On Mondays, we post pieces that fit that month's theme. In March, we're hearing from four writers about their experience of "Making It Into a Book". Today, Jane Gilmour shares her journey from passion to publication in her book Colette's France: her lives, her loves.
My first book was published last October. It is called Colette’s France: her lives, her loves and it was published by Hardie Grant, a Melbourne-based publisher. It is a very beautiful book, the result of a lot of work and a very happy collaboration between me and the publisher.
I had lived with the idea of writing a book about the French writer, Colette, for many years. I always imagined it as a very visual book that would tell her story as much through images as through text. I recognized that this was going to be a publishing challenge right from the start!
Many years ago, I had studied French literature at university in Australia and had then gone to Paris where I had spent three years researching and writing a thesis about Colette for my French doctorate. Then, in the way of these things, my life had gone in different directions. I had travelled for some time and lived in New York for a year. When I finally got back to Australia, teaching French in a university seemed less than attractive as modern language departments were being down-sized and all sorts of critical theories were all the vogue. So, I had a fascinating career doing other things – working in the arts and cultural policy, running an environmental and scientific research NGO. I was doing lots of writing – reports, speeches, research papers, etc, but it was all connected to my work.
When I stopped working full-time, I finally had some headspace for the book. The first step was to go to France and catch up on a lot that had happened in Colette studies since I had been there those many years ago. First of all, there was a museum in Colette’s native village; then there was a Colette Study Centre and the Friends of Colette Society that I needed to join. There had been a great deal published in French in the intervening years, including a number of collections of Colette’s letters.
I might have been daunted by all this, but in fact the reverse occurred. I was inspired to push ahead. So, I mapped out what I had in mind and set myself the task over the next couple of years of reading a lot of the new material that had been published and of re-reading Colette’s own writing. And each year, my partner and I would go to France for a couple of weeks to explore the places and houses where Colette had lived. There was quite a lot of detective work involved and I could not have done this without the help of various people in France – people who put me in touch with the current owners of the houses which had once belonged to Colette, people who agreed to meet me and share with me their knowledge about Colette and her life in particular parts of France. Slowly the book was coming together.
But would I ever find a publisher. From early on, I had sought advice from a couple of people I knew in the publishing industry in Australia. They were not encouraging – they thought it would be difficult for a book like this to be published in Australia. They suggested I approach literary agents in London. I worked up my publishing proposal and a couple of chapters and sent them off to various contacts, proposing that I meet them when I was in London in a couple of months’ time. I think I had only one response, and it was negative. So, when I was in London, I called. Finally one person agreed to see me. The meeting seemed positive – but, once I was back to Australia, my emails went unanswered. Oh well, I had a couple of other ideas up my sleeve – I knew of a couple of small publishers in the US who might be interested.
Then, my luck changed, and I really do believe that luck plays a very significant part in getting a book published. I happened to meet one of the partners of Hardie Grant at a Christmas party and I talked to him about my book. He expressed some interest and suggested I contact him in the new year.
The book changed significantly over the next few months as I came to understand the publisher’s view of how this book would work. It needed to be a personal story, not just a biography. It needed to be about place, but told predominantly through my own words rather than through Colette’s. It took me some time to find my voice but the publishers hung in there. And then it was a race against the clock to get it finished within the agreed timeline. I needed to pare back – I had an agreed word limit. There was another trip to France for more research – and particularly to establish access to photographs. And then everything was ready for submission to the publisher.
The next few months were busy as the editing and lay-out proceeded. The selection and placement of photos was critical. Finally everything was in place and I had to arrange for the purchase of the rights to those photos we were using that came from photo agencies. There were a few late night calls to Paris begging for speedy turn-around of the requests, so that we could meet the publishing deadline.
I was delighted when I saw the published book. To be sure, there are a few little errors, but if, by any chance, it goes to a second print-run, they can easily be corrected. In the meantime, I am enjoying the fact that the book is bringing pleasure to many people and wondering if I can pull off a next one.
So, my advice – hang on to your dream!
Jane Gilmour is a Melbourne-based writer and author of Colette's France, available now through Hardie Grant.
All pictures in this blog post are copyright Jane Gilmour.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.