Shelley Jessica Kincaid had faced down a moment like this one once before: after writing six novels she couldn’t sell, she was one week away from graduating from nursing school in 2011 and having to, in her own words, “become an adult and get a real job.” Then her next manuscript, lucky number 7, Insignia, sold to HarperCollins. It grew into a trilogy – published under the name S.J. Kincaid – which kept Kincaid writing and off the hospital ward.
“It was like the universe sparing potential patients from me,” she recalled.
But after completing that series, Kincaid wrote a new novel that she couldn’t sell. Then another. Then another. Tons of ideas; no sales. She was forced to confront the nursing option again. Last fall, she enrolled in a refresher course after having sent one last attempt to her agent, Holly Root of Waxman Leavell, not confident that this novel, The Diabolic, would sell either. “The main character is a trained killer and not very relatable,” Kincaid said. “I just crossed my fingers and hoped Holly would find one editor out there who would find this kind of story appealing.”
“I can tell you exactly that Holly sent me the manuscript on September 9, with a message that said, ‘You have to read this right now,’ ” recalled Justin Chanda, who as v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers oversees five imprints and the publication of 350 books a year but also edits about 15 titles himself. “I finished it that day and I went crazy for it. I asked 10 or so key people on my staff to dip in as much as they could overnight, and preempted it on September 10. I’ve heard stories like this happening to other editors but it had never happened to me. It was one of those kismet moments.”
It now also looks like a shrewd decision since The Diabolic, a stand-alone thriller that will be released in the U.S. on November 1, has already been licensed for 17 foreign-language editions including Hungarian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Romanian, Turkish, and Swedish.
“The majority of those sales were auctions and the majority of them happened within a month of our acquiring the manuscript,” Chanda said. S&S will take the book to Bologna where Chanda says they hope to “pick up the rest of the world.”
“It’s certainly reassuring when you start hearing that other publishers from all over the world are snapping this up,” Chanda said. “It affirms we’ve got something amazing here.”
Kincaid’s “unrelatable” main character is also the title character. Diabolics are genetically created killing machines, bought by the rich to serve as bodyguards. The one at the heart of her novel, named Nemesis, has been assigned to protect Sidonia, the daughter of an outer space senator who is at odds with the Emperor. When Sidonia, is summoned to the Emperor’s court as a way of keeping her father in line, Nemesis goes in her place and must fool her captors into believing not only that she is a pampered rich girl, but also that she is human.
Kincaid’s inspiration began with Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, the faux memoir about the Roman emperor who hid his intellect in order to survive within a murderous family, and an idea that surfaced while writing one of the manuscripts that hadn’t sold, which featured automaton soldiers. The character who would later become Nemesis encounters Sidonia for the first time, “and the thing she notices is that Sidonia has a nose that had never been broken,” Kincaid said. “I was intrigued enough by that idea to want to know more why that particular thought would have come into her head.”
What appealed most to Chanda about the novel was the intricate palace intrigue. “I’ve heard a lot of good elevator pitches for this one but my favorite is probably ‘Terminator meets House of Cards,’ ” he said. Cathy Berner, the children’s/young adult specialist at Houston’s Blue Willow Books who received an early copy of Kincaid’s manuscript, agrees. “It’s a great political thriller, something I don’t think we see enough of in YA lit,” she said, adding, “And as of now, it’s a standalone thriller. From a bookseller’s point of view, that’s a huge positive!”
Simon & Schuster will be bringing Kincaid to BEA to meet booksellers. Meanwhile, the California-based author is hoping she can shelve her anatomy textbooks for good. “I liked the helping people aspect of it but so much of nursing is about the technical proficiency and procedural memory, and I am not so good at that,” she said. “You might have to give a patient 15 medications – crush these pills, cut this one in half – and somewhere along the way I would lose focus. It’s better for everybody if I write.”