Interview with fiction novelist Holly Payne. Holly conducts workshops and offers coaching through her Skywriter Series.
Your first novel, "The Virgin's Knot", went through the whole evolution from hardcover to trade paper and audio books. How did the initial deal come about?
I completed the book in March of 2001, but needed to do one more trip to Turkey before I submitted it to double check historical and cultural accuracies, etc. At that time, I was fortunate enough to have an agent in New York express interest in the book, even one year prior to its completion, so I always had him in the back of my mind when I went to submit. I knew I had once chance with him, and I wanted the book to be in its best possible submission shape and told him that he wouldn’t get to read it until it passed through my initial readers; and if I had to go back to the drawing board after that and start the whole thing over, or complete a major rewrite, then he’d get it after I finished. In a nutshell, I wasn’t in a hurry, which worked to my benefit in the long-run. When the agent received the manuscript in mid-July, 2001, he sold it by the end of the month. I had no idea how lucky I was at the time, but looking back, I do. It was like winning the lottery. The timing was uncanny. If I had finished the book any later and if it had been sold in the fall after 9/11, there is a good chance it would have never been published because everyone was a afraid the market would be flooded with Muslim-themed books. They say timing is everything and now that I’m older and have more experience, I believe this really is true.
Were you surprised by the commercial success of your first novel and did it match the expectations of your publishers?
Hmmm. I’m not sure it was a ‘commerical success’ in that way — if you mean it made it on to ‘lists.’ What I do know is that I was very happy that the book had been reviewed and that it was being read wildly enough for me to realize, ‘hey more than my friends and family actually want to read this book. Isn’t that great?” I really had no idea what commercial success was and didn’t aim for it. I don’t write stories with that in mind. I just write what’s wedged between my heart and gut. Whether or not writing from that place results in dollars in the bank wasn’t something I thought about --- in fact, the opposite was true. I was told by a screenwriting mentor in LA that if I left Hollywood, chasing down this story about a rug weaver, that I would end my career. I’m glad I listened to my gut! The Virgin’s Knot was selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer’s pick and also a Border’s Original Voices selection, and went on to be published in 9 countries, which was a total surprise to me. Getting my first novel published was a huge surprise, so I considered everything that happened after the initial sale a bonus — like a royalty check!
Novels often draw wildly mixed reviews on sites like Amazon. Do you read your reviews and do they affect your writing?
I did at first, but then I stopped reading them — regardless if they were good or bad. You have to keep writing no matter what people say about your work. You have to keep believing in the transmission of the stories, not about the criticism. Everyone’s a critic. Few people have the courage to actually sit down and risk making a mistake in public. I love that there are so many bloggers out there now — people who really care about what they read, not about trashing the author. I see the sophistication in blog reviews that I don’t always see on places like Amazon. I think other readers are savvy to that now, too, and search for other opinions before they make purchasing decisions, even though they still read those reviews.
Your current manuscript ran into that legendary rule of fiction, that the third novel is a tougher sell than the first if the book inbetween isn't a big seller. Would you accept a trade contract for the right deal, or have you made an emotional commitment to self publishing this book so you can control the outcome?
This is a great question. Over the course of the last two months as I’ve made this decision to start my own small press, I’ve been floored by the support from colleagues and friends who know the risk that I’m taking. One thing that a good writer friend told me recently was that I have to make a total commitment, that I can’t be on the fence. I’ve made that commitment. I’m going to do this and if I fail, at least I tried. I’m tired of waiting for permission to give my readers access to my work. So many of my readers keep asking me, “When is your new book coming out?” with the assumption that it already had a publisher. I kept telling them that their guess was as good as my own. And this gets old after a while. Also, I had to make the decision to leave my agent — a very well respected New York literary agency — without any safety net. Sometimes you just don’t click with the agent, and you need to go your separate ways. We parted very amicably. It was all quite clean and professional, which is a blessing because it can often be messy and put you in a head spin about what you could have or should have done differently. I think for this particular story, it was forcing me from the very beginning to dive into the unknown and trust that free fall, which is where I am and it’s very empowering to stay in the flow of this new adventure of ‘self-publishing.’ I guess if I want to “control” anything and I use the term tongue and cheek, I want to change the way mid-list authors like myself and other talented yet unknown writers experience the publishing industry.
This is so much more about a commitment to how I want to be in the world, how I want to treat others and how I want to be treated, versus about a contract. Having said that, this is also an opportunity for mid-list authors to reinvent themselves, and to ‘prove’ (for lack of a better word) to the larger houses that we do have readers and that we do understand the business and can make decisions not only as artists, but also as business people. Imagine that...! Obviously, distribution is the key issue in all of this and definitely affects anyone’s decision to become their own publisher, but with the print on demand options out there, it’s one that I’m excited to explore. If I was able to sell ‘enough’ copies to get a New York house interested in my third book, then yes, absolutely, I’d give myself that opportunity for larger distribution. This is how Brunonia Barry sold The Lace Reader --- and coincidentally to my first editor. So, who knows what will happen?
My first publisher told me the Amish have been done and canned my outline for the story in 2005. I wrote the book anyway and it’s a totally different story than what was delineated in the initial outline. Though I was deeply hurt and frustrated at the time, I now see the amazing opportunity it gave me to start my own business and learn the inside of the industry. Now I look back and laugh at the absurdity of someone telling me ‘the Amish have been done.’ That’s like saying the Jews have been done — or that forgiveness has been done, or love, or friendship. They could have just told me, “Hey, the whole of human existence has been done,” right?