In the days before e-books, here’s how it went for most authors: you spent a couple of years pouring your heart and soul into a book, which was then published, sat in the bookstores for a few months and then quietly disappeared forever. This was a typical scenario for most novels (and still is for the print version of most books). Secret Lives was first published in 1991. It didn’t do well. Although it was my third novel—absolutely the book of my heart—and it received beautiful reviews, I wasn’t well known (understatement) and it sort of tanked. And that was it. The end of Secret Lives.
Or so I thought.
Fast forward to 2010, when authors discovered they could make their backlist books available as e-books. I decided to give it a try starting with Secret Lives, teaching myself how to format it for the various e-readers. After publishing twenty+ novels, I was better known by then, but I was still shocked when the sales started rolling in. Well over 100,000 sales and 150 five-star reviews on the US Kindle site later, I knew Secret Lives had finally found its audience.
Still, it hadn’t been in print book format since 1991. That is, until now, thanks to my publisher in the United Kingdom, Pan Macmillan. As of today, it will be available in print in the UK. When I opened that box and saw my ‘baby’ back in print . . . well, it got to me.
Can I tell you a little about this book’s early road to publication?
I had the idea for the story (more about that in a moment) and it was all I could think about. It was a bit of a risky idea in a few ways (no spoilers here!) and I was passionate about it. I attended a writers’ conference where I had an appointment to sit down with the editor from a publishing house and ‘pitch’ my story in the hopes she would want to take a chance on the as-yet unwritten novel. I desperately wanted to convey to her the wonderfulness of my story. I was still a nervous newbie writer, though, and I was such a wreck as I told her the story that I had trouble breathing and had to excuse myself in the middle of the meeting to go outside and gulp air (I am not making this up. I’m sure she thought I was insane). When I was done pouring my heart out to her, she said something like “I can see you feel strongly about this story, but I don’t think it’s for us.” (typical publisher rejection language). I was crushed, but not surprised after my performance as a crazy woman.
Once I’d written the novel, though, it sold to the first editor who saw it (I will always be grateful to Karen Solem, then at HarperCollins and now with her own agency. She really ‘got it’). But as I mentioned, despite editorial enthusiasm, Secret Lives slid quietly into oblivion. . . until its rebirth in 2010.
Even though I’ve written twenty novels since Secret Lives, this story will always hold a special place in my heart and I’d like to tell you why.
I loved my first two novels, Private Relations and Lovers and Strangers, but I didn’t truly discover my “voice” as a novelist until Secret Lives. With Secret Lives, I began to understand how important structure, pacing and revelations are to a story. They can make the difference between a slow-moving novel and a book that’s hard to put down.
As is often the case with my books, this story has its roots in several different areas. First, I read a newspaper article about an old acquaintance of mine who had been accused of molesting his young daughter. Having worked professionally with him, I couldn’t imagine the accusations were true and I assumed he was being set up by an angry ex-wife. But it started me thinking. How could you ever be sure about a man who’d been accused of something like that? How could a woman—a woman with a young child and a lot to lose—ever completely trust him? I knew that dilemma would be part of my story.
Around the same time, I visited the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. On a hike, I stumbled across an archeological dig and was quickly caught up in the tales the archeologist told me about his findings. The characters of Kyle and Ben were born that day as I listened to the archeologist speak. On that same trip, I visited the Luray Caverns and was mesmerized by their beauty and mystery. I knew from the moment I set foot in the caverns that I wanted to use them in the book. I was determined to make the cavern a character in its own right and by making it the “home” of the quirky children’s author Kate, I think I succeeded in doing that.
I fell deeply in love with my characters, particularly Kate. Kate’s chapters are written in first person, since they’re all in the form of journal entries. Although I often write in first person these days, that was new to me when I created Secret Lives and for the first time I discovered how incredibly close I could feel to a character by putting myself so deeply inside her heart and mind.
Another reason Secret Lives touched me was Kate’s agoraphobia. I didn’t set out to make her agoraphobic–she simply became that way over the course of the book. I, too, suffered from agoraphobia as a child and young adult, which is another reason why I related to her so strongly. I understood Kate very well.
I chose not to update Secret Lives because Kate and her journal belong to a specific era. The contemporary portion of the story takes place around 1990, which is why there are no cell phones or personal computers or iPods…and definitely no e-book readers! But the novel is full of the one element that’s crucial to any good story—human emotion. That has never changed and I doubt it ever will.
I’m giving away four copies of the print version of Secret Lives. It doesn’t matter where you live. Just leave a comment below and on Friday evening at 10 pm, EST, I’ll use a random number generator to pick four of you to win. I hope you enjoy the story!
Note: Although Secret Lives is not available in print (yet) in the US, it is available as an audio book and e-book.