Every editor has worked on books that he or she looks back on with particular pride. Sometimes they are gifts from the cosmos—manuscripts that simply landed on one’s desk in perfect or near-perfect condition. But sometimes they are books with a different kind of genesis, one that is more collaborative.
At the end of 2012, I was a huge “Downton Abbey” fan, having binge-watched the first two seasons over the holiday break. As probably every other editor in New York was doing, I tried to think how I could find a novel to publish that would appeal to the same audience. I thought of several excellent historical fiction writers that I’d worked with over the years, but one stood out. Years before, I had worked with Elizabeth Cooke at a different publisher when she had been writing as Elizabeth McGregor, and I had never forgotten the beauty of her writing. She was also British—definitely in keeping with the “Downton Abbey” spirit—and a highly regarded British historian at that. She had taken a break from writing novels for many years, and it struck me that possibly she needed just the spark of a new idea to get her back into writing.
A few weeks later, following several phone calls, emails, and a very happy lunch with Liz’s New York agent, a proposal arrived on my desk. This proposal was an editor’s dream. It turns out that Liz’s grandfather had been the stablemaster at Kiplin Hall, one of England’s country estates–very much like the fictional Downton Abbey–and she had grown up with the stories of his time there.
Here is how the proposal opened:
One of the first stories I ever remember hearing was of a great Shire horse. It was born in the stables of Kiplin Hall in North Yorkshire in 1906, and the imprints of its hooves were so massive that the farmhands would walk behind it through the snow, placing their feet where the horse had trod. My grandfather knew that horse: he saw it being born, and in time he worked Kiplin’s hay carts and the delivery carts with it, and, after that first hard winter, it was he who re-named it Wenceslas.
Liz went on to describe the day in late 1914 when Wenceslas was drafted to pull artillery guns in France. “My grandfather followed it in tears down the great beech-lined drive, and stopped to lean on the door of the gatehouse as the horse was walked on.”
I was completely hooked.
That was how Rutherford Park came to be born, a gorgeous novel published last summer, which received wonderful praise from Natasha Solomons (“Beautiful”) and Kate Furnivall (“A breathtakingly beautiful book”) among many others.
Now on July 1, 2014, The Wild Dark Flowers will continue the compelling tale, told on an epic scale, of a privileged British family on the precipice of catastrophic changes.
I am happy to report that Wenceslas has made it into the story, although his ultimate fate is yet to be revealed…