Hi friends! Please welcome Pam Rosenthal to ALBTALBS! We’re very excited to have her – and just look at that book cover!
Second Chances: Notes on Reissuing a Story Written Long Ago
My husband Michael and I have often worked together over the course of our more than 50-year-long marriage: from the joint film reviews we wrote in our twenties, to nine years together as booksellers, to our current copyediting business, where we charge by the word so we don’t have to worry about the cost to a client of the occasional time-consuming battle royal over a comma. (And yes, we love editing romance.) When I was writing erotica and romance, Michael’s part in the collaboration sometimes took the form of direct intervention, like his rewrite of my meandering synopsis of The Bookseller’s Daughter. It might also entail his bringing home some new book, casually remarking, as he put it on the coffee table, that I might find it interesting – most notably, an anthology called Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern, which sparked the thoughts at the heart of my last romance, The Edge of Impropriety. Or it could mean taking my editor’s side when I resisted her request to change a scene in Almost a Gentleman. Bullheaded as I was, Michael changed my mind by convincing me that David and Phoebe would not have done that sex act at that point in their relationship.
In the case of the reissue of A House East of Regent Street, though, our original intention had less to do with rewriting than with the mechanics of self-publishing a novella whose rights had reverted to me. I knew enough not to expect big financial returns – self-published ebook authors who make serious money are marvels of productivity; their backlists are huge, while mine – well, let’s just say that mine is not. Still, and especially now, I felt a kind of affection for my characters – Jack, a distinctly non-aristocratic former sailor, and Cléo, an ex-prostitute – and for their story, which contains, as Sabrina Jeffries points out, “not a lord or virgin in sight.” And since the anthology where it originally appeared, Strangers in the Night, had pretty much sunk like a stone, my novella would be new to some readers, and I looked forward to being able to give them that.
We also figured it would be fun to learn something about this energetic new aspect of the book business. We’d be in a better position to work with those of our copyediting clients who self-publish their work in ebook form; and if we did a lovely, near-flawless job of copyediting the text, it could serve as a kind of calling card for our editing business.
And anyway, thanks to Covid, it so happened that we had a lot of time on our hands.
And yes, learning something about self-publishing has been fun. Sometimes a little too much scary fun, like when at the last minute I ditched a quite okay cover design because I found Jessica T. Cohen, the artist I knew was the one. But what was the most fun was having total responsibility for the text – all those contentious commas, of course, but also double-checking my research, responding to Michael’s questions about the financial details that underlay my story: I’d mentioned, for example, that, as a naval hero, Jack had won prize money. But was I aware, he asked (having evidently done a little research of his own) that common sailors only got a tiny fraction of what officers received when an enemy ship was captured? I was once aware of it, I think, but somehow a misapprehension about prize money had crept into the story, and it needed to be cleaned up.
History more or less under control, we went on to stuff like “Why did you choose this verb tense?” Always a problem for me – I do tend to overuse the past perfect (as in “he had done”), and it does often sound fiddly, but I do it because I think that the craft of erotic writing demands unembarrassed precision, to enable the prose to work through who did what to who and when, and also to keep the dual inner monologues going and the points of view sorted. (You’d think literary fiction authors would be interested in these problems, but it’s my impression – just sayin’ – that they’ve left the heavy lifting to romance writers.) In any case, I decided that Michael was right to call me out: I’d asked my verb tenses to do more problem-solving than they were able, and it took some discussion for me to really grasp what each of the characters was feeling at that moment, and considerable rewriting to honor the complexity of their emotions.
And still we weren’t finished with all the marginal notes, the ones directed to the less sexually explicit scenes, containing annoying digs like “I don’t think he’d say that here,” or “Seems a little generic; what is she actually feeling?” Things I hadn’t really thought about since I conceived of the story seventeen years ago. And things that perhaps I hadn’t thought about as deeply then as I could now. Things that wouldn’t necessitate a “Completely new scene!” (as I’d been counseled to write as a perky, pushy come-on to readers – the only trouble with that idea being that the story didn’t need a new scene. It simply needed the old ones to be deeper and truer).
It’s a tricky business to change a book after time has gone by. “People who try to revise books that they wrote twenty, thirty years ago don’t generally improve them – quite the opposite,” cautions Mary Balogh in Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell’s interview with her, published last July. Balogh makes her point by referring to the New Testament parable of new wine in old bottles (something I’d never before taken the time to parse, I have to admit, but which makes sense, the idea being that a new message might not be well served by an old medium).
But in the case of A House East of Regent Street, the biblical parable ultimately proved a comfort. Because as Michael and I reread the story – as we opened the old bottles and sniffed the old wine and swirled it around in our mouths – it didn’t seem so much old as underdeveloped. Though I wasn’t exactly young when I wrote it, it now felt to me to be written by a writer who, though skilled in balancing her writing on the cusp of sex and love, was perhaps a little arrogant in her view of how far the erotic component of the story could take it. Those were, after all, the heady early days of erotic romance, and in all that excitement, one might not be as wise as one could be in the complex ways of writing about love (as I realize these days, belatedly discovering what astonishing things Mary Balogh does when she simply follows out the trajectory and widening implications of a complicated emotional relationship).
Ultimately, the changes I made were small, and I don’t even know if, upon rereading, anyone who remembers the original version will notice them (I’d love to hear from you if you do). But I think they matter, and I loved having the chance to make them, to follow my personal trajectory through the complexities of erotic romance, and to reconnect with a genre that increasingly I find I need, in the cruel times we live in, for the hope it offers, and for the possibility of second chances.
Here’s the book info/back cover copy:
The future looks bright for former sailor Jack Merion. His wartime heroics have won him influential contacts, and his good looks and flair for business are definite assets. With funds to invest, he’s on the brink of financial success in the high-stakes world of Regency London.And buying the house in Soho Square is a can’t-miss opportunity. Once a fashionable brothel, the property will yield a good income in commercial rents and a clear path to the respectable life Jack has never known.There’s only one problem – another prospective buyer. With a dark past, a desperate future, and some unmistakable assets of her own, Miss Cléo Myles is a formidable obstacle, one that Jack would be wise to steer clear of.But instead, he proposes a bargain that’s as scandalous as it is irresistible.Five afternoons. Five rooms. Uncountable pleasures……In a neighborhood that’s seen better days. And a house that’s seen everything except love.