You are likely already aware that it's First Fiction Month here at BookPage—a month-long celebration of debut novels . . . and their authors, of course! One such author is Jennifer McQuiston, whose debut—What Happens in Scotland, a historical romance—was published earlier this year.
In this fabulous guest post, Jennifer discusses her fascinating path to becoming a romance writer and her experience of being a first-time author—although, with her second book (Summer Is for Lovers) coming out next month and her third (Moonlight on My Mind) in April, she's actually well on her way to becoming a veteran!
I didn’t always want to be an author.
There. I said it. And the lights just flickered above my head, suggesting I have upset some delicate balance of literary fate. After all, don’t authors emerge from the womb knowing not only who they are, but also what they want to write?
Nope. Not me. A veterinarian and a scientist by training, I work for the federal government tracking infectious disease outbreaks around the globe. Reading has always been a way for me to escape the pressures of work, or a treat to savor on those rare vacations. I have always enjoyed reading historical romance, but about five years ago I realized I was beginning to search for stories that were a bit different. Grittier. Less dukes and dancing, more cholera and syphilis. At some point, I began to realize those stories were in my head, and began toying with the idea to write a novel.
My earliest attempts to craft said “gritty romance novel” failed on several levels. My scientific training ensured I understood everything there was to know about cholera, but I knew nothing about craft. I tried again, feeling my way blindly to a voice that was uniquely mine but did not require translation for a lay audience. Writing became less of a pastime and more of an obsession. I set my clock for 4 a.m. every morning for a slog in front of the laptop before the real day job started. Each time I woke up to that insistent alarm, I learned a little better how to tune out my internal scientist, and how to become . . . gasp . . . an author.
What Happens in Scotland is my first published novel, but it was my fifth completed manuscript, a testament to just how long I slogged. Be forewarned: there is no cholera in this story. It isn’t even that gritty, although it features a chamber pot and a few raw edges to the plot. But it is still, irrevocably, me. My voice, my vision, my eccentricity. I knew it was special from the moment I started writing it, but I don’t think I realized how truly different it was until the reviews started rolling in. It is a book that has engendered some strong opinions among readers and reviewers, namely because it breaks a few of what are considered “standard rules of romance.” Not everyone loves the fact that I keep the hero and heroine apart for half the book searching for each other, but others have praised that difference. Some dislike the fact it takes place over a 24-hour period, while others welcome the change in pace. It contains a little too much physical humor for readers looking for lilting prose, but others claim the humor is their favorite part of the writing.
The truth is, there is no one way to write—or read—a book. I feel remarkably privileged that my publisher, Avon/Harper Collins, believed in me enough to not only take a risk on a different sort of book, but to make me a multi-published author.
Adelle Waldman's critically lauded debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., has sparked countless heated discussions of the titular character's, well, character. The book offers readers rare—and almost startlingly voyeuristic—insight into the mind of 30-something Brooklynite Nate as he adjusts from being a struggling freelance writer to having a six-figure book deal and as he fickly—and somewhat obliviously—navigates the urban dating scene. (For insight into the insight, check out our interview with Waldman about the book.)
We were curious about which books Waldman has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her. Here are her recommendations:
I recently reread Middlemarch—this time, on audiobook, read by Juliet Stevenson, who is a terrific narrator. It was, I think, the fourth time I’d read the book, and it’s a book absolutely worthy of multiple readings, especially for people who haven’t read it since college. Even if you loved it then, I guarantee you will see more in it if you read it again as an adult. For me, on this rereading, I noticed so many observations about people and social life that I wonder if I’d missed them before because I was too caught up in the story—what would happen next—or just because I was too young to realize just how smart they were.
It’s fitting that I just mentioned Middlemarch because Hershon’s novel, about two men who meet at Harvard in the 1960s and their wives and children, reads in some ways like a sweeping, character-based 19th-century novel. Hershon’s vivid characters jump off the page, and she renders their setting, and social and historical context, with great and pithy intelligence. But the novel is also a classic love story—a love triangle—that is both satisfying and unsentimental. It’s the kind of engrossing book you want to get wholly absorbed in over a vacation or long weekend.
This novel blew me away. Teddy Wayne did something remarkable—he wrote an entire book from the perspective of an 11-year-old, who happens to be a pop star—and still produced a book that is bracingly smart and funny, and yet never reads as if an adult wrote it because Jonny’s voice feels so authentic. Through Jonny, who has absorbed the values of the shallow, success-obsessed world he lives in, Wayne manages to critique not merely celebrity culture but all of us. We can’t help but be amused by some of Jonny’s most cynical observations, about, for example, how you want not only girls but pretty girls to come to concerts because the pretty ones will be brought by boyfriends (two tickets sold rather than one) and the boyfriends will buy them T-shirts to ingratiate themselves (more “merch” sold). Yet this isn’t a satirical book. Jonny is very tenderly drawn, and the novel is also a gripping, warm-hearted story about a confused young boy who is trying to find connection.
And be sure to check out our continued First Fiction Month coverage throughout August.