The road to publication for Leila Howland’s YA debut, Nantucket Blue (Disney-Hyperion, May)—about a girl who, while working as a chambermaid one summer, falls in love with her best friend’s younger brother—was almost 15 years in the making.
“It’s not the first book I’ve written,” Howland says. “Back in 1999 I was an actress in New York for the Flea Theater, but I also had this idea for a middle-grade novel. I asked a waitressing pal if she knew anyone in publishing, and her stepfather turned out to be Ash Green, [then] senior editor at Knopf. She got the manuscript to him and it wound up in the hands of Janet Schulman [former publisher of Random House Children’s Books], who gave me this amazing rejection letter with tons of comments and helpful ideas.” Getting rejected by one of the greats of children’s publishing sealed Howland’s fate. “She said I had a future as a writer and it was this hope I carried with me.”
Howland continued to think about writing as she pursued a career as an actress—yet eventually had to reckon with the fact that theater didn’t pay the bills. In 2002, after deciding she had other passions to pursue, she moved back to the city where she grew up, Providence, R.I. She got a waitressing job and one day, in walked actor Peter Boyle, from Everybody Loves Raymond.
“We started talking,” Howland recalls. “He told me about all the jobs he’s ever had to support himself, and I thought, this would make a great book. I wrote up a proposal for an adult novel and that’s how I met my agent, Sara Crowe. She fished it out of the slush pile and got in touch. We clicked instantly.”
Howland had taken another step toward publishing, but she would still have a number of years before her debut. Off and on between 2004 and 2009, she wrote and rewrote the novel inspired by Boyle, yet they couldn’t sell it. “Sara thought I should write YA instead of adult,” Howland says. “She sent me The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks [by E. Lockhart], Natalie Sandiford’s How to Say Goodbye in Robot, and Lost It by Kristen Tracy. I read them in 36 hours. Then I wrote Nantucket Blue in nine months and gave it to Sara, who said, ‘This is it!’ ”
Howland’s protagonist takes a job as a maid to support her summer on Nantucket—a circumstance familiar to the author. “I spent one summer there when I was 18 and I was a chambermaid,” Howland says. “I was struck by the beaches and the beauty, but especially the money. It was the first time I felt like an outsider. I wasn’t there with a family that had a house and a membership to the club—I was a worker. I was lonely and didn’t belong, so the experience left a real mark.” Crowe grew up spending summers on Nantucket, Howland soon found out. (She and Crowe got together while they were both there in 2012.)
Once Nantucket Blue was out on submission in 2011, Howland wouldn’t have much longer to wait. Emily Meehan from Hyperion made an offer within a week. “Working with an editor after working without one for so long is such a gift,” Howland says. “Emily had incredibly insightful edits. She was so passionate about the book.”
Having the book published after all this time is a thrill for Howland (who lives with her husband and their two dogs in Los Angeles, and teaches in the adult division of the L.A. Unified School District), but it’s also a little daunting. “There’s a new level of feeling vulnerable,” she says. “My heart’s desire is to be read, yet the flip side is to have people not like it. Overall, though, I’ve loved interacting with readers and my fellow YA authors.”
Howland won’t have to wait long for the publication of her second novel, a sequel called Nantucket Red, out in summer 2014. To the author, the book does not seem like a sophomore effort. “I wrote so many versions of that actor story, I feel like it counts as two books,” she explains with a laugh. “Between those and the middle-grade novel that never got published, that makes Nantucket Blue my fourth.” But who’s counting?