Interview with Kerri Turner, author of The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers and Underground Writers Alumni
In 2017, Kerri Turner submitted her short story The Cause and an Effect to Underground Issue 17: Hitchhiker. Now her debut novel, The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, has just been released and the second is on the way. Kerri took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about the publishing process, acquiring an agent, and offers her advice to emerging writers.
Your debut book, The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, was just released with Harper Collins Australia. Tell us a bit about it.
It’s a story centring around the Imperial Russian Ballet; a Romanov-owned company that dominated Russia in the years leading up to the revolution. As two dancers from similar backgrounds, but differing ideals, begin to form a relationship, the very connections that once offered them security, threatens their lives. Violence, dance, war, passion, civil unrest, ruptured families and class divides all combine to tell a story that I hope readers find enlightening, rich, authentic to the era, and most of all moving.
How long have you been working on this book and how many ideas were axed along the way?
I started working on it in 2012 when I enrolled in the six-month Writing a Novel course with Faber Academy. I’d written two unpublished novel-length manuscripts before then—both contemporary women’s fiction— but I knew I really wanted to be a historical-fiction writer. It was just a case of building the confidence to believe I could undertake all the necessary research and then assemble it in a way that is vivid, fully-realised and not at the expense of the characters’ storylines. I thought doing the course was the perfect opportunity to tackle this ambitious project. I completed the first draft during the course and in the years since then there’s been a lot of back-and-forth, reworking drafts and taking on board feedback. Yet, the central story and characters have always stayed the same.
You signed with a literary agent, Haylee Nash, before being published. What was the process of finding an agent like and what has it been like since having one?
It was a long process. So much depends on finding the right person at the right time. Some agents aren’t open to unsolicited manuscripts or only are at select times of the year. Some love your work but don’t have space in their schedule to represent a new writer. Or they already have a historical fiction author they represent and don’t want another. It’s very Goldilocks and the Three Bears: you have to find the combination which is just right! Which is what happened with Haylee, and then it only took about three months for her to get me a two-book publishing deal. I was stunned at that speed. I’d been submitting to slush piles for years and having an agent certainly pushed my book to the top of the pile. I believe it also helped give publishers confidence in taking on a new, unknown author. Since then she’s been brilliant at helping me learn and navigate all the technical details of the publishing industry; from contract clauses, to advances, to international and translation rights. She also gives me feedback on manuscripts before I send them to my publisher. I’d be lost without her! Not to mention she’s my biggest champion in supporting my books and career ambitions.
What has marketing this book been like? Have you had any unexpected experiences or surprises in the promotional circuit?
Exciting, exhausting, surprising, and overwhelming! The biggest surprise has been the support and enthusiasm for the book from general readers. I’ve had many approach me, either in person or via email or social media, just to tell me how much they loved my book. That people would go out of their way to pass on a compliment like that has been the best part of all this.
You’re currently working on a second novel, The Daughter of Victory Lights, which is set to come out in 2020. We’ve heard of second-book syndrome. How has writing that manuscript been with the release of The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers also looming over you?
I actually started writing my second novel well before my first one was released, which I think was a lifesaver in avoiding the second-book syndrome. The hardest part has been working on the structural edits (which I find to be the most strenuous but rewarding part of the writing/editing process) for the second book at the same time as my debut novel was released. Navigating the two when everything was still so new to me was a little overwhelming at times, but it also taught me what I’m capable of.
You’ve published a number of short stories, including one with Underground (Issue 17: Hitchhiker, The Cause and an Effect). How did short story writing feature in your journey to having a novel published?
Writing short stories really helped me find my voice as a writer. Having to whittle down the stories I’d written so they met the required word count taught me what I most valued in my own writing. I carried this over into my novel, and not only did it shape the way I write my descriptive passages (for setting and characters), it also drastically improved the pacing and focus of my novel. Being published in places such as Underground Writers gave me a boost of much-needed confidence in what could sometimes feel like a sea of rejections. On a practical note, it gave me something to put in front of prospective agents and publishers to show them I was consistently working at writing and that there was an audience for my work—and that really does make a difference!
What do you wish you had known about this whole process before you started writing?
I wish I’d known how long it all takes. Everyone says that, but no one really tells you what it means when it comes to trying to secure a publishing deal. You can submit to a publisher who will respond with a statement that if you haven’t heard back from them in nine months, then it’s a rejection—but please don’t submit to anyone else in that time. When you see something like that you just want to cry! The months and years of checking your email every day in the hopes someone might have accepted your manuscript can become an unhealthy and unhappy obsession and make you question yourself. But it really is just a part of the process (except for a lucky few exceptions, who really are the exceptions). Don’t let the sting of rejection and the grind of endless waiting kill your dream. Use the time to better your craft; work on other writing projects; submit pieces to journals/magazines/websites; build networks, and have life experiences you can draw on in your writing!
What advice have you got for other emerging writers who haven’t yet had their work published?
Hang in there! It’s such a tough thing to get into but, having reached the other side, I can confidently say it was all worth it in the end. Make sure you’re open to feedback; be polite in all your dealings (the industry is tiny, and everyone knows everyone!), and remember this: every published writer has that magical number of rejections they got before getting accepted. You don’t know what your number is yet but every rejection is one closer to it.