UK, in Canada and the US. Winner of the University of Toronto Marina Nemat Award and Random House Student Writing Prize, she writes atmospheric historical fiction exploring dark secrets and unusual episodes from the past: the stories no one told you about in history class at school.
Her debut novel, CHARLATAN, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015. Kate and her family live in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Find out more about Kate on her Website https://kate-braithwaite.com/
Follow her on Twitter @KMBraithwaite