Every once in a while during my twenty-five years slogging away as a novelist, there are surprises that land on my doorstep–or in this case, via my InBox.
Today, the president of Women Writing the West, Suzanne Lyon (a novelist herself, of course) sent me word that my historical A RACE TO SPLENDOR was one of three finalists in the coveted (at least in my world) category of Historical Fiction for the 2012 WILLA Literary Awards, presented in October of this year for works published in 2011.
As I said today to several friends, “Being a finalist in the book world is a little like living in Hollywood until they hand out the Academy Awards. One finds oneself often saying: ’It’s an honor just to be nominated’ “–and in this case, that is absolutely a true statement!
Willa Cather, as anyone knows who had eighth grade English with Mr. Pritchard at Sunset School, was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of novels chronicling frontier life on the Great Plains in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark.
I was one of the first wave of writers to join the then fledgling WWW. A majority of New York editors in the early 1990s (and some currently) found any stories set west of the Hudson River and before WW II as “unlikely to succeed in the marketplace.” SPLENDOR certainly was a novel that fell under that rubric.
In 2000, shortly after my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, I had begun to research a novel about the real life figure, Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California, restoring the devastated Fairmont Hotel in the wake of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. My (then) agent clucked and nodded discouragingly when I submitted the book proposal. My (then) editor was totally unenthusiastic about such a project. And when I went ahead and wrote the book anyway, my (then) publisher turned it down, flat.
This was, as all writers of fiction will recall, just about the time the publishing industry was seriously starting to implode in response to the Digital Revolution. No New York publisher was likely to take a chance on anything other than another Harry Potter book, or perhaps allowing John Grisham to write a nice children’s story.
As is so often the case with books that ultimately find an audience, I had become one of those authors completely beguiled by her characters, the setting, and the drama of creating for a modern audience stirring events from the past. Writing with my hair on fire, I was literally unable to let go of an idea I believed deserved to see the light of day. I would, by turns, hang out in the opulent lobby of the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, or dig into the archives to find pictures of the devastation that Julia Morgan faced, only 34 years old and fresh out of architecture school.
Looking back at this painful period, I suspect I did six or seven complete rewrites as different “publishing professionals” gave me their worldly-wise input. Finally, after a few more rejections, I put the book in a drawer and returned to my Day Job, writing nonfiction (as in Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most, Hachette/Springboard Press, 2007).
This was, of course, a career move that helped me pay the light bill, and I am forever grateful to the wonderful editors Jill Cohen and Karen Murgulo who published that tome, and to the Wall Street Journal that dubbed it “One of the Top 5 Books on Retirement” the year it came out.
But meanwhile, my heart was yearning to return to writing historical fiction and my new agent, the fearless Celeste Fine, now of Sterling Lord Literistic, gathered all my rights from the sadly-out-of-print Ware Oeuvre and pitched five historicals to the redoubtable Deb Werksman who, along with the amazing CEO at Sourcebooks, Dominique Riccah, were founding the historical imprint, Landmark. Deb knew my work, made a package deal to bring out reprints with some well-planned revisions and totally wonderful covers, and then asked the fateful question: ”Has she written anything new?”
“New?” Not exactly, but I searched my electronic files for the version of the newly-titled A RACE TO SPLENDOR I felt was truest to my original vision, and we emailed it directly to her, saying “It’s a draft, mind you, and needs some work.”
They bought the book! And yes, thanks to some sage and insightful suggestions from the very experienced and tactful Ms. Werksman, I did a 20% rewrite/tweak and the book was published with its fabulous cover in April, 2011 (the 105th anniversary of the 1906 cataclysm), given a spectacular publication party in the penthouse of the Fairmont — and received wonderful reviews, I’m happy to note.
And now it’s one of three finalists for the prestigious WILLA Literary Awards in the Historical Fiction category.
If that doesn’t give poor, benighted writers a sense of hope, I don’t know what will… It took more than a decade from the conception of the idea to craft the fictional telling of the amazing early California women architects –until today’s announcement.
So on this particular novel, for sure, it is an honor “merely” to be nominated…and to have one’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Willa Cather.
Filed under Blog, Ciji's Archives · Tagged with 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, A Race to Splendor, California architects, Celeste Fine literary agent, Ciji Ware author, Ciji Ware Novelist, Fairmont Hotel, Hachette, historical novels, Jill Cohen, Julia Morgan, Karen Murgulo, nineteenth century American history, Nob Hill, Rightsizing Your Life, Sourcebooks, Sourcebooks author, Springboard Press, Sterling Lord Literistic, Suzanne Lyon, truth versus fiction, Willa Cather, Willa Cather Literary Award, women architects, Women Writing the West, women's history