Many thanks to Wendy Wallace, author of one of my Top 10 Summer Reads 2012 The Painted Bridge, for writing the first in a new series of Guest Author posts for my blog On the Literary Sofa. Wendy’s article gives a fascinating insight into what so many of us dream of – becoming a published debut novelist, and is followed by my Mini-Review of her book.
‘My first novel – The Painted Bridge – came out at the end of May, published by Simon & Schuster. It is the story of Anna Palmer, tricked into a private asylum by her new husband. Despite her recurrent visions, Anna Palmer has no doubt about her own sanity. But over the months that follow, she has to learn to see clearly and re-appraise not just the present but the past.
Writing a novel had been a lifelong dream for me. Helped by a great creative writing class in Hackney, I attempted a novel in my early 30s. I sent the manuscript to an agent, received his rejection – and for many years got on with other things.
Coming back to the prospect of a novel, three years ago, I was in a different situation. I’d written two non-fiction books – Oranges and Lemons, on a year in the life of a school in inner city London, and Daughter of Dust, the remarkable story of a Sudanese woman abandoned by her society. And I was older.
Writing the non-fiction books gave me experience in writing at book-length and a stronger sense of the narrative drive needed to sustain a long piece of work.
Crucially, by then I had a wonderful agent – Ivan Mulcahy of Mulcahy Conway Associates, who I’d worked with on Daughter of Dust and who was encouraging me to write a novel. Being older increased the sense I had of it being now or never.
Still, when you sit down to begin, you are alone with the blank page or screen. Having decided to set my story in the mid-Victorian period, I spent weeks reading widely about that time. I came across the photographs made by Dr Hugh Diamond of patients in a Victorian asylum and from looking at and thinking about these images came up with the main plot – of a visionary woman trapped in a private madhouse, and a photographer who believes that insanity can be read from the face.
A theme of ‘seeing’ was emerging. Over the following weeks, I created other characters, developed the ideas into a 2,000 word synopsis – that my agent liked – and began.
I imagine all writers encounter the same hurdles, in first novels. It takes stamina, to keep going. Courage, to risk investing so much in a labour of love that has no guarantee of finding a publisher. And self-discipline – because most of the flourishes that display your writerly skill soon have to be sacrificed to the demands of the story.
Writing The Painted Bridge took two years and over that period – which I couldn’t have got through without support from my family, friends and agent – my definition of success was to complete the novel.
I did finish it and in autumn of 2010, my agent took it out on submission. During the weeks that followed I was trying to maintain a dual state of mind – hoping that the novel would be picked up, but trying at the same time to maintain a sense of acceptance about the fact that it might not be. I began a new novel, because while the publishing world may accept or reject your writing, only you control whether or not you keep producing.
Three months later, I got a call from Ivan to say that an American publisher had made an offer. It was early evening in February, and I was out. I bought a bottle of icy champagne and took it home on the bus, to tell my husband the news. With that offer, my dream had been realized.
Further interest followed and it remained an exciting and thrilling period as editors read the book and responded to it. A few weeks later, we signed a contract with Simon & Schuster in the UK, and Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in the US.
A form of phase two then began. The Painted Bridge had a scheduled publication date and was soon listed on Amazon, albeit without a cover image or any details. Editing took me deep back into the book I’d believed finished; I learned a lot from the editorial comments of both my English and American editors.
Copy edits followed and I went through the book again, line by line, word by word. It was a rigorous process and once more I learned things from the UK and US copy editors. At the same time, I was trying to grow my new novel.
There was just over a year between signing the contract with the publishers and The Painted Bridge appearing in shops. I created a website and Facebook author page, got on Twitter, thought of ways to publicise the novel and had discussions with my editors over the jackets. It was a time of anticipation and optimism.
But there are more complex emotions too; it’s daunting to think of work you have created very privately being made public. There is also anxiety about having got it ‘right’, in terms of research. I have two large non-fiction subjects in the novel; Victorian mental health and early photography.
Publication day somehow moved from the far horizon to being imminent. The launch evening was a highlight and the support from friends and family as well as from the publishers and my agent was amazing. Afterwards, the house was filled with lilies; cards lined the mantelpiece; my new dress hung on its hanger.
Then comes the best bit: people outside the publishing process reading the story and believing in the characters, feeling for them, travelling for a while alongside them. That – along with the gritty pleasure of working on a new book – is the reward.’
A rich and rewarding read, strong on evocative period detail and atmosphere, with a compelling story, elegant writing and very engaging characterization. Surprisingly warm in tone and at times even funny, a welcome counterbalance to the deeply shocking treatment of women and disturbing approaches to mental health in the Victorian era. I’m very pleased to have included The Painted Bridge in my Summer Reads, and recommend it to readers who enjoy the writing of Sarah Waters and Jane Harris.
I could certainly relate to much of what Wendy said and found the story of her journey to publication inspiring. I’d love to hear what you thought, and what experiences you’ve had if you’re a writer.
Next week I’ll be posting a feature on Weather in Fiction. Wonder what gave me that idea…