The Big Idea: Jaye Viner
Posted on September 1, 2021 Posted by John Scalzi 6 Comments
In the journey to publication, Jane of Battery Park went through many incarnations — and so did the world into which it would eventually be released. Author Jaye Viner is here to talk about both.
In high school I wrote a book report on Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Because I’d read the book in school, I thought of Atwood as a literary author, not a speculative (genre) writer. I had no idea how much this trouble this ignorance would cause for the launch of my writing career.
Fast forward to 2012.
I had a bit of a hot-and-bothered thing for Richard Armitage, so I binge-watched select seasons of the BBC MI5 show Spooks. In Series 8, episode 3, anti-capitalist terrorists put a billionaire on a live-stream show trial and ask viewers to vote him innocent or guilty. Sparks flew (no, not from Richard, though he’s not too shabby). I had this first vapid hint of an idea.
Internet show trials. But not of the one percent, trials of celebrities.
A brilliant beyond brilliant idea!
Let’s pause here for me to air some sketchy laundry. I am a missionary kid who grew up in the Evangelical church, and thus have a particular way of dividing the world between secular (bad) and Christian (good). Even though I was already deconstructing this binary thinking in 2012, part of my brain had not turned off this sight. This sight had taught me that celebrities and Hollywood (read liberal entertainment media) are one of the big problems with American culture. And if we can improve the morals of Hollywood and our famous role models, America will be a more godly place.
Christians have been trying (sometimes succeeding) to infiltrate entertainment for an eternity. So it seemed plausible, in the vein of Atwood, that our future could contain terrorists who kidnapped celebrities and put them on show trials for their sins with the goal of improving our culture.
But because I still thought of Atwood as only literary fiction, and Spooks was a spy show, not science fiction, I wrote the thing as a literary novel without any thought that other people might think otherwise.
This was first a problem in 2014 when I took a screenplay version of the story to a workshop and people started asking me about Orwell and big brother and a far future American Fascist state. And I was like, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? This is our world. It could happen tomorrow. It’s just like what we watch on TV.
Also 2014, I started sending queries to agents. Many responses mention timing. “The market isn’t good for this kind of story right now.”
In 2015, I did an MFA and workshopped yet another draft of the novel. No one mentioned genre. They asked about characters, and description. They said, “This could be a cult book.” And I began to get nervous. “Isn’t it like Handmaid’s Tale?” I asked. “Plausible imagining of a possible future?”
In 2016, a literary agent read my entire manuscript. She discussed the ideas with a fellow agent who was appalled that someone had written a book where American terrorists did such things. But the agent reading my book gave me good notes. She thought I should make it into a love story.
I panicked. I thought of Handmaid (not a love story). I thought of Spooks (also not a love story). I wanted to tell this agent that the thing I was writing about was the gap between two extreme American cultures. I wanted to tell her the gap was important.
Six months after my conversation with this agent, Donald Trump was elected president. I went to sleep on election night in one world and I woke up the next day in another. In this new world, the culture gap had become The Thing.
My grandiose self thought, America needs this story. I’m going to explain this thing they don’t understand. I will do whatever it takes.
So, I took out all the chapters with the terrorists’ POV, which was meant to be exactly half of the two culture representation. I molded what remained into a love story about a woman related to the terrorists falling for the brother of a blockbuster movie star – very Romeo and Juliet without the tragic ending. This version became Jane of Battery Park and was accepted by Red Hen Press, a literary publisher.
This must be a literary novel!
But along the two years from acceptance to publication, I did some market research. Because I needed comp titles to make those cool insta reels that go, “If you liked this book…read this!”
I returned to Atwood, then I read everything that seemed like it had cults. I read books about Christianity in various real and fictional forms. I read romantic thrillers because it seemed this was also a possible genre I could tap into now that I had a love story.
How many genres can a book have? I began to call it a ‘speculative literary thriller in the vein of Romeo and Juliet’. I prayed this marketing tactic would somehow work. I waited for someone from Red Hen to send me a disgruntled email about audience and branding.
On January 6th, 2021, people stormed the capitol building determined to reinstate Donald Trump as our rightful president. I thought, Now we really have Christian terrorists. Do I remove the speculative part?
Along this journey, many people have told me genre is flexible and labels don’t matter. But I’ve decided that’s not true. In fact, labels are a very important shorthand that tell readers what to expect from a book. Even if a book is many labels, an author needs to know what they are and how to use them. Jane of Battery Park launched yesterday. We’ll see if all I learned pays off.
Jane of Battery Park: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
Shh! Don’t tell Atwood that some of her books could be considered “genre.”
But yours sounds intriguing and timely.
Did the chapters with the terrorists’ POV get re-included or will we get a companion novel? (Now that I think about it, the latter idea seems pretty cool too!)
Christian terrorists have been around for a very long time.
If any of your guest authors ever want to know if these little articles net them any sales, you can assure them they do. I have purchased this, and I had purchased one or two others from a while back.
Atwood herself didn’t consider The Handmaid’s Tale speculative. Every cultural practice described therein had had a real-life instantiation before the novel’s writing. Thinking it literary fiction is, to my mind, entirely forgivable.
Your comment about having “a hot-and-bothered thing for Richard Armitage” may have a few Americans who follow political and diplomatic affairs scratching their heads at first. What, the bald, middle-aged guy with the raspy voice and the snaggle tooth? I figured there must be another Richard Armitage, and sure enough, I Googled it, and I think you must be referring to the handsome, younger English one I’d never heard of.