Helena Duggan, author of A Place Called Perfect, reveals her journey from numerous rejections to writing a Waterstones Book of the Month.
My publishing journey started a long time ago with a book called A Load of Rubbish (yes, that was the title) which now gathers digital dust in a desktop folder.
I wrote A Load of Rubbish travelling in Australia, the numerous notebooks weighing down my musty backpack. On returning home, slightly embarrassed I’d attempted to write a book, I showed the story to my mother who immediately became a major fan and predicted that I was going to take over the world! She persuaded me to type up Rubbish and send it to publishers. There began a long story of short rejections.
After close to thirty compliment slips – which did not bear compliments – I decided to try using a new online publishing platform. Authonomy.com was fast becoming a place for authors seeking a home for their stories. After a number of months online A Load of Rubbish received enough votes to get it to an editor’s desk at HarperCollins for consideration. “You’ve made it,” my mother pronounced. “This story is a little too quirky for us” was the summary of the editor’s review.
All was not wasted however, as during my Authonomy adventure I discovered a new world of self-publishing and print on demand. A thought seeded as I began to write my new book and settled at the back of my mind.
A Place Called Perfect had its beginnings on that same Australian trip. As tends to be the way with stories, it lived in my subconscious before it ever became a thought.
As a child I always craved round-rimmed glasses. I’d seen a pair when I was younger worn by man in one of my mother’s paintings. The man was James Joyce. I could pretend that I was a very advanced child who read and admired Joyce’s work from a young age, but it was only his spectacles that sparked my interest. When I walked into a Brisbane antique shop years later and saw just a pair, I had to have them.
My intention was to change the lenses to suit my own eyesight, but the more I carried the glasses in the depths of my backpack, the more they played with my mind. Slowly an idea took shape.
An alley in Kilkenny, the inspiration for Perfect
What if the memories of their last owner were locked inside the lenses? If I changed them would I be getting rid of a piece of the past? This idea would not let go and I couldn’t bring myself to change the prescription. The interior of the glasses’ box was velvet-lined and had a label browned by time which read Optical Prescriptions Spectacle Makers, 135 Wickham Terrace, Brisbane. I began to wonder what kind of a person would own an Optical Prescriptions Spectacle Makers, it sounded very grand… Slowly an image of two finely-dressed opticians formed in my mind.
I needed a name for this pair and chose a prominent one from the history of Kilkenny, the city where I live. The more I researched the medieval origins of the place, the more the streetscapes wrote themselves into my story. The cobbled lanes and high stone walls led to forgotten places, the town hall and its vantage point hosted dark characters and the often whispered about underground passages gave my imagination access to shady secrets. Kilkenny, with artistic license, became Perfect.
Helena Duggan's writing space in Kilkenny: where the magic happens
I devoured all I could on self-publishing and, by the end of the drafting process, had decided on a plan. I would go it alone. Following Catherine Ryan Howard’s website religiously, I enlisted the help of an editor, brought my word skills up to scratch and coded both an eBook and print draft. After a few months of prep, agonising over cover designs and paper sizing, I pressed publish and ordered in my first books.
Then came the hard part, I discovered I wasn’t a sales person. Having spotted early on that I was too embarrassed to sell my work, my mother stepped in. Armed with her unfaltering belief in me, she visited local bookshops and asked them to take copies. They did and, on reading, began to recommend the story to their customers. Perfect became a bestseller in Kilkenny. I’ll never forget the support and encouragement the local shops gave me.
Then Khan Kiely, a local bookshop owner, handed me a ticket to the London Book Fair. Her instructions were to go there and get myself a literary agent. Weighed down with copies of sales figures and a synopsis of the story, I contacted some agents who had previously shown interest. Bell Lomax Moreton agreed to a meeting where I spoke to Jo, who became Lauren, and led me on a journey to Usborne.
I sit at my desk with both versions of my book in front of me, remembering how long the journey has been. There is a famous quote about overnight success taking years, I don’t recall who said it, but I hope someday that quote will apply to me.
After all the upset from rejection, hours spent goggle-eyed and flushed-cheeked on Authonomy, as I tried to sell my story, I’m now on the cusp of another adventure. I have my fingers crossed for that overnight success!