After She Left – Penelope’s adventure with the idea of patience

May 9, 2019 at 1:18 am | Posted in Impact Press, Perseverance in writing, Publishing industry, Ventura Press | 4 Comments
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At a quarter of a century between novels, and not for want of trying, I now have the authority to write about the value of patience and persistence.

I wrote the first draft of my new novel After She Left over ten years ago. It was the creative component of a PhD. The theory component involved getting my head around a lot of French Postmodern theory and that took up most of the time, along with writing a commissioned non-fiction book on the side, which my employer said was six months’ worth, but which took about two and a half years.

A long time before that I’d been reviewing for The Canberra Times and the literary editor gave me a biography of French sculptor Camille Claudel. I always wanted to write a happy ending to her ghastly story. In between getting a less ambitious first novel published (Full House, Simon & Schuster, 1993) I’d written two other novels and couldn’t get them accepted.

Putting the accountants in charge

Publishing was changing. Previously a publisher would take on a new writer whose manuscript showed potential but who needed editorial guidance to lift it to the next level. But as neoliberal dogma took over more and more of our world, huge corporations started taking over smaller presses. The new managers were not the “gentleman publishers” of before. They were only focused on profits and no longer interested in literary novels being subsidised by the higher sales of bird books and cookery books. Now everything had to result in high sales.

A managing editor of a big Australian publishing house who rejected my second novel at this time wrote to me explaining that they could only afford to take on novels that were pretty-well perfect already, that no one had the time any more to improve imperfect ones. She wrote that mine was good and in the old days would probably have been accepted, but it was not perfect and that was why they couldn’t take it on, and to keep trying because clearly I wrote with energy and imagination.

Another thing that made me feel better about all those rejections was when Thomas Keneally told a journalist:

‘It’s the hardest time to get a novel published since the invention of the printing press!’

About this time an English publishing executive visiting the ANU told me about the struggles of a newly bought-out publishing company, which became an arm of a big corporation.

He said they made three mistakes. They paid a few promising young authors who’d look sexy on the back cover way too much on their advances. They sacked the editors. And they put the accountants in charge.

The accountants advised them how to make a profit: ‘It’s easy,’ they said. ‘You just pick all best-sellers.’

Of course, if anyone could have told them which authors might be able to pull off that notoriously unpredictable feat, it would have been those editors they just sacked!

So then they decided to cut costs as much as possible. They paid most authors even less than before and put money into spectacular covers and marketing. If enough consumers are seduced by the sexy covers and sexy young things on the back, enough books would be bought, and who cared whether or not the consumers of those books read past Chapter one?

Camille Claudel’s tragic story revived and transformed

When I was awarded the PhD scholarship I retrieved the idea of using Camille Claudel’s tragic story as a jumping-off point for my imagination.

Just after starting the PhD at the University of Canberra the deaths of two family members happened within three weeks, one of them expected and in the inevitable course of events but the other a sudden tragedy.

I was wandering through Canberra’s Bus Depot markets a few weeks after when the découpaged coaster below caught my eye. Two young women joyously dancing and whirling together on a beach. It depicted a state of being that seemed as if it might be possible on another planet from the one we’re forced to survive on. I didn’t recognise the artist and still don’t know who painted it but it looked early 20th century French, maybe a contemporary of Edmund du Lac.

I was drawn to it.

This would be the happy ending of my novel. Camille Claudel not ending her life in a mental asylum but escaping while still young to whirl in a dance of freedom and joy on a beach. This was the end, and the beginning, of my novel. I began writing it with this image beside me on my desk.

You can call me Dr Penny now …

Three and a half years later, I was Doctor Hanley, but I was still a long way from getting another novel published. I knew that what satisfied a handful of academics would not necessarily satisfy commercial publishers. However, I started submitting the novel manuscript anyway.

I had no time to rewrite because almost immediately I was employed full-time in a series of Communications Manager roles for Non-Government Organisations (NGOs). The main ones were the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) and the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA) and I wrote their media releases, newsletters, journal articles, fact sheets and publications like this:

and chapters in books like this:


Every agent in the country had already rejected me long before but then it started to look as if it would be the same story with publishers for this new novel.

Why was it so hard to get an agent? When publishing started changing into corporations they began using the agents as filters instead of having to employ readers of unsolicited manuscripts. That saved them time and money. And so this cruel and unusual idea started rearing its head – ‘no “unagented” manuscripts accepted’ – you had to have an agent in order to submit a manuscript to a publisher. The agents, now overwhelmed with an unstoppable flood of submissions, became the goddesses of the literary world, in a position to choose only already successful authors since new ones are a risk and an agent’s ten or fifteen per cent of a successful author is a living but ten or fifteen per cent of the nothing a new person might make is nothing. You couldn’t blame them.

A Varuna Fellowship

I’ve outlined above what happened to publishing since I started writing. In the face of these degradations we writers must keep going, and since those days the digital revolution happened and many writers can seize control and self-publish. I was going to exhaust the possibility of traditional publishing before I went on that route for two reasons: self-publishing would require yet another tedious, time-consuming technology to get on top of; and an individual novelist can never have as good distribution as a publisher.

Yes, there’s Amazon – but you’re a pebble in an ocean unless you’re exceptionally good at marketing yourself on social media, and that works well for many writers but it’s not an easy route for someone like me: shy, plus I want to spend what little spare time I have on things that are intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding.

Luckily for me, two things happened before having to self-publish. I was chosen for a Varuna Fellowship focusing on writers of historical novels and was able to rewrite and improve my novel after talking about it with literary guru, Varuna’s Peter Bishop.

After more rejections of the novel, finally the last publisher I tried, the last one in the country who hadn’t said no, accepted it. Even then, there were reservations but that’s another story, and I now had the advice of a wonderful editor and did the restructure and got it into better shape.

The value of perseverance in the face of failure

In the quarter-century between novels I’d made a living editing and writing non-fiction and had a productive, mainly happy and rewarding chunk of life, full of friendship and love, but about fiction I’d look back and see decades of failure, with only a handful of short stories in print.

Kon Karapanagiotidis, founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, writes about the value of perseverance:

‘The power of failure is that it’s always bringing us closer to the person we’re meant to be and the life we’re meant to live.’

That’s from Kon’s wonderful memoir, The Power of Hope (Harper Collins, 2018, p. 195) He’s saying that failure doesn’t weaken us – it strengthens us. As Nietszche pointed out long ago with the wry insight you’ll be familiar with: ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’.

Anita Brookner (1928-2016) wrote many, many novels without having them accepted until decades had passed. They’re brilliant but it’s hard to say why –nothing much happens except for eventual disappointment in love. Someone described her style as ‘Becket crossed with Mills and Boon’. You can imagine how this went down in Swinging Sixties London when she was young. Then finally, with the publication of Hotel du Lac in 1985, after a first novel was published in 1981, came her Booker Prize.

And of course I often think of Winston Churchill telling a class of Eton schoolboys during the War: ‘Never, never, never, never, never give up!’

What do Kon Karapanagiotidis, Anita Brookner and Winston Churchill have in common? They didn’t give up. And neither should we.












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  1. Always lovely to read your blogs.  You are one of my creative links to the world.  Hope we see you soon. And Felicitations! Love Chris 

    • Thank you, Chris! The novel is receiving some positive reviews in online mags and hard copy, so that’s a relief. xx

  2. Your Australia’s version of Brainpickings! Enjoyed that reminder about patience and perseverance, Pen.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Oh, what a lovely compliment! xx

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