(*Disclaimer: A lot of people object to genre labels, with good reason, but that’s a debate for another day. For now, they are a fact of publishing life. I use them here as shorthand. )
It was 2008 and my second novel of women’s fiction had been rejected by seemingly all the publishers in the English-speaking world. My agent had diligently made the rounds, and elicited some truly lyrical rejections, but the consensus was clear: no editor ‘loved it enough’ to take it on. (How I came to hate that phrase.) In this ultra-competitive realm, neither book was special enough to break through.
Wallowing in self-pity, I decided to take this as a sign that the universe didn’t need my writing (*sniff*) and resolved not to bother any more (*sob*) and sought other creative outlets. The universe quickly filled the vacuum in my life with something serious to worry about when I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year later.
There followed nine months of misery, sadly all too familiar to many of you reading this. The surgery, the chemo, the radiation—I had the works. At no point did I spare even a fragment of a thought for writing.
The treatment finished in November of 2010. Debilitated and shaken by the experience, I went to Florida to visit my family and regroup, where I read something in the local paper which changed my life. It was a feature about a heinous crime in Florida’s history, which so outraged me that I started to think about what it would look like in fictional form. The spark, the urge to write, which I thought was gone, snuffed out by rejection and months of medical interventions, reignited.
On my return to the UK, I started my research. The story so captivated me that I decided to attempt something new, the dramatization of a real set of events. I had no experience, no training, and no evidence that I could make it work, but inspiration overwhelmed the Greek chorus of doubting voices in my head.
In general, established authors take a risk when they shift genres, but I had absolutely nothing to lose, and as the writing progressed, I began to feel that I had found my natural home.
In early 2014, I was offered a two-book deal with Orion in the UK for my debut, ‘Summertime’, followed by six foreign rights deals and the Richard and Judy Summer Collection. It turns out that I was writing the wrong thing with my previous attempts. Once I found the right story, everything came together. Not even the return of the cancer that year was enough to dampen my jubilation.
I’m sticking with historical fiction for my second book because it gives me huge satisfaction to populate real, forgotten events with my fictional characters. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t taken that leap.
For anyone else contemplating a similar leap, consider one of two things will result: either you will land on a passing magic carpet, or you will smash on the rocks below. Whatever happens, at least it will be interesting.
‘Summertime’ by Vanessa Lafaye is published by Orion.