A Second Act for a 17th c. Woman Playwright

October 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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Twenty years ago, when I began thinking about writing Wicked Company focusing on a group of eighteenth century “Petticoat Playwrights” whose works were performed to great success at London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres, even most English majors had never heard of the playwright Aphra Behn, whose dates are thought to be 1640-1689.

Now recognized as “one of the first women to earn her living by her pen,” the woman on your right has finally come into her own with several biographies and monographs describing her life as a spy, and later as a remarkably successful and prolific  playwright in the Restoration era –a time after the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II who allowed, at long last,  women to play women’s parts on stages throughout Britain.

The daughter of a barber and a nurse, Aphra somehow managed to travel to Venezuela which was the setting for one of her later plays.  Later, through friends and connections, she was recruited by King Charles II himself to pose as a widow in Antwerp and spy for the Crown, prior to the outbreak of a war between Britain and the Netherlands in 1665.

Sadly, the King neglected to pay her for her services to her country, and upon her return, she landed in Debtor’s Prison.  Once released, she had plenty of fodder for her plays, which she proceeded to write starting in 1670 with astonishing speed in order to keep body-and-soul together (the plight of most writers through the ages, I’m sad to report).

Aphra Behn’s best-known works–some still produced today–are The RoverLove-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and Oroonoko.

Her body of work includes some seventeen plays, four novels, two short stories, and seven collections of poems.  Her writing was often vilified by the male-dominated literary world. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), born the year before she died, continually penned slights in the years following her death.  Conveniently for him, the poor woman was unable to defend herself.  Even in our own  time, American critic and Yale Professor of the Humanities Harold Bloom called her a “fourth-rate playwright” in comparison to Shakespeare, adding rather spitefully that the interest of her in the era of Women’s Studies was an example of the “dumbing down” of the culture.

Tell that to Liz Duffy Adams, winner of the 5th Annual Lillian Hellman Award!  On November 4th, at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre –an organization that specializes in presenting new works–Adams’ play “Or,” opens.  It features Aphra Behn as the central character, and I, for one, cannot wait to see it.

Described as follows on the Magic Theatre’s website, it sounds hilarious, and appears to be a wonderful vehicle for getting back at all those nasty male critics:

Aphra Behn is getting out of the spy game and into showbiz. If she can finish her play by morning, she’ll become the first professional female playwright. All that’s standing in her way are King Charles II, actress Nell Gwynne, and double agent William Scot, who may or may not be trying to murder the king. Double-crossing, cross-dressing, sex, art, and politics all come together in playwright Liz Duffy Adams’ hilarious bodice-ripper that peers into the life and times of the literal first lady of the stage.

I have a friend deeply involved in support of Magic Theatre and if I can twist her arm, I hope I’ll have a chance to meet Ms. Adams, pictured here on the right, and share with her the fact  that I’ve been a booster of “our” heroine  Aphra Behn for a long time. In fact, I dedicate the newly-released Sourcebooks Landmark edition of Wicked Company about the eighteenth century Petticoat Playwrights that followed in Aphra’s footsteps to the noteworthy playwright as a way of expressing my thanks to this incredible woman who did, indeed, earn her living by her pen.

Just as I do with my computer. Not much changes over the centuries, does it…?

Booksellers, Historical Fiction, & “Hand-Selling”

October 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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I remember walking into the (now) 83-year-old independent Tecolote Bookshop in Montecito, California–seen here hosting Thomas Steinbeck at a signing–to show them the galleys for the first edition of A Cottage by the Sea.  My favorite member of the small sales force peered at the title and then suddenly clutched the Advanced Reader’s Copy to her bosom and said with a sigh, “Oooooh, a cottage by the sea…every woman’s fantasy!”

I was extremely gratified to hear this as I was in a fierce battle with the book’s original publisher about the title.  “They” wanted to change it, and I loved it and wanted to keep it.

I immediately sent an emergency fax (that’s how long ago this was) to the editor, recounting exactly what I’ve told you.

I knew this anecdote would have some weight because the scuttlebutt was that Tecolote was one of the up-market independent booksellers out West that the New York Times Sunday Book Review called to measure sales for its bestsellers’ list.  I have no idea if that is true, but it was an accolade from an important store and, bless the hardworking staff there, it carried enough clout with the editors and marketers in New York to retain the book’s title!

Every since that time, I have done my best to support and get to know the booksellers at both independent bookshops, like my local Habitat Books seen here, as well as the chain bookstore staffs in my area.

Historical novels, whether made of paper or downloaded onto  an electronic reading device, are successful in great part due to this “hand-selling,” and I’ve been grateful for the fifteen years that A Cottage by the Sea has been in print in its various editions that booksellers have apparently given it a personal boost and created that “buzz” that can really make a difference in sales.

Just this morning I was walking with a friend down our main thoroughfare where the tourists stroll as soon as they step off the ferry from San Francisco, and lo and behold, there was the beautiful edition (and new cover) of Cottage–out since June of this year from Sourcebooks Landmark–up-front-and-center in the window of the store!  I’ve met the owner, but hadn’t had a chance to go in and try to twist her arm to stock the book, to say nothing of begging her to put it in the window.

I handed my dog-walking pal my iPhone and said, “Quick! Take a snap, will you?  I want to prove to the world how the independents are truly independent!”  The owner chose to feature the book with no prompting from the author or publisher.

Books are sold by hand by these wonderful people who own bookstores…one book at a time. And now that the new edition of  Wicked Company, about a group of women playwrights whose works were produced to great success at London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane theaters, is about to debut this month, I guess I should get busy, go into Habitat Books to show them the new cover, and introduce myself again….

I’ve done that recently at a local gift shop, It’s Out of Hand, whose owner, Christine Butler, I know well. Since we live in a maritime village facing San Francisco Bay, she put Cottage near the cash register with a sign “Signed by Local Author” and sells several copies a month talking about the similarities between Cornwall, England, where Cottage is set, and the California coasts along Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur.

Another lesson in “books are hand sold, one book at a time.”  Words to live by, I’d say.

A Tale of Two Covers

August 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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Anyone who follows the publishing business knows what turmoil the industry has been experiencing since the Dawn of the Digital Age changed all the rules and even the game itself.  Nowhere is that upheaval more likely to be felt than in the marketing of books.

I’ve been a frontline witness to this recently.  Last Spring I was sent the new cover for Wicked Company, the October Sourcebooks Landmark release of a novel that’s very dear to my heart because it’s about writers; specifically women writers struggling to make their way in the boistrous, bawdy 18th c. world of the famed Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters.  Between 1660 and 1820, there were at least one hundred “petticoat playwrights” who saw their works mounted on the professional stage–many writing under their own names.  As an author rather obsessed with the question  “what were the women doing in history?”, to me, these amazing artists were perfect fodder for an historical novel.

Wicked Company OriginalThe cover on the left was sent for my approval last spring and I loved it.  The image was an adaptation of the famous Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of perhaps the most celebrated 18th c. actress-manager in England, Sarah Siddons.  Huge in size and grand in scope, it currently hangs at the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California, where I spent several years researching Wicked Company.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to publication day for the new edition:  some very key people in the process of getting the book to market had second thoughts about the cover, so back to the drawing boards they went to see if they could both capture the era, as well as reflect a less “static” feeling in presentation, as one book buyer put it.

The final cover is now this you see on the right:  showing a slightly mysterious image of an actress on stage in period dress, framed by red velvet drapes and also sporting the shield that has become a welcome “signature” for this series of my books.

I cannot deny the cover switch hasn’t required some adjustment, as I’d already put it on my new website and was quite pleased about the way it harmonized with the other Sourcebooks Landmark covers in the new series.  However,  I realize that those professionals who specialize in bringing historical novels to their audiences in this sometimes perplexing digital revolution may know much more about the business of “packaging” and “buyer appeal”  than I do, and are wise in the ways of trends in the evolving industry.

Thus, I remain grateful to the talented designers at my publishers who have now created two attractive covers for Wicked Company, and I leave it to the readers of this blog to decide which of the images attracts them the most to a book that was such a joy for this author to write. The cover on the right is the one that will appear in the bookstores, but you, faithful reader, now have the inside scoop on why you may have seen Sarah Siddons vanish back to the eighteenth century.

It’s a new world out there in publishing with  books now also available on Kindle, iPad, Nook, and Sony readers, as well as the old fashion volumes made from paper that  you can hold in your hands and turn the pages–while soaking in a bathtub!

Let me know what you think, both about the book’s cover and its contents…