I’m at my first writers’ conference, about to meet my first real agent. I’d sent the manuscript ahead for a reading, just a portion, ten pages. I wait outside the conference room until my name is called.
Before I’m even settled in my chair, he says to me: “Books with foreign settings are hard to sell.” Mine is set in France. Very well researched, as I’d actually gone to Paris and Lyon. (I know, poor me.)
I sit wordless, confused. Isn’t that why readers read? To become transported, to go off to far-away places? Didn’t Hemingway write about Paris, Spain, Cuba? And what about those wonderful stories set in England that I love—“Rebecca,” “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights”? Oh, British writers, I realize, feeling embarrassed though I know I’ve said nothing. And, of course, I’m no Hemingway.
The agent goes on to tell me the writing is a little “flowery”—well, it is set in a garden, after all! But then, amazingly, he says he’d like to see more.
After the conference I send it off, a few more chapters, just as requested. It’s returned, unopened, envelope stamped on the outside with the word REFUSED. I still have the envelope, one of the many reminders of how we writers must learn to accept rejection.
Did I toss the manuscript? Start writing the great American novel? Set, naturally, in America. No. I was off to Italy, now working on my second novel, while still trying to pitch the first.
I’m not generally described as a rebel, but it seems when it comes to writing I like breaking the rules. “Write what you know”? How boring is that? I’d rather go exploring, take off for my foreign lands, do some authentic research, learn something new.
With the internet, videos on YouTube, anyone can now step into an exotic or foreign setting without leaving home. In doing research for a new story, in which a small church in Prague plays an important role, I found a 360˚ photo of the interior on the internet that could almost make a person feel she were there. But the church is empty—just a building—and I can’t smell the incense, candle wax or ancient stone. I can’t watch that nun snip and clip the altar flowers, observe a visitor praying, or another rudely commenting in a loud voice. And I can’t feel the coolness in the air, or the warmth of the sun on my face as I step outside. I want to be there, see firsthand, employ all my senses.
Eventually I did sell that first novel, THE SEVENTH UNICORN, after over 70 rejections from agents who didn’t like the setting, or found the work did not fit their present needs, or just didn’t fall in love with it. I found an agent who, like me, wasn’t afraid to explore. This first book was followed by a second, THE LOST MADONNA, set in Italy. My third novel, THE WOMAN WHO HEARD COLOR, takes place primarily in Munich, and was recently released by Berkley/Penguin.
I discovered something very interesting in the process, too. People all over the world read. Sometimes in English. Often books translated from the original English. I now have a dozen translations of my books sitting on the bookshelf.
What am I working on now? That story set in Prague.