Therese here. Today’s post is about difficult-to-place books, and here to talk about that is today’s guest, Carolyn Jess-Cooke. Carolyn is an author out of the U.K. who’s published not only a beautifully reviewed “fringe” novel–The Guardian Angel’s Journal (Little,Brown / Piatkus, 2011)–but a book of award-winning poetry–Inroads (Seren, 2010). She’s been called “one to watch” (Publisher’s Weekly) and “The new Audrey Niffenegger” (Company). I’d tell you a little more about what the book is about, but Carolyn is going to tell you in the post, so let’s just get to it. Enjoy!
“My novel’s too ‘fringe’ – will any commercial publisher on the planet be interested?”
Any writer with an internet connection knows that publishers are wary of anything that doesn’t smack of commercial appeal, and in the current economic climate, with sliding books sales and book giants like Borders closing their doors, wariness has become the publishing industry’s watchword. A writer submitting a manuscript in such a climate needs to make sure that his or her book doesn’t have ‘risk’ written all over it. However, this does not mean that you should compromise your material, your genre, or your passion. It’s a matter of searching out the universal, human themes of your work – and I bet they’re there. Your novel is about an uprising of farmhands in 16th century Mongolia? Or the conflict between two agoraphobic siblings over their parents’ clown museum? Fine – but what about your themes? Could your novel be pitched (or tweaked) as a story about redemption in the face of adversity? Love against all odds? Think of Shakespeare – 400 years later and he’s still making money, even when Renaissance English is virtually a foreign language. Why? Because even when his plays are about depressed aristocrats or magicians on mysterious islands, they’re really about the conditions of humankind.
Forget for a moment that the publishing industry is risk-averse. Think about your readers. What country are they from? What year were they born? Too often we assume our readership would fit in the back of a Volvo. If we want the material that we’ve spent upwards of 10,000 hours working on to reach a readership born in countries we’ve yet to hear of and in a year we’ve yet to reach, it’s important to find a way to work even the most ‘niche’ plots and fringe topics into something that ultimately deals with the human condition.
When I started writing my novel The Guardian Angel’s Journal – about a woman who dies and comes back as her own guardian angel – I didn’t really think about whether it was too ‘fringe’ for a publisher to be interested in. I didn’t give a fig pudding about what the market was like, what was trending, and the crisis of the publishing world. I had a vague idea of my readership. At the forefront of my mind was a burning desire to tell a story about a woman who was confronted with all her regrets, and who was given the opportunity to change it all at a mighty cost. On hindsight, the book could well have turned out to be much too paranormal for any of my publishers’ tastes. I could have focused on the supernatural element; written it in a distanced, overly-literary style, from the perspective of a minor character. What I believe caused it to be picked up and translated in 20 languages as very much a commercial book is its focus on human nature: when it comes down to it, the book deals with universal themes of life, death, love, and regret. It’s more about motherhood than it is about angels. It’s much more about the question – ‘what would you do if you had a second chance at life?’ than ‘what would you do if you became a guardian angel?’
It’s an issue I’m meditating upon as I finalise my second novel, which deals with some potentially ‘fringe’ issues – mental illness, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, religion, and the supernatural. The foremost question I asked myself throughout writing and editing this book was, ‘what is this really about?’ What is the message of the story? What are the themes? In short, how can I get someone who has no interest in mental illness, no notion of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and no desire to read anything about religion or the supernatural to engage with this story? Note: I never forced a subtext upon the story, it was always there at its core. But it’s important to dig down deep, way below the layers of the plot and the relationships between the characters to find that truth and to reveal it gradually to your readers. In truth, you can choose the most unusual, obscure and random topic imaginable to write about – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, anyone? – and use it completely to your advantage to reveal insights into humanity in a fresh, exciting way.
Regardless of how risk averse the publishing industry is or isn’t, regardless of whether you self-publish or sign a four-book-deal with a huge publisher, considering the human element of your book – the issues you deal with that can and will affect all of us – is crucial to making your work appeal to a wider audience.
Thanks for this insightful and interesting essay, Carolyn!
Readers, are you writing on the fringe? What themes have you tapped? Have you gone far enough?