Some time ago, I felt washed up as a writer. I’d published five books: a memoir, a novel, three other books of non-fiction, all on maritime subjects—washed up, get it? I once lived aboard a small wooden sailboat, cruising between the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, England, the USA, making my living as a yacht captain, and I was steeped—marinated— in boats and the sea. But I felt I’d exhausted this material. I wanted to write something, preferably fiction, in a way that I never had, but always wanted to, without knowing exactly what that was.
I made many false starts. Bits of novels that inevitably seemed to veer toward water, like reverse evolution, before I abandoned them. I got very depressed about my writing career. I got very broke too.
After several years, I had six pages that I liked. They were unlike anything I’d ever written. It was a scene that happened—yes, on a rocky shore—in Mallorca, where I spent many summers when I was young, but I knew it really had nothing to do with the sea. It was about two very angry octogenarians, a man and a woman, Gerald and Lulu, who met on a dirt road beside the sea, quarrelled, and had an accident so definitive that it seemed to be the end of the story. But it wasn’t even a story, it went nowhere. It only posed a big question: who were these two and why were they so pissed off at each other, after all this time?
I couldn’t go forward with it, so I decided to look backwards into their lives to see what had happened to them. Gradually, things filled in about Gerald and Lulu: they’d once been married, but long ago. They’d had children (by later marriages to other people), Luc and Aegina, and they seemed pretty pissed off with each other too. I saw distant episodes in all these earlier lives, as if from a long way off.
So I started writing backwards, in reverse chronology. I wrote towards those distant views —1995, 1983, 1970, and so on. I stopped and looked around when I got to each place. The episodes were each just a few weeks long at most. There was a compelling dynamic to this retroactive unfolding: the characters all grew younger, more innocent, more hopeful—they didn’t know what was coming. It was fascinating to see them ineluctably moving toward missed opportunities, heartbreak, the seemingly small mistakes that would resound through a lifetime.
Most of all, I wanted to see what had happened to Gerald and Lulu. What had engendered such bitterness that lasted more than half a century? I didn’t know for the longest time; only that it was something sad and awful that had rent and scarred their lives, and impacted everything and everyone around them until their deaths. I had to write all the way back to 1948 to see it unfold.
Eventually, I had a 500-page manuscript. I still wasn’t sure what it was—“a novel of manners,” one reader friend told me, “an emotional thriller,” someone else said. I sent it to my longtime agent, who had sold my all previous books—he’d represented me for 17 years. It was an unusually long time before he got back to me. This is what he said:
‘There is so much wrong with this book I don’t begin to know how to tell you to fix it.’
We had a short conversation in which he listed all the things that didn’t work for him. It sounded as if he was talking about some other book. It was devastating.
And he cut me loose.
Evidently I had succeeded—grandly—in my goal to write something different. I was no longer recognizable (or of interest) to my agent who had sold my books about maritime misadventure, sailors going mad in a boat race, whaleship disasters, and such manly fare. I had either reinvented—or destroyed—myself as a writer.
I was now in the position of many desperate writers: a manuscript and no agent. It didn’t help that I had published other books; these were looked at almost as liabilities. I was not new and unknown and therefore possibly exciting. I was like many writers with a stalled career, dropped by their agents, the gloss off, trying something different.
A friend in London, Kate Griffin, a partner at Profile Books, who had published all my books in England, sent my orphaned manuscript to Patrick Walsh, of the literary agency Conville and Walsh. He agreed to look at it.
Weeks went by. I had the gloomiest thoughts.
Finally, I heard from Conville and Walsh: “We’ve had a very good report on your novel from our reader. Patrick’s going to read it now.”
More weeks. Another email from Conville and Walsh: “We’ve had a second very good report about your novel. We’re printing it out now for Patrick to read.”
Very soon afterwards, I got a call from Patrick Walsh. We had a conversation about all the things that he liked so much about the book—a sort of point by point rebuttal of the call I’d had with my former agent. Patrick wanted to send it to a freelance editor he knew, Gillian Stern. Then he sent me Gillian’s email reply, which read, in part:
‘I haven’t enjoyed – derived so much pleasure – from a novel in a long while…what zest, what dialoge, what conviction, what a cast of characters, what an affirmation of all that a novel should be… How often do I send emails like this??!’
The rest happened fast, mostly through the skill and devotion of Patrick Walsh. He took the manuscript with him to Kenya and while there—on holiday—did a speedy and masterful line-by-line edit in hastily scrawled pencil. He asked me to come to London (I live in the USA) for 5 days to meet editors. When I got there, we had several offers, and he sold the book to Susan Watt and her own imprint, Heron Books, at Quercus Books. Patrick then submitted it to publishers in New York. Several offers there too, and it sold to the visionary Sarah McGrath, editor-in-chief (and editor of Khaled Hosseini) at Riverhead Books.
The Rocks—a novel about love, heartbreak and relationships—has been handsomely embraced on both sides of the Atlantic, especially by women. It has been featured in a chicklit blog. It is reviewed in the coming June editions of Cosmopolitan, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, and others. I have happily left harpoons astern and seem— for the moment, things can change fast—to have a new career as a novelist writing about the ineffable affairs of the human heart.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was lucky my manuscript was rejected by my former agent. I was luckier still that The Rocks found its way to Patrick Walsh, and now, to the Curtis Brown Book Group.