Former editor Tessa Harris is now an author
PUBLISHED: 12:21 23 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:20 20 February 2013
Tessa tells how she obtained a publishing deal!
Our former editor-turned-novelist Tessa Harris was brought in for questioning at this months Reading Crime Writing Festival and admits that although the road to publication has been tough, its all been worth it
Among the many books on my shelves, one in particular stands out. Its Imperium, a thriller by best-selling writer and Kintbury resident Robert Harris (no relation), set in Ancient Rome. What makes this volume so special is that he gave it to me and signed it with a special dedication. It reads To Tessa, a pleasure to meet you, and good luck with your own novel. Best wishes, Robert. That was in July 2006 and, just over five years on, those good wishes have paid off. My debut novel, the first of a series of three with an option of more, is out in the United States in December.
Writing for Berkshire Life magazine, something I did for 10 years, allowed me to meet some remarkable people, both famous and not so famous. But Robert Harris, who has lived near Hungerford for several years, was at the top of my list to interview.
He was every bit as charming and interesting as I thought he would be, so towards the end of our chat, I dropped in the fact that I also wrote fiction and hoped to be a published novelist one day. (Cringe-making, I know, but I just had to say it.) Im glad I did, because thats why he wrote that dedication, and when Id just about given up hope of ever fulfilling my dream, I used to open Imperium on the title page and read that inscription.
My dream took root a long time ago. In fact I think I was born with the need to write, producing my first book on squares of old wallpaper which my mother sewed together for me. I was five and although it consisted of badly-drawn images and only a few words, I can still remember it was about a rabbit called Tippee.
At eight I used an exercise book to produce The Adventures of Auntie Mary. That was also when I received my first rejection letter. Collins were very polite, but said they only dealt with lavishly illustrated books. Im not sure Id encountered that phrase before!
That was the first of hundreds of rejection letters I received over the years. And, of course, not all publishers bother to reply. Still I kept going. I qualified as a journalist because I needed to write, so when I had finished reporting facts during the day, I went home and wrote fiction as night.
Id written six unpublished novels and three screenplays before my first minor success. I won a screenplay writing competition in 1999 which led to a production company optioning a film script. I was able to buy a second-hand Fiat Punto with the money, but sadly, as so often happens in the fickle world of film, nothing happened.
That, however, was not the end of the affair. My screenplay was set in 18th century England and centred on the tragic story of Charles Byrne, also known as The Irish Giant. Id spent years researching the period, and determined to put all my hard work to good use, decided to write a work of fiction. Not just one novel, however. This was to be a series and at its heart was a young American anatomist, who came to London in the late 1700s to study under a leading practitioner of the art. His name was Dr Thomas Silkstone and he would be the first forensic scientist. The novels would focus on murder cases which he endeavored to solve using his new skills: in a nutshell CSI meets the Age of Reason.
It took me three years to complete the first novel, writing after work and fitting around the needs of my (then young) family. I spent an hour or two each evening after dinner at my screen in our East Berkshire home. I finally finished it in October 2005 and began the task of trying to find an agent to represent me to a publisher.
Two months later, however, an offer came out of the blue. Would I like to be the editor of this magazine? It was something I couldnt refuse, even though I knew it would be an extremely demanding, albeit enjoyable, challenge. So, I put my literary ambitions on hold, managing to send off enquiry letters to agents now and again. In four years I probably posted 50 queries and received 40 rejections. (The rest just didnt reply.) But I believed in my novel and when that faith wavered, as it often did, I simply picked up Imperium and read Robert Harriss words.
By 2008 I decided I was getting nowhere. Some agents did send encouraging letters, but there was a gaping chasm between platitudes on a postcard and an actual contract. A change of tack was required. All those years before, an American production company had pledged money to make a film of my screenplay. Id filed away the letter that promised $4 million dollars. If it was worth the paper it had been written on I would doubtlessly have framed it, but it wasnt. Nevertheless I started to think about contacting US literary agents with the first three chapters and a synopsis. After all, the main character was an American, and they loved the old country didnt they?
After three or four rejections I was contacted by an agency in October 2008. Could they see the entire novel? I duly sent it off and waited. Three months later I emailed a follow-up query. Were they still interested? Yes. Three months after that I received another email: had I found another agent? No. Could they keep hold of the manuscript a while longer? There was a chink of light. Yes, I replied, although Id been strung along so many times I really didnt hold out much hope. More than a year later, in November 2009, the email came that I longed for. I had an agent!
My agent suggested revisions and the novel was finally ready to send off to publishers in April 2010. In July that year the longed-for email arrived. Kensington Publishing in New York wanted to give me a three-book deal.
Now, 16 months on, Ive just completed my second book and am about to start book three in the Dr Thomas Silkstone mystery series. The first, The Anatomists Apprentice, is out in the US in December and in the UK and Europe next year. So, that is how I found myself brought in for questioning at the Reading Crime Writing Festival, where I spoke more about my very long and arduous road to publication. It hasnt been easy, but if you accused me of living the dream, then Id have to plead guilty as charged.