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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Affairs of the Heart at Versailles: Author Interview with Sally Christie

What drew you to writing historical romance/intrigue?
I’ve been a history nut since forever, and I’d say 80% of everything that I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot!) has been history, either fiction or non-fiction.

Was there a specific author that you read that made you think, ”I could write that’?
I’ve been inspired by a lot of authors, and I have a very vivid memory from about 10 years ago: I read Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin and I got this intense, jealous feeling, thinking: But that was the book I wanted to write!

Why the time frame of Louis XV?
Before I started research for The Sisters of Versailles, Louis XV and 18th century Versailles were not core interests of mine, but as I got sucked into the research I developed a passion for that era: simply a fascinating time.

Tell me about the process for your Versailles trilogy.
Thanks to Google Books, 99% of the research material I needed was online, including memoirs of the day, secondary sources, original newspapers, etc, etc. I’m fluent in French, which was very useful as many of the sources have not been translated. I also visited Paris and the sisters’ childhood home, and went “behind the scenes” at Versailles – invaluable in giving me a granular feel for what life at Versailles was really like.

What are some of the more difficult aspects of writing historical novel?
The biggest challenge, research-wise, was that virtually every major event in the sisters’ lives had 2 or 3 different versions associated with it. If I had tackled a non-fiction account, I would have spent a lot of time evaluating various scenarios against the probable truth. Writing a novel, I had more liberty to choose the version of events that made the most sense, both to me as a historian and for the story’s sake.

How much “artistic license” do you use in creating locations for your stories?
In The Sisters of Versailles there is quite a bit of artistic license because so little is known about them – I took nuggets of real events and spun stories about them. Writing the second book in the series, about the fascinating Madame de Pompadour, is a very different experience – she is a very well documented figure (though somehow manages to remain quite the enigma!)

How did you go about finding a publisher? Did you pitch agents?
My process was fairly “old school”: I finished the book and pitched agents in batches of five. Got interest in the second batch, thank goodness, because no matter how much you try to prepare yourself, the querying process is painful. After several rewrites (see below) we went out on submission and Atria picked it up in the first round.

Was it sold as a 3 book deal?
Yes, we sold it as a trilogy – I hadn’t initially thought about the book as part of a series, but that’s definitely something that is selling well these days. I was really surprised to find that neither the Marquise de Pompadour or the Comtesse du Barry (protagonists of the next 2 books in the series) had been the subject of any recent English fiction, and so… voila! The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy was born.

What should new authors consider before signing a book contract?
I’m not sure I’m in a great position to answer that as I consider myself a new author too. I have to say having an agent is invaluable – I felt completely comfortable leaving the contract in his hands and leaving him to go to bat for me.

How long did it take you to write your first book? How many rewrites did you do on it?
The first draft of The Sisters of Versailles took about 6 months – it just came gushing out! My agent didn’t sign me immediately - he saw something he liked in the original draft but felt it needed too much work for him to take on. He invited me to revise and resubmit, and recommended an editor that I might like to use. I jumped at the chance (she usually only works by referral) and it was an amazing experience – she stripped the book down and then we built it back up again. Based on the that draft my agent signed me. He had a few more changes to make, and then after selling the book to Atria there were additional modifications and changes, but nothing major.

I am a huge believer in outside help and the more hands, the merrier. I think there is a perception amongst new writers that you risk losing “your” work or “your” vision during the editorial process, but really, you don’t. It’s still your story, your voice, but there are many different structures or ways to tell a story, and a good editor will help you find the best one. I think it’s really hard to self-edit, if not impossible.

Have other novels been started and stopped along the way?
I’ve been writing since I was 10, but never finished anything; it was just a hobby I enjoyed. A few years ago I gave myself a year off, to FINALLY finish one of the many books I’d started – I had a list of 5 projects I wanted to complete during that time (ambitious, yes!). But all those other projects were left by the wayside when I stumbled across the Mailly Nesle sisters and jumped into their story.

How long did it take you to write the second and third book?
The writing for the second and third books is taking about the same amount of time but it’s a more streamlined process, as I have a better idea of what the end result should be.

What is your writing process?
I basically submerge myself in research for several months, read all available sources, jot down notes and ideas, muse about the characters, and identify key events that will become chapters or scenes. By the end of that period I am chomping at the bit, ready to get started with the writing! Research continues along the way, of course, as I deep dive into different areas.

When I’m ready to write I start up Scrivener and create separate files for each chapter / scene: it’s a very handy tool that enables you to flick back and forth between parts of the manuscript. I’m a very iterative writer; I never write linearly and I am constantly circling back and forth between chapters and scenes. When I sit down to write a scene, I only have a vague idea of what’s going to happen in it, and I love those days when my creativity is on fire and I go to strange and wonderful places that I never expected!

What do you know now about writing/publishing that you wished you had known sooner?
I was a little asleep at the wheel during the copy edit phase, which is basically the first time line edits come back to you. The publishers make their ARCs (advanced reading copies) based on the draft after the copy edits. I didn’t quite understand that (wasn’t even sure what an ARC was!), and I was fairly horrified at some of the mistakes in the ARC (that I later fixed during subsequent editing phases).

So this time I am going to be paying a lot of attention during the first copy edit and make sure that the ARC for my next book, The Rivals of Versailles, is better.

What type of publicity do you do to promote your book?
I’m only a few weeks into my publishing adventure, so I am not sure I have good advice there! Before the books, I was not heavily into social media but I’ve really been enjoying it so far. The whole world of book blogging is AMAZING – I signed up for several virtual tours. I also love Goodreads, which I only discovered once I became an author. I like reading reviews, even negative ones: once a book is sold to a publishing house, it’s basically surrounded by fans and supporters, so it’s really interesting, once it gets out into the real world, to see what people liked and didn’t like.

What is the best advice you've learned about writing that you’d like to pass along?
I think everyone has a very different writing process. For me, personally, most of my first pass is really crappy. It can be quite depressing. But my mantra is: You can’t improve something that doesn’t exist. So just get it out, no matter how awful it is, and then the improving and the polishing can start…

And I really liked this piece of advice I read a few years ago: write the book you want to read. For me, The Sisters of Versailles is that book. I really love it. That’s fairly Lady Obvious, but it’s true!

That's it for today's interview. If you'd like to know more about the intrigue in the courts of Versailles, here's your options.

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