Thursday, March 15, 2012
Set off the fireworks! My debut novel, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL, will be edited by Stephen Roxburgh and published by namelos!
THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL had a long and winding road from initial idea to contract. It started when my son's eighth grade history teacher at Tampa Prep gave the class an assignment. Mr. Fowler asked the kids to interview family members and record ten family stories. Each story had to take place during a different decade, and the kids had to research what was happening in the U.S. during that time period, and also in the larger world.
One of the stories my son collected called to me. It was the story of Crawley Hennings Wooten, my grandmother's sister. Crawley died when she was 20 years old from tuberculosis. She left behind a ten-month-old baby and a letter planning her own funeral. My grandmother, who was 14 at the time, stepped up and became the baby's mother until his father later remarried. Since my son was 14 at the time of the history assignment, I couldn't help but think about the level of responsibility that had been thrust upon my grandmother as a young girl.
Because nobody is still alive that remembers exactly what happened, I let my imagination run free. I read NC history books, novels set in the 1920's, and memoirs from sanatoriums. I made up characters and asked a lot of "what if" questions. In the final analysis, I used some actual place names like Flint Hill Road, Stony Knoll Church, and Frank Meyers's store, but the rest took place only in my mind.
After writing about 100 pages of JESSIE, I submitted the first chapter for critique at the Florida SCBWI Miami Conference. I was lucky enough to be critiqued by Newbery-winning author, Richard Peck. Mr. Peck asked me to walk him through the rest of the plot. His eyes twinkled and he said in that droll way of his, "You have too many characters auditioning for a part in your novel." I killed some of them off and that made writing the rest of the book much easier.
Author, Joyce Sweeney encouraged me, offered advice, and served as my mentor. My critique partners cheered me on.
Once the novel was complete, I signed with a literary agent. She subbed my manuscript to a small group of editors with no success. Here's a sample of the comments she received:
Henry Holt: "We have a novel forthcoming that has similar themes, in which a girl is rehabilitating at a TB sanatorium (Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles), so the timing isn't right on our end."
Dial BFYR: "My concern is that this is straightforward historical fiction which is just a really tough sell in the market right now."
I became convinced that the novel was good, but not quite good enough. So I signed up for Stephen Roxburgh's Whole Novel Workshop through the Highlights Foundation. Stephen, an experienced editor with more than 30 years in publishing, read my novel in its entirety. In addition, I had three one-on-one sessions with him to discuss it.
Stephen kept working with me in the months that followed. I revised twice more per his comments. In February of 2012, he finally made an offer. I yelled...I screamed...I danced around my kitchen and ran like a crazy woman from room to room!
For every unpublished novelist, there has to be somebody who will open the publishing door and let us in. I will be forever grateful to Stephen for taking that chance on me.