I am delighted to be here today, especially because I already know we have a lot in common. First, we all believe in serving our community. Second, since you’ve invited me here, I know you love all things biblio-related: bibliomysteries, bibliocareers, biblio-community service. You’ll understand why my favorite project in the brief time I spent in the Junior League of Palo Alto was organizing a school library in a nearby community, and computerizing their card catalogue.
I’m very happy to have the chance to tell you about my career in writing today, and how my books evolved. First I’d like to talk about the process of becoming a writer, including a bit about how the books came to be, and then I’d like to share some of the adventures I’ve had researching the books. It’s been a wild and wonderful ride!
First, my own serendipitous journey to becoming a published author. Emphatically I can say about my or any career in writing is this: If you pursue your dreams, they can come true. A more specific way to put this is the time-honored writer’s adage: if you want to be a writer, put your derriere in the chair.
I always wanted to be a fiction writer, at least ever since sixth grade when our teacher had us write a novel. At that moment I decided against being a brain surgeon and I’ve been glad ever since (you should be grateful too!). Throughout college I submitted articles to magazines, entered children’s books in contests, and was consistently, roundly, rejected. I was even rejected several times when I submitted writing samples to gain entry to my college’s creative writing courses. Aside from my honors thesis on Willa Cather, which passed with flying colors, my writing career was a disaster at the end of four years of college.
Gradually my optimism was invaded by the insidious thought that I might not be a writer after all. Temporarily, I decided to aim for jobs in book publishing instead, where at least I could work with writers and be part of the world of books. Unbeknownst to me, I was building my repertoire of settings and characters for my writing career. My first job was with a small Boston publisher who became part of my series character, Alex Plumtree. He published fine books and loved printing so much that he had his own letterpress in the barn. If you read Unprintable, you’ll go there. He also collected rare books, and that was my first exposure to book collecting and antiquarian books. His library was the model for Alex Plumtree’s family library.
My second job, for Addison-Wesley near Boston, gave me the other half of my series when they transferred me to their London office in Bedford Square. This beautiful Georgian house on the leafy oval of a Bloomsbury Square became a place that was still dear to me years after I’d left. The ballroom used to house two very young editors, their desks floating on a sea of peach-colored carpeting under crystal chandeliers. It later became the production department. My office was a second-storey front room overlooking the private park, and I often felt I was living a novel. The British Museum, which then also housed the British Library and its ancient volumes, was barely a street away, the neighborhood of antiquarian booksellers even closer, and Princess Diana could be glimpsed with Charles at the premieres of James Bond movies in Leicester Square. I was a newlywed myself. Life was good.
When Addison-Wesley left London for the hinterlands several years later, there was more serendipity waiting. I got my first writing job for a magazine in Clerkenwell, part of London between the West End and the City, and this gave me the setting for Unprintable. A writing job is a very good thing for a would be fiction writer, because you have no choice but to do your research, then put your derriere in the chair and produce your words for the day. If you don’t have a writing job, you can always write in a journal. After we moved back to the States, the memory of Bedford Square just wouldn’t fade. When we started a family and I stayed home with our daughter, the dream of writing a novel set in Bedford Square stuck with me. The dream featured a character that was partly the Boston bibliophile publisher and partly my noble, charming and morally uncompromising husband. My husband urged me to give it a try – I told you he was noble – so I wouldn’t forever regret not having given it a whirl. Little Sarah spent two hours with a babysitter each day while I worked out the characters and plot. They came to life, and in bed at night before falling asleep the scenes unrolled, just waiting to be written down.
Meanwhile, more surprising good things waited around the corner. As I walked the baby, I always ran into the same young mother walking her baby. It took six months of walking together for me to confide in her that I had written a novel. Her response was incredible: “Why didn’t you tell me! My sister’s an editor for Simon and Schuster!”
The sister got me a top agent, who got me my first contract, then another and another and yet another. God willing, we are not done yet.
Can you imagine a more circuitous way to a writing career? But it does illustrate the most important rule for would-be writers: Follow your dream and SIT DOWN AND WRITE. It might sound obvious, but a writer is someone who writes.
Now, for a few of the experiences I’ve had writing the books. As many an author will tell you, once you know your main characters they drive themselves. What you need is the right situation and setting to let them show their stuff. When I wrote for the computing magazine in Clerkenwell, my editor mentioned one day that the River Fleet ran beneath our building. We were, after all, in journalist-land, not far from the infamous Fleet Street. Somehow I could never forget that the same nasty ooze that was Oliver Twist’s sewer – Dickens set that novel in Clerkenwell – was beneath all our enterprise. Not long after that, I ran into a book entitled Hidden London, all about the subterranean city through which the Royal Mail travels on tracks. With the area’s printing trade, the antics of the National Union of Journalists (which I’d refused to join), and real-life excavations thrown in, this became the novel Unprintable.
As time went on, I sought to learn more about Alex’s world of really valuable rare books, the sort bound in leather and gilded with family arms – the kind Princess Diana’s father was continually selling off to hang onto Althorp. This led to one of my book experts casually referring me to one of the world’s most famous rare booksellers – Ed Maggs of Maggs Bros in Berkeley Square, the Queen’s own bookseller. Ed Maggs spent the better part of a day showing me around his remarkable place from cellar storehouse to third-storey turret, where a small bearded man was cataloguing a genre of literature called erotica. I felt I’d entered an alternate world. The cellar holds many of the real treasures: as we trotte past one ordinary-looking shelf in the corridor he said, “This is a complete set of Cook’s Travels…there’s another one over there.” These things are unheard of. There might be one or two others in the world. In fact, Maggs Bros basement is said to pull one “nice” book each year from its basement which then becomes the sensation of that year’s London Book Fair, fetching the highest price. Also in the cellar, which is said to be haunted, is an Aga cooker and an area where someone might well stay if necessary – as Alex Plumtree does in Unsigned.
Ed also took me down the street to another Mayfair bookshop, Heywood-Hill, which became the setting for another book, and showed me a volume printed by the Roxburghe Club. Once I started researching this group of bibliophiles, Untitled wrote itself. I’ll let you in on a little secret: the Roxburghe Club is a group of people in England who have inherited the nation’s finest collections of books. The Queen herself is not sufficiently English or possessed of enough fine books to be a member. They are extremely secretive, and it took interlibrary loan and a few weeks studying microfilm to learn anything about them. No one who has ever been engaged in trade can become a member, so we have the Spencers, the Gettys, and hordes of Dukes and Marquesses. Only 44 members are allowed, so only when someone goes on to the great library in the sky are new members inducted. Each year one member goes to his or her library and plucks out a forgotten book that is long out of print. The member reprints the book for the membership – two copies per member, with one in vellum for the president of the club. The member’s names are listed in red at the front of the book. These are some of the world’s most prized editions, but can be found occasionally for less than you’d believe.
The same is true of Samuel Johnson’s dictionaries – the original, 17th-century ones – which I had never imagined were sitting on shelves somewhere, out of museums and ready to be purchased. They cost less than a really good pair of skis, or a top-notch bike. There’s more…I’ve had the pleasure of viewing palimpsests – those are goatskin pages that have had the original writing scraped off and something else written on top – in ultraviolet light. I have visited the private libraries of some of the most eccentric people you can imagine, and I’ve actually been frightened in some antiquarian bookshops that were so far out of the ordinary they were spooky.
But the spookiest thing of all has been the way research leads to coincidences – although I no longer see them as such. For instance, all my books are based on some classic work of literature that ties in with Alex Plumtree’s publishing program, and usually London. For some time I’ve thought that since the diaries of Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th Century London diarist who described the Great Fire, the plague, and post-Cromwellian political intrigues, were SO London that they would have to find their way into Alex Plumtree’s adventures.
Imagine my surprise at finding that Pepys had studied at the same college at Cambridge University as Alex Plumtree: Magdalene. This, nearly ten years after I’d plucked Magdalene out of a hat just because it was the most eccentric and British sounding. After all, how can something spelled Magdalene become something that sounds like “maudlin”? (I learned an interesting piece of trivia on that subject: Magdalene isn’t named for any noble religious reason. Lord Audley, of Audley End, whose ancestral home you can tour, gave the money to found the college and thought it might be fun to have it sound like Audley. Magdalene (Maudlin)…Audley.) Even more remarkable is that Pepys, like Alex Plumtree, is one of history’s most ardent bibliophiles. His diary shows him nipping out to his bookseller’s to look at some popular new volume, or around to his binder’s to have a new book bound. The gilder, who put Pepys’s name and decorative flourishes on his books, made house calls.
There’s more: Samuel Pepys went blind in the course of writing his diary, though he was a young man. Alex Plumtree is slowly losing his sight as well.
And still more, sadly: Pepys chronicled religious terrorism arising from opposition to the Anglican church. Alex Plumtree’s London experienced a terrorist attack, too, because I was paralleling Pepys’s experiences. But never in a million years could I have guessed that six months later, a real terrorist attack not unlike the one I wrote about would take place in our own country. This answers the question, “why feature someone as obscure as Pepys in your novels?” The sad truth is, we’ve lost our historical perspective, because we’ve lost our knowledge of history. No one reads Pepys anymore in school…and maybe if we did, maybe we’d know that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
On a lighter note, I’m happy to say that my husband surprised me with a ticket to London for Christmas. In a few weeks I’ll be researching a new book across the pond. With every new book there’s another adventure…and I can hardly wait. The last ten years of biblioadventure with Alex have been full of joyful serendipity, and sometimes even a little spooky. The more I research, the more I find links between English history and literature that seem to have been created for the ideas Alex is whispering in my ear. It’s a magical sort of arrangement that I don’t want to question too much – but only enjoy.
Finally, in the short time we’ve had today I hope I’ve persuaded you. Even if you didn’t make it into your college creative writing class, there’s hope if you dream of being a writer. Pursue your dream; sit down and write something. It’s worth it.