Vanessa Lafaye is Associate Director of Professional Innovations at Wiley and a newly published author of a historical fiction novel set in post WWI Florida. She spoke to us recently about how she came to write Summertime and what it's like to be on the flip side of publishing.
Q. Can you tell us about your background and your current position at Wiley?
A. I’ve worked in academic publishing for my whole career, starting in journals production in 1987 for IRL Press in Eynsham. The company was acquired by OUP and I stayed there until 1999, commissioning science books, and then moved to Blackwell. I started there as a social sciences Journals Publishing Manager but proved fantastically unsuited to it, and swiftly moved into online innovation. I’ve been doing that ever since. My current role is focused on innovations that solve problems for societies and associations.
Q. When did you start writing and how do you find the time with a full-time career?
A. I wrote my first story at age 6 and haven’t really stopped, but this is my first published novel. I’ve written others over the years which weren’t good enough! It takes powerful motivation to write alongside a career, and the rest of life. You have to really want it. The thing that drove me was wanting to raise awareness of the real events behind the book. I’m a good multi-tasker, but even so, it was a challenge (I also run a community choir one day a week). I basically had to snatch whatever bits of time I could: evenings, weekends, and holidays. It didn’t make me much fun to be with, but luckily my husband is low-maintenance. He read four drafts for me.
Q. Your novel Summertime is a work of historical fiction set in depression-era Florida. How did you decide to write about that particular time and place?
A. I stumbled on the story while researching the idea for another book, and was instantly captivated. The story is based on the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 which struck Islamorada in the Keys. Although I grew up in Florida, I was ignorant of the events. But once I learned the story, which is barely a footnote in the historical record, I felt compelled to dramatize it. I also wanted to explore what happens when people are tested to their absolute limits. I feel very privileged to bring this story to life.
Q. Can you introduce us to the story?
A. The story opens with the locals in fictional Heron Key getting ready for the Fourth of July beach barbecue, which sounds idyllic but behind the scene lurks massive tensions: between black and white people, between husbands and wives, and between the townspeople and a group of disturbed and damaged WWI veterans, who have been drawn to a government works project. When a white woman is attacked, suspicion falls on Henry, one of the veterans who grew up in the town. He’s struggling with his past, and with his feelings for his old friend, Missy, who works as a nanny and domestic help. The investigations proceeds, but is soon overshadowed by the arrival of the most powerful hurricane in history. A huge natural disaster unfolds. There’s heroism, and shocking inhumanity. When it’s over, everyone has been changed. Here is a video trailer made by the publisher.
Q. Summertime touches upon race relations in the South in the 1930s. Are there parallels to be drawn from events in the book and the current protests sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, USA?
A. I didn’t anticipate that there would be such topical events coinciding with publication of the book. Neither did I expect it to be published during the WWI centenary commemorations. These things just happen. 1935 was a particularly brutal time in American’s history, especially in the South. Florida was the lynching capital of the South that year, which was shocking to me. Jim Crow laws segregated every aspect of life then. The striking thing is all that has changed, and all that hasn’t.
Q. As you’ve been working in scholarly publishing for a number of years, did your experience offer any advantages or perspective as you sought to publish your first novel?
A. It was definitely an advantage to have an understanding of how things work, in terms of production, marketing, sales. And because I’ve worked as an editor in some capacity all this time, the copy-editor’s job was easier. I’ve dealt with hundreds of authors over the years, and it was very interesting to be on the other side. I didn’t like the original US cover design, but was over-ruled. Then the editorial team presented it to the sales/marketing team, who also disliked it. So the design was changed to something which I’m much happier with. I also ended up writing the cover copy for them. Basically, I was a pain in the neck.
Q. You’ve been living in the UK for 30 years. Did that make it harder or easier to write a novel rooted in American history?
A. Both harder and easier. I don’t think that I would have written the book had I not lived in England for a long time. It gave me distance and perspective on US history and culture, plus a deep understanding of WWI. The war was a much bigger event in Europe, while it has almost vanished from American consciousness, although over 100,000 US soldiers died and 200,000 were wounded. But the hardest thing was to remove British spelling from the draft for the US publisher! I’ve absorbed so much of it that I missed things like ‘favourite’ and ‘neighbour’! I never expected that my first published novel would be set in FL, but with hindsight it makes perfect sense. It was very nostalgic for me.
Q. When will Summertime be released in the UK and the US and what’s next for you?
A. UK publication of the hardback was January 15th. The UK and US paperbacks will come out at around the same time, in June. The title in the US is Under a Dark Summer Sky. I’d be grateful for reviews on Amazon! The Norwegian edition (called ‘Sommerstorm’ for all you Norwegian speakers) comes out in Feb., and the Dutch, German, Italian, and French editions will be out later in the year, or early 2016. I’m under contract to the UK publisher for another book, which will be a prequel to ‘Summertime’, showing the same characters at an earlier stage in their lives. It will probably focus on the time of America’s entry into WWI.