Katheen Tessaro on the Millennium Bridge near St. Paul's Cathedarl in London, UK

Odds & Ends

How I Got Published

Kathleen Tessaro's The Debutante and Elegance on a bookstore shelf

I apologize in advance – this is really quite dull. However, it’s meant to be an accurate account for would be writers.

I didn’t always want to be a writer. When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a dancer, a choreographer, an art historian or actress. Later, I went to drama school for a couple for years, moved to London then spent many more years being unemployed as an “actress” and working instead in various theatres, bars and opera houses. The truth was, I was particularly unsuited to acting work: I have a poor memory, no ear for accents, and get a red rash on my neck and chest every time I get up in front of people. What I did enjoy, though, was working with other actors and, later on, with young opera singers, teaching them drama - breaking apart text, discovering motivation and cutting through to the heart of the story. I’ve always looked at story telling from this particular vantage point.

When I was about 32 and clearly not going to make it as an actor, a dear friend of mine, author Jill Robinson, suggested I might start writing. She was enthusiastic, supportive and genuinely seemed to believe I could do it. I had nothing to lose. I also had the gift of total ignorance. Having never studied English Literature or Creative Writing in university, I had no comprehension of the task in front of me. So I cheerfully began a novel.

I wrote in the first person present tense because I was afraid that if I used the third person past tense, my prose would be too flowery or pretentious and that would give my inexperience away. I came up with a fairly straightforward structure built on a book I’d found years before in a second-hand bookshop. The book was an encyclopedia of how to transform you into an elegant woman at all times, written by a former directrice of the Nina Ricci salon in Paris during the early 1960s. It even had the perfect title, Elegance. Written in alphabetical order, it featured topics like Accessories, Beauty, Comfort and so on. I decided that this strong, authoritative voice from another age would be a great counterpoint to the story of a young woman in the present day, struggling to sort her life out and find her identity. So I simply went through the alphabet, took one of each of the headings as a starting point, and wrote a chapter inspired by the advice given. Essentially, I wrote twenty-six short stories and linked them together.

At the same time, I attended a weekly writing group, headed by Jill at her home in Wimpole Street, London. It was full of other young female writers, working on their first books. Every Tuesday evening, Jill made a delicious dinner and we gathered 'round her dining room table. The rule was, you had to have three new pages to read in order to eat – and Jill is an excellent cook. We took it in turns to read and then offered constructive comments. This is where and how I learned to write. Jill always said that what a writer needs more than anything is encouragement, an audience and a deadline. I would add a perfectly roasted chicken to that list, too.

Out of the fifteen or so of us that met there regularly, at least eight of us have been published. And while I learned a great deal from the notes I was given, I think I learned even more from applying mind to work on the problems of other people’s books. There were mysteries, historical fiction, autobiographies, romantic comedies and pieces that defied the boundaries of genre. When I wrote something that didn’t ring true, the girls were all over it. When I betrayed a character or the reader, they were indignant. In fact, they had more of a vision of the story than I did.

During the day, I worked as a part-time receptionist for an American fund management company in London. I was one of the worst receptionists of all time. But they were very tolerant and let me keep my book on my computer to work on in between signing for DHL deliveries and making coffee.

When people asked me what I did, I told them I worked as a receptionist but that I was a writer. When they asked if I was published, I said, “not yet.” When they wanted to know if I’d studied writing or had an agent, I smiled and said, “no.” By the time I’d described the plot, they were patting me on head, wishing me luck and heading for the door. Others told me outright that first novels were always bad; that I should just put it in a drawer and forget about it. But I was enjoying the actual writing, being with Jill and the group and I didn’t particularly care what they thought. Now I know that first novels can actually have a lot power and energy, because they’re often stories people have been thinking about and wanting to tell for a long time. There’s nothing quite as potent as actually having something to say.

After about two years, a first draft was done. I’d read in a book about publishing that I should have a good clean version of my first fifty pages, a blurb, and a chapter-by-chapter break down. I researched some agents and got together about seven or nine names, and sent off my material, with a cover letter and a self-addressed stamped envelope.

I have to say, I never received even one nice or helpful rejection letter. Most were photocopied, abrupt and unsigned. The one I remember most clearly was actually an off-center photocopy with just the words, “We only publish what we love. We don’t love your book.” Others assured me there was no market for a book like mine or that it was not literary, commercial or original enough. Still, I kept revising, rewriting and sending it off.

One day another friend of mine, who had recently landed a huge book deal, asked how I was getting on. I told her I was up to my knees in rejections. She scribbled something on a piece of paper. “Here’s the name of my agent. Tell him you know me,” she advised. I stared at the sheet of paper. Everyone in London knew this man; he was the Young Turk of the publishing world. I thanked her and when she’d gone, heaved a sigh. Having been rejected by lesser entities, there was no way this guy was going to take me on. But she’d done me a kindness, so I sent my material off to him anyway and mentioned her name in the cover letter.

My friend’s agent, Jonny Geller, was the only person to respond positively. One evening, I came home from work to find a message on my answering machine – it was Jonny, asking to see the rest of the book.

About a week or so later, I found myself meeting with him for the first time. When I walked into his office, he had the copy of the book I’d sent him. I couldn’t help but notice it was covered in red ink. In fact, there were so many notes and sub notes, it looked like a London A-Z. There was no complimentary preamble. We sat down and Jonny simply launched into forty-five minutes of solid notes. When we were done, he showed me to the door. I hovered there, unsure of exactly what had just happened. “Does this mean you’re my agent now?” I asked, like a teenager requesting a date for the prom. He hesitated, “Do the re-writes and then we’ll talk.”

I know now that Jonny was waiting to see if I could actually do re-writes and, more importantly, if I was willing to take constructive critisism and make the changes necessary to make a book salable. His comments and notes were accurate and perceptive. I was grateful to have the chance and took it.

A few weeks later, the book went to auction. Five Publishing houses put in initial bids and then Jonny and I met with the top three and selected the one we felt had the clearest vision of how to publish the book. I can remember spending the morning at Random House, the afternoon at Harper Collins and then going back home to find one of my self-addressed stamped envelopes on the doorstep with another rejection letter inside, assuring me there was no market for my work. It was surreal.

I was extremely lucky. I had Jill’s encouragement, the girls at the Wimpole Street Writer’s Group, my tolerant employers, and my dear friend Annabel Giles who put me in contact with my agent, Jonny Geller. Also, the publishing world was thriving at the time and women’s fiction was a fast growing market. I can’t say if I’d have anything like the same luck today.

However, the reason I’m telling you all of this, is because, if you’re a writer, I want you to try. I want you to read this rather prosaic account and take courage. Clearly, no one thought I was a genius. I never got a scholarship, displayed preternatural talent or even knew writing was a serious interest of mine until my early thirties. I didn’t formally study writing and some thought I was presumptuous for thinking I could write at all. Also, plenty of highly esteemed agents assured me there was no hope of selling my book.

Some people are just too stupid to know when to give up. I guess I’m one of them.

I hope you are too.

Encounters With Elegance.

The Extraordinary Madame Dariaux

Several years before I began writing my first novel, Elegance, I was an avid collector of second hand books. Living in London, I had access to some world-class second hand book stores, including the iconic Quinto’s, which was recently forced to move from its home of more than 100 years on the corner of Charring Cross Road. It was there, on a high shelf near the front window that I found a book simply begging to be taken down and examined more closely. It was long and thin, poking out above the other books around it, with a chocolate brown cover and the enticing title, Elegance, by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux.

first edition of Madame Dariaux's Elegance book, signed by author to Kathleen

I clearly remember the thrill of spotting it, then leafing through the pages to discover that no, I wasn’t going to be disappointed; this volume was actually prepared to deliver on its promise and show me, in alphabetical order no less, the secrets to achieving elegance. What a daunting enterprise! How outrageous that anyone would have the sheer confidence to make such a claim! But the author, Parisian Genevieve Antoine Dariaux was no ordinary woman. She had years of experience doing just that, transforming average people into elegant creatures, day in and day out, as part of her job at the directrice of the Nina Ricci salon in Paris.

I bought the book and returned home with it tucked under my arm. For years I kept it on my bedside table and referred to it often. More than anything, I found the certainty and purity of Madame Dariaux’s advice both reassuring and soothing. Written in the early 1960’s, apparently in a land far removed from the generation of Free Love, Vietnam and the sexual revolution, Madame Dariaux had no doubt as to what it meant to be a woman or of how you were meant to look, act, or think. Her writing harked back to a clearly defined, nostalgic world. When I decided to write, it occurred to me that this very knowledgeable, authoritive voice would make a marvelous counterpoint to that of a young heroine who was floundering to find her place in the world and define herself.

It took me two years to write my novel with Madame Dariaux as my ever-present muse. In my novel, the concept of elegance came to represent the missing piece the heroine imagines will change her life – like being thin or becoming successful; that vague ideal we reach for, thinking that, once gained, we will finally feel comfortable in our own skin.

When, against all odds, I was able to get an agent and a publisher, the next step was to track down Madame Dariaux or her estate and request permission to use her quotes in the book. By that time, she was already in her eighties and I wasn’t sure she was even alive. However, by simply looking up the surname Dariaux in the French phone book, we were able to find a likely candidate in the South of France. My husband at the time put in the call, as his French was fluent and mine abysmal. At best we hoped to speak to someone who might have some information about the estate. But when the phone was answered, it was none other than Madame Dariaux herself on the line.

We went to visit her in the South of France the following summer, in a tiny village on a hillside, surrounded by scented lemon groves. And, yes, she was, even in her advanced years, elegant. Slim, animated, her intelligent features framed by a cloud of silver hair, she greeted us as if we were long lost friends. I was heavily pregnant at the time, wearing what can only be described as a black poly-mix sack. She never acknowledge my bovine state, dismissing pregnancy with a wave of her hand as a trial that must simply be endured and then forgotten as quickly as possible. She was gracious and charming, serving us a lunch of pate, fresh bread and salad in her beautiful home. There were several balconies overlooking the sun-drenched valley below, chic, classical furniture and, most memorably, a low, wide chaise covered in leopard skin. Her English was excellent but she also took the opportunity to flirt with my husband in French. Not knowing what to give her as a gift, I bought a belted cashmere cardigan from N. Peal. She modeled it, laughing with delight, even though it was searing hot out.

Over the course of the afternoon, she spoke about her success touring with the book in the Unites States when it came out in the 1960’s, of the sad demise of elegance today and of her tremendous love for her late husband. Best of all, she signed the original copy of Elegance I found in Quinto’s secondhand bookshop.

We kept in touch for a while after that. She sent me a copy of her autobiography in French that I had translated into English and sent round to my publishers. While not ready to take that project on, they were, however, very keen to republish her original guide Elegance, as well as another volume called The Men in Your Life. Both books were huge hits and continue to be successful. She also used to ring me to complain about how ugly the French cover of the novel Elegance was – a point of particular irritation with her (“But it’s not elegant!” she would wail.) I took it up with the French publishers only to be told, politely but firmly, that it was not my concern.

Genevieve Antoine Dariuax was more than generous in giving her permission to use her original material from Elegance in the novel and I have no doubt that, without her gracious enthusiasm, I wouldn’t have the career I do today. Her voice guided me when I was writing and her example of selfless behavior continues to inspire me today. Not may people are willing, let alone actually eager, to share their talent and success with another. I hope that someday I may behave as magnanimously as she did. She had a profoundly positive impact on my fortunes and was never anything but supportive and thoughtful. One doesn’t expect such gifts will come from picking up an old book in a second hand shop or placing a phone call to a stranger.

Madame Dariaux died in 2012, after a long and accomplished life.

I keep a photo of her on the mantelpiece in my bedroom where I write. It shows her standing on the balcony of her home on a clear, sunny day. Impeccably turned out in a tailored cream suit and pearls, she’s clearly dressed as if she expects something special to happen. But then, I suspect that’s the way she dressed everyday – prepared for the best of all possible outcomes; a match for whatever came her way. She’s pointing to something in the distance and smiling, her gaze trained on the horizon, always looking forward.

On the back she has written,

To Kathleen,

With love from the very old “bible”

I owe her more than I can ever repay.

What's the moral of the story?

Living with Ambiguity

Recently I read a review of my new novel, The Perfume Collector. While the reviewer enjoyed the book, she ended her piece wondering what the moral of the story was, a question that, frankly, surprised me. I respect her opinion and don’t wish to quarrel with her comment. But it certainly gave me something to think about, for which I’m grateful.

Kathleen Tessaro in London

It’s true that I associate moral endings more with Aesop’s fables or the maddening tales of Guy de Maupassant (remember that poor woman in “The Necklace”?) I have no doubt that kind of storytelling has its place. However, my reader’s query forced me to consider my own lack of, and indeed, aversion to, a neatly packaged moral message.

For me, not only is ambiguity a conscious decision, it’s a worthy theme in itself. As we get older, life becomes increasingly multi-layered and conflicted. People we love do things we disagree with fundamentally. Others that we were inclined to dismiss take actions we unexpectedly admire. To put it simply, there’s bad in the best of us and good in the worst. Perhaps most importantly, we discover in ourselves a capacity for error and misguided prejudice that requires constant vigilance and reevaluation. We are not, in short, the people we imagined we were. And neither is anyone else.

This turns out to be a recurring theme in my books; every protagonist I write polishes their identity against the rough surface of adversity and the confusing duality of life. The characters don’t triumph over it; instead they learn to tolerate it, to surrender to the vacillating nature of people and circumstances. It’s not a subject matter I deliberately chose, however, it’s an ongoing question I turn around in my mind with each new set of characters. Ambiguity itself is a creative irritant; the uncomfortable grit that hopefully produces a pearl.

I’ve been told that learning to live with ambiguity and paradox is both the challenge and the measure of becoming an emotionally mature adult. Certainly I find it no easy task. I often wish I could reach back to my younger, cockier self and grab hold of the hard, bright certainty I once enjoyed, when I could clearly divide the world and its people into “right,” “wrong,” “good,” and “bad”. But I can’t. One of the unfortunate side effects of no longer being able to shoe-horn yourself into those categories is that you’re unable to do it to anyone else.

I believe that’s why I write about the experience of ambiguity – moral, religious, sexual, artistic - and why it continues to be an ongoing theme in my novels. I want to read about people who have to come to grips with their humanness and make peace with the attendant disillusionment that brings. My experience isn’t that life’s people and issues resolve themselves neatly or even come to a discernable end, let alone present a clear lesson. And to be honest, I find this upsetting – life’s failure to wrap things up properly gnaws away at me and keeps me up at night. But, like it or not, sometimes the point is simply to keep going, without that comforting clarity or reassurance. To me, that persistence in the face of self-doubt is heroism. We blunder, we flounder; we take ridiculous actions, driven by fear, delusions of grandeur; hubris. We try; we fail. We try again.

And occasionally something beautiful happens. Something flawed, starkly miraculous and unexpected. Those are the stories I like best.

Unsolicited Advice

Surely, part of the hubris of having your own website is being able to offer unsolicited advice to a captive audience. For the record, I’ve made every one of these mistakes, often many, many times over. Here are some of the things I’ve learned ... eventually.

Kathleen "enlightens" Annabel Giles.

Kathleen "enlightens" Annabel Giles.

Never Over-pluck Your Eyebrows. They will not grow back.

Do Not Dye Your Own Hair. False economy, I promise you.

Invest in Real Estate. Buy the best you can afford, in the best area you know, no matter how small.

Be Financially Independent, Support Yourself. Money equals freedom, pure and simple. And the self-esteem alone is worth the effort.

Never Let Anyone Else Manage Your Money. You made it, you look after it. Otherwise, not only will they manage it, they’ll manage to spend it for you too.

Vintage Clothing Looks Better On the Young. On a fresh face, vintage clothing looks charming and ironic. On an older one, it looks as if you never bothered to take it off.

If He Says You’re Too Good For Him, Take Him at His Word. He knows what he’s talking about.

Beware the Grand Gesture. The occasional romantic flourish is charming. But a man who blinds you with serial overtures is hiding something.

Don’t Make Any Major Decisions After 10 p.m. You’re tired. You don’t know your arse from your elbow. Stop thinking and go to sleep.

If You Wouldn’t Do it to Your Child, Don’t Do It to Yourself. No sleep, fifteen coffees and only half a bagel to live on until 5 p.m.? No wonder you want to open a vein! Feed yourself, get to bed on time, speak kindly to yourself, give yourself some playtime … we’re not so different from toddlers, you know.

Take Naps. We would all benefit from taking an hour to lie down around 3 p.m. and waking up with a hot cup of strong tea. Imagine how charming we would be?

When Your Soul Feels Dead, Return to Your Senses. The senses feed the soul. Overwork, grief, loss, winter, relentless domesticity, and loneliness all erode the soul’s resiliency. A walk in a park or an art gallery, a bowl of fragrant, rich soup, a hot bath, new soft pajamas, a long massage, classical music, a trip to the opera or a play, a scented candle, a fire burning in the hearth, anything baking in an oven, a drink with friends in a classic hotel bar, a trip to the hairdressers, clean sheets, good strong coffee or tea sipped in bed, a trip to the library browsing in a section you normally wouldn’t consider … get the idea?

Don’t Sell Yourself, Be Yourself. We are sophisticated and there are too many people trying to sell us things as it is. Stop pitching and listen instead.

The Feeling of Love Comes and Goes, Common Courtesy Is the Glue That Binds. How often have you seen a couple that profess to love one another treating each other with less common courtesy than they would a waiter or a cab driver? The feeling of being in love is a luxury; it ebbs and flows, more often than not in relation to how we feel about ourselves rather than others. When the tide is low, don’t be tempted to be rude or dismissive. Speak politely, be respectful, show consideration. Treat your loved one with the same common courtesy you would use in a business setting with a work associate. (Successful romantic partnerships and successful business partnerships have a great deal in common.) The feeling will pass and you will be grateful you didn’t speak out of turn.

No Man Has Ever Not Slept with a Woman Because of Her Upper Arms. Really.

There Is No Need To Be Fascinating; Be Fascinated Instead. The person who is interested in those around them is always a sought after companion.

What Is Sexy is Not Always Beautiful. Bear this in mind.

What Age Takes From You in Beauty, It Gives You in Audacity. See above.

Perfectionism is a Fault, Not a Virtue. As soon as someone proudly announces they are a perfectionist, I start looking for the exit. Perfectionism is about control and forcing your narrow vision onto things. Art is about happy accidents.

Dieting Will Not Make You Thin. It will, however, make you hungry and irritable. Try instead eating three normal meals a day, no sweets, and no snacks. Basically, the kind of decent, balanced food you bend over backwards to provide for your children.

Choose Who You Love. To love someone should be a thoughtful, considered decision. Yes, there should be physical attraction, lust, romantic daydreams, etc. However, love doesn’t strike us like a bolt of lightening from the blue – we’re very much involved in the decision and have a choice. We also have a responsibility to our own hearts as well as to the hearts of other people. If you’ve lost all control and find you’re ‘in love’ with someone you haven’t actually chosen to love, someone perhaps you wouldn’t chose to love, then I would respectfully submit that you’re in the throws of a romantic obsession, not love. This is especially true of married people, people you’ve ‘met’ via Facebook or Twitter, people involved with other relationships or who are unavailable in anyway. Romantic obsession is intense, powerful, even addictive. It feels like love ought to feel, only it takes over your life and is painful. Love enhances your life. Obsession reduces it.

Success and Failure Are Made of the Same Stuff … But Success Is Harder to Recover From. There’s a poster in my child’s school from NASA that reads, “Failure is Not an Option.” I despise that poster. If I had it my way, it would be replaced with Beckett’s famous quote from Worstward Ho, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” If you’re going to achieve anything interesting in life, failure is an essential part of the process. We vilify mistakes when we should welcome them. Otherwise, we become too terrified to really push the limits. Daring and failure are the hallmarks of achievement. Feel free to laugh at your mistakes and take courage from your sheer stubbornness. Do, however, treat with infinite caution the trappings of success. It comes when it will, to whom it will, without reason or warning. For every talented, hard-working individual who makes it, thousands with the same or better qualifications struggle on unnoticed. Like a strong searchlight, public success lands on faces in the crowd, blinds them for a moment then moves on. The darkness that follows can be terrible. With success – even more so than in failure – remember: this too shall pass.

Not Everybody’s Good Opinion Is Worth Having. Not everyone will like you or your work. Depending on who they are, that can actually be a compliment.

Fear Is Not a Reason. Fear is not an adequate reason not to do something. Yes, we should be afraid of physical danger like not looking before crossing the road, or anti-social behavior like giving clothing a miss in public, etc. I’m not advocating actions that are blatantly self-harming. However, fear of failure, rejection, what others will think, making a mistake or even what will happen if we succeed are all inadequate excuses. If the only reason you’re hesitating to take reasonable action is because you’re afraid, do it anyway.

Don’t Stand Naked in a Room Full of Strangers. Practice discretion. Not everyone needs to know your entire history from the get go. This might sound vaguely Victorian in this age of rapid-fire social media, however it isn’t offered either to shame or to quell spontaneity. It’s simply designed to protect your own vulnerability. Too often we’re so eager to be liked, we expose too much, too soon without considering the consequences. Not everyone is a safe or understanding audience.

Strong Fences Make Long Friendships. Good boundaries are very real demonstrations of respect for others. Knock before entering; when you ring, ask if now is a good time before launching into the latest installment of your love life; be prompt for appointments or cancel in good time; offer to pay; in short, be mindful. And if you ever ask a friend to assist you in a professional capacity, discuss your expectations clearly at the outset and pay their professional rate without hesitation.

Don’t Lend Money, Give It. A friend is struggling to pay her bills between jobs. Your brother wants to start a new business and all he needs is an extra couple thousand to get started. Your adult child wants to go back to school. They come to you for help. The choice is yours. But if you decide to lend them any money, do so knowing the chances that you’ll be paid back are slim to none. This isn’t because they’re bad people; it’s just the way of the world. However, nothing destroys a close relationship like resentment over money. If you want to give, then give, but be realistic. Unless you’re prepared to lose the entire sum, don’t lend it in the first place. Otherwise, you’re the foolish one. By all means, set out a payment plan and discuss interest. But in your heart, accept that once the money leaves your account, it’s gone. If it is ever paid back, it will be a lovely surprise.