I've blogged about my Polish novel The Amber Heart on and off over the years, but I don't think I've ever told the full unredacted story - and now seems like as good a time as any, with a brand new, edited version out on Kindle, and a paperback and other eBook versions planned for early in 2021.
Once upon a time, when I was young and optimistic, my first full length adult novel, titled The Golden Apple, was accepted for publication by The Bodley Head, an old and distinguished publisher. To be clear, this wasn't my very first novel. There were others, tucked away in folders, never to see the light of day. Practice novels. And there was a young adult novel, published in Scotland, before young adult was even a thing. But this was my first grown up novel that was fit to be seen.
I considered myself very lucky. My agent for fiction at the time was Pat Kavanagh, and she was a fine agent with a wonderful reputation. Among other things, and unlike almost all agents now, who will tell you that publishers are looking for an 'oven ready book' (and that's a direct quote from one of my subsequent agents) she didn't consider it her job to edit. That was the publisher's job. If a book was good enough, she would sell it. Beyond that, the editorial relationship was with the publisher.
Not so lucky after all.
Half way through the publishing process, the Bodley Head was taken over by what was then Century, an imprint of mega conglomerate Random House. What had been a thoughtful Bodley Head style novel, about a cross cultural marriage, was published as a beach bonkbuster and sank without trace. It was an early lesson in the power of branding. And the disaster of the wrong branding. My editor at the time, with whom I had no quarrel, wrote to me later to say that she felt guilty about what had happened to my novel, and the knock on effect on my career.
Still, with Pat's encouragement, I embarked on a new project.
Back on cloud nine.
That novel was - in essence - The Amber Heart. It wasn't titled that back then. I think it was called Noon Ghosts. It was an epic and passionate love story, a family saga, very loosely inspired by what I knew of episodes from my own family history, not least a somewhat scandalous liaison between an aristocratic forebear and her estate manager.
To my relief, Pat loved it. She quickly sent it out and the response was wonderful. She related some of the reader and editor comments to me. 'I literally could not put this book down,' one of them said. 'I read it through the night and wept buckets at the end.'
There were lots in the same vein. They loved it and said so. Cloud nine loomed.
Pat couldn't sell it.
You know what the stumbling block was?
It was the Polish setting.
It always fell at the last editorial hurdle. The consensus in every publishing house she tried (and there were already diminishing numbers of possibilities what with all the corporate takeovers) was that nobody would want to read a piece of historical fiction set in Poland, especially one that was aimed at a largely female readership, never mind that some of those same readers had compared it to a Polish Gone with the Wind, never mind that it was a big, sexy, enticing love story. It was too foreign and that was that.
Years later, Pat told me how frustrated she had been that she couldn't sell the novel. For her too, it was the 'one that got away'.
Sadly, she died far too young. I put the manuscript away, stored all the research in a big box under the bed, and got on with other writing.
A compulsive teller of tales.
I forged a pretty successful career as a playwright. But simultaneously, I was working on more novels, finding the pull of fiction irresistible. Many have now been published - beautifully - by Saraband. But I'm a compulsive teller of tales, so I finished up with more novels than Saraband could ever reasonably publish.
Three in particular fell through the cracks in the publishing business: Ice Dancing, Bird of Passage (of which more in another post) and The Amber Heart.
Curiously, and rather sadly, I think these three are among the best things I've ever written, and I don't say that lightly. Other people have told me so too. But of these, Bird of Passage and The Amber Heart are big novels and not just in terms of length. Of everything I've written, these three books have never been close to being published in traditional form. Bird of Passage and Ice Dancing haven't even been read by traditional publishers.
Meanwhile, I had retyped the manuscript of The Amber Heart. You can tell how long this has been going on by the fact that its first faded incarnation was on that old fashioned perforated computer paper that ancient printers spat out in long reams. I expanded it, wondering if it would make a trilogy. Didn't like it at all as a trilogy. Filed it away on the computer, instead of in the box under the bed. Lost the file. Found it. Opened it up. Cut and edited it. A lot.
Pruning and shaping.
Throughout this time, I had several agents and lost them through no fault of my own. Two, at least, just left the business. All of them read The Amber Heart in its various incarnations, liked it very much, but still pointed out that nobody wanted to read a piece of fiction set in Poland. Two of them read it, praised it and told me that it needed pruning. They were right about that, at least, but the problem was that they recommended cutting quite different parts of the novel: one wanted me to lose the first third, while another wanted me to lose the last third. My very last agent was madly enthusiastic about it, but disappeared into the scenery before he could even send it out.
I published it as an eBook with Amazon. That was about 2012.
A few years later, I decided that it was indeed much too long. Unpublished it. Let it lie fallow while I wrote other things.
Most writers will have at least one book like this. I have several very early novels. I look at them from time to time and find them an interesting stage in my development, but - in the conventional words of the standard rejection letter these days - I don't love them. So why didn't I give up with this one?
I've asked myself this more than once over the years. I suppose the answer came to me when, over this pandemic year, spent mostly at my desk, I realised that Pat and all those readers had been right. It is a good book. But the others were right too. It was much too long. Stodgy in places. Going back to it, years later, and with a lot more experience as a writer, I could see clearly enough that it needed pruning and rewriting. Just not the kind of pruning that destroys the whole tree. I took about fifteen thousand words out of it. Here, there and everywhere. I was drastic in places, but always careful not to destroy it completely. I killed a few darlings. I think now it's tighter, more readable, less verbose. More accessible. A better book.
I'm still in love with my main characters. Still love the story. And I'm still quite proud of some of the writing in it. Especially the bit about the dangerous birth ...
My other reason for re-publishing this now is that I'm currently working on a piece of narrative non-fiction, in a similar vein to A Proper Person to be Detained, but this time about my Polish grandfather, his life and milieu. I'm deep into research and planning for a new book called The Last Lancer. And it seems relevant. I got the big box of pre-internet papers and letters and pictures out from under the bed. Pandora's box, in a way because this all feels very personal.
My last, my very, very last enquiry to an agent referencing this proposed new book (why on earth did I do it?) elicited the faintly bored response that there were so many similar stories out there. Since my grandfather was born in Poland in a sleigh, grew up to look like a bit like a younger version of Olivier's Maxim de Winter, was a cavalryman who drove a Lagonda and died young at Bukhara on the silk road, I suspect that there aren't all that many similar stories out there, but who knows? Maybe there are.
All the same, if I ever again publicly express a desire to find an agent, you will know that it's code for 'I've been kidnapped. Send help immediately.'
So there we are. And here it is. While I'm hard at work on the Last Lancer, if you like deeply romantic historical tales of love and loss (and cake. There's quite a lot of cake in this book), you could do worse than give The Amber Heart a try.