Friday, May 7, 2010
Interview with Gillian Bagwell about Darling Strumpet
LH: Hi Gillian. Your writing follows a real person, Nell Gwynn. How did you get interested in her?
GB: Quite a long time ago, an actor friend got a lot of notice for a one-man show he was performing. I was very much pursuing an acting career at the time, and thought that writing a one-woman show for myself seemed like a great idea. My father suggested Nell Gwynn as a character, and I started researching her. The more I learned, the more charmed and intrigued I was with her personality and her story. I wrote some of the script and couldn't do justice to her very eventful life. So she sat in my mind and heart for quite a long time until I decided to write her story as a novel instead.
LH: What kind of research did you do? Did you get any grants to help you pay for your research?
GB: Grants! That would be great, wouldn't it? No, no grants. And I have spent A LOT of time and money researching this book.
When I first started researching Nell, I read several bioghraphies of her, one or two of Charles, and other general material about the period. When I started writing the novel, I was in London, so fortunatly I was able to go in person to some of the places associated with her life. And also fortunately there were a couple of new biographies out about her.
From there, the ripples spread. There is really such a huge amount of information out there, in print and on line. I have biographies of many of Nell's friends and contemporaries. I'd always enjoyed Samuel Pepys's diaries, which mention Nell several times and are a great source of information about daily life in the 1660s. There's a site that is publishing the diary entries daily, with annotation (http://www.pepysdiary.com ).
One area that took a lot of research was the theatre of the day. The playhouses had been closed under Cromwell, and one of the first things Charles II did when he was restored to the throne in 1660 was to authorize two acting companies and playhouses, and soon after, he approved the idea of women appearing on stage for the first time in England.
I had to track down the plays that Nell appeared in, and most of them are pretty obscure. I found some on Project Guttenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org ) but I couldn't find many until I discovered the Clark Library (http://www.humnet.ucla.edu/humnet/clarklib ) associated with UCLA, which has a huge collection of material from the 17th and 18th centuries, much of it available on line. A really miraculous source is The London Stage, 1660-1800, a multi-volumne set that provides a day-by-day account of performances, who was in them, etc. I also read a lot on Restoration and Carolinian theatre in general.
And in 2008, I spent six week in London doing more research, following in Nell's footsteps, finding the sites of old theatres, and so on.
LH: Yes, I remember reading your online comments from some of the sites you visited in 2008. I could tell that you had her locales down cold! How long has it taken you to write this first novel?
GB: I started writing it in Feburary, 2005, but there were many periods of weeks at a time when I wasn't working on it at all. When I came home from London in June 2006, I decided to make it a priority to finish it and sell it, and after that I worked on it as much and as regularly as aI could, given the need to make money and other interruptions of real life. I went through a couple of drafts, and in July 2009 I had a draft I was happy enough with to send to the agent who had been working with me informally.
LH: How did you find an agent?
GB: I went to a writers' conference and paid $100 extra to have two different agents read my first 20 pages. One of them liked it but thought it was too early to be showing it to anyone. The other one wanted to see the first 100 pages. She liked that well enough to pass it on to a colleague, Kevan Lyon, who had a particular interest in historical fiction, and it was Kevan who ultimately became my agent. So I had a pretty easy time of it, which is not typical.
LH: Did your agent or your editor actually ask you to edit the book?
GB: Before she was officially my agent, Kevan helped me with about three sets of rewrites of my first 100 pages before I had even completed a draft. Finally I told her I thought I needed to get through a first draft before I did any mroe rewriting. When I sent her the completed manuscript, she emailed me when she was halfway through to tell me that she wanted to represent me officially. She did make a few suggestions, and once I had incorporated those, she submitted it to editors. My editor, Kate Seaver at Berkley Publishing Group, only asked for two fairly minor revisions.
LH: You are signed for two books. Did you sell both of them at once?
GB: Yes! when Kevan was submitting Darling Strumpet to editors, I wrote three or four short synposes of ideas I had for my next project. And miraculously, when Kevan sold Darling Strumpet she also sold my second book, as yet completely unwritten, on the basis of a brief outline and what I had done with the first book.
LH: Are the two novels related to each other?
GB: They are related in that they both involve Charles II and significant events during his life, but he isn't the protagonist of either book, and they're not intended to be sequels or prequels of each other. While I was researching Nell Gwynn, I came across the story of Jane Lane, who had helped Charles escape after the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651, when the Royalist cause was lost. So my second novel, The Royal Miracle takes place in 1651, when they were traveling together. There is a bit about the years during which Jane was in exile after she was found out and when she went home to England when Charles was restored in 1660, and there there is a bit of story that takes place after that. Nell's story, The Darling Strumpet, starts on May 29,1660, the day Charles returned to London. It follows the course of Nell's life to 1687, and takes place mostly in London. So Nell knew Charles at a completely different time and under vastly different circumstancs than Jane Lane did, and their stories didn't intersect.
LH: Were you a polished writer when you started your novel? Did anyone help you?
GB: I wouldn't say I was polished. All my life I have worked on bits and pieces of creative writing, but for most of my adult life until a few years ago I was focused on the theatre. I've done quite a lot of what I guess I could call utilitarian writing--press releases, subscription brochures, newsletters, editing scripts, etc. And for many years I've made a living off and on summarizing deposition transcripts for attorneys. It's not exciting, but it is very good practice at clear, concise writing that conveys essential information economically. I took a few writing workshops and classes over the years. When I took Kerry Madden's class at Vroman's bookstore in the fall of 2006, that was the first time I'd shown any of the Darling Strumpet manuscript or gotten feedback on it, and Kerry's critique and that of the class was very helpful.
LH: What's the most surprising thing you've learned about the process of publishing a book, as your book nears publication?
GB: I guess one thing that I don't quite understand is why it takes as long as it does to get a
book published once a deal is made. The second thing that surprised me is the somewhat liquid timetables that things seem to operate on in the publishing world. I didn't get rewrite notes from my editor until about three months after she had said she would get them to me. I guess that's just the way it works when editors are swamped handling many books. But in theatre, if a show is scheduled on open on May 1 and 8 PM, it does. The curtain might go up ten minutes late, but the show must go on!
LH: What are your plans to generate publicity for the book? It's coming out in January, 2011, right?
GB: Believe it or not, I'm already deep into those efforts. In January I took a really great class on line called "Buzz your book" taught by MJ Rose. It helped me develop some really good ideas for publicity, including a series of articles hosted by different blogs or website for each month from now until the book is published in January 2011 about the corresponding months in 1660 and 1661. The first of those article actually just went up May 5, on the Hoydens and Firebrands blog: (http://hoydensandfirebrands.blogspot.com/2010/05may-1660-by-gillian-bagwell.html )
You can track all of the posts through different sites from my own web site, http://www.gillianbagwell.com , which has clickable links to all of the historical postings.
LH: Do you have a critique group?
GB:Regular critique from other writers has been invaluable. My first experience was in Kerry Madden's classes. After that, one of my classmates invited me to join a small writing group that she had. It was great, but it only met once a month. So I began meeting with a couple of the women from that group and one or two others. Initially we met every two weeks, but these days we usually meet every week. The Darling Strumpet would not be nearly as good without their input.
LH: Did you have to overcome any disappointments along the way?
GB: One thing that was very frustrating and disappointing was that although when I started working on my novel, and certainly when I first began researching Nell, there were no other novels about her. Then suddenly in 2007, just when I was trying to finish the book and find an agent and publisher, TWO of them were published. I was afraid it might mean that mine wouldn't get bought, but fortunately that wasn't the case. I've just learned of another novel about Nell that will be published the same month as mine.
LH: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
GB: Work at it. Write a lot. Figure out what works and what doesn't. Some of that comes from classes and outside critique, and some of it just from lots of writing. I've learned a lot and become a much more efficient writer as I worked on The Darling Strumpet. I've also learned a lot by reading. I've always been a ferocious reader, and I think part of what I've tried to do with this first novel is write something that I would love to read. Read about writing. Become knowledgeable about the publishing business. Write something that might actually interest a publisher, if you want to sell your book. Once you're going to show it to anyone like an agent or editor, be meticulous about technical things like spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. I guess maybe the most important thing is to write what you're passionate about. I've been thinking about Nell and carrying her in my heart for so long that this novel was clawing to get out.
LH : Thanks so much, Gillian!