Cheering me up after last week’s flu is an advance copy of a new book: Anne Perry’s A Sunless Sea is published next month, in handsome hardbacks from Headline (UK) and Random House (US).
Anne was my first client, and is having an astounding career. Well over 50 novels; none of her books ever going out of print; 25 million copies sold; bestseller in a number of countries including the US; enormous critical acclaim; and the latest reviews say her work is even better than ever.
Besides being enormous fun to work with, she’s been my education as an agent. There’s so much to keep track of that I’ve had to grow an extra lobe of my brain to contain it all. If there are any phrenologists out there who’d like to feel my skull, they’re welcome to explore the Anne Perry bump.
Creatively speaking, she’s taught me a huge amount, too. How to wring as much tension out of a plot as possible; how to counterpoint themes; how to push characters to their limit; how to create unexpected twists in the story.
Running such a long career brings its own challenges, too. Keeping series fresh is a big feature. Anne needs to start each book feeling excited about what she’s going to write, even after several discussions about the outline. The rest of the team – her editors, the publishers’ marketing departments, our foreign co-agents – need to feel they’re receiving not just ‘another Anne Perry book’. The publishers have to keep the booksellers motivated. Hard enough getting to the top; this is about staying there.
Anne usually takes her idea from current affairs, and then looks at the year her characters are now living, to find a historical parallel. For instance, A Sunless Sea connects the re-examination of the David Kelly case (someone possibly killed for revealing a shocking truth) with the historical movement to label medicines. In those days, a young mother would ask her friends what they used to soothe a baby, and go and buy something like Doctor Pettigrew’s Child Silencer, not having any way of knowing whether it contained gin, morphine, or god knows what.
This means that the story she’s telling us today is about something relevant to us, even though it’s through a historical lens. She makes sure we don’t know where her characters will be taken in this next story. This far into her series, many of her readers have been following Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, or William and Hester Monk, so she has the luxury of subverting expectations and bringing new layers of characterization. And once in a while she’ll step out of Victorian London to visit another time period.
The publishers keep things fresh by occasionally re-designing Anne’s covers. Nowadays, too, metadata is key. Some readers like to research an author before trying one of their books; others like to know more about a writer they love. Author interviews on the web, a blog, the Amazon author’s page, publishers’ additional information on their website – all of these make the experience richer.
Is it hard work for all of us? But is it worth it? Absolutely.