Seeing one’s novel published is always thrilling, but I am especially excited that Bold Strokes is releasing my new mystery, Searching for Celia, this month because it took 18 years to get it published. No, really—18 years. A lifetime. Or at least the length of a childhood, and that can seem like forever.
When I started Celia back in 1997, the world was a different place. The Internet was still in its infancy, and there was no social media. Pre-9/11, we still got to keep our shoes on at the airport, and the name “Kardashian” was known only as OJ’s lawyer (ah, the good old days).
When I started Searching for Celia (then known as Celia Frost), my second novel, The Remarkable Journey of Miss Tranby Quirke, had been published by Little, Brown in the UK and my third novel, Rainey’s Lament, was scheduled for publication in 1998. I was living in London, in a studio flat in Hampstead, writing full-time. I was young, single, debt-free, carefree, on top of the world.
My then-agent and editor were excited to see my follow-up to Rainey’s Lament. When I handed in the first six chapters and synopsis of Celia Frost in early 1998, they responded very positively, and we seemed to be on track for publication in 1999 or 2000.
But…(and there’s always a “but”) then Rainey’s Lament came out in May 1998. The reviews were generally positive. But sales stank. Like, really stank. To this day I don’t know the actual numbers, but I imagine sales were less than half what the publisher had anticipated. And suddenly, Celia Frost was in jeopardy. My agent explained that my publisher couldn’t justify sinking more money into another of my books with sales so poor. Moreover, he warned, it was unlikely any publisher would ever invest in me again. But he still saw Celia’s potential and advised me to finish the book and let him submit it under a pseudonym, so he could pitch me as a young, unknown author with a debut novel. I considered his suggestion, but the book wasn’t near finished, and without money from a book deal I couldn’t stay in London. (I never had a work permit; I was there on a writers-and-artists visa, which meant my only income could come from publishing deals and book sales).
Devastated, I moved back to Wisconsin to start again from scratch. I felt like an utter and abject failure, wondering if I’d ever be published again. Back home, I started a freelance editing, critiquing, and ghostwriting business, The Writer’s Midwife, which I still run today. But Celia Frost stuck with me, even if only as a whisper on my creative consciousness. From 1999 to 2001 I rewrote the book three times and approached dozens of agents, finally securing a top New York agent in 2000. Celia had morphed over time and the version I had then was set 50/50 in Wisconsin and London, and involved the main character, Dayle, investigating a white supremacist group in northern Wisconsin who were implicated in Celia’s disappearance. And Dayle’s “interesting character quirk” was that she raised show rabbits. (Seriously. And I wonder why that version didn’t get published?)
The agent submitted the manuscript to 25 major publishers. And, one by one, all 25 said “no.” Some hated it, some “liked but didn’t love” it, a few really liked it, but there was always a reason why it just wasn’t quite “right” for them. One publisher said Edwina, Celia’s ex-girlfriend, should be “Edwin” and Dayle should have a romance with him; one claimed no one would read a novel with an author as protagonist, some said the book was too character-driven, others said too plot-driven, but most believed the story of the relationship between two women, from friendship to love and back to friendship—just wasn’t “big” enough or commercial enough for a large mainstream readership.
In 2001 my agent advised me to dump Celia and try something else. I ended up writing another novel, Dear Mr. Carson, published in 2006, but I never completely gave up on Celia. I knew there was something of value there; I just had to keep digging until I found it.
In 2005 the TV show 24 inspired me to try a “real-time” structure for the novel, setting it entirely over the course of a single day, with each chapter representing roughly an hour in Dayle’s life. That seemed to breathe new life into the project, and I was optimistic that this was “it,” but then another project took precedence, a nonfiction memoir about me exploring Scandinavia’s most depressing tourist destinations. Alas, the fourth agent of my career (long story) submitted that memoir to more than 20 publishers, and all 20 said no.
In 2009, I returned to Celia determined to publish it at last. That rewrite took five years (mostly keeping the “chapter-per-hour” structure; happily jettisoning the rabbits and Neo-Nazis.) By 2014 I knew that Bold Strokes would be the perfect home for the now-titled Searching for Celia and I was thrilled when they accepted the manuscript right away, for publication this June.
I don’t see my story’s message as being that perseverance always pays off. Indeed, I can look back at projects that I wish I had abandoned earlier. My message is more that you’re ready when you’re ready, but you can’t always know when that will be. A project, whether it’s a creative work or a personal project of some sort, has a genesis and a journey and a destination all its own, invisible to its creator until the final piece slots into place, and only then can you step back and say, “Ah ha! This is what it was meant to be all long.”